“When the mind follows the wandering senses, then it carries away one’s discrimination, as the wind does a ship on the water.
Therefore, O mighty-armed Arjuna, knowledge is steady in one whose senses are completely restrained from sense-objects.
That which is night to all beings, in that the self-controlled one is awake; when all beings are awake, that is night for the Muni (sage) who sees.
One attains peace when all desires enter as waters enter the ocean which, filled from all sides, remains unmoved; but not the one who is full of desires.
That one attains peace who, abandoning all desires, moves about without longing, without the sense of mine and without egoism.
This is the Brahmic seat (eternal state), O son of Pritha. Attaining to this, none is deluded. Being established therein, even at the end of life, one attains to oneness with Brahman.” —Bhagavad-Gita 2:67-72
In today’s meditation exercise, we were actively seeking to be not only aware of the senses and the sensations coming through the senses, but to withdraw from them. We aimed to have the body in a relaxed posture, still, quiet, and when sensations emerged on the body to not respond to them, but to simply let them be.
This passage from The Bhagavad-Gita explains how when the wandering senses attract the mind, it carries away our discrimination. In other words, we become identified; we lose awareness.
For example, in meditation today, if you felt an itch and you scratched it impulsively, mechanically, in that moment you become identified, you forgot that you were supposed to be concentrating, meditating. The mind is drawn by the senses to perform an action. Then you have to question yourself: who is in charge of your life? Your willpower or your body? If the body has an itch or a discomfort and you keep scratching it, you automatically do whatever the body demands, then the body is in charge of your life. It is saying, “Hey! scratch me” and you do. This means that the willpower, the consciousness, is enslaved by sensations. Your consciousness is not in charge.
If you observe your life and your behavior from day-to-day, you will see that this is the condition of humanity. We feel the urge for sugar and we cannot control it, so we eat it. We feel the urge for fried potatoes, for chocolate, for sex, for TV, for going here, for going there, for eating this or drinking that … from sensation to sensation. We feel the urge to feel angry, to have the sensations of anger or to feel the sensations of shame, of depression, and, unaware of this, we go right along with each of those urges, following each of those sensations as slaves. Drawn like a boat driven by the wind… and we suffer. This is the condition of humanity.
In esotericism we call this a state of "sleep," where the consciousness — unaware of its true nature — is being drawn along without any cognizance of what’s happening. Each time it acts on anger and acts on lust and acts on pride, it deepens its conditioning and deepens its suffering. This is why our situation is as grave as it is.
Part of the purpose of learning to meditate is to become aware of the power of the senses and to learn to control them. It is important to learn to become cognizant of the perceiver who is utilizing the senses. Right now we are not aware of that. You might be aware of it in the moment that I am telling you about it, but for most of your life you have not been aware that you are seeing through your eyes and hearing through your ears. You might have the idea of it, but you have not actively observed it, noticed from moment-to-moment that the visual information is coming through the eyes, being translated in the brain and sent into your mind where it is interpreted and given meaning. The same happens with sound, touch, taste and smell.
From all of the senses, there is a lot of information coming in all the time, but we are not aware of that process, we are not conscious of it. Instead, we simply react to pleasant and unpleasant sensations, always seeking the pleasant ones, always avoiding the unpleasant ones, and because of that we fall into illusion, thinking “If I can acquire enough of this pleasant sensation, I will finally be happy. If I can merge myself with that pleasant thing then I can avoid the unpleasant things and I will finally be happy…”
But it never happens. It never has happened to anyone in history … ever … and it never will because it is an illusion. It is impossible!
Pleasure and pain are two sides of the same phenomenon. As long as we are identified with that phenomenon, we will suffer. The pursuit of pleasure creates pain. This is the nature of what is called “maya”, illusion, it is not reality. This is what we need to learn … how to break that cycle, how to come out of it, how to not have the mind drawn by the senses. This is the purpose of Yoga, the purpose of religion: to train the consciousness to “be,” so that it is no longer identified with either pleasure or pain, but sees them both in the same way: without attachment, fear, aversion, craving.
To learn this, the first thing we have to learn is concentration.
“Without wise concentration of thought, the experience of the truth is impossible." —Samael Aun Weor, Spiritual Power of Sound
"..concentration is the first and foremost thing a sadhaka or aspirant should acquire in the spiritual path." —Swami Sivananda
If you have studied meditation, you will have heard about the importance of concentration. It is the thing you learn; it is the first practice you are given. Students are taught to observe their breath, visualize a deity, repeat a prayer, repeat a mantra, visualize a yantra, focus attention on a dot, focus attention on a sound, etc. All these types of practices help us to develop a continuity of perception. This is really what concentration means: a continuity of perception.
