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The Study and Practice of Yoga

An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Chapter 80: Pratyahara: The Return of Energy

When the inclination for concentration arises in the mind, a great change will be felt in one’s own self. A new type of mood will rise within, and it will look like the whole world is changing its colours and relations. There will be a total confirmation of the nature of one’s feelings when this inclination to concentration arises in the mind. We have to bear in mind the importance of this sutra, dhāraṇāsu ca yogyatā manasaḥ (II.53), which means that there should be the mind’s preparedness or readiness for concentration, as a mere pressure of the will cannot bring about concentration.

Every stage of yoga, every step in its practice, is a healthful growth and not any kind of pressurisation from any source. Therefore, it is a very gradual ascent because the natural inclination does not arise quickly, due to the presence of other impressions in the mind. So, if we properly bear in mind the significance of the earlier steps mentioned – right from yama onwards, up to pranayama – we will be able to understand the types of preparation that we have to make for this readiness of the mind to concentrate. Most of us are not ready for concentration, and if we ask the mind to concentrate when it is not prepared, how will we take to that practice? We cannot even take our meal when the stomach is not ready for it. Nothing can be done when the system is not prepared. Neither can we walk, nor can we sleep, nor can we eat, nor can we speak if we are not ready for these things. For every action, function or conduct, there should be a readiness of the system – a preparedness, a mood, a tendency, an inclination.

While this is so in the case of various other functions of life, it is much more so in the case of concentration where the readiness is not expected merely from one part or aspect of the system, but from the total system. How is it possible that everyone will agree to a single point? Rarely is this found. The majority may agree; the minority may not agree. But, here, we do not want a majority merely. The total group of the forces of the system should be ready. The whole army should be up for action; not one soldier should malinger. Not one cell in the body should be reluctant. Such is what is called the preparedness for meditation. If the intellect is ready, the emotion is not ready. If the emotion is prepared, the intellect is not understanding. If both are ready, the will is not working. If everything is okay, we are sick. If this is the case, how will we meditate?

It is difficult to find all things working together. This is a great difficulty, indeed. What can be called a difficulty in life, if not this? If everything went well, we would be in heaven by this very moment – but, unfortunately, this does not happen. Something or other will not click properly, and then the machine will not move. But it has to move and everything has to click in an orderly, spontaneous manner – that too, not by force or pressure. See how many conditions are laid. Everything has to be prepared. Body, mind and spirit are all together in preparedness for action – in completeness, in full force of aspiration; that is one thing. The other thing is that it should be free from pressure. We may not take a drug to cause a readiness of the system for meditation, because then the system is not ready – we are whipping it. Whipping cannot be called ready. If we give a blow to the horse which is unable to pull the cart, it jumps up due to the whipping, but do we call it spontaneous action? The result would be that the cart is turned upside down due to the kick given in resentment by the horse. If we apply force with a drug or any kind of stimulant – even a forced will is a kind of stimulant only, and even such stimulants are not allowed. If we apply these vacuum brakes to a fast-moving train, there will be catastrophe following. Therefore, ‘yogata’ is the term used very wisely by Patanjali. Yogata means that there should be fitness for concentration. Are we fit? What is the meaning of ‘fitness’? Are we spontaneous in our action? That is one question. Or are we being compelled by somebody? If there is a motive of compulsion that is behind the sitting for meditation, there will be a counter-urge of the mind to come back to its original position from where it started. If we are forced to work in an office, we know how long we will work. We will be looking for the first opportunity to get out from that place. As early as possible we want to be out when the pressurising influence is lifted. Also, the quality of work falls because of the pressure. Quantity is less, and quality is nil; this will happen in meditation if we force it.

Hence, there should be a willingness on our part due to the satisfaction we feel on account of the recognition of the value of the step that we are taking. First of all, it is difficult to see the value, whatever be our aspiration. We cannot recognise or visualise the entire value of meditation, because if the entire value is seen, it would be unthinkable how the mind can come back from that. How could we explain the mind coming back from a resourceful treasure which it has dug up and possessed? But it is unable to recognise the value. It is like a monkey seeing a huge treasure trove; it does not know the worth of it. It is simply like a huge weight of material; it has no meaning. Likewise would be the attitude of an unprepared mind, and there would be, therefore, a consequent repulsion. There would be no yogata, or preparedness.

