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So far, so near
So far, we have looked briefly into four of the eight limbs of yoga. Let us refresh the mind with some of what we have looked into and keep it near, rather than far.
Yama is the intelligent avoidance of all that is not conducive to aspiration—and niyama, its counterpart, is better choices in place of habit. These are very different from virtues as they are means to expand consciousness from individual or self-centered living to a broader, more universal way of living. The mind is gradually purified as we learn to act or respond to life based on what actually is instead of being rooted on self-centeredness.
Through asana one brings firmness to the posture and mind and at the same time, removes the lethargy of the body and mind as well. All through asana practice, one discovers the presence of chit-shakti or intelligence-energy that sustains this body very well without any need for the ego-personality. Pranayama is its counterpart, and through regulation of prana (life-force) it removes tossing of the mind. Asana and pranayama thus bring stability and fixity to the body and mind and at the same time, give insight into chit-shakti which sustains the body.
These four limbs bring us to the fifth—pratyahara, which is usually translated as abstraction from objects. Let us try to understand pratyahara in a broader way and for this, let us use the word object for all things external including people, conditions and things to make it easier.
The need or benefit for pratyahara
We do not usually associate with objects (and I'm using this in the widest sense of externality to include people, conditions and things) but with our ideas of them. So, there is an idea of the object and there is a tendency based on that idea—both these in the space of the one mind. Say I eat an apple for the first time and find that it is very juicy and sweet—these qualities get associated with the apple in my mind indistinguishably. Now, I find this to be very tasty and have a feeling to repeat the experience of juicy and sweet for which I must naturally have the apple.
Already, the apple becomes secondary to the 'very juicy, sweet and tasty' qualities which I have superimposed on the apple. This does not mean that apples are not 'juicy, sweet and tasty' but all apples are not this way—some apples are tart. So, when we eat a tart apple, we find it to be not quite as tasty, as the sweetness we expected is not experienced. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a slightly tart apple, it is delicious in its own way but … not what we expected. The object does not correspond to the idea of the object and so the experience is not as good. The fault is never in the object but in the collision of the object—what actually is and as it is—with our ideas, hopes and expectations.
Self-control to Sense-control
All our problems are because of this inner collision of ideas, hopes and expectations with reality or things as they are. In pratyahara, the entire mind is included into the field of observation along with objects or all things external. This fire of observation keeps existing concepts from interfering with perception or seeing things as they are and action, or our response, without standing outside all things.
Direct perception is the flow of attention to what actually is and this is also called dharana or concentration where the rays of the mind flow unimpeded or unscattered to what actually is and we will look into this more deeply a little later. Pratyahara is abstraction which results when there is a fire of observation which ignites dharana or concentration to see what is, while pratyahara includes the mind into the field of observation and this keeps ‘what is not’ out—ideas, hopes and expectation or concepts from interfering with perception and response.
The mind becomes calm
When you realize that it is not only possible but better to let the inner intelligence directly see and respond to situations, the mind—which is not at all efficient as it is heavily laden with so many hopes and desires—is unburdened. The energy that was all along being expended to try and fulfill our hopes and desires was being done to bring about satisfaction and peace, and one sees that this comes not by trying to make the outer world correspond to the inner world but in adjusting the inner world to what actually is and as it happens.
Pratyahara is in this way the release of the load of desires, hopes and expectations and also results in the emptying of the mind of all these hidden triggers of action. Static memory happens automatically and this just comprises images, names or data—and this is very useful as it helps recalling information without interfering with the object, as such. Dynamic memory however is purely subjective, and its energy is called rajas or passion which gets infused as it were into the object itself, making it difficult to see things as they are.
When the entire activity of the mind is included in the field of perception, things are seen as they are without adulteration or interference of conditioning, and rajas or blind passion is gradually thinned by disuse. When the inner intelligence is used, existing notions, concepts and ideas are starved of their energy—and static memory or images and names, which help in distinguishing one from the other, alone remain.
The calm and peace that results as the scattered rays of the mind once again return give rise to a sense of inner fullness and completeness. Renunciation of desires is no loss—it is at once peace and gain only. Objects will still be there and can be enjoyed as they come naturally, but the torment of hope that craves for the outer to correspond with the inner is abandoned. When desires are abandoned, one enjoys all things better—contrary to the notion that fulfillment of desires is satisfaction, as it is desire that is a wanting that does not satisfy even during appeasement.
Pratyahara and dharana go together just as the earlier pairs of limbs of yoga we have covered. There must be dharana or direct perception of things as they are and at the same time, the mind must be included in the observation. Pratyahara or abstraction makes sure that the senses do not associate with objects wrongly, based on existing notions in the mind that have nothing at all to do with things as they are. The mind thus gets purified of its dross—the conditioning it has carried for so long, and it now becomes stable and fit for concentration and meditation to follow. A mind filled with hopes, desires and expectations is not fit for concentration or meditation.
