An Introduction to the Philosophy of Yoga
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 11: The Abstraction of the Senses

The most renowned technique of meditation is, of course, that which is propounded in the system of sage Patanjali, because this system of practice takes into consideration almost all the aspects of human nature. The well-known stages, viz., asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi, are gradational attunements of the individual with the cosmos.

We usually do asanas, practise pranayama, and sit for meditation with a wrong notion at the very back, namely, that we are human beings, persons unconnected with other people and absolutely not related to the world at all, so that when one does pranayama, it is his nostrils and lungs that operate; it is his business, and it has nothing to do with others. This is not the attitude intended by sage Patanjali when he asked us to do yoga, because the rationale behind it will quickly get missed if one thinks that it is merely a personal physical exercise, like foot-ball and games of other sorts. Why, even the physical exercises, even the asanas, which are apparently connected with the body, are not a bodily exercise merely, particularly so in the case of that group of asanas which have connection with meditation. The asanas that are spoken of in the system of Patanjali are directly related to meditation, because the aim of yoga is meditation. Anything that we do is finally towards that end. It does not mean that meditation will start after some time, a few years later, and today we will do asanas for the flexibility of the body and the training of the muscles and nerves. No, the asanas have to sow the seed, even in the very beginning, of the essential spirit of the end of all yoga.

There is a basic spiritual impulse injected into the very root of the practice. The body, the mind, the senses and the intellect are the things that are trained properly in asanas, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. We have to know what these processes actually mean. They are, in essence, methods of harmonisation of the different layers of the personality, the body, the prana, the senses, the mind and the intellect, and finally, the Spirit in which last step one takes a plunge into the Absolute.

The asana that is connected with meditation is the art of the stabilisation of the physical body, because meditation is a stabilising process, a gradually ascending movement of increased intensity and expansiveness. But every stage is a stage of stabilisation of that particular level of experience in which one is at a given moment.

We have already seen that we are in a human society. We are not just in the body alone, locked up, as if in a prison. We are social units, a subject with which we have dealt earlier, and which is the theme of the practice of the yamas and niyamas. Our relationship with human society and the behaviour of our own body are the concerns of the practices known as Yama and Niyama.

The asana is a higher degree of practice. It is not the beginning of yoga, for it is the third step of the ascent. From this, we can imagine what an importance is there attributed to this system of practice known as asana, though it appears to be concerned with the body alone. The asana that is connected with meditation is the culmination of the practice of all other asanas such as sirshasana, sarvangasana, matsyasana, etc. They all, finally, tend towards a complete stabilisation of the individual frame. It is for this purpose that the other asanas are advised to be practised. They are not ends in themselves but act as means to another end, the capacity to totally fix oneself in that particular seated posture which is requisite for meditation. Otherwise, when one is seated, the body may become fidgety, and there can be aches and distractions of the muscular system.

Even at the very outset, Patanjali gives instructions which have a spiritual connotation. When he speaks of asana, the principle of contemplation is somehow tacked on even there. One cannot be seated in a physical posture for a long time unless the mind is agreeable to this procedure. If the mind is dissenting, we cannot sit in one posture, as emotional disturbance or mental occupation, anxiety, or worry is likely to act as an obstacle even to a seated posture. We know very well what an important role the mind plays in relation to the body. There is no need to comment on this matter. If the mind is disturbed for any reason, can one sit in a stable posture? One would then get up and go for a walk, rather than sit quietly.

The mind has to collaborate with the intention of the body, and vice versa. That is why Patanjali mentions in one aphorism that the mind has to think of infinitude even when one tries to sit in a posture. The idea of infinitude has a great influence upon the way of the stabilisation of the body. Distractions, whatever be their nature, are caused by the presence of objects. The directing of the mind towards things outside is the distraction. Whether the mind is forced by the presence of the objects to move in the direction of the objects or the mind deliberately moves because of its desires – whatever be the reason – the presence of the objects, or rather the consciousness of the presence of the objects, is the reason behind the distraction.