In the exercise we did before the lecture today, we gave you instructions and something to concentrate upon. So now reflect on your experience of that exercise, and think about this for a moment. How long were you able to sustain concentration before you became distracted? 1 breath, 2 breaths, 3 breaths, a minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes? Was the length of time that you were aware and concentrated short or was it long? Were you distracted more of the time and daydreaming more of the time or were you concentrated more of the time? Were you aware of yourself the entire time?
For most beginners, you may have been aware for a few seconds right when the exercise began, but then the mind assails us with thoughts, and the body surges with sensations, and with all those thoughts, memories, worries, dreams, and sensations, within a few moments of beginning the practice we are off in dreamland, not meditating but daydreaming, thinking about this, thinking about that, and then we feel a discomfort in the body so we are trying to adjust, or scratch, or stretch our arm or stretch our leg, so that after 20 minutes or half an hour we stop and we think, “Ah! I’m done. I’ve meditated. Good for me,” when in truth 99% of the time we were completely distracted, not aware of what we were doing, not aware of ourselves. In other words, our psychological state was as it always is: without continuity of consciousness.
Most of the time, our attention is dispersed, dis-integrated, divided, fractioned, split up as it hops about among many distractions: a little bit on our body, and a little bit on the room, and a little bit on the sound from next door, and a little bit in some thoughts that are trickling by, and a little bit about some worries that are bothering us — where attention is dispersed amongst many things and constantly fluctuating. That is why concentration only emerges as a consequence of WITHDRAWING attention from all those distractions. As long as you continue being distracted by the many events in your senses, you will not learn to meditate. Instead, your mind will remain deeply divided, distracted, dis-integrated. Your attention will be shallow, superficial, unsteady, chaotic.
Contrary to this, when we are in concentration, our attention is on one thing and does not waver, no matter what happens. We remain focused on that one thing. The body might complain, there might be a sound, but we remain concentrated on that one thing, relaxed, focused, unbroken. That is to have concentration, and that is only the beginning of meditation. It is not meditation itself, it is preparation. It is what you need to learn how to actually meditate.
Concentration is simply the ability to place your attention on something and not have it taken away. Every one of us can do it. If I put your favorite show on the TV right now, you will be able to concentrate perfectly well. If you put your favorite song on, or bring a person in who is very attractive to you, you will be able to concentrate very well, without distraction, because a desire is enticing your senses to focus on that thing. Notice how easily you concentrate on your favorite sport, your favorite music, your favorite food: each uses a sensation to draw your attention into that thing. It draws the mind, but in this case it draws the mind into identification with pleasure.
When it comes to God, divinity, or spirituality, we do not feel a desire for that. It doesn’t entice us in the same way. It is harder for us, because we do not have the memory of experiencing those things. We do not recall the truth about our true nature. This is why meditation is hard for us.
The previous course that we gave called Meditation Essentials explains this teaching from Tibetan Buddhism about the stages of shamatha (Calm Abiding, meditative stability or meditative serenity). It simply illustrates nine stages of concentration, from the absolute beginner all the way up to having perfect concentration. Along this winding path are symbols (Panchakamaguna: "five objects of desire") that relate to the senses – touch, taste, sound, sight and smell – because concentration and the senses are intimately related with each other. To study concentration, to understand concentration, we have to understand the senses also. We have to understand how attention is drawn by sensations through the senses, and how to work with that.
We have been explaining the steps of yoga. They are called Ashtanga (“eight-limbed”).
- Yama: self-restraint
- Niyama: precepts
- Asana: posture; relaxation
- Pranayama: harnessing of life force
- Pratyahara: withdrawal from senses
- Dharana: concentration
- Dhyana: meditation
- Samadhi: super-conscious state, blissfulness, ecstasy
In this course so far we have talked about four.
Yama and Niyama are steps one and two.
Yama literally means “self-restraint." It also means “death.” In Hinduism and Buddhism, the god of death is called Yama. That name means “ending, cessation, to stop” and that is why it is also interpreted as “self-restraint.” In step one of yoga, Yama, we stop harmful actions, those actions that condition consciousness, those actions that produce suffering, that produce tension, pain, that cause the mind to be in chaos. If you are continually nurturing your anger and expressing your anger, you are disturbing your mind, your body, your heart and everybody around you. To have serenity, meditation, you have to stop that behavior.