Svaviṣaya asaṁprayoge cittasya svarūpānukāraḥ iva indriyāṇāṁ pratyāhāraḥ (II.54). When this significance or value in the object of meditation is properly recognised, there is an automatic disconnection of the senses from their objects. The vehicle of the object is severed from its relation with the engine, which is the senses, and then the objects will not move, because there is no movement of the senses in respect of the objects. ‘Vavisaya asamprayoge’ is the term used in the sutra defining pratyahara, which is the beginning step of the central court of yoga. It is the severance of the senses from contact with objects, which is something very strange indeed, because it is not easy to understand the meaning of ‘contact’. Contact is different from the union that is the aim of yoga. The ultimate purpose of yoga is a kind of merger of consciousness in the object which it contemplates. That is the true union that is aspired for. But the senses, when they contemplate an object, are not supposed to be in union with the object; this is the difference. If the senses are in union, what is it that we are trying to do by severing them from the objects? There is no union of the senses with their object when they are contacting it.

‘Contact’ and ‘union’ are two different things. When sunlight falls on a pot kept outside in the sun, the pot is illumined by the light of the sun and so we are able to visualise the presence of the pot in the sun. The pot shines on account of the light that has fallen upon it, and becomes one with it, almost. We cannot separate the light of the sun from the pot on which it has fallen and which it illumines. Nevertheless, we know that the light has never become the pot; it is quite different from the pot or the object which it illumines. Can we say that the light of the sun has entered the pot and become one with it in union? No, not at all. There is only a contact – though it may look like an inseparable contact, which is really the case. So intimately is the contact of the light with the object that we cannot differentiate one from the other. We begin to say that the pot is shining; this is what we generally say. What is shining is the light, not the pot. But the identity is such, apparently, that it looks that the object itself is shining, and so we are able to perceive the presence of the object in the daylight of the sun.

Similar is the case with the contact of the senses in respect of their objects. They do not unite themselves with the object. If there is a real union, how can there be separation? How can there be bereavement? How can there be sorrow that one is dispossessed of the object which one liked? There has never been union – there was only contact. And this contact is, really speaking, the opposite of what the senses are aiming at through that means which they adopt in the cognition of an object.

The intention of the senses is not the same as what is really happening there. The intention of the senses in respect of its object is that it wants to grab the object, to assimilate the object, to digest it, and to make the object part of its own being. Though this is the intention, this will not take place for certain reasons. What actually happens is that the senses are repelled by the structure of the object. We may call it an electrical repulsion, if we like, just as there is the repulsion felt by the tactile sense when there is contact of the sense with the physical object. What we call the touch sense of the fingers, for instance, on account of which they feel the solidity of an object, is not really a union of the tactile sense with the object, but it is a kind of repulsion that is produced by the particles of matter which constitute the object and are electrically charged – as also are the particles which constitute the structure of the tips of the fingers, or the nerve-endings. This produces a different type of reaction altogether, like positive and negative joining. But here, positive and positive are repelling. There is a kind of electrical repulsion produced by the nature of the object and the workings of the senses, though this repulsion itself sometimes looks like a satisfying condition due to a mistaken notion about what is really happening.

Suppose we are kicked and we fall down into a pot of honey; do we call it a great satisfaction? Well, we have fallen into a pot of honey; but we have been kicked and, therefore, we fell down into it. Likewise, these senses are being kicked by the object. But they think they have fallen into a pot of honey; and they are licking it, not knowing that it was very undeserved, really speaking. The intention was quite different.

The union that is aspired for in yoga is not of this nature. Therefore, inasmuch as union is not achieved in the contact of senses with objects, the defect, which is the cause of this repulsion and the mistaken satisfaction that arises on account of this contact, is to be recognised. For this purpose the senses have to first be weaned back from the objects. This process is called pratyahara.