The thought of infinity (ananta-samapatti), as the term used in the relevant Sutra of Patanjali suggests, is the secret. The contemplation on the infinite, conceptually of course, is what is to be understood here. We cannot actually grasp the infinite as it is in itself, but we can entertain an idea of the conceptual infinite, which will stabilise the mind automatically, which means to say that the mind attempts to feel its presence in the atmosphere around and also to feel the harmony of the atmosphere with its own self. And, thus, a rapprochement is established between the mind and the world.

You will be surprised that when the mind is completely contented, it is satisfied thoroughly, and there is an automatic stabilization of the mind. The mind affects the body to such an extent that the vibrations produced in the mind on account of its activity, passing through the nervous system and the muscles, can change the very conduct of the body. Even when we are seated in the posture – here when I talk of the posture, I am referring to the posture concerning meditation and not the other exercises – the mind gets stirred in some way. When we are seated in the meditating posture, the mind has to realise that it is preparing itself for meditation, and it cannot be prepared for meditation unless its pre-requisites are fulfilled. These requisites are well-known things.

A satisfaction which frees the mind from anxiety and insecurity is the foremost essential. For, a dissatisfied mind, in any way whatsoever, is unfit for meditation. We cannot sit merely with the hope that meditation will bring the needed result. It is true that meditation brings satisfaction but the mind will not go for meditation at all because of the basic distractions which pull it down to the level of the earth. So Patanjali does not ask us to jump to the highest peak of contemplation, or what is called samapatti, or samadhi. He advises the practice of lower techniques and the simple methods of harmony so that every stage of yoga becomes a stage of satisfaction. It is no more painful to us, and we need not be frightened. This process is not a struggle but a gradual flow with the natural atmosphere of meditation. Whenever one feels uneasiness on the thought of meditation or when one is attempting at the practice, one has to realise that there is a frustrated background of the mind. The mind is not so eager to go to meditation, because it has other interests. Concentration is the consequence of interest and right appreciation. The yamas and niyamas are not to be regarded as insignificant stages. They are the very foundations of the entire edifice of further practice. We know the importance of the foundation of a building. It is on the rock-bottom of correct perspective that the structure of all yoga is raised.

It is advisable to go slowly, with caution, in regard to the various strings that connect us with the objects of sense, and to deal with these connections in a rational manner, and never act in haste. "Haste makes waste", is an old adage. There is a necessity to be judicious and scientific, gradual and slow and cautious, because the more are we systematic and careful in our approach, the greater is the chance of our moving further and the lesser the chance of retrogression or a fall back. Else there can be a sudden reversal to the level which has been turned a deaf ear to on account of over-enthusiasm or an emotional adventure.

There is an internal mechanism which pulls us outside in the direction of objects, and it has to be set in tune with the higher atmosphere, and not the external one. The mechanism is constituted of the senses, the mind and the intellect which work through the prana directly connected with the body. The body which is formed of muscles, nerves, etc., is set into motion by the prana, as electricity moves the vehicle through which it passes. We may compare prana with electric energy to some extent. It is subtler than electrical energy, but for the time being we can regard it as something like that. And when the body is charged with prana-shakti, it assumes life. When we say that the body is alive, what we mean is that the prana is entirely present in every part of the body. When we say the wire is live, we mean to say that the live-wire is charged with electricity. So is this body. Without the prana, the body is a corpse. If the prana is not functioning in a particular limb of the body, there is numbness and a paralytic stroke affecting that particular part; there is lifelessness and one will not even know that it is there.

The prana, therefore, is the liaison between the inner structure of the psyche and the vehicle that we are carrying, lumbering with the load that we are having with us. The body is like a cart. It is simply a vehicle driven with an engine inside, the prana, but the prana works in a peculiar manner. Even as the movement of the wheels of a vehicle is dependent on the way in which the steering is moved, the prana is directed by the mind. The prana acts as a kind of instrument, in the same way as the body acts as an instrument. The prana is the energy that impinges upon the particular thing which is the intention of the mind and the senses. When I think of you and look at you, my prana is supposed to have an impact on you. When you look at an object, it is not an impersonal activity that is going on. You are affecting it in some manner. If your gazing is deliberate, concentrated and purposive, there is a telepathic action taking place then, and the prana-shakti is driven from your personality to that particular thing, the object, which you are gazing at intentionally.