To experience meditation, you have to stop acting out on your negative emotions – anger, lust, envy, fear, greed, gluttony, avarice, selfishness of all types. This is what Yama is about: restraining the ego, not letting the ego rule your behaviors. If someone is not doing that, they can never practice real Yoga, ever. That’s why we say most people do not know what Yoga is. Most people will go to what they call “Yoga” and they will stretch their body, but while they are doing that they are actively engaged in their pride, feeling superior to others, and their vanity, very vain about their appearance. They are very engaged with their lust, seeking to have others lust after them, or lusting after others… They are very engaged with their envy, wishing they had the body of the instructor, etc… With these behaviors, they are not reducing their negative qualties, they are fortifying them: strengthening pride, lust, building attachment to things that are impermanent and unreliable, like the physical body. They are building desire, so they are not performing the first step of Yoga which is Yama – to restrain the ego, to renounce the ego.
In the step of Niyama we adopt better behaviors. We adopt ways of living and behaving that are beneficial to the consciousness. So these include things like studying the scripture, studying divinity, practicing meditation and adopting other types and ways of behaviour that facilitate our goal, which is to achieve Yoga.
In the third step, Asana, we learn to relax. This is its chief function: to place the body in a position in which it can be perfectly relaxed for meditation.
Our Asana, our posture has to become perfectly still. Not even a fluttering eyelid … perfectly still … The body is a vessel that is conditioning the consciousness. As long as it keeps moving, it keeps drawing our attention to the senses. Remember how the senses draw the mind like a boat on the waters? If you want to escape the body, then the body must become still, motionless.
Once that relaxation and posture is established, then you begin practicing Pranayama. This literally means “to harness the life force.” Pranayama is a very rich word that has a lot of implications and we have explained that in a previous lecture, but in the context of a single meditation session it means that we do an exercise to cultivate energy and direct energy. So we did that today in our practice. We did some breathing and visualization to draw energy into the brain and send it into the heart. That was a Pranayama practice.
The most important thing to know about Pranayama is that if we have no energy in the body then there is nothing to harness. Most of us waste our energy constantly. To access Yoga we need to be conserving energy, saving energy, storing it, not wasting it. Any action, any act that we want to perform in the world requires energy and the greatest thing we can do is to awaken consciousness and develop the soul. That requires an enormous amount of energy. So if we are wasting energy in foolish actions, in ridiculousness, then when we sit to do our Pranayama we won’t have anything to harness.
These four preparations build the foundation for meditation. They are what let us stabilize our lives so that when we sit to meditate we can actually start to achieve it. We have a chance of achieving it. If these are not actively engaged in our life we will never learn Yoga or how to meditate.
The fifth step is Pratyahara. This is the subject of today’s lecture.
Pratyahara: (Sanskrit प्रत्याहार) Literally, “withdrawal, draw back, retreat”
Pratyahara literally means “withdrawal." It means to take the attention out of the senses. So reflect on yourself in this moment. You are in your body perceiving through your senses.
We always talk about five primary senses. They are very obvious – touch, sound, taste, sight, smell – and now just for a moment, just as an experiment, take your attention out of all five. (A pause as the instructor allows students to do this). Can you do it? Well, you are still hearing me. You are still hearing me and you are still feeling your body. You might be able to close your eyes, but if I say chocolate, can you see chocolate? If I say monkey, can you see a monkey? There is a sixth sense, which is visualization, imagination. If I say mother and father, do you see images? Can you withdraw attention from those images also?
Pratyahara is a state of perception in which the consciousness is withdrawn from the senses. Reflect on this practice that we did today. The exercise was to relax, concentrate and to withdraw into the perceiver – to withdraw from thoughts, to withdraw from sensations on the physical body, to withdraw from emotions, from images, from dreams, from memories and to withdraw into the one who sees. Not what is seen, but the one who sees. As a concept it sounds simple, if maybe a bit mystical, but as something that is done through action, it is not so simple because our senses are very strong conditioning on the consciousness. The sense of touch is undeniable, it is a very strong conditioning. Hearing is a very strong conditioning. Sight as well. Maybe smell and taste are not so strong right now, but if I put a big plate of food right in front of you and you are really hungry, that sense is hard to control, especially if you haven’t eaten for a day or two. The sense of smell and the sense of taste are very hard to control. The mind is very engaged through those senses.
