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    « Pranayama, Stabilizing the Emotions | Main | Dharana, Focused Mind »

    Pratyahara, Freedom from Undue Influence

    This is the fifth essay on the Eight-limbed Yoga of Maharishi Patanjali

    "Yoga is a vast system of spiritual practices for inner growth. To this end, the classical yoga system incorporates eight limbs, each with its own place and function. Of these, pratyahara is probably the least known. How many people, even yoga teachers, can define pratyahara? Have you ever taken a class in pratyahara? Have you ever seen a book on pratyahara? Can you think of several important pratyahara techniques? Do you perform pratyahara as part of your yogic practices? Yet unless we understand pratyahara, we are missing an integral aspect of yoga without which the system cannot work."

    "The term pratyahara is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. Ahara means "food," or "anything we take into ourselves from the outside." Prati is a preposition meaning"against" or "away." Pratyahara means literally "control of 'ahara,'" or "gaining mastery over external influences." It is compared to a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell — the turtle’s shell is the mind and the senses are the limbs. The term is usually translated as "withdrawal from the senses," but much more is implied."
    David Frawley, from Pratyahara: the Forgotten Limb of Yoga

    Modern physics, philosphy, and psychology all agree with the two-thousand year old observation of the ancient yogis: the world we live in is a perceptual reality, not a "physical" one. The world of the senses is a cognitive and perceptual construct, a fiction of the mind. The material world exists, but all we know of it is our experience of it -- and that experience is not "objective" but "subjective," meaning constructed in mind from a mixture of sense data and memory.

    The world isn't real in the way we commonly understand something to be real. The world is real -- but it's a real experience rather than a real thing. The world that we take to be real, meaning finite, fixed, solid, substantial, is none of those things. The world is ever-changing, ever-evolving, always in motion, never the same twice, and infinite in it's dimensionality.

    The "world of the senses," the world we all talk about and agree on, the world we live in is a subjective, experiential, dimensional reality, utterly relative and dependent on the state of being of the observer. It is not the "objective," independent, hard-and-fast physical Newtonian reality we like to pretend it is.

    Matter and energy are two forms of the same flow; space and time are relative phenomena; and there are no edges, no "real" dimensions -- just infinite (and arbitrary) dimensionality. Life is a perceptual, cognitive-emotional reality, with no more substance than a thought.

    Physicality is an experience. Measurement, knowing, understanding, seeing, believing, being certain are all experiences. The only proof that anything exists is that you experience it, and experience, which is ultimately a construct of mind, can only be subjective, never objective.

    The world exists. The world is our home. The world is real. It's just not a knowable, definable, finite thing. It's an experience, a flowing, changing unfolding, made up of a blend of sense data and imagination. Life is a verb -- you are a verb -- everything you are ends with "-ing."

    We understand that no two beings experience the same world, and the world we experience is never the same twice -- so where is the "real" world, after all? The world is a story, a fiction, not an object.

    Two people walk down the street together. For the sake of argument, let's say that they are in precisely the same environment at exactly the same time. But each is in still their own world -- they notice different things, respond to different things, form different conclusions, and behave differently in relation to what should be the same set of factors.

    To a firefighter, a burning building is a destination, his or her place of employment; to the building's owner, the fire something to flee, and ultimately, it's a tragic loss. A mouse on a greeting card is cute -- a mouse on the breakfast table is disgusting (unless it's a pet.)

    And it's not just the meaning of events that varies -- the experiential elements are not the same either. Sociological and psychological studies agree -- we each of us see, hear, feel, taste and smell a different world. There are no objective observers.

    The evidence of the senses, while enticing, is not compelling. The world we are so sure of, that we think of as "real" and "out there" is largely a construct of mind. It is an experiential reality and a perceptual reality, and we each of us experience it differently. And therein lies an opportunity.

    Patanjali understood that the sensory "reality" we live in is a fusion of consciousness, thought and sensory data, and he observed that to understand the world of the senses as an "as if" world, a projected reality, is to experience the world in less fixed, more relative terms.

    Pratyahara is learning to doubt the testimony of our senses, and even to doubt the conclusions of our minds, to step away from the everyday habit of believing in our practiced beliefs.

    Through Pratyahara, we find out that the world is a product of mind, not the other way around. We discover and understand that mind rules the senses, and as a result, the world of the senses, which seemed so fixed, so imposing, loses some of its power over us.