Thus, the prana, though it is working within the body, is also distracted in the direction of the things towards which the senses compel it to move. While the prana is internal to the body, the senses are internal to the prana. You may be wondering, what are these senses? You must have heard that there are the eyes, ears, etc. The eyes and ears that we speak of are not merely fleshy organs, like the eyeballs, eardrums, etc. The senses that we are referring to here have the power to control the working of the prana, and are, again, impulsions from inside. The senses are ramifications of thought itself. They are the powers injected by the mind through the apertures of these organs, the eyeballs, eardrums, and the like. These organs are only external locations through which the energy of the mind is charged out and the senses are only names we give to the various rays of the mind which have action upon the prana, which, again, in turn, has its action on the body, and on society outside.

In the practice of the asanas and pranayama, therefore, the body and the mind are taken into consideration simultaneously. But, while doing this, we cannot forget the psychic pattern inside, and it is important that the mind has to be satisfied even at the time of the practice of the asana for meditation, and it is also true in the case of pranayama, with greater effect.

The more we go inside, the greater is the caution that we have to exercise. While there is difficulty in seating oneself in a fixed posture when the mind is disturbed, there will be a greater difficulty in practising pranayama if the mind is distracted. Not only will there be difficulty, but there can be even danger. There can be a resentment of the prana to such an extent that it may ruin the health of the person. And if the pranayama is coupled with retention, so much the worse for it, because it will be like forcing a river to go back, against its current and flow. Hence, in the earlier stages, no retention should be practised during pranayama, i.e., only deep inhalation and deep exhalation should be resorted to, because no one can say that everything is perfectly all right with one's emotions or that one is perfectly desireless. For some months one may practise only deep inhalation and deep exhalation. This is good for health, and it will somehow assist in the retention of the breath finally, though gradually.

We might be surprised that the system of Patanjali does not lay much stress on asana and pranayama as the Hatha Yoga-Pradipika, etc., do. This is so because Patanjali is more concerned with the basic factor of meditation, the mind. The whole of the system of Patanjali is primarily psychological. It aims at the higher objects more than the lesser ones in the scale of evolution. For, it is perfectly acceptable to reason that when the higher layers are satisfied, the lower ones automatically get controlled. But if the higher ones are ignored, the lower levels go amuck. So a direct attack upon the mind is the real intention of Patanjali's system, though he accepts that the lower stages are important enough in their own way, and allows the student a graduated passage from the level of social involvement onwards through the levels of the personality.

The disconnection of the senses from their objects is called pratyahara. It is not merely a forceful withdrawal but a kind of sublimation that is effected through the very cessation of desire for objects. In the commentary on the Sutras of Patanjali certain hints are given regarding the withdrawal of the senses. There is a gross form of it, a subtle form, and a spiritual form. The gross form of withdrawal is the willful intention to "think not" the object but think something else, instead. You compel the mind not to think of the object, first of all, by physically dissociating it from the atmosphere in which the objects are located. This is why people go to solitary places for internal peace. They want to be physically away from things and environments which are distracting. That is a force which one applies upon the mind. It is not that one has no desire for the objects but here one wants to physically disconnect oneself from even the perception of the objects, as an initial and tentative measure of sense-abstraction. This is the grossest form of pratyahara.

But the subtler aspect of it is to educate the mind into a knowledge of the mistake that it is committing when it entertains the notion that some advantage accrues by contact with objects. Why does the mind go towards the objects? Why does it order the senses to come in contact with things outside? There is a benefit accruing from coming in contact with desirable things. Every business in life is based on some idea of profit. If nothing comes, who will do anything? The mind rather feels that something that is good will come out by a contact of the objects through senses. However, there is a mistake in this way of thinking. It is not true that some advantage accrues, really speaking, by any amount of contact in space and time.

It appears that there is a satisfaction. But it is only an appearance and not a reality. This is an education that we have to impart to the mind. It will not accept these arguments easily. If you tell the mind, "No, you are making a mistake, do not go on blundering thus," it will not understand what you are speaking. Even a child will not accept the advice, "Do not go to the fire, do not touch the flames," for it does not know what is fire and what are flames. It has to get burnt in order to learn the lesson.

