Pratyahara (Sensory Introversion)


Holistic Health Series

Resource Note # 9

Pratyahararefers to the process of voluntary abstraction or withdrawal of the human senses from the undue sources of their nourishment. The term Pratyaharais derived from the Sanskrit words prati(meaning “away” or “against”) and ahara(meaning “food”, or “anything taken in” from outside). Taken together, these translate as weaning away or abstaining from the ingestion of anykind ofinput. Pratyaharaworks like a pneumatic tool that cuts the outgoing mental habit, and changes its direction so as to penetrate inwards towards the core of the Self.

In pratyahara, the consciousness of the individual is internalized. The sensations from the senses of taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell thereby do not reach their respective centers in the brain. This is akin to the process of a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell. The shell of the turtle is akin to the human mind, while its limbs represent the five senses. 

Sensory withdrawal helps the person to perceive the present moment in an objective manner, without any distortion arising either from the sensory filters or the myriad mental projections. This facilitates the re-education of the senses, in order that these may function fully and freely. 

It results in the gaining of mastery by the individual over all kinds of external influences.

The human body requires three kinds of food. The first item of food is the set of organic substances that bring in the five gross elements, and provide chemical energy that nourishes the gross body. Sensory impressions by way of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell constitute the second kind of food. These furnish the subtle substances that help to nourish the human mind. Finally, associations & relationships with people whom we hold near and dear comprise the third kind of food. These cater to the nourishment of the human heart and the soul.

Pratyaharathereby involves withdrawal from all kinds of food, impressions and associations of an unwholesome kind. Poor sensory impressions build up the subconscious human memory bank, and strengthen the unpredictable tendencies that are latent within it. Simultaneously, this techniquerequires the opening up to the right food, right impressions & right associations. 

Pratyaharais the act of directing the senses inward, so that they may imitate the formless nature of the mind. The mind is akin to queen bee, while the senses operate like the worker bees. Wherever the queen bee goes, all the other bees must follow. 

All kinds of mental diseases are connected with the intake of unwholesome impressions. The withdrawal of awareness from negative impressions frees up the mind to move within, and thereby strengthens mental immunity. Pratyaharathereby constitutes the first step in the treatment of mental and nervous disorders. It helps people to avoid the needless dissipation of their energy. The energy so conserved may be drawn upon for creative or healing purposes.

The Need for Pratyahara

The normal flow of the human senses is to move outwards. The background of our mental field consists of our predominant sensory impressions. Most people are very fond of engaging with mental objects, whether obtained externally through the senses or those that reside within.

Sensory indulgence is the main form of entertainment in contemporary society. Most individuals today suffer from sensory overload in the form of bright colors, loud noises and dramatic sensations, because modern commerce functions by stimulating their interest through the senses. Strong sensations and forceful impressions (e.g. sex and violence) also dull the mind, which in turn makes people act in insensitive, careless, or even hurtful ways.

Having become hostages of the world of the senses and its allurements, people often neglect to pursue the goal of a healthy life. The art of keeping the mind quiet has been all but forgotten.

Every individual actually has the choice either to engage with a stimulus that comes his or her way, or step back and decide not to react to the stimulus. The practice of pratyaharaenables him or her to carefullychoose an appropriate response to the bombardment of various stimuli. By and by, the person develops the capacity to thrive within a stimulating environment and manages to respond to its allurements in a consciousrather than compulsive/reactive manner.

The sensory-motor “lower” mind is responsible for coordinating the operations of all the sense organs. Individuals take in sensory impressions from that source upon which the attention of their mind is directed. The senses have a will of their own that is largely instinctual in nature, in the manner of untrained children If the senses are not properly disciplined, they dominate the mind and overwhelm it with their endless demands.

Sense withdrawal means that the senses cease to engage with the objects that may be travelling in the train of the mind. It does not mean the suppression, repression, or stopping of those thoughts, even though these may naturally slow down or decrease to some degree.

The technique of Pratyahara consists merely of interrupting the connection between the senses and the thought patterns. Even as the senses are absorbed by the mind, thoughts are allowed to flow on their own without interruption.

Withdrawal of the senses does not mean just physically regulating the sense organs, such as closing the eyelids or sitting still. The functioning of the senses is primarily mental in nature. Whenever they are drawn to the objects that are projected upon the mental screen, the senses become actively engaged – regardless of whether that mental object comes from outside (such as through the eyes) or arises internally (from the memory bank). This internal withdrawal of sensory attention from all kinds of mental objects is the sum and substance of Pratyahara.

