by Swami Krishnananda
We have been studying the psychological character of the practice of pratyahara, and there are certain psychological reasons behind the need for the withdrawal of the senses. The satisfaction which the senses seem to bring us is not really satisfying. No one is satisfied through the senses. Every day we have the same hunger, every day we have the same type of needs. Every day we go on bathing and bathing, and still the body is dirty, as it can never become pure. Whatever is our need of today is also tomorrow’s need, and endlessly the same needs continue. Not only this, desires get intensified when they are fulfilled. This is the speciality of the satisfaction of any sensory desire. The weaker desires become strong when they are pampered. As a consequence of their satisfaction, the senses crave for a repetition of the enjoyment. The cravings become so clamorous that, like a parent with many naughty children, life itself becomes difficult and one would not know in the end what to do with them.
The consequence of the satisfaction of desire is further desire—contrary to what we expect. What we expect out of the fulfilment of a desire is satisfaction, but what really happens is further desire for the same satisfaction to be repeated endlessly. Where is the satisfaction if the craving is never going to come to an end? Endless are the avenues of the expression of the senses. This is the reason why we cannot satisfy them permanently. What the senses seek is a permanency in their joy, but like the depths of the ocean which we can never reach, the senses cannot reach the depths of desire. They seem to have no end at all. We go on plumbing deeper and deeper into the desires through satisfaction, and we will not find any end for them.
We may be wondering why it is like that. Why should it be that the desires seem to be endless? They seem to be endless because ultimately they are rooted in an eternity of Reality. They spring from an eternity of background within us, and they crave for nothing but the Eternal. Due to their diversification in the world of space and time, they go astray like rivers that get lost in the desert. Yet, the origin of these desires as well as the destination of these desires is Eternity. The propelling force is ultimately Eternity, and that which summons them to satisfaction is also the Eternal. They seem to have an eternal impetus and an eternal craving. Though this is the original presupposition of the rise of all desire, the way in which they work is in actual fact temporal, contrary to the character of Eternity. There is therefore a conflict between this eternal urge within and the nature of the enjoyment through sense in the temporal world. The urge is infinitely pressed forward, an infinitude of urge is felt within for enjoyment, and no limit for satisfaction or joy could be present in this context of eternity.
Yet, ultimate fulfilment cannot be achieved. Final fulfilment is impossible to achieve because of the playing out of these desires in the context of the diversity of things in space and time. The infinitude of urge is because of the principle of Atman—the universal divine reality that is at the background of all things—that is pressing the urge forward. The propelling force is the universal within us, but when it is manifested through the mental and the sensory level, it becomes a channel which is scattered in different directions.
The temporal and the eternal come together in the fulfilment of a desire, and this is the reason that with every desire we have a conflict within us. The conflict between the eternal and the temporal goes on like this. The eternal never allows us to keep quiet, and we are always asking for more and more. On the other hand, the temporal does not satisfy us at all. We are in this samsara, as we call it, which is the world of unending desires which seek for eternal satisfaction. Yoga psychology contends that the consequence of the fulfilment of a sensory desire is dissatisfaction and not satisfaction.
Another reason mentioned is that we are always anxious when we are able to fulfil a desire. “Will I be able to fulfil this desire or not?” is a question that we raise even prior to our attempt to satisfy it. “Can I get this? How can I get it?” is the idea harassing us always. We may not get sleep for many days until the desire is about to be fulfilled. Anxiety precedes satisfaction, but then anxiety continues with satisfaction. “Oh, how long will this continue? I must not be robbed of this satisfaction!” When the satisfaction goes, we know where we are. “Oh, it has gone. I am dead,” and the heart sinks.
Where do we stand then? In the beginning we were unhappy, in the middle we are unhappy, and in the end also we are unhappy. This is what desires do to us. The anxiety attending upon desire is another reason for our withdrawal of the senses in yoga. The third reason mentioned is the impression created by the desires—samskaras as they are called. Vasanas is another word used in a similar way. Every desire when it is fulfilled creates an impression in the mind, and impressions are like a groove formed on a phonograph record. We know when a groove is formed, it is capable of reproducing the very same impulse for satisfaction again and again. With a record album we can go on replaying the song again and again once it has been recorded in the studio.
