The senses are integral to our existence. They are the instruments through which we perceive and engage with the world around us. However, when we get carried away by this engagement and come to believe that happiness lies in outer objects and sensory gratification, we forget that the true source of joy and fulfillment lives within us as supreme Consciousness, our own Self. Thus, if we want to attain full knowledge of the Self, an important prerequisite is that we master the senses rather than be mastered by them.
From earliest times in India, the senses are said to be wayward, unruly and in need of control. In one of India’s oldest scriptures, the Katha Upanishad, we find these verses:
When a man lacks understanding,
and his mind is never controlled;
His senses do not obey him,
as bad horses, a charioteer.
But when a man has understanding,
and his mind is ever controlled;
His senses do obey him,
as good horses, a charioteer.1
This metaphor speaks to the close relationship between the mind and the senses and also to the crucial role the mind plays in bringing the senses under control.
In Indian scripture and philosophy, the senses include the five powers of perception (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch) and also the five powers of action (locomotion, dexterity, elimination, reproduction, and speech). The function of the senses is to serve the mind as its instruments of perception and action. The mind is the instrument that guides and controls the senses, whether they are moving inward or outward.
In yoga, the process of mastering the senses is known as pratyāhāra, which literally means: the “withdrawal of the senses” or “turning the senses inward.” The sage Patañjali, in his Yoga Sūtras, includes this process as one of his “eight limbs of yoga.”2 This schematic, step-by-step guide to meditation leads the seeker on an inward journey from the waking state to samādhi, or meditative absorption. In samādhi, the mind is completely quiet and rests, thought-free, in the witnessing awareness of the Self.
For Patañjali, pratyāhāra is the fifth step on this inward journey and the gateway to the deepest states of meditation. According to the sage:
स्वविषय असंप्रयोगे चित्तस्य स्वरूप-अनुकार इव इन्द्रियाणां प्रत्याहारः
sva-viṣaya-asaṁprayoge cittasya sva-rūpa-anukāra iva indriyāṇaṁ pratyāhāraḥ
Pratyāhāra is the disengagement of the senses
from their objects [of attention],
as if imitating the mind’s own nature.3
By describing the senses as imitating the nature of the mind, Patañjali is saying that the senses cannot act on their own. Rather, they follow the directions of their chief, the mind. When the mind decides to turn its attention outward, the senses immediately follow in search of the objects singled out by the mind. Likewise, when the mind decides to turn within, the senses follow by withdrawing inward, which is pratyāhāra. An early commentary on Patañjali’s sūtra likens this to a swarm of bees following their queen and settling peaceably where she settles.4
The implication of Patañjali’s teaching is that at the core of the movements of the mind and the senses is our own power of will to make choices. Here’s a hypothetical scenario of how a modern-day meditator might choose to guide the senses toward or away from their objects of attention:
You are meditating with a group of fellow sādhakas. The person next to you is new to meditation. She finds it hard to sit still, and she is wearing a jacket that rustles every time she moves. You become increasingly sensitive to the sound, and soon it occupies your whole awareness. You are irritated because you feel this woman is spoiling your meditation. In the end, you get up and move to another part of the room, possibly disturbing several other meditators in the process . . .
In this example, the first sense in play is your power of hearing and the object of attention, the sound of the rustling jacket. By choosing to listen to the rustling, you allow your sense of hearing to pull your mind outward, and set in train the thoughts that prompt you to engage another sense, your power of locomotion.
Patañjali’s remedy is for you to apply your will and withdraw your attention from the rustling sound. As your mind withdraws, you may still be aware of the sound, but it no longer bothers you. You simply witness it, without judgment. As you continue to meditate, you may become oblivious of the sound.
Often, when we meditate, even when there is no outside distraction, the mind remains outgoing in its focus. For example, just the other morning, when I sat to meditate, my mind was excitable and kept returning to something I was writing. When I became aware of this, I observed it dispassionately, reminding myself, “I am not this thought. I am the awareness of this thought.” This had an immediately calming effect on my mind and, in moments, I had settled into “awareness of my awareness,” where thoughts were present but I was not focused on them.
At other times, “objects of attention” of a quite different order may appear in meditation. These images, thoughts, sounds, or sensations have no immediate connection or relevance to our waking lives. Instead, they seem to arise spontaneously from the deepest level of Consciousness. Sometimes they appear ready-formed; at other times they emerge amorphously and coalesce into form. They can be of arresting beauty and phenomenal detail. Often, they involve soothing light or vibrant color. The temptation, when such phenomena occur, is for the mind to spring into action: “Quick, something’s happening! You’re having An Experience!” And pouf!—the vision is gone, and with it our meditative state.
With time and practice, we learn to restrain the mind from rushing in with interpretative thoughts at such moments and instead simply witness what is happening with steady and absolute attention. Sometimes the experience continues to unfold, sometimes not. The state of steady attention, however, feels like an attainment in itself. At those moments we taste of the state that Patañjali alludes to in the sūtra following his definition of pratyāhāra:
ततः परमा वश्यता इन्द्रियाणाम्
tataḥ paramā vaśyatā indriyāṇam
That [pratyāhāra] gives rise to supreme control over the senses.5
In Patañjali’s scheme, pratyāhāra equips us for the three remaining stages of our inward journey: these, he says, are dhāraṇā, which is repeatedly focusing our attention on an inner support that draws us deeper into meditation; dhyāna, when we achieve unbroken focus on that object; and samādhi, when we are so absorbed in meditation that there is no longer even any sense of “I” and the mind rests in the Self.
In Siddha Yoga meditation, there is another and most vital support on the inward journey: the grace of the Siddha Guru, who, having realized her oneness with supreme Consciousness, lives in that knowledge and is able to impart it to others.
One of the ways Gurumayi does this is through mantra. The meaning of the mantra reminds us of why we are meditating. The repetition of the sounds may act as an inner object on which to focus the mind. However, the true power of the mantra lies in the fact that it is a vehicle for the Guru’s shakti. When we repeat the mantra silently and combine each repetition with the incoming and outgoing breaths, our focus is enhanced by the power of grace, and we are drawn deeper into meditation.
Gurumayi has linked mantra repetition directly with pratyāhāra. On one occasion, as she led people into meditation, she said:
We will repeat the mantra so that the senses can become calmer and calmer. The senses need to carry something, so in place of feelings and actions, we will give them the energy of the mantra.... We will fill the senses with the energy of the mantra. As we sit quietly, follow the technique of pratyāhāra. For a few minutes we will shut off our senses from everything that is perceptible both on the outside and the inside.6
There is great compassion in Gurumayi’s words; an acceptance of the senses being the way they are, and the provision of an effective and uplifting solution. This is surely one of the gentlest and most enjoyable ways to calm the restive nature of the senses.
It is also one of the most powerful. The energy of the mantra quiets all thoughts and leads us to that delicious state of still, deep, meditation, when, senses indrawn, we rest in the Witness. Then, whether we are meditating alone, or in a hall surrounded by other people, we are in the presence of our own inner Self.