The Logic for Pratyahara

Perception is the synthetic product arrived at by the brain through the processing of raw materials which are the sensations brought to it by the senses. In the act of perception, three agencies are involved, viz. a) the sense organs, b) the physical brain and c) the mind. 

The senses convey the sensations to the brain, where these are processed and changed into perceptions. A sensation by itself has no form. Diverse sensations are synthesized, as a result of which we are able to cognize the forms and structures of things. The form arises only when the sensations are grouped together. What is transmitted by the senses produces only certain chemical and structural changes in the brain. Out of these changes, the brain evolves an image. It is this image that constitutes perception.

The brain is like a receiving station where information is brought in the form of dashes and dots communicated by the incoming nerve signals. How the brain forms images of objects in the external world out of such indirect information is one of the mysteries of nature. 

However, perceptions by themselves do not constitute knowledge. These must be synthesized into concepts, before the process of knowledge becomes meaningful. This function of conception is performed by the mind. Just as the brain formulates perceptions by putting numerous sensations together, so does the mind formulate concepts by integrating numerous percepts. All our knowledge of the external world is conceptual knowledge, which is basically our interpretation of the world formed out of processing perceptions.

To build a concept is to give a name to that which has been perceived. For example, vision is not a physical process like photography; it is more a psychological experience. People commonly believe that they see. Actually, they are only forming judgments. Two people reading the same book never have the same thoughts while they are reading. Their gaze may fall upon the same object, but each one sees something different. It is not the eyes that behold; our seeing is our judgment about something that we declare as having perceived with our eyes.

This interpretation by the mind is the formation of a concept. The entire structure of conceptual knowledge rests on the transmission of sensations by the senses, their conversion into perceptions by the brain, and the co-ordination of percepts by the mind to yield concepts. If these two processes are interrupted, then the conceptual knowledge has no factual validity. 

For correct perception and conception, the two essential constituents are the clarity of the brain and an unconditioned mind. The defectiveness of conceptual knowledge arises out of:

a) The interruption in the sensation-perception process, and 

b) The limitation imparted to the interpretive process by the conditioning of the mind itself.

Pratyaharafor Accurate Conception

One of the primary sources of error in correct conception is the conditioning of the mind. If a human being is born with a pair of blue spectacles permanently perched upon one’s nose, then the world would appear to this person as blue. This is not because blueness is an inherent quality that belongs to the things that he or she sees, but because to see them as blue in colour would be a primary condition of the individual seeing or knowing them at all in the first place.

Likewise, a conditioned mind interferes with the perception-forming activity of the brain and thereby making the perception also erroneous. Such a mind prematurely forms its concepts, and rushes in before the brain has completed its percept. The mind forcibly takes over the normal functioning of the brain, not allowing the latter to complete its act of percept making. Without the completion of percepts, the formation of concept is incomplete – and therefore wrong and defective.  

The brain is both the receiver of sense impacts as well as the transmitter of instructions to the senses. The mind forces the brain to give instructions to the senses for action even before the percept is completed. This premature transmission, done at the behest of the mind, induces the activity of the senses clinging or holding on to their objects. This creates the problem of sense indulgence i.e. the senses roaming about in the mind’s projection. 

When the mind projects its desired ideations on incomplete sense perceptions, then objects are created which have no intrinsic existence. In this condition, the mind forces the senses to linger in the field of objects that have no real objectivity. This is the phenomenon of sensual activity. It causes distraction to the brain, and leaves it frustrated, agitated and excited.

For the experience of quiet and tranquility, the senses should move away from the “sensual” towards the “sensuous”. While the sensual represents the act of sense indulgence, the sensuous represents a great receptivity in the sphere of sense activity.

In sensuality, the frustrated brain mars the receptivity of the senses that are possessed by the objects of the mind. The senses become so habituated to the intervention of the mind for their functioning, that they lose their own initiative.

In sensuous activity on the other hand, the brain is enabled to assimilate more and more sense data. Thus, it urges the senses not to settle down anywhere, but to move on to gather more and more of the sense impacts. The senses become the possessors and masters of their objects, thus freeing themselves from the clutches of slavery to these objects.

This requires a re-education of the senses, which is facilitated by the practice of Pratyahara.