But by deep study, svadhyaya, by true education one can rationally convince oneself of the futility of this so-called craving of the mind for gaining advantage from contact with objects. And what is the advantage? A surge of joy is what anyone seeks, in the end. And it is sought in things of sense. But is it true that there is joy? That is what we have to ponder over. Or, are we under a delusion? Usually, the mind will not accept that it is under the spell of an illusion. What, then, is the causative factor that has worked in the rousing of a fog of satisfaction in the mind when one apparently comes in contact with things? Here is a psychology with which the mind is not acquainted.

There is an obvious error in imagining that objects bring satisfaction. And, finally, there is a metaphysical error and a spiritual blunder involved in the notion of deriving happiness from things. The psychological mistake is patent. What happens to people who run after things in the world? They are perpetually in a state of anxiety. In the case of people who run after money, for instance, there is always an anxiety, a restlessness and an agitation in the mind. There is an anxiety as to how the object could be obtained. The world does not belong to you, and it is not anyone's property. Yet everybody claims it as his property. There is a tussle among people for proprietorship of things. This is why there is a social conflict everywhere. Everyone wants everything. Now, it is not possible that everybody can get everything on the very face of it. Thus, apart from social conflict, there is also a psychological background of sorrow.

The great anxiety preceding the attempted acquisition of an object cannot be regarded as a state of happiness. Man is anxious how he can find ways and means to grab the objects of his desire. That anxiety is not equivalent to satisfaction, for it is unhappiness unadulterated. When the object is acquired, there is, again, an anxiety, which is of a different nature, because one knows that one cannot possess anything for a long time. Things are made in such a way that they can be taken away from us by natural causes or other factors of life. There is a possibility of deprivation of possession even after one's having it with so much of worry and strain.

There is another anxiety: how to keep things intact. There is a preceding anxiety and also a succeeding anxiety. But there is something more serious involved in this, a third factor. Even that temporary satisfaction of possession is a false one. An illusion or mirage has been counted for a reality. Yes, there has resulted a fiasco in all this.

What happens is one thing and what we are thinking is another thing. What is it that is really happening, when there is a joy emanating from within one's self at the time of the contact of itself with a desired object? Something mysterious is taking place, which the mind is not able to understand. Let us not go into the psychology of this situation just now, but think of the outer aspect of it. Take for one moment the example of a particular thing which you like immensely and which you regard as the source of your joy. If this satisfaction is really the characteristic of the object, it should attract everyone, naturally. Everyone would jump on that object instantly. But it is not true that what is apparently the intended object behind one's mind is the object expected by other people also. On the other hand, the reverse may be the case. That which you like may be hated by someone else. It can be the object of aversion in the case of other people, whereas in your case it is an object of intense like. Not only that; even in your own case, it is not true that you like only one thing. Why is it that you change your mind? Do you desire the same thing today which you liked twenty years ago? And do you think that after a few years you will be for the thing which you are hankering for today? Why is the mind changing thus, if the object has the inherent characteristic of satisfying it? The object, therefore, is to be considered not as the true source of satisfaction, but only an instrument that stirs up certain functions in the mind, and the so-called satisfaction is not an emanation from the object, but a reaction that is set up mutually between the structure and location of the object and the condition of the mind at that particular moment of time.

While the presence of the object may be necessary for evoking a feeling of joy in the mind, it is the evocation of the feeling that is more important than just the presence of the object. The finale to which we are driven in this analysis is that happiness comes from within; it does not come from without. How, then, is it possible that when I eat a sweet mango I feel a satisfaction? How can I say that the happiness comes from inside, when it is clear that it has come from the mango? Does not the mind know this? Yes, but it is also true that it does not come entirely from the mango. The fruit has acted only as a kind of spade to dig out the treasure that is inside. A suitable instrument has been applied and the suitability of the instrument cannot be equated with the presence of pleasure in it.