Pratyahara is a state of consciousness where the consciousness has withdrawn from the senses and is centered within itself. This is why all of the previous steps are so important. With self-restraint (Yama) we are drawing the consciousness out of its addiction to harmful sensations. We are stopping the habits through which we create suffering – anger, lust, envy, pride, etc. All of those are rooted in sensations. We are not aware of that. Lust is an easy example to see. Lust, on the surface, appears to be a physical need related to sexuality, but in fact in us it is psychological, not physical. Lust is a psychological addiction, not a physical need. The body is only responding to the impulses of the mind. On its own, our instinctual drive for procreation should only arise seasonally, not daily.
Our other defects are similar: anger afflicts the body only because the mind suffers from anger. Pride is a psychological affliction that is related to sensations that we experience physically, emotionally and mentally. Pride is a psychological sensation of feeling better than others and that reflects into the sensations we feel in the body. It makes us feel a bit high, a bit excited, puffed up and that is an addictive experience, but entirely negative. Envy is the same. Fear, is also an addiction. What do you think stress and anxiety are? None of us really realize this, but we create anxiety because we like it. We become used to feeling stressed and so we are always creating new ways of being stressed. It is absurd, but we do it.
Through self-restraint and precepts, the first two steps of Yoga, we are learning to become aware of those things and to stop them, adopting behaviors that stop that. Through posture and relaxation we willfully take control of the body and tell it, “you are going to be still now and relax. You do not need to be running constantly stressed out just because society says that is what is expected of you. That’s a lie. For this next half hour or hour or whatever for my meditation practice I am going to relax." Then with Pranayama we take the energy that otherwise we would be wasting through harmful actions and we dedicate it into something beneficial. We nourish the nervous system and the consciousness itself to prepare for meditation and then we engage in the practice we are performing.
As a beginner, we have a huge range of practices that we can work with. All of them are based on two fundamental skills that need to be developed in addition to the ones I have already explained. The first one is concentration, the ability to place attention on one thing and have it remain there. The second is visualization, the power of imagination, to have the ability to imagine something and hold that image. Those two skills in combination with each other are what lead to meditation. So in developing concentration and imagination in a unified way, the only way you can really do that is if you withdraw attention from everything that distracts it … the senses. If you are sitting in meditation trying to concentrate on visualizing something but you are distracted by somebody talking down the hall, or some music, or the train going by, sounds from your room mates or your neighbors, you will never learn to meditate. But if you are able to place attention rigorously and hold it there on your visualization, you will eventually access a state of consciousness in which your concentration is placed, it is steady and everything in the senses becomes abstract. You might hear that sound, you might feel a breeze or the rumble of hunger, or a discomfort in your body, you might sense a change in temperature, but you will not be distracted by that. Thoughts might flow by, memories might flow by, but your attention remains fixed on the object of meditation. You have accessed what is called Pratyahara. It is a quality of concentration. It is not full concentration, it is the beginning of it.
In Pratyahara, attention is withdrawn from the senses and placed on an object and is starting to be able to stay on it. In other words, the psyche is starting to stabilize. The chaos of the mind is starting to settle. The senses are losing their power to manipulate our attention. We are starting to develop willpower.
Pratyahara is the crux of Yoga. It is the lever. So if you can imagine as an example, when you are trying to climb something that is very high and you are carrying a big weight, a big bag full of rocks, it is going to be hard. It would be smart to get rid of the rocks, to drop them. What are those rocks? Bad habits, addictions, harmful tendencies especially related with lust. If you start dropping those heavy things, those habits, those behaviors, you will become lighter. It will become easier to climb that ladder. You start practicing, climbing the ladder. When the moment comes that you get a grip and you are able to throw yourself up and over, that is Pratyahara in terms of meditation. That state of consciousness, of concentration, is what propels you into the advanced or higher aspects of the practice.
“Dharana and Dhyana come automatically if Pratyahara is perfect." —Swami Sivananda
It is Pratyahara that allows everything else in Yoga to happen.
Dharana is real concentration. Dhyana is meditation itself. Samadhi is ecstasy. All of that happens once you develop Pratyahara.
As beginners this is where we need to focus, the fifth anga, the fifth limb of Yoga: Pratyahara, withdrawal from the senses.
This can be in preparation 24 hours a day. Learn to be in control of how the attention is using the senses all the time.
