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The Study and Practice of Yoga

An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Chapter 81: The Application of Pratyahara

Abstraction of the mind from the objects for attainment of the spirit is what is known as pratyahara. This is not only a most misunderstood aspect of the practice of yoga but also the most difficult one. Perhaps because of its intricacy it has been misconstrued and, therefore, it has become a painful process. Consequently, one finds oneself in a very awkward position when one reaches this stage. Firstly, there is an inadequate understanding of what is happening and what is required. Secondly, the very first attempt seems to be a very painful one and, therefore, there is a falling of the ardour of the mind with which it commenced its practice.

There is a great amount of doubt in the minds of seekers, even well-informed ones, as to what exactly is intended to be done in this stage known as pratyahara. Is it withdrawal? Many questions arise due to a mix-up of philosophical doctrines, as well as practical difficulties. Some of them are: What is it from which the mind is being abstracted? Is it from the form of the object or from the reality of the object, the very existence of it?

The omnipresence of the spirit should preclude any kind of withdrawal. Also, there is the doctrine of devotion which recognises the presence of God in everything, and the all-pervading characteristic of God would not demand a withdrawal of the mind from anything, inasmuch as God is present everywhere. Next, there is a doubt that the abstraction of the mind may mean a kind of psychological introversion, which is what is objected to by psychoanalysts, because the introverted attitude is the opposite of the extroverted one, and it is equally bad – as bad as the extroverted attitude. Whether we are tied up inwardly or bound outwardly, it makes no difference – anyhow we are bound. And, topping the list there is the painful aspect of it, because it is impossible for the mind not to think of that which it desires. If it is not to think of what it desires, then of what is it to think? What else are we to think – what we don’t like? We are expecting the mind to wipe out the thought of things from its memory, including even those thoughts which it wants and regards as valuable and worthwhile. What else is it to think, if everything is removed from its memory? All these are the difficulties.

Questions of this type all arise because of an improper grounding in a philosophical background, which is the preparatory stage of the practice of yoga. Yoga is a practical implementation of a doctrine of the universe. An outlook of things is at the background of this very technique. This is what is perhaps meant by the oft-repeated teaching of the Bhagavadgita that yoga should be preceded by samkhya. Here the words ‘yoga’ and ‘samkhya’ do not mean the technical classical jargons. They simply mean the theory and the practice. Eṣā tebhihitā sāṅkhye buddhir yoge tv imāṁ śṛṇu (B.G. II.39): “I have talked to you about samkhya up to this time. Now I shall speak to you about yoga,” says Bhagavan Sri Krishna. There should be a correct grasp of what is to be done. This is what we may call the samkhya, or the philosophy aspect. And when we actually start doing it, that is the yoga aspect.

In every branch of learning there is the theory aspect and the practical aspect, whether it is in mathematics, or physics, or any other aspect of study. Here it is of a similar nature. Why is it that the mind is to be withdrawn from the object? The answer to this question is in the theoretical aspect which is the philosophy. What is wrong with the mind in its contemplation on things? Why should we not think of an object? Why we should not think of an object cannot be answered now, at this stage, when we have actually taken up this practice. We ought to have understood it much earlier. When we have started walking, it means that we already know why we are walking and where is our destination. We cannot start walking and say, “Where am I walking to?” Why did we start walking without knowing the destination? Likewise, if our question as to why this is necessary at all is not properly answered within our own self, then immediately there will be repulsion from the mind and it will say, “You do not know what you are doing. You are merely troubling me.” Then the mind will not agree to this proposal of abstraction.

Hence, there should be a very clear notion before we set about doing things; and this is a principle to be followed in every walk of life. Without knowing what is to be done, why do we start doing anything? Even if it is cooking, we must know the theory first. What is it about? We cannot run about higgledy-piggledy without understanding it. The purpose of the withdrawal of the mind or the senses from the objects is simple; and that simple answer to this question is that the nature of things does not permit the notion that the mind entertains when it contacts an object. The idea that we have in our mind at the time of cognising an object is not in consonance with the nature of Truth. This is why the mind is to be withdrawn from the object. There is a peculiar definition which the mind imposes upon the object of sense at the time of cognising it, for the purpose of contacting it, etc. This definition is contrary to the true nature of that object. If we call an ass a dog, that would not be a proper definition; it would be a misunderstanding of its real essence. The object of sense is not related to the subject of perception in the manner in which the subject is defining it or conceiving it.