What happens in pratyahara is mentioned in the sutra: svaviṣaya asaṁprayoge cittasya svarūpānukāraḥ iva indriyāṇāṁ pratyāhāraḥ (II.54). There are two changes that take place in this action of the senses in their abstraction from the objects. Firstly, they are disconnected from contact with the object due to the withdrawal of the consciousness which is animating the senses. Secondly, which is more important, the senses turn back to the mind and assume the character of the mind. ‘Cittasya svarupanukarah’ means ‘the senses accompanying the mind in its essential nature’. They become almost one with the mind. In the usual activity of the senses, they are not one with the mind. They drag the mind out from its own chambers and then compel it to contemplate an external object, in which case the mind is something like a slave of the senses; the master has himself come under the subjection of the servants. But in pratyahara, this is not what is happening. The master is recognised – and his worth is known. The senses return. They do not return of their own accord. If the gas in the engine is completely removed, the vehicle will not move. The gas is the motive force, and that motive force is the consciousness that is attending upon the activity of the senses. If the supply of energy behind the movement of a vehicle is withdrawn, the vehicle cannot move. And, as long as the supply is there, the vehicle cannot be stopped. The vehicle may be said to be the senses which are running towards some objective. They cannot be stopped in their activities unless the energy is withdrawn. That energy is the consciousness.

Therefore, first and foremost, what is required is a severance of the attention of consciousness in respect of the movement of the senses towards objects. The attention is diverted. That is why sometimes, when we are deeply thinking over some important matter, even if we may be looking at some object, we may not see it. Our eyes may be open; it may appear that we are gazing at something, but we are seeing nothing at all on account of the fact that the energy that is necessary for the cognition of an object is withdrawn. There cannot be perception when the attention is diverted in some other way. Thus, in pratyahara there is first a diversion of attention from one place to another place. We have to find out what that place is, which is the object of meditation.

In this withdrawal of the consciousness from its movement along the lines of the senses, what happens is, it returns to the source from where it started. It will be difficult for one to distinguish between the senses and the mind at this moment. The senses and the mind become one. Here, the mind becomes powerful because when we turn off all the lights, turn off all the fans, and all the expenditure of electric energy is cut off on account of the turning off of all the switches, we see that the power station feels the surge immediately. The energy returns to the power station because we have turned off all the switches; there is no expenditure of energy. All the sources of the external movement of energy are severed on account of the turning off of the switches; naturally, the energy has to increase at the source, and we will see the indication of the increase in kilowatts recorded in the meters of the power station. The engineer in the power station will find out that people have turned off all the switches, because consumption of energy has gone down.

So is the case with pratyahara. It is the turning off of all the switches of action through the senses by which there has been expenditure of energy. The senses coming in contact with objects is like turning on the switch – the fan is working, the light is working, the fridge is working – everything is working, and so all the energy is spent. Sometimes it may be impossible for the power station to supply the requisite energy on account of the intense activity of the senses. When this happens, the connection is severed. What happens to that energy which was being spent through sense-activity, which was being utilised for perception, cognition of things, and enjoyment of objects? What happens to that energy? It goes back. It goes back to the source from where it was generated, from where it was conducted outward through the media of the senses. Then there is a rise or a swell of energy within – suddenly coming up and overflowing, as it were. The mind will feel a new type of health within itself on account of the exuberance of energy that it has due to the reversion of the energies through the channels of the senses from the points of objects towards which they were previously moving. This is the meaning of the term ‘cittasya svarupanukarah’: the energy returning to the power station on account of the severance of contact with the points of expenditure. Then one becomes powerful, strong, indefatigable, energised – charged with a new kind of buoyancy of spirit, and brilliant in one’s expression, on account of the energy being stored within oneself rather than its being outwardly directed for expenditure through contact. So the senses are disconnected from contact with objects – that is one thing that is expected here, and that is done. Secondly, the energy returns on account of this disconnection – this is pratyahara. Svavishaya asamprayoge and cittasya svarupanukarah are the two essential points mentioned in respect of the practice of pratyahara.