What has happened is really something different. The mind has been contemplating the object for a reason which is beyond the field of psychology. It is, in fact, a metaphysical event. At the time of the contemplation of the object, the consciousness was turned away from its own source. The selfhood of consciousness was converted into an object-hood for the time being. The subject became the object for a short time, and the moment one loses consciousness of oneself and becomes conscious of something else, one is anxious and is in sorrow. Grief is loss of consciousness of self. The more one loses oneself, loses contact with one's own source, the more is one grief-stricken. The greater the intensity of the desire, the greater is the sorrow attending upon it, because the intensity of the desire implies an equal extent of turning away of consciousness from its own source. If the desire for an object is one hundred percent intense, one has lost oneself totally. One is a complete loser of oneself, and that is a veritable hell. But if the attraction is of some lower percentage, the sorrow, too, is, then, equally of that percentage.

The possession of the object tentatively makes the mind feel that there is no further need to move away from the source in the direction of the object. The complete possession of an object immediately puts an end to the movement of the mind in the direction of the object. When the mind ceases to think of the object, the consciousness that was driven towards the object returns to its source. Then one is possessed of one's own self. The example generally given in texts to illustrate this point is the instance of a dog licking a bone piece which is having thorns in it, and the dog's tongue getting torn because of the pricking bone, blood oozing out from its own tongue, the dog imagining that the blood comes from the flesh sticking to the bone and so licking still more. The beast licks the blood that comes out of its own tongue, but the idiot does not know that it is its own blood coming out, and it is licking itself alone. But the dog is so foolish that it thinks it comes from the bone, and licks more on the thorny piece. All happiness comes from within, but we are under the impression that it is rising from the object, and so run after the thing further more, like the dog that goes to the bone. The cessation of the desire, tentatively brought about on account of the notion in the mind that the object is possessed, is the cause of happiness, not the object.

For all these reasons, and many others, the mind should be told that there is a mistake in the contemplation of objects and consciously nobody would fall into a pit. The mind jumps into the pit unconsciously under the impression that it is all velvet, but under this cover there is a well dug for its own ruin. The mind has to be enlightened about this fact. This is the psychological secret that is unearthed to help us in the practice of pratyahara, the withdrawal of the mind from objects, a little more useful and advanced method than the forceful turning away from things, physically.

But the highest kind of pratyahara is the non-awareness of the presence of things themselves. You are not even aware that things exist. There is no necessity to withdraw the mind here. The non-awareness of externality arises on account of the positive consciousness of a larger universality. You have not deliberately withdrawn the mind. The mind has not felt the need for contemplating things. You do not think of anything in the world, though the things are there. Do you know how many things exist in this world? Are you all thinking of them? No, because you are not concerned with them. You are thinking only of those things with which you are related. And, if your concern is a larger reality, with a greater comprehensiveness and profundity, the necessity to think of externalities drops off automatically. Hence, this inward rising of the consciousness to the higher level of apprehension is the true pratyahara. The lesser the force that is exerted upon the mind in pratyahara, the greater is the success, and the quality of it. It should be a spontaneous process of acceptance, deliberately with delight. It should not be an imposition upon the mind by social dogmas or religious mandates.

So is the case with dharana or concentration. Dharana is concentration, and dhyana is meditation. In all this, there is always a positivity of approach. It is not that you deliberately give pain to the mind, severing its relationship with things, whether in concentration or meditation. You give joy to it, rather. Instead of telling the mind, "I am not going to give you this", you may better say, "I am going to give you this". There are people who admonish, "You should not do that. Don't touch, don't look", and so on. The mind does not like these instructions. Negativity is abhorred. Many of our religious doctrines are "do's and don'ts". Religions have become too much social and ethical and have lost the spiritual meaning behind them. So there is an agitation in the mind. It is not happy. Therefore, it is necessary to introduce positivity into the practice, spirituality into the very concept of meditation. And as you go further you will realise that the whole teaching of Patanjali in the art of meditation is an entire positivity everywhere. There is nothing of the negative in it. In the later stages known as samapatti or samadhi, which form the real yoga, there is a fullness of experience and bliss. The stages we are discussing now are the earlier preparations for gaining entry into the higher training in the form of the union that has to be established later. In an advanced stage you do not dissociate yourself from anything. On the other hand, you associate yourself with everything. So, yoga, although it is a process of dissociation apparently in the earlier stages, is really a union of all the components of the personality with everything in creation.