Those of you who have attended our retreats know that sometimes we teach an experiment where we work with each sense individually. We concentrate on using each sense in isolation. We sit, we open our eyes and look out and we only pay attention to seeing, not focusing on one particular thing, but to see everything that we can see simultaneously. We use the entirety of our vision, all of our peripheral vision, to see everything at once. But notice, if you have tried this experiment, that you if stop to identify one thing or think about one thing, you stop seeing everything else. Instead, you are thinking. To keep seeing, you have to stop thinking, and keep seeing, keep watching. This is something you can only do without thought, without analysis, without distraction, without being engaged in it, without daydreaming, without fantasizing. It is a constant focus. This exercise teaches a lot about how the consciousness works.
To develop Pratyahara, you need the ability to control how attention works through the senses all the time. Be cognizant of how you are using attention and the senses, aware of it, conscious of it and to be choosing how you use it.
This is one of the meanings of the chariot in the Bhagavad gita:
"The whole world is a big battle-field... The battle of Mahabharata is still raging within you... Ignorance (Avidya) is Dhritarashtra [the blind king you are fighting]. The individual [human] soul is Arjuna. The Indweller Who dwells in your heart is Lord Krishna [Christ], the charioteer. The body is your chariot. The senses (Indriyas) are the horses. The mind, egoism, senses, Samskaras (mental impressions), Vasanas (latent tendencies), cravings, Raga-Dvesha (likes and dislikes), lust, jealousy, greed, pride and hypocrisy are your dire enemies." —Swami Sivananda
Yoga is about establishing conscious control over our senses, not only when we are using them, but being capable of withdrawing from them at will.
Pratyahara literally means withdrawal or draw back or retreat and it has to do with how the consciousness works through the body. The information that is flowing into the senses all the time strikes what we call the three brains, the five centers, and it is here that that data or information gets interpreted. The things that we see and hear are processed through the psyche mechanically, automatically. It does not take any effort. For example, everyone here learned English, and you are not thinking about the specific individual words, or the sentence structure, or the paragraph structure of what I am saying. You are capturing the meaning instantly, because of this dynamic that is happening in all of us. It is an automatic process. You are no conscious of using English, or the words, or the sounds.
The problem is that we think that liberation from suffering can also occur automatically, mechanically, but it cannot. Liberation from suffering only happens when we become cognizant of the information that is entering the senses. We start to capture the truth only when the consciousness is fully active from moment to moment. This only happens when the consciousness is active. It cannot happen automatically. If there was some way for human beings to automatically become Masters, Buddhas, Angels, then this whole planet would already be a Paradise, but it is not. This planet in afflicted with incredible suffering … mind boggling suffering because there is no automatic path to become a buddha, angel, a master. It simply does not exist.
To become a master is a work of conscious revolution in oneself – conscious change, conscious knowledge. If someone still has anger or pride or lust, they cannot become a complete master, a perfect buddha, a perfect angel, because those beings do not have pride, envy, lust, anger, greed, gluttony and all those other qualities which we have in abundance. To become such a pure being, we have to become free of those impure qualities. We become free of those impure qualities by awakening consciousness, and to awaken, we need to be conscious of the senses: how the consciousness works through the body, through the senses, and learning to change that mechanical processing of incoming data into a conscious one. We need the body, we need senses, but we need to use them consciously.
“Pratyahara (“withdrawl”) is that by which the senses (indriya) do not associate with their objects, and imitate the nature of the mind-stuff (chitta).” —Yoga Sutras 2:54
We are not consciously aware of how the senses perceive. We have the idea of it, we “know” that our eyes see visually, but we are not aware while perceiving. We are never really conscious of our eyeballs or the brain and its role in interpreting visual data.
We are not aware of how when we see a thing, we put labels on it that are entirely subjective and have nothing to do with reality. If a dog wanders in here, each one of us will interpret our perception of that dog in a different way, based on our past experiences. If you have been bitten by a dog, you will be afraid. If you have had dogs as pets, you will feel happy. If you have never been around a dog, you will feel anxious, uncertain. None of those reactions are real or objective; they are each based on subjective interpretations of perceptions. They are subjective, based on our experiences. Not one of us will be aware of that. The truth is something deeper and can only be captured by the one who is aware, cognizant, actively perceiving and aware of themselves in the process. To see the truth of that dog, the reality of that dog, does not come mechanically or automatically. It cannot. It can only come to the one who actively enters into that experience consciously and acquires something more than the surface level of perception. This is what Pratyahara leads to.