Bringing about pratyahara
Before going any further, it is important to realize that pratyahara or any step in yoga is not a technique, though it may involve technique or practice. It is not possible to be the same old person with the same old mind that functions in the same old way and hope that yoga will bring about improved experiences—don't delude yourself in this.
Yoga calls for a radical transformation by living in a different way that requires and results in a new person—renewed by returning to the natural state. For this, we must see all things as they are, ourselves included, and respond to situations by doing what needs to be done and not what we would like to do or what would please us or 'our people'. If there is no enthusiastic willingness to let go of limitation—the gates to wider expanses will stay closed by our own choice.
To bring about pratyahara, one must first see the futility and absurdness of all limitation, not selective limitation, and be passionate about change as much as one submerged underwater is passionate about surfacing to breathe—but our great desire to change without any desperation at all.
Pratyahara in japa practice
Japa is repetition of a mantra or name of God and is the best way to begin understanding and changing the inner mechanism. I have covered this in an earlier writing so let's look at how japa can help in pratyahara or abstraction.
When you repeat and listen to the mantra mentally, you soon experience the rise of other thoughts we call distraction. Almost immediately, one is either distracted by identifying with the thoughts or one experiences dissatisfaction by the presence of 'these other thoughts' which one had hoped not to experience.
Both the rise of another thought and the feeling about that rising thought are taking place in the same mind and you are aware of both. Continue repeating and listening to the mantra within you, seeing the rise and fall of both distractions and feelings about distractions as well in the same mind and you will understand that you are quite different from even these feelings, which have a big hand in throwing up the distractions. The direct observation and understanding of this will bring great peace and melt into concentration and meditation.
Pratyahara in life
Yoga practices are not relegated to the mat or prayer area—they must enter life. When yoga enters life, life enters yoga. The understanding by your direct awareness must enter all of life and relationships. You must be able to see things as they are and respond to what needs to be done without the interference of thought or conditioning.
There is no suppression or any such thing in avoiding thought—just a choice to use the intelligence which is beyond thought and always awake and ready. Thought has gained far too much importance in our lives by excessive reliance—it will regain its place as a function of awareness or consciousness by using awareness or consciousness itself.
Just as you are fresh in attention to the mantra each time, you have to be inwardly fresh to each and every situation as it happens and once it is over—let it go, don't continue juggling with it mentally or you will increase conditioning. There should not be any struggle in this, as once a situation is over, another is right in its place and it should have your full attention—even if it be sweeping the floor.
Practice on the mat and in life
If you practice japa diligently, with heart, mind, body and non-mechanically—you will discover you are quite different from these images and feelings towards them or conditioning and how to continue doing what needs to be done without getting mixed-up with them. Practice on the mat will sharpen the ability to function in a healthier way amidst all the stimulus of life. Being able to see things as they are and doing what needs to be done will sever the reliance on thought or existing conditioning; and not dwelling on it mentally once the action is over will prevent the build-up of new conditioning.
Thus, practice on the mat will sharpen the ability to respond to life better and life lived expertly will deepen your practice. Both these avenues will feed on each other and purify the mind of the heavy load it has carried for too long. Your health and energy levels will improve very significantly, as energy wasted earlier is returned to the body for repair and other functions.
The qualifications of the seeker
The first five limbs of the yoga system are the qualifications of the seeker, and ignoring or taking any lightly will create a soft-spot or vulnerability. These five limbs of yoga—yama, niyama, asana, pranayama and pratyahara—correspond to the fourfold qualifications of the seeker of jnana yoga or sadhana chatushtaya.
1. Viveka or proper discernment between the unreal and the real.
2. Vairagya or absence of passion
3. Shadsampat or the six virtues which include (1) sama or tranquility; (2) dama or intelligent control of the organs of sense and action; (3) uparati or movement from self-centeredness to universality (pratyahara here); (4) titiksha or fortitude and power of endurance; (5) shraddha or unmistakable faith in God; and; (6) samadhana or one-pointedness of mind.
4. Mumukshutva or intense yearning for liberation from samsara, the never ending cycle of birth, existence and death.
Before moving on to dharana
The sincere seeker must give up all ideas of separation which manifest in the feelings of 'I' and 'mine' and then burst forth into 'you' and 'yours'; 'this' and 'that' and so on. This is the loom on which the fabric of conditioning weaves itself and all resulting limitation is therefore self-sought and self-imposed. You alone can dismantle and abandon this machinery, and though it is a very difficult task—it is not one that will daunt the sincere seeker.