    The ancients who articulated yoga saw the world as fluid and evolving, multifaceted and infinite in its potentials. They saw that all of the world's limitations and troubles and conflicts weren't in the world; they were in us, in our limited, fixed, rigid and defensive views of the world. We put limits on a world of unlimited potentials.

    And so, they recognized that in order to develop the full potentials of the environment, human beings needed to first develop their potential as experiencers of that environment. They saw that we needed to expand our conscousness, and our minds, and our understandings, to be free in the world, and to freely enjoy the world.

    The Shiva Sutras describes the situation in the second verse: "Knowledge is bondage." Not that understanding or insight is bondage -- but that fixed "knowledge" binds and limits what would otherwise be an unbounded, freely evolving world.

    Pratyahara is name they used to describe awakening to this truth -- that the world is as we are, and that freeing our minds from the world that is already known sets us free to percieve and discover the world that is coming into being. This is freedom and truth at its most meaningful.

    Years ago, when I first began to teach meditation, I would sometimes find a student who had difficulty understanding what we meant when we said "thought." I would ask if the person was having thoughts, and they would stop for a minute, think about it, and then say, "No -- not right now." Thoughts to the average person are like water to a fish: we are so completely immersed in them, like the air that fills every room, that we completely overlook their existence. We mistake them for objective realities.

    We commonly accept the idea that our thoughts, unconscious though they may be, are precise renditions of "what's going on."

    Thoughts are not the same as the things they refer to. Maps are not terrain. Menus are not meals. No one dies in the novel "War and Peace."

    We cannot drink the thought of water. And yet we commonly accept the idea that our mental descriptions of the world are true accurate, definitive and the same as the world.

    We don't live in the world. We live in our model of the world. Pratyahara is knowing the difference.

    We take our thoughts to be "real." We believe them to be objective, fixed realities, like a park bench we can sit down on. And when we "change our mind," we take the new thoughts to be the "real" reality -- even if they contradict what we believed just a little while ago.

    Our sense impressions of the world are not accurate representations of the world around us. The mind "builds" a sensory model of the world, based partly on incoming impressions from the senses, but mostly from expectation, which is the mind's guess at what something is, based on memory, belief and custom.

    As common as it is to mistake something for another thing more familiar, or to "see" situations as we expect to see them, we are always surprised when we catch ourselves in an incorrect guess about the world. We think we're "seeing" the same world everyone else is. In certain general ways, this is true, but asking two observers to describe the same event will demonstrate the fact that it's far more true to say we each inhabit our own unique model of the world.

    The senses and the unconscious mind operate automatically, and feed information to the conscious mind, which then guesses at a world, and constructs a reality, convincing itself, sometimes against all evidence, that something expected is happening, even when the facts may indicate something completely different is going on.

    We also, in relationship, and as a society, build worlds together, via discussion and agreement, which lends an air of social proof to what we call reality.

    Pratyhara, at the simplest level, is seeing through all of this, and begins with the understanding that the sensory world is a construct, a model -- that our most basic "views" of the world are constructed in mind; we do not see the world "as it is."

    Patanjali reverses the process: the mind disconnects with the idea that its contents are "real" in themselves, and then understands them as partial truths. As a result the world we "see" is understood to be a subjective interpretation, a limited and narrow view of an infinitely wonderful, larger reality.

    Pratyahara means coming from an understanding that says that the world we think we see, hear, touch, taste and smell is only our present-moment "take" on reality, and subject to change. Pratyahara thus sets in motion the possibility of real creative thought and freedom.

    Pratyahara also meanslearning to be more selective about what we believe, what we discuss, what we "take in," what we speak about and act on. It's filtering consciously, deliberately, instead of automatically.

    The core teaching of Patanjali on Pratyahara, as conveyed in the famous commentary by Vyasa, is this: the outer world and the senses follow the mind, the way the worker bees follow the Queen wherever she may go.

    When the mind "sees through" the idea that its thoughts and sense-constructs are fixed "realities," all thoughts are then understood as temporary, conditional "takes" on an ever evolving and changing world -- an infinite world that can be appreciated but never completely understood or controlled. The world can be managed,influenced, through discrimination and judicious action, but never controlled.

    As a result of this new perspective, we no longer cling to our ideas, beliefs and cherished notions, but begin to allow them to evolve, to grow, to expand. We aren't concerned about being "right" because there is no such thing.

    Through Pratyahara, we free ourselves from the tyranny of the fixed idea, from prejudice, from judgment, from being unable to recognize a limitation or mistake.