It sounds odd that by withdrawing from the senses you would gain knowledge of the reality, but that is exactly what happens. In our current state we think we are what we see and perceive, and that is our mistake. We think that when we get that meal we have been dreaming of all day that we are going to be so happy when we eat it because we are feeling like that thing is somehow related to who we are and it is our identity. By getting that new outfit, or getting that new car, or getting that new spouse, or getting that new job, that that thing will give us happiness and that it is somehow related to our identity. It is called “identification." We are not aware of our truth. We are identified with the thing we are perceiving through the senses. We think that if we get that new boyfriend or girlfriend, if we have sex with that person, if we get married to that person, that we will finally find happiness because we are thinking mistakenly that we will find our identity in that. Or that if we start doing Hatha Yoga and stretching our body and become very skinny and attractive that people will love us and envy us and we will finally be happy. We are wrong because our identity is not the body. Our identity is not what others think of us. Our identity is not in pleasant on unpleasant sensations. Our identity is the perceiver who currently is unaware of itself, and when the perceiver becomes aware of itself, then it starts to gain real knowledge. This is what meditation is for. By withdrawing from the senses, withdrawing from the body, withdrawing from pride and anger and fear and looking back at the one who perceives, you can start to taste the truth. This takes courage.
We seek for our identity in the body, in our name, in our history, in our language, in our culture, in our religion, and think the “sense of self” they give us is real and through them we will find who we are, but everyone of them are illusions. None of them are reliable or permanent. None of them are our true identity.
When we withdraw from what previously gave us our “sense of self,” it feels scary, it feels new, it feels strange, it feels unusual and that is one of the obstacles that causes many people to leave meditation. They become afraid. The truth is that what we really are is beyond the senses, it is beyond thoughts, it is beyond emotions, it is beyond the mere physical body. It is something very profound: it is the consciousness itself, when unconditioned, and has happiness already. Its innate nature is love. Its innate nature is wisdom, contentment, serenity. It does not need outside things. But because we have not been educated to use the consciousness fully but instead have been taught to enslave it to desires, we do not have the strength of will to access that quality. We have forgotten our true source of identity. So we are always seeking contentment, serenity, happiness in external things: spouses, in jobs, in possessions, etc. Yet, these always disappoint.
Through meditation, by withdrawing from all those illusions that the senses bring to the consciousness, we start to break that identification with illusions so that the consciousness can become aware of itself again. This is what Pratyahara is about: withdrawing from everything outside, and concentrating the fullness of our perception back into itself so that it can see itself. This is what Yoga is about.
The word Yoga comes from a root word in Sanskrit, “Yug”, which means to unite and it implies to unite with truth, to unite with reality. It also implies to restore or to again bring together something that was broken, something that was taken apart. This is exactly the purpose of Yoga. It is to introduce us once again to our true nature. Pratyahara is the crux that allows that to happen.
"The afflictions that prevent Yoga are avidya (ignorance), asmita [egoism], attachment, aversion, and clinging to life." —Yoga Sutras 2:3
Ignorance, avidya, is that of not knowing our true nature. It is not book learning. It is an absence of knowledge. It is the lack of experience about our true nature. Because we do not have that experience, we do not remember the true nature of the consciousness, then the other afflictions emerge – egoism, attachment, aversion and clinging to life. The one we need to talk to about today is egoism.
“Egoism (asmita) is the mistaken identiﬁcation of what is seen with how it is seen." —Yoga Sutras 2:6
That is what we are talking about today. We need to become aware of what we see and how we see it. Because we lack this awareness, we have this condition called “egoism.”
There are two significant words used by Patanjali in relation to the ego: ahankara and asmita. Ahankara is the basis for the sense of “I” as separate from “other.” Ahankara is not a thing, but a condition, a misperception. Yet, it is a very serious one: from it emerges all suffering.
“The seed of mind is Ahankara. Ahankara is development through the thoughts of the mind. As the first thought is the 'I' thought and as this 'I' thought is at the base of all other thoughts, Ahankara is the seed for the mind. This idea of 'I' will bring in its train, the idea of time, space and other potencies.” —Swami Sivananda
Asmita is the condition of mistaking what we perceive as relating to ourselves. It is the mistaken identification or interpretation of what is perceived. So:
“Egoism (asmita) is the mistaken identiﬁcation of what is seen with how it is seen."
Because of ahankara (the sense of “I” as separate) we suffer from asmita: we mistakenly believe that what we perceive affirms the existence of that “I.”
Simply put, we have a false sense of self and a false perception.