Hence, the very activity of the mind in respect of this cognising or contacting is misdirected from the very beginning itself. Yoga asks us to set right this notion first; and this setting right of the notion cannot be done unless the mind is first withdrawn from the object. If there is a very serious illness from which someone is suffering, and the illness has come to a crisis, to an advanced stage, we first of all put the patient on a kind of semi-fast and isolate the patient completely from all contact of every kind – social and personal, even psychological – so that there is a proper atmosphere for the investigation and diagnosis. This is the pratyahara – the complete quarantining of the patient, and not allowing any kind of intrusion from outside. Physically and in every sense of the term there should be isolation so that we can have a clear observation of the situation and also a study of the various techniques that have to be adopted for rectifying the mistaken notion that is in the mind. Pratyahara is not yoga proper. Just as the isolation of the patient in a ward is not the main treatment but is a necessary aspect of the treatment, likewise, pratyahara is an essential part of yoga though it is not yet yoga. Yoga is yet to start. For a few days the doctor may not do anything at all and will simply keep on observing what is happening. After days and days of observation, the physician may come to a conclusion as to what is the condition of the patient, and then the treatment will be started. Likewise, the mind is first of all segregated from its involvements. This segregation is pratyahara.

There is a prejudiced notion which the mind entertains in respect of its things, of its objects. This prejudice has arisen on account of a preconceived notion that is already there; and that notion has only one objective in front of it – namely, the exploitation of that object for its purposes. It has got a single intent, a deeply concentrated objective. If a wild beast looks at a prey, it has a single intention, which is not very complicated. Likewise, the mental cognition of an object, especially when it is charged with a forceful emotion, is backed up by a single intent. This is the prejudice, which is very irrational, and it will not be amenable to any kind of rational analysis.

A sentiment or a prejudice cannot be rationally analysed. It will not be subject to analysis, and it will not agree to it either – that is the force that is behind it. So there is a need to completely isolate the mind in its individual aspect as well as its externally related social aspect. The mind may not think of an object when it does not like it. This is one kind of pratyahara. Suppose we are averse to a thing; we will not think of that thing. But this is not yogic pratyahara, because the spontaneous dislike that arises in the mind on account of that particular object being an obstructing factor to its satisfactions is not a healthy condition.

The pratyahara process is a healthy and positive process. It is not brought about by compulsion, or due to certain impediments that present themselves in the form of those things which are other than the ones which are desired by the mind. The mind sometimes does not think of objects when it is not concerned with them. This is another kind of pratyahara, but it is different from yogic pratyahara which is a philosophical withdrawal and not a negative kick that the mind receives or a complete oblivion or ignorance of the presence of a thing. It is a conscious attitude, and nothing unconscious should be allowed to interfere with it. We are aware of everything that is happening in the process of pratyahara. We are not ignorant of any aspect, and are not unconscious of anything. Even the things that we like and the things that we do not like – both these are objects of analysis. The withdrawal is not merely from the negative side of experience – namely, the objects which one does not like – but also from the positive objects which one really likes. Both the likes and the dislikes of the mind are two aspects of an involvement, and what pratyahara endeavours to accomplish is precisely the relief of the mind from involvement. Involvement is a kind of illness that has taken possession of the mind, from which it has to be freed, of which it has to be cured. Whether we have a positive like for a thing or a negative dislike for a thing, we are equally involved in either case. And both these are defects – very serious impediments from the point of view of yoga.

Why this involvement has taken place, and what is the defect that is there behind it, cannot be understood as long as the mind is impinging upon the object and clinging to it. The proper direction of the mind in a requisite manner can be effected only in a higher stage, which is called dharana, or concentration. But prior to this there is the need for bringing the mind back from the wrong direction that it has taken. Before we direct it in a proper way, we have to bring it back from the improper way it has taken. This is the meaning of pratyahara – the mind has taken a wrong direction of action, and so we have to bring it back from that direction. It has taken a wrong course, and after we bring it back to the point from where it started on the wrong course, we direct it on a proper course.

The bringing of the mind back from its improper course is pratyahara, and the directing of the mind in a proper course is dharana, concentration. We can now appreciate the necessity for pratyahara. When you are persistently doing something wrong, and I expect you to do the right thing, first I would enlighten you as to the mistake that has been committed, and then inform you about the way of rectifying the situation: stop doing that which is improper, and then start to do that which is proper. The cessation of doing that which is improper is pratyahara, and the actual doing of the thing which is proper is dharana. But, as I mentioned, this is a painful process. Though we may philosophically argue with the mind that it has taken a wrong direction, it will not listen to this argument because it has got involved emotionally in that particular object towards which it is moving in a wrong manner. Though it is wrong in an ultimate sense, it also has to be noted, with sympathy in respect of the mind, that it has become one with the object due to its recognition of a peculiar twisted value in that object, for the purpose of the fulfilment of which it is moving towards it. There is a need for viveka, a proper understanding of the whole circumstance under which the mind has got involved in this manner. Then only is it possible to wean the mind from the object and bring it to the point of right concentration, which is real yoga.