The samskaras are grooves formed in the mind by the experience of a sensory satisfaction. These grooves are permanently there, and they go on replaying the ‘tune’ again and again, so that we will never forget the memory of our enjoyment. These memories persist through life—even through many incarnations. Unfulfilled desires buried inside us in the form of impressions or grooves formed in the mind are the reason for rebirth. They do not enhance our well-being—quite the contrary. The repetition of enjoyment is insisted upon, not merely by the conscious memories that we retain in our waking lives, but also by the unconscious impulses that may be within us on account of grooves formed without our knowledge.
Due to the undesirable consequences of desire, due to the anxiety that is attending upon every satisfaction, due to the samskaras or impressions formed out of desire, and finally due to the very structure of the rajasic and tamasic properties of prakriti, we have difficulties with these things. The enjoyment of sense is a temporary manifestation of what we call the sattva guna of prakriti. Where there is sattva there is satisfaction, where there is rajas there is distraction, and where there is tamas there is torpidity. Whenever we are happy, exhilarated, refreshed or roused into a mood of joy, a temporary manifestation of sattva is there in our minds. By sattva we mean a tranquil condition of the mind where the desires cease. The desires are like winds that blow over the surface of the lake of the mind, and when these winds blow vehemently, the waters are scattered hither and thither. When this happens, the lake of the mind is disturbed and we are disturbed, because we are the mind for all practical purposes.
When the mind is disturbed, we are disturbed. When we say, “I am not well, mentally,” the mind is oscillating due to the winds of distraction. Desire is rajas; satisfaction is sattva. What we seek is the cessation of rajas by the satisfaction of desire. That is why we seek satisfaction. Sattva is to predominate rather than rajas and tamas, and so it is that the moment we wake up from sleep—which is the condition of tamas—we are after something. The moment we wake up from sleep, we go running about for the satisfaction of a desire, which means to say that we do not really want to be in a state of tamas or rajas.
That is why we wake up from sleep and then go on running here and there to bring about a cessation of desire. We wake up from sleep because tamas cannot be our real nature, and we want sattva—not tamas or rajas. But how long can we have this sattva through an artificial means? The means adopted by the senses in acquiring this satisfaction by rousing this sattva within is very artificial. It is a makeshift contrivance and only very temporary. When a desire is about to be fulfilled, this is what happens. We may be wondering what is happening. “Why am I happy when I hug my object of desire—what is happening to me?” What is happening, if we clearly think about it, is that our minds are after an object. This means to say the mind has run after that object, which again means that we are not in ourselves. We are away from ourselves because of the desires in our minds. We have studied in our psychological analysis earlier that we are unhappy whenever we are out of tune with ourselves. In every condition of desire, we are out of tune with ourselves. We are in tune with an object, but out of tune with ourselves. In our apparent attunement with an object outside and in every form of the expression of desire, we are away from ourselves. Hence, we are agitated. Whenever there is a desire we are agitated, and the reason is that we are not in our centre. We are to put it properly ‘ex-centric’, and not ‘in-centric’. The mind is out from its centre and tethered to an object outside. That is why when a desire is working, we are terribly upset in our minds.
When the object of our desire comes closer to us, the distance between us and the object which is our desire gets shortened. When an object of desire comes nearer to us, we feel greater and greater happiness. If it is one mile away, it is something, but if it is half a mile away it is better. “Oh, it’s coming—wonderful!” When we see it, we cannot even contain ourselves. We run and embrace it and bring it near to us. When it is very near, the psychological distance between us and the object is shortened, because we are nearer to ourselves. We have been very far from ourselves on account of the moving of our minds towards the object. Now the object has come near, so the chain has got shortened, and we are nearer to ourselves.
Remember what is happening to us. When we are nearer to ourselves, the rajasic condition of the mind begins to cease. We are not in a state of tamas because we are awake, and while we are temporarily in a state of rajas, this unwholesome state is becoming less and less intense on account of the proximity of the object to ourselves. This is the explanation for why we feel happy when an object of desire comes near us. It is not because the object has come near, but because the psychological distance between us and the object has become less, which in consequence makes us become nearer and nearer to ourselves. This is the psychological truth of desire.
