Withdrawing the Mind from the Objects of Sensations
Of the eight limbs of the 'Yoga-Sutra' of Patanjali, pratyahara forms the fifth consideration after yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama, but before dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. By pratyahara is meant the practice of withdrawing 'sense organs and mind combine' from running towards the objects of sensations; the objects may be external (music, sweets, beauty, smell, etc.), or internal in the form of thoughts and memory. Pratyahara enables the spiritual aspirant in concentration of mind, and thus make it fit for meditation.
To study these eight aspects of Raja Yoga, and to practice one discipline after the other (under qualified Teacher), is one of the paths to self-realization. However, it is also useful to follow these instructions while practicing or progressing on other three paths viz. path of Bhakti, Jnana, or Karma. The path one tries to follow is usually an emphasis on this or that Yoga, but Swami Vivekananda maintains that the aspirant might benefit more if he or she takes help from other three yoga, in addition to the yoga of his own liking. Therefore, such terms as 'knowledge mixed with bhakti', 'meditation combined with knowledge', or 'karma supported by bhakti' etc. are the new emerging practices in spiritual field.
A Yogic Discipline
Pratyahara means to develop that capacity where the mind can be attached or detached from the objects of sensations at will. Suppose we are deeply engrossed in reading an interesting book, and the doorbell rings. The sound waves, the external sensation, are produced and they reach our ears, and through the nerve to the internal organ of hearing in the brain. Most of the time we have to hear the sound of the bell, for our mind quickly attaches to these sensations and organ of hearing, and we experience the sound of the bell. But in this state of deep concentration of reading the book, we do not hear the bell. What has happened? The sound vibrations were there, the ears perceived them, the nerves carried them to the internal organ in the brain, but still we fail to hear the bell! Why? - because our mind was not attached to the organ of hearing. Thus, we can understand three distinct phases of sense perception - sense object, sense organ, and the mind. Pratyahara means to develop the capacity and the quality where one is able to attach the whole mind to only one task, or to detach it from any sensation at will.
A few learned and spiritually advanced souls have elaborated novel insight of 'awareness' as a means to achieve pratyahara. According to these schools of thought, it is said that we lack 'awareness' that is essential to understand and purify the mind. Myriad of experiences in our life are stored as subconscious impressions and these impressions foil our bid to control our mind, as they come to conscious plane from time to time. We react reflexively to the impulses that constantly bombard our senses day in and day out. If one can develop 'awareness' of these reflexes, as a witness i.e. without getting attached to them, one can understand the conscious process better. Not only that, we also become better conduits for the expression of Universal Consciousness, the Absolute Reality.
Can one really develop such a faculty? Is it really possible? Many would doubt; but there are examples of yogis, both living and of the past, who have had developed such power of attachment and detachment at will. Such control and concentration of mind is indeed difficult, but not impossible.
Practice of Pratyahara
How to achieve this? By becoming witness to our thoughts and activities of mind! Sit for some time quietly and watch your mind. Let it run on, as it wants to and wherever it wants to wander. Let it think good or evil thoughts, pure or impure thoughts. You shall be surprised to find how restless the mind is, and what hideous thoughts it can throw up! But, if you do not react, soon it would calm down bit by bit. It would become less restless, less violent, as desires and thoughts are reduced. After years of such practice one is able to control the mind at will.
Another important characteristic of mind is that it works on what we feed it with. If we think about sin, we become sinful; if we crave for money, the mind also runs after money. Thus, another way to purify the mind and train it for pratyahara is to consciously think of noble thoughts only, and deliberately reduce desires. For this, such practices as repeating the Name of God (Japa), to get engaged in rituals and worship, selfless work and study of scriptures, etc. are all beneficial. Then, mind becomes less restless, and may get attached to the thought of God; but this is desirable in the initial phase of sadhana. Sri Ramakrishna also advised his householder devotees to follow such practices of devotion as basic path to approach God. He never abhorred rituals or worship, dancing and singing to develop love for God. He also insisted on adhering to simple ethical and moral injunctions like truthfulness, continence, and simplicity. Additionally, Sri Ramakrishna insisted on proper discrimination between real and unreal, permanent and transient. 'Sense enjoyment is transient, God is permanent,' he used to say. Secondly, one of the best ways to reduce desires is to be 'watchful of lust and gold'.
The study and practice of pratyahara does not mean that the senses and objects of senses are useless or must be forcibly suppressed. Pratyahara makes one aware of the limitations these senses impose on one's capacity and capabilities to gain wider experiences and knowledge. By getting entangled in the limits of the five senses we tend to restrict our scope to seek that knowledge which is beyond these sense perceptions. Pratyahara expands our 'awareness,' restricted as it is to one body and mind, to limitless realm of Spirit. Consciousness does not become broad, It is ever limitless; but our mind becomes aware of greater possibility and reality of experiencing Truth. Thus, pratyahara opens up new windows for us to experience the beauty and truth of the world, at the same time broadening each window to see more. Pratyahara gives us new vision; it brings forth the dormant capacities of the mind to life. It makes us aware of the immense possibilities that the mind can soar to in the limitless realm of all-pervading Consciousness.
c s shah