When you see several people you know whispering, and they glance at you, immediately you assume they are saying something critical about you. We do not know the facts of what they were saying or about who, but we assume that we know: our pride / shame / anger / fear builds an interpretation of those perceptions, we build an elaborate story in our mind, and we believe the interpretation. It does not occur to us to question it, or think positively of others, etc. or, importantly, to not care what others say about us.
This little example illustrates ahankara and asmita in a gross, obvious manner. The reality however is much more subtle.
At the root of our suffering is a mistaken perception of self. We clutch at a sense of self that has no basis in reality. Our sense of self is an illusion.
We think that this body and the experiences we have had in this body are the entirety of our identity, but we are absolutely wrong. This body is only a fraction of our experiences, but our consciousness is deeply asleep and hypnotized by the data coming in through the senses, whether we are in the body or out of the body. We all dream every night, all night. We do not remember much of those experiences because our consciousness is inactive, asleep. Since during the day we have no cognizance of ourselves, we are also completely asleep and unaware during the night. If we are not awake and aware of ourselves while we are in the body, we are not going to be awake and aware of ourselves when we are out of the body. It is simple! So if you want to be awake and aware in the world of dreams, awaken here and now in your physical body. Become awake and aware here and now, all the time. Become deeply aware of how you are using your body from moment-to-moment. Train yourself to have that continuity of awareness and when you do you will do the same thing out of the physical body in your dreams. You will become cognizant of dreaming. This is how you break this – with cognizance, knowledge. To start experiencing the reality. It doesn’t happen automatically, it only happens through training.
That training hinges on becoming deeply, continually aware of the distinction between the consciousness and what it perceives. How does it perceive? Through its senses, whether physical senses or more subtle senses.
This is why the Bhagavad-gita says,
“When, like the tortoise that withdraws its limbs on all sides, one withdraws the indriya [sensory power, sexual power] from sense-objects, then consciousness becomes steady.
The objects of the senses turn away from the abstinent one leaving the longing (behind); but one's longing also turns away on seeing the Supreme.
The turbulent senses, O Arjuna, do violently carry away the mind of a wise one though one be striving (to control them).
Having restrained them all one should sit steadfast, intent on Me; wisdom is steady in one whose senses are under control.
When one thinks of the objects, attachment for them arises; from attachment desire is born; from desire anger arises.
From anger comes delusion; from delusion loss of memory; from loss of memory the destruction of discrimination; from destruction of discrimination one perishes.
But the self-controlled one, moving among the objects with the senses under restraint and free from attraction and repulsion, attains to peace.
In that peace all pains are destroyed; for the intellect of the tranquil-minded soon becomes steady.
There is no knowledge of the Self to the unsteady and to the unsteady no meditation is possible, and to the unmeditative there can be no peace, and to the one who has no peace, how can there be happiness?” — Krishna, Bhagavad-gita 2:67
Note that to do this, one must recognize the difference between the senses and what is using them. When we are unaware of using the senses, then we are identified, asleep.
In our meditation practice, having already established ethical behavior in our lifestyle, we then learn to relax they body and place it in one position, perfectly still and at rest. Then we focus on the object of our practice, and in that concentration we need to withdraw attention from everything else. You see: we withdraw the consciousness from all the senses, and focus 100% on one thing.
Think about this is this way. If you go outside and you see the sunlight, it is beautiful. The light of the Sun is going everywhere. If you take a lens, like a magnifying glass, and gather the sun’s rays and focus them, you can direct that ray of light to illuminate a dark place, you can even start a fire. The same is true of sound. If there is a person far away from us and we want them to hear us, we cup our hands and shout, and we direct the sound towards that person. This is what we do when we are learning concentration: we are focusing the energy in one place. To do this, we have to withdraw attention from all the senses, from everything else.
If you really want to learn meditation rapidly, focus attention in visualizing. Not on external things, but using your imagination … visualize.
If you have a problem in your life — and I am sure you do, at least one problem — then at night or in the evening sit down, relax, and withdraw attention from all the senses, then place 100% percent of your attention on visualizing that problem. Imagine that problem, contemplate that problem. To for this to become effective, it is essential that you truly withdraw your attention from everything else. Imagine the facts of that problem, the situations related to it, but see it as though it is not your problem. Look at it in a new way. Hold your attention on the images without thinking about them. Do not analyze, assume, theorize… Just visualize and observe. Relax deeper and deeper until you start to evoke a type of drowsiness that you feel when you going to fall asleep, and wait in that doorway of sleep. Don’t fall asleep, but approach dreaming, so that as you are visualizing that problem, new images begin to emerge spontaneously in your imagination. This is how you can start to gain information about that thing. What makes this happen is pratyahara: withdrawing from the senses.
