Amid the Noise and Haste
Updated: Jul 22, 2020
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone who claims that meditation came easy for them! No one says that their mind is naturally still and open and they can sit for hours without experiencing distraction of frustration. Serenity is not about achieving a perfect meditative state, it is about the exploration of the process, and letting go of our resistance to what is. In the Yogic tradition, one precursor to meditation is called “Pratyahara.” It is the practice of withdrawing from the senses, from external stimuli, and turning inward. It is the 5th limb of the 8 limbed yogic path.
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.”
This is quite a challenge in these times of constant external stimulation! I don’t think I’m wrong to say that in all of human existence there has never been a time with so many distractions! There are many ways that our attachment to sense perceptions can lead us astray. An accumulation of perceptions about a certain experience can lead to grasping and avoidance. Each time we experience something, it leaves an impression on our mind. After accumulating a number of experiences that are alike, the mind forms an idea about them. Now the ego will disregard the reality that these experiences come and go, and it will form a like or dislike. Caught in the push/pull of grasping and avoidance, we forget that happiness is not found in the objects but within one’s own self.
Another undesirable outcome of falling prey to external stimulation is the dulling of the senses due to over-repetition. If you overindulge in anything-- sweets, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, purely physical sexual experiences-- you end up needing more and more stimulus to receive the same desired effect.
Once we begin to believe that our happiness depends on the accumulation of desirable experiences and things, we encounter possessiveness. The ego gets frustrated that pleasure is fleeting and wants to possess the objects of its desire. Possession is an illusion, and “freezes” our relationship with the object or person. Instead of the innate curiosity of wanting to understand the object, we want to “have” this or that. Before we can even begin to fall prey to possessiveness, grasping and aversion, we must first develop an aptitude for labelling. It is the labelling of things as good and bad, desirable and undesirable, that takes us out of pure experience.
So how do we get off this merry-go-round of labelling and desire of the external? We can start with Pratyahara-- practicing turning away from external stimuli, and go inward to find peace and contentment in the moment, just as it is.
In the Bhagavad Gita, we find an exploration of this process. “Just as a tortoise draws in its limbs within its shell, the wise yogi, fixed in higher consciousness, disconnects the senses from objects of perception at will, resulting in steadiness of the mind.” In AA there is described the condition of being a “dry drunk.” If we deprive ourselves of our cravings by force of will, but don’t address the underlying issues and develop support for dealing with our cravings, we will “white-knuckle” it for a while, until we succumb to the cycle of grasping and aversion once again. It is by turning inward and touching our true inner self, our divine self, that we can find peace. “Just as the vast ocean remains calm and unperturbed, even though many rivers flow into it from all sides, so a person should remain undisturbed by the continued arising of sense-desires.”
One practical way to experiment with Pratyahara is to become the witness. You can begin the process by bringing awareness to what is happening to your body and mind, rather than identifying with it. “The observer is loosely engaged in whatever is happening, but also has a laid back feeling-- as you notice your breathing, the ways your body gets tight, how you get insistent or afraid, or how you want to run away from things. The observer helps you experience yourself as a dynamic, changing process, not a fixed identity. This takes you beyond your concrete identification with the self, to appreciating the temporal, ever-changing nature of the mind, emotions and desires. The kindly witness realizes your dance is created by your conditioning and nervous system, so instead of taking it seriously, the observer watches as if it were a drama or movie.” (If the Buddha Got Stuck, Charlotte Kasl)
Physicist Werner Heisenberg postulated that to observe a phenomena is to change it. Likewise, when you bring your awareness to a part of yourself that has operated on automatic pilot, you are bringing consciousness to what was formerly unconscious. You are creating the possibility of choice instead of feeling driven. And then you can choose to experience Pratyahara.
Another method for turning inward is Yoga Nidra-- a deep relaxation process that brings it’s practitioners to the borderline between sleep and wakefulness. When we are completely relaxed on all levels (physical, mental and emotional), our brainwaves slow to the alpha level. In this state we can recognize and release our tensions and fears. To practice Yoga Nidra, lay down in corpse’s pose (Savasana,) covered in a blanket, and begin to deepen your breath and draw your attention to one body part at a time, relaxing and releasing tension. Then focus your mind completely on external things, such as your surroundings, smells, sounds, and the temperature of the air. Eventually, the mind will lose interest and naturally go within. The practice can then take you deeper through breath awareness, visualization and affirmations.
If we want to turn away from external inputs, one way is to actually step away from these stimuli. We can sit in meditation with our eyes closed. We can take a silent retreat somewhere, or just find quiet moments in our day, and make sure we have enough alone time. Just as the body benefits by fasting from food, so the mind benefits by fasting from impressions. There is even a yoga mudra called Shanmukhi Mudra. It involves using the fingers to block the sensory openings in the head—the eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth—allowing the attention and energy to move within.
Close your eyes, place your hands on your thighs and take a moment to relax your mind, body and breath.
Bring the hands in front of your face with your palms facing in and your elbows lifted and pointing out to the side.
Use your thumbs to close your ears by pressing them gently on the tragus (the little flap of cartilage at the entrance to the ear).
Place your pointer fingers lightly over your eyelids.
Place the tips of your middle fingers on the side of your nostrils, where the cartilage ends.
Place your ring fingers just above your top lip.
Place your little fingers just below your bottom lip.
Take a deep breath in, then block your nose using the middle fingers. Hold your breath in for as long as you comfortably can and then, when you’re ready to exhale, release the pressure on the nose and breathe out.
The practice of Shanmukhi mudra leads naturally to an internalization of the senses, calming the mind and nervous system. Rather than closing off or dampening our senses, we can experiment with keeping our sense organs open but withdrawing our attention from them. In this way we cease taking in impressions without actually closing off our sense organs. The most common method, Shambhavi Mudra, consists of sitting with the eyes open while directing the attention within. Yoga postures like shoulder stand, plow, and knee to ear pose are said to help direct our energy and attention within as well, as does mantra repetition and devotional chanting.
Like any spiritual practice, it is best to approach Pratyahara with curiosity and a spirit of exploration. If we have been covering up our feelings with activity and stimulation, it can be scary to consider slowing and quieting down because we will come face to face with ourselves.
Remember that all feelings ebb and flow, and all sensations eventually pass. You can start to dip your toe into the vast ocean of Pratyahara by just noticing how external stimuli affect you throughout your day, and seizing opportunities to turn within. Seek out solitude-- quality time with yourself. Peace is always available to you there.
* (For further reading, check out “If the Buddha Got Stuck” by Charlotte Kasl, “Start Where you Are” and “How to Meditate” by Pema Chodron, “The Yoga Book: A Practical Guide of Self-Realization” by Stephen Sturgess and “The Yoga Mind” by Rina Jakubowicz. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)