Our senses are so much a part of who we are that it’s nearly impossible to think of ourselves without them. We have sense organs, called “doors” in Buddhism because they admit information, or “sense-objects” — the “guests” in the Rumi poem, “This body is a guest house”. In the Buddhist tradition, thought and emotion — all the “formations” of the mind — are also considered sense-objects, and the mind a sense door, receiving information just as the eyes and ears do. This understanding of the mind has some radical implications.
One of the earliest yoga texts to describe a path of practice leading to liberation is the Katha Upanishad, written a bit before the Buddha (2500+ years ago). In the Katha, a young man visits Death, and receives 3 “boons”, or wishes. His requests are a beautiful map of 3 core elements in spiritual process (and map rather perfectly onto the Buddha’s 3 trainings in ethical action, meditation, and wisdom):
1. to heal personal and relationship difficulties (he asks for his father’s forgiveness)
2. to know energy and the way to practice (he asks for the [inner] sacrificial fire)
3. insight and liberation (he asks how to be free from death)
The first two he is just given. Nice. But the third request causes more friction. Death tries to dissuade him, offering — like Jesus in the desert — wealth, sex, power, comfort. When he persists, he is taught yoga (meditation and inquiry, basically), which is compared to being handed a mirror, i.e. not gift but method. Seeing ourselves clearly turns out to be what leads to freedom from death. This theme is the archetypal yogic path, followed also by the Buddha: fear of death leading to seeking, and the answer being found in what William Blake called “[cleansing] the doors of perception“. The culmination of the Buddha’s method we even call “seeing clearly” (vipassana). The French translation for vipassana is even better: “la vision profonde”. In the Katha, as well as in Patañjali and the Bhagavad Gita, the important limb of practice is called pratyahara, often translated as sense-withdrawal, or more archaically, control. We can call it “coming to our senses”.
I recently put together a “History of Yoga” handout for a group of yoga teacher trainees, and looked at primary texts from the Upanishads to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, touching on many of the greatest hits of the Indian tradition — the Buddha, Patañjali, the Gita, the Shiva Sutras. Really fun to flash through that much amazing history, and to read shimmering verses from so many powerful and wise voices. One thing that jumped out at me reading them all back to back was the centrality in all of them — early or late, “dual” or non-dual, classical or tantric — of pratyahara. Of all the limbs of yoga, this one most directly expresses the understanding that both our confusion and our task as seekers of freedom hinge primarily on perception.
Why would the senses be singled out as the field in which the important stuff happens? If we, as the Buddha did, include the mind/heart as sense doors, then “the senses” becomes another way of saying “everything”. Can you identify anything as existing or happening in any way except the subjective activities of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching/sensing, or feeling/thinking? It’s a deeply phenomenological way of understanding our world, and turns out to be one of the most useful. We suffer when our relationship with things and people becomes challenging, when we’re not at ease with what’s happening — by wanting pleasant experiences to come, stay, and increase, and the unpleasant to not come, decrease, and go away. When this wanting is strong, we feel like we need the world (and ourselves) to be a certain way, and we’ve been complaining about how much it sucks that we can’t make this happen since we were about two.
Western philosophy has spent 2500 years trying to prove whether we (and things) exist — which turns out to be rather difficult! (After all, how can we know we’re not just experiencing the Matrix right now?) But why does proving existence matter? In both the West and East the problem begins in the same place: we’re haunted. By death and the unknown, of course, among other secondary fears and doubts, and certainty, or something reliable (like knowing I exist), is a refuge we long for. And the diagnosis is largely similar, West and East: our distress is rooted in misperception, and seeing more clearly is the answer. Plato’s cave is about misperception (the subjective side of the problem), and describes the same end result the yogis would: freedom and happiness once we escape the cave and see things clearly. Kant’s “thing in itself” takes on the same problem, but from the object side of the equation — we can’t know fully the true nature of things. We can’t, because we’re bound by the nature of our own senses: there’s too much me in me to see it, or you clearly. The philosophers rock a fierce inquiry, but lack methods for practice, and it’s in practice that the potential for freedom lies.