The Preparation for Pratyahara

Prior to their internal withdrawal, Pratyahararequires that the sense organs should first be properly fed and nourished. That is, before learning how to pull back the energies that are normally expressed outwardly, people need to become keenly aware of and appreciate the world that exists outside in all its splendour. Thus, the graceful observation and benevolent monitoring of one’s own mind is the basic preparation required for the practice of pratyahara

There is an ancient story that beautifully illustrates this point. Once upon a time, a king received a gift of some beautiful wild horses. Nobody in the kingdom knew how to tame them. So, the king announced that he was searching for someone to train his horses. A big reward was promised for whoever could become successful in doing so.

Many people came forward to attempt the task. Each one made an effort to saddle and bridle the horses, and tried to ride upon them from the very first moment. However, the horses were not trained to accept commands. So, they were naturally unwilling to allow anyone to ride on their backs. Most people ended up with broken arms & legs after struggling with the horses.

One day, a person came to the king and said, “Let me try.” The man further added, “But I will train the horses in my own environment, without any interference from anyone. I wish to take them away for one year, after which time I will return them to you. By this time, the king had become quite desperate. So he accepted the condition, and the man took the horses away.

After one year, the entire country was waiting in anticipation. At the appointed day and time, the six beautiful horses duly appeared in single file with the trainer riding upon the foremost one. The common people who had absolutely no idea of how to train and tame wild horses were very happy to see this result. The king asked the trainer, “How did you do it?”

The trainer explained that he began by observing the horses very carefully. When they ran, he would run behind them. When the horses stopped for a drink, he would make his tea. When they grazed, he too would have his meal. In this way, he gradually made friends with them.

After a few months came the day when he could finally touch them. Initially, the horses shied away. However, over a period of time, they became used to his touch. Then, one day he was able to saddle the horses. Although they did not like it at first, they soon became used to it.

The trainer was able to accomplish this, because he had taken care to first become a friend of the horses. This is precisely the process that is applicable to the human mind too. Normally, people do not befriend their mind. In fact, they try to suppress & subdue its activities instead.

To prepare for pratyahara, the person thus seeks to discover and find out the manner in which:

  1. The mind extends itself or responds to different external situations and circumstances,
  2. The senses influence and affect the different mental states,
  3. The thoughts emerge, interact and pass away, and 
  4. The desires influence the actions of the individual

The individual thereby gains a deeper understanding of his or her mind. Once the mind is thus fathomed, its energy may be regulated and directed towards a definite goal or a chosen aim. 

Pratyahara Techniques

The phenomenon of abstraction is the withdrawal of the mind from interference in the sensory activity. When the mind intervenes, the sense responses tend to be sensual. But, when the mind is withdrawn, these responses become sensuous so that the senses respond to the finer and subtler vibrations emanating from the objects of life. The basic objective of pratyaharais to energize and activate the brain as well as to break its passivity.

One of the Yogic practices that facilitate the withdrawal of the senses into the mind is Yoni Mudra. It enables the mind’s intervention into the activity of the senses to be intercepted. The senses come into their own, and their range and intensity of response increases tremendously. They are able to communicate greatly increased data of sensations to the brain. 

Yoni Mudrainvolves using the fingers to block the sensory openings in the head (the eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth) & allowing the attention & energy to move within. This also results in the activation of the brain, thus enabling it to function at its full potential. It is done for short periods of time when the pranais energized, such as soon after the practice of pranayama

Just as the digestion of food gets short-circuited by irregular eating habits and contrary food qualities, so also the ability of the mind to digest impressions is deranged by jarring impressions. Directing the gaze upon a source of natural, homogeneous & uniform impressions such as the ocean or the blue sky, also helps to cleanse the mind and regulate the senses. 

Yet another means of controlling the senses is to create positive and natural impressions. This may be accomplished by meditating upon aspects of nature such as trees or flowers as well as visiting repositories of positive impressions such as temples and places of pilgrimage. Positive impressions may also be created through the use of incense, flowers, ghee lamps, altars, statues, and other artifacts of devotional worship. 

Another sensory withdrawal technique is to focus the mind on inner impressions, and thus remove the attention from external stimuli. Visualization is the simplest means of creating inner impressions. The artist absorbed in an inner landscape or the musician who is composing a melody is performing inner visualization. These activities also help to clear up the mental field of external impressions, and facilitate the generation of positive inner impressions. 

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