    Most of all, we prepare the mind for the practice of meditation. The poise and equanimity of pratyahara, together with the emotional stability of pranayama, lay the groundwork for clear and powerful experiences of meditation and samyama.

    The practice of pratyahara means exploring the idea that our "world" is personal, subjective -- selectively constructed by mind, mostly through habit and emotion and rationalization, not through reason or sensory accuracy.

    Pratyahara is sort of an ancient form of cognitive therapy -- understanding that thoughts are just thoughts -- and that when we believe them, they become real. Other than that, we call them stories -- not "real." But truth be told, all thoughts are stories, no more, not less. Change the story and the world begins to look different.

    Patanjali is saying this: when you wake up to the fact that your thoughts are always clever, useful, but limited fictions, stories -- not truths, not realities --something remarkable begins to happen -- the outer world that was filtered and understood through the tyranny of your thoughts begins to lose some of it's fixed value, and it becomes less of an influence. When we can understand that a parking ticket is not a personal affront to us, then we don't end up fighting with the folks at the registry of motor vehicles.

    Pratyahara simply means understanding (and practicing) the perspective that thoughts are just thoughts -- they aren't "real." They are either useful or unhelpful; they can tend towards putting us in bondage or setting us free, but the bondage we think originates in the sensory, outer world, exists only in our minds.

    The world is what we can say it is, and it will show up according to our expectations, without fail. When you see that thoughts are merely descriptors, not realities, then the world is completely manageable.

    One of the best contemporary expositions of Pratyahara are the daily exercises in A Course in Miracles. For an example, click here:

    (more to come)

    From the Yoga Sutras:

    YS II.54 sva-visayasamprayoge cittas-sva-rupaanukara-ivendriyanam-pratyahhara
    (own-object-disconnection) (mind-own-form-copy)(of the senses)(away from taking in)
    Seeing through the supposed "objectivity" of mind and sense data removes the overshadowing influence of the outer (sensory) world.

    YS II.55 tatah parama vasyata indriyanam
    In this way, the (sensory) world becomes completely manageable.

    "Pratyahara itself is termed as Yoga, as it is the most important limb in Yoga Sadhana (practice)."
    Swami Shivananda

    "It is interesting to note how the first five Angas of Yoga eliminate one after another different sources of disturbance to the mind and prepare it for the final struggle with its own Vrttis. First to be eliminated by Yama-Niyama are the emotional disturbances due to moral defects in one's nature. Next to be eliminated by the practice of Asana are the disturbances which arise in the physical body. Then come the disturbances caused by the irregular or insufficient flow of vital forces in the Pranic sheath. All these are removed completely by the practice of Pranayama. And lastly, through Pratyahara is removed the major source of disturbances coming through the sense-organs. Thus is accomplished Bahiranga or external Yoga and the Sadhaka becomes capable of treading the further stages of Antaranga or internal Yoga."

    "If we examine the contents of our mind at any time when we are not making any particular mental effort we shall find that the mental images which are present and changing constantly may be divided into the following three categories: (1) Ever-changing impressions produced by the outer world through the vibrations impinging upon the sense-organs. (2) Memories of past experiences floating in the mind. (3) Mental images connected with anticipations of the future. (2) and (3) are wholly mental, not depending upon any objective reality outside the mind while (1) are the direct result of contact with the outer world. The object of Pratyahara is to eliminate (1) completely from the mind, thus leaving only (2) and (3) which are then mastered through Dharana and Dhyana. Pratyahara interposes, as it were, a shutter between the sense-organs and the mind and isolates the latter completely from the external world."

    "In the light of what has been said above it should be easy to understand the meaning of the rather enigmatic Sutra we are discussing. It will help us to appreciate the manner in which the idea has been expressed if we remember that according to Yogic psychology the senses are really a part of the lower mind. They are, as it were, the outposts of the mind in the external world and should follow the lead of the mind.

    "When the mind wants to put itself in touch with the external world the senses should begin to function. When it decides to withdraw they should be able to withdraw with it, thus breaking all connection with the world outside. This relation between the mind and the senses has been likened (in the commentary by Vyasa) very aptly to the relation existing between the bees in a hive and the queen bee. The bees follow the queen in a body as it flies from one place to another, and do not function independently of the queen."
    I.K. Taimni, Science of Yoga

    from the Katha Upanishad:

    "Know the Self as the owner, the body as the chariot, the intelligence as the driver and the mind as the reins. The senses, they say, are the horses, and the sense-objects are their arena...(III.3-4)

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