The pain involved in pratyahara is the result of a love that the mind has for that object towards which it is wrongly moving. Inasmuch as the direction which the mind has taken towards the object is wrong, the affection that it has towards the object is also wrong, and the pleasure that it derives from the object is also a misconstrued, misconceived idea. There is some complete topsy-turvy effect that has taken place on account of a basic error in the total attitude of the mind towards the object. In an earlier sutra we have studied that, to the discriminative, all is pain in this world: duḥkham eva sarvaṁ vivekinaḥ (II.15). It is to the understanding spirit and to the mind that the painful aspect of a thing is made clear. But to an unclear mind, this painful aspect will not become obvious. Who can ever believe that the objects of sense are made, or constituted, in a manner quite differently from the way in which they are seen by the eyes?

The belief in the concrete structure of an object and the stability of its position is so intense that any kind of contrary philosophical analysis will not be appreciated by the mind at that moment of time. Thus, while there is a need for a rational force of mind in the bringing of the mind back from the object, there is also a need to consider the emotional aspect, which should not be completely forgotten, because the mind is made up of various aspects. Thinking is not the only aspect of the mind. It has the aspect of feeling, and there is the aspect of will. They all work together in connivance. When the mind thinks wrongly about an object, the will also works wrongly in respect of that object and confirms that thinking, and then the feeling charges it with the requisite force. It is like dacoits coming together; though they move in a wrong direction, they have a force of their own, so it is difficult to encounter all of them at once without proper precaution. The force that is behind the wrong activity of the mind is the emotion, and unless this force is withdrawn, we cannot check that activity.

Thus, in the effecting of the pratyahara or the abstraction of the mind from the objects, we have to consider the thinking aspect, the willing aspect and also the feeling aspect. What are we thinking about that object towards which we are moving? What is the amount of will that we have exercised in fulfilling our wish? What is the deep-seated feeling that we have got in respect of it? All these three have to be isolated threadbare, if possible. The thinking, the willing and the feeling, though they all work together almost simultaneously, are three different aspects, and they can be pulled out independently like threads from a cloth. The most difficult thing to tackle is feeling, and less difficult to encounter is the will, and still less is the aspect of thinking. Therefore, in the beginning, it would be to the advantage of the seeker to analyse the easier aspect – namely, the thinking aspect. What are we thinking about that object? Why did we go towards it? What is our intention behind it? Then we can go to the other aspect, which is the will. We have a determination for the purpose of confirming the attitude that we have adopted on account of a thought in respect of that object. But the deepest aspect of it is the emotion – the feeling.

No pratyahara can be effective unless all these three aspects are properly analysed and isolated from the nature of the object. Though the mind may not be thinking about the object, there may be feeling towards it; then there is no pratyahara. Not only that – the thinking, willing, feeling aspect has also a subconscious element in it, which also is to be probed into before complete mastery is gained. There may be a subtle restlessness at the time of the effecting of this practice. That restlessness may be due to the presence of a subconscious like for that very object from which the mind has been consciously withdrawn, which aspect is pointed out in a verse of the Bhagavadgita: rasavarjam rasopy asya paraṁ dṛṣṭvā nivartate (B.G. II.59). The mind and the senses appear to be withdrawn from the objects of sense in pratyahara, it is true. But how do we know that the mind and the senses have no taste for the object? Hence, pratyahara is not merely a physical isolation or even a conscious disconnection of oneself from the object, but is an emotional detachment that is necessary – wherein alone is it possible to have no taste for a thing. The taste may go to the feeling; and as long as the taste is present, there is every possibility of the other aspects rising once again into action. As long as the root is there, there is every chance of the sprout coming up one day or the other.

Complete pratyahara is not practicable unless an aspect of concentration and meditation is combined with it. The positive side should also be brought into the role of the practice, to some extent at least. Just as in medical treatment, together with the particular prescription for the treatment of the illness we also give a constructive tonic so that there may not be a deleterious effect of the weakness of the system on account of an intensive treatment, likewise we have to be very cautious in dealing with the mind – that in withdrawing the mind from objects, we are not merely focused on the aspect of withdrawing. We are not only emptying the mind and giving nothing else with which to fill it. There can be a parallel filling of the mind with a positive content, together with the emptying of it. Then the painful aspect of it will be mitigated to a large extent. We are not going to merely starve the mind and give it nothing. That would be a very difficult thing to stomach. Together with this starvation and the emptying or vacating of the mind gradually by detaching it from its usual objects of contact, it can also be positively filled with the content of dharana, whose winds will start blowing, gradually, with their own fragrance and solacing message, together with this deeper preceding stage of pratyahara or withdrawal.

With this, the Samadhi Pada of the Yoga Sutras concludes. From the Vibhuti Pada onwards, we are given a passport to enter into the inner realm of yoga, which is concentration, meditation, and communion with the noble, great object of meditation. The Vibhuti Pada begins with dharana, or concentration of mind. Deśa bandhaḥ cittasya dhāraṇā (III.1): The fixing of the attention of the mind on the given object – wholeheartedly, spontaneously and entirely – is called concentration.