When the object is almost one with us, when we have the feeling that it has become a part of us, when it is no more separate from us and is identical with us, the rajas has stopped completely. The mind has no work to do at that time. Why should it work—it has obtained its desire. The rajas has ceased; the psychological distance between us and the object has ceased. The mind has come back to its source, we are in ourselves, and we are absolutely in tune with ourselves. Immediately there is a rousing of joy from within. The joy has come not because of the object coming nearer to us or its being away—this has nothing to do with the joy. We have been under a delusion. The object has only acted as an instrument in ceasing our desire. The object has nothing to do with our happiness.
What has happened is that our rajasic psychological activity has ceased, and in the satisfaction of a desire we are mentally at one with ourselves—though not spiritually at one. The mind has come back to its source, the wind has stopped blowing, the waters of the lake are calm, the inner reality is reflected wholly, and then it is that we are in sattva. The reality which is universal is wholly reflected—though only for the flash of a second—in the calm waters of the lake of our mind, which is now undisturbed on account of the cessation of the wind of desire. Then we say, “Wonderful! How joyful and happy I am!” We are in ecstasy, because we are temporarily at one with the universal within.
But we cannot know what is really happening, because we are so deluded. We think the object contains the joy, though the desire has brought us nothing except by indirectly acting as an agent in bringing about a cessation of the rajasic activity of our minds. Due to our non-discriminating attitude and lack of understanding as to what is happening, we falsely imagine that the object is the source of joy. Again and again we long for that object, and we cannot bear separation from it. We weep when it is away, and we feel miserable when it is destroyed. All this is because the feeling of the mind is erroneous in its imagination that its joy is contained wholly in the object. Our sensory satisfaction is purely psychological and has no basis in fact. There is a kind of oscillation of the mind, working once this way and once that way, on account of the working of the gunas of prakriti in this mysterious manner—the rotation of the wheel of prakriti—sattva, rajas and tamas. Again we must realise the need for the withdrawal of the senses. For all these reasons, pratyahara is called for, and thus pratyahara is absolutely necessary. The withdrawal of the senses is an absolute precondition of our attunement with the Universal—which is satisfaction really, which is bliss and which is Reality.
All this is a difficult job. We have done some analysis and understood some truth about what is happening, but to come to grips with the mind, to handle the situation with iron tenacity, and to deliberately bring the senses back from their meandering to their own source is a difficult task indeed. The senses play tricks of various kinds, they will not easily be subjugated, and they will not yield to our analysis so easily. It may temporarily look like a success, but again the old samskaras will come to the surface and act upon the mind so violently that we will again go for the objects, in spite of our knowing that the objects do not bring satisfaction.
The senses have various methods of avoiding being controlled. These are what we call the defense mechanisms in psychoanalytic psychology. Defense mechanisms of the mind will not allow subjugation so easily. If we apply force, the senses will revolt. If we teach them, they will not understand, and if we tell them, “It is for your own good,” they will say, “No!” These are the ways in which the senses will react when we speak to them. It is a very hard job, as I have said already. Pratyahara is a very difficult step that we are taking. While we may achieve some sort of success in asanas and pranayama, when we come to pratyahara we are at sea, as it were. Here it is that Guru’s grace helps—the proximity of a master, intense study and physical isolation from objects of sense. All these are aids in the practice of pratyahara.
When force is applied on the senses through will power for the sake of controlling them, they hibernate. We know what hibernation is. It is like a frog getting under the rocks in winter and never being visible. At this point there seem to be no senses at all, and it looks as if everything were all right. They will cease working when we apply force, but how long can we apply force? We know that no force can be applied perpetually in any field of life. It is a temporary action to which we take resort. We cannot go on pressing the senses, just as we cannot go on pressing anything in this world forever. When our pressure is released, immediately they will react against us, retaliate and take vengeance. They will come upon us with such vehemence that we will be taken unawares, and we will be in a worse condition than we were earlier. Earlier they were calm and quiet, working according to their own whim and fancy. Now they are angry. “You tried to suppress us. You wanted to destroy us. Now we will teach you a lesson.”
We will be in an awful situation when they take action against us in a vehement manner and take us unawares. This is the difficulty—we will be taken unawares. They will not give us notice: “Tomorrow we are going to attack you.” It is rather an attack without forewarning. Suddenly we will find ourselves in a difficult situation, and generally under pressure there will be a yielding to their force. In most cases, ninety-nine percent of the cases we may say, the person yields. The person may become a nervous wreck when the senses take action through retaliation and vengeance. The pressure that was exerted upon them will now rebound upon the person.