Tataḥ paramā vaśyatā indriyāṇām (II.55). We then become supreme master of the senses and can direct them wherever we like. The senses no more compel us to act against our wish, and do not any more make us puppets in their hands, on account of the control gained over their activities. But this parama vashyata, the great mastery one gains over sense activities, is gained with great, hard effort. A very intensely strenuous effort is necessary – for years, perhaps – to gain this sort of mastery over the senses. We think that the senses will automatically come back from their objects; but, they will not listen to us. They are very powerful, and they will simply show their thumbs before us if we talk to them. It requires persistence, tenacity and untiring effort – day in and day out – doing the very same thing, even if we may fail in our attempt. It does not mean that every day we will succeed. One day they will listen, and for ten days they will not listen. Then it will look like our effort has been a failure. We will complain, “What is the matter with me? For ten days I am struggling; nothing is happening.” But, on the eleventh day they may listen. This is the peculiarity of these senses and the mind, so one should not be dejected.

It was already mentioned on an earlier occasion that this melancholy mood is a great obstacle in yoga. Duhkha daurmanasya are the two things mentioned – sorrow or grief, and dejection of spirit – on account of not having gained mastery, or not having achieved anything. This should not come, because not even an adept can know what mastery he has gained, where he is standing, and what are the obstacles preventing him from achievement. Nothing will be known even to an expert. Even such a person will be kept in the dark; such is the mysterious realm that we are treading and walking through. But, the great watchword of this practice is: never be diffident. We should never condemn ourselves or be dispirited in our practice. It may be that for months together we may not achieve concentration, which is also possible due to the working of certain karmas. Even then, one should be tirelessly pursuing it.

There is a story in which it is told that Robert Bruce saw a spider falling down many times – climbing up and falling down and climbing up. Robert Bruce was defeated in a war. He was sitting in a cave somewhere, crying. He did not know what to do. Then he saw a spider climbing up the wall and falling down – again it went up and again it fell down. A hundred times it fell, and finally it got up and caught the point to which it wanted to rise. Then he said, “This is what I have to do now. I should not keep crying here.” So, he went up with the regiment that he had and the forces available, and launched a frontal attack once again, and won victory in the war. The moral of the story is that we should not be melancholy, dispirited or lost in our conscious efforts, because the so-called defeatist feeling that we have in our practice is due to the operation of certain obstructing karmas. Otherwise, what can be the explanation for our defeat in spite of our effort to the best of our ability?

We have been struggling for days and nights, for months and years – and we are getting nothing. How is it possible? The reason is that there is some very strong impediment, like a thick wall standing in front of us, on account of some tamasic or rajasic karma of the past lives. All our time is spent in breaking through this wall. The achievement is something quite different – that will come later on. So why should we weep that we have achieved nothing? We have achieved; we have pierced through the wall. It is like Bharatpur Fort which the British wanted to break and could not, due to the thickness of the wall. Somehow or other, after tremendous effort, they made a hole and went in. We can imagine what indefatigable effort and what kind of persistence was required in breaking through the fort. Otherwise, one would give up and go back. It was impossible to break in because the wall was too thick – fifty feet thick and made of mud. One could not break it by any kind of bullet – such was Bharatpur Fort. They did not succeed, but they were very persistent. Somehow or other they made a hole and went in, and the fort was captured.

Likewise, the first day’s effort need not necessarily bring illumination because of the great efforts that are necessary to break through the fort of the veil of ignorance and karma, which is itself sufficient and weighty. Even if we spend three-fourths of our life in this work only, it should not be regarded as a kind of defeat. Often it so happens that the major part of our life is spent only in cleansing and in breaking through this veil. Once this negative work of cleansing and breaking is effected, then the positive achievement will take place in a trice. How much time do we require to see the brilliance of the sun? We have only to remove the cataract veil that is covering our eyes and immediately we see the sun shining. The effort is to remove this veil. Hence, this vashyata, or the mastery over the senses which the sutra speaks of, is gained with very hard effort, and no sadhaka can afford to lose heart in the attempt. It is declared in the scriptures on yoga that the only thing that works, and succeeds, in this noble endeavour is persistence. If we go on persistently doing a thing – again and again, whether we succeed or not – we will succeed eventually.