If you have withdrawn the senses from all sense objects, your consciousness becomes very steady; that is Pratyahara. If you hold that state and relax deeper, you will access Dharana, which is concentration on that thing. Everything else will fall away, and that image, that problem that you are trying to comprehend, will become radiantly stable in your imagination. And if you relax deeper and concentrate deeper, you will access Dhyana, and you will have what’s called “an absorption." This is where you become so finely attuned with that object you are meditating upon, that event or that problem, that the “I”, the sense of self (ahankara), is falling away from you. From that you can access what is called “Samadhi." This is where the shell of ego, of identity, releases, and the Soul, the consciousness, becomes liberated for a moment, and can experience and perceive the truth, the reality, without confusion, without the interference of the “I”: pride or fear or anger or lust or any other discursive quality. In that clear perception you can see through that problem to the root of it, to understand it, and to find the answer that you need. All of that can happen in a split second simply by placing attention in the right way and withdrawing from the senses.
This is what Yoga is for. This is what meditation is for. This is how it works, and it is not complicated. We just need the will to do it.
In pratyahara, withdrawl, we are actually starting to "withdraw" from the false sense of self. We can experience a new "sense of self," a realization that the consciousness is something very interesting...
To develop pratyahara, beginners learn basic concentration exercises: by learning to place their attention on one thing, they are learning to focus the rays of attention on that one thing; to do this effectively, it is necessary to withdraw attention from everything else. Success in this effort only requires practice. Anyone can develop preliminary concentration and reach the state of pratyahara. There is nothing supernatural about it: it is a natural function of consciousness.
So, if you want to develop pratyahara, practice focusing attention exclusively on one thing. Do this every day, even several times a day, by sitting still and closing all and even do it while you are active: when you are doing your job, focus completely on your job. Shut off all distractions. Develop concentration and control over your senses.
The Bhagavad-gita says,
“Shutting out all external sense objects, keeping the eyes and vision concentrated between the two eyebrows, suspending the inward and outward breaths within the nostrils, and thus controlling the mind, senses and intelligence, the transcendentalist aiming at liberation becomes free from desire, fear and anger. One who is always in this state is certainly liberated." — Krishna, Bhagavad-gita 5:27-28
This type of teaching is something we have to put into practice rigorously. It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in a day or two days or a week. Like anything in nature, it happens according to the laws. So, if you practice in this way daily, constantly, and you have your will fixed on solving these fundamental problems that are causing suffering for yourself and others, you can radically change them. We have the consciousness, we have access to the teachings that inform the consciousness; all that stops us is the will to do it.
If you reflect on the nature of suffering and if you reflect on the laws of nature, particularly cause and effect, you will see that suffering is optional. If you continue to suffer, it is because you are choosing to behave in ways that produce suffering. To escape suffering is simply a matter of choosing the actions that lead out of suffering … and the chief one is knowledge. Knowledge of one’s self. This is what the Bhagavad-gita is all about … acquiring knowledge of ourselves so that we no longer continue to make the mistakes that have led us into a place of suffering.
Here is a simple exercise you can practice that will help you develop pratyahara:
Meditation Practice: Relax, become still, practice some pranayama. Withdraw from all the senses, to focus within. Then, with each thought, memory, worry, etc. that comes to mind, study its origin, its cause; reflect on its nature: is it a desire, a defect? Then imagine a profound abyss. Throw each studied thought, each memory, worry, etc. into that abyss.
If you are practicing your meditation skills daily, you will eventually understand Pratyahara. It is part of a process of developing your skills in meditation. If you are not accessing Pratyahara and understanding it, then you need to study meditation more closely, the science of it, the particular steps in comparison with how you are living your life. There is no magic to it. There is no inborn skill. No one is particularly talented in meditation. It is not like a sport or a musical instrument. Any one can learn to meditate, just as any one can learn to eat or drink or brush their teeth. Meditation is simply a way of using what you already have. To develop Pratyahara is to learn how use the consciousness through concentration, stability, and withdrawing from the senses. From that you can access all the other states of Yoga that follow. And, if you are not accessing dharana, dhyana, or samadhi, it is because you have not established pratyahara. So: focus on developing pratyahara.