The yogis add that all-important piece. Plato claims that rational inquiry is enough to bring the prisoner (us) out of the cave and into real life. Maybe it worked for him. But most folks I know need a more embodied practice to show us how to unwind the tangled skein of perceptions and projection. And the practice is pratyahara, which we can make very simple by calling it “pause and notice” — or perhaps with heavy irony, “stop and frisk”! The problem with sense perceptions is that our habits of relating to what we sense are thick and very, well, habitual. It’s very difficult — especially in a heated moment — to see through the perception of solidity and meaning to the layer of bare sense data. But it is in that layer of perception in which we are not caught up in stories about what we are experiencing that we can see clearly what’s at play: the traces of the object “itself” (some play of light, form, solidity, sound, etc.), and our own habits to interpret, squirm, resist, and otherwise dance around what’s right in front of our eyes.
The classical practice of pratyahara asks us to “draw in” our senses. One way I feel this is to draw in the threads of energy I send out in the world to tangle with things, people, places, and which bind me to them. The first step is to draw those threads in, not leaning out to grab onto sights and sounds, and it can feel like a gesture of separation: “I am taking care of myself right now, no one else.” When we close our eyes in meditation or the beginning of yoga class, we’re doing pratyahara. “This is my time, my space, and my process is my own.” I let go of other concerns, temporarily, as a training in self-sufficiency and focus. This drawing in is a necessary training to whatever extent we are entangled or merged with the external — a job, relationship, or situation of any kind. Once I’ve settled my habitual reaching out, my task becomes to see (and hear, and sense, etc) more clearly, teasing out what’s happening inside and outside; what’s physical, what’s emotional, what’s relational.
Interestingly, this phase of pratyahara means I turn my attention to my senses and allow them to brighten. I get curious. If I’m doing a focused task, like meditative concentration or a work task, I let all my senses become absorbed in the single object at hand. If I’m attending to something more complex, like a relationship interaction, I let my senses become curious and awake to the whole situation, seeing and feeling the person in front of me not as just a marker for all my memories and associations about them, but as a new human being, not the same one I knew yesterday or all my life. I feel also all the threads of story and self that arise in me as we interact, and I know which is which. Pratyahara not only trains the senses to let go of distraction and focus, but it brightens them into more receptive instruments. We come to our senses.
Pausing is the first and best tool for this in daily life. Stopping the momentum of responding with words or action to something that’s happening is not only the best way not to put your foot in your mouth, but opens up the necessary space in which seeing can happen. Habitual response is rooted in survival instinct, which necessarily moves faster than thought. Considered response — in a non-life-and-death situation — allows us to notice the various threads of impulse present and choose which to follow. Situations brighten considerably when we see them as fresh, strange, unfamiliar, rather than as the same old same old. The Buddha puts it this way in the teaching to Bahiya, a passionate seeker who has asked to be taught that which leads to happiness and well-being:
“Herein, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: ‘In the seen will be merely what is seen; in the heard will be merely what is heard; in the sensed will be merely what is sensed; in the cognized will be merely what is cognized.’ In this way you should train yourself, Bahiya.
“When, Bahiya, for you in the seen is merely what is seen… in the cognized is merely what is cognized, then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘with that.’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘with that,’ then, Bahiya, you will not be ‘in that.’ When, Bahiya, you are not ‘in that,’ then, Bahiya, you will be neither here nor beyond nor in between the two. Just this is the end of suffering.”
Seeing clearly the objects of the senses as “merely what is seen (heard, sensed, thought…)” strips them of story and identity, allowing us to unmerge, to un-project. Neither “with that” (stuck in a fixated subject-object relationship) nor “in that” (stuck in an identity in relation to something) nor stuck in any place — “neither here nor beyond nor in between the two”. That’s it. So much space opens up! So much possibility for choice — for an appropriate response — opens up. Playwright Erik Ehn says: “To be in one place, and no other, we must be absolutely available.” And e.e. cummings caps his majestic gratitude poem with these words: “(now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened)”. To see/hear/sense/taste/smell/think clearly is to receive the world fully. Pratyahara is a training in intimacy because it teaches us to see things as they are, not as we think they should be. And that clarity, though cold comfort when we’d rather hide in fantasy, turns out to be the end of suffering.
May we see clearly.