In the spirit of Pratyaahaara and Meditation

I have a few friends that love nothing more than to go scuba diving – preferably on the Maldives, Seychelles or some other island group with lots of sunshine. When I ask them about their fascination with diving it isn’t so much the sunny beaches (nice too of course) but the peace and quiet that they experience under water. Sure, the diversity of the fauna too is mentioned – but more as an add-on.

The main reason for diving seems to be the sense of quiet, of floating. When they mention that, my reaction is always the same: “you can have that for free, every day, as often as you want or need, right here.” Upon their quizzical look, I simply tell them: “meditate”. The reaction to that? – “Oh, I can’t do that. It is not for me. My mind is way too active.” – Hm. Besides this often heard answer, a friend the other day voiced another very important concern regarding meditation.

Is meditation outside of reality?

Her question was: “Doesn’t meditation make one lose sight of reality?” – The short answer to this very real concern is a clear and definite “No”. The contrary is actually the case. True meditation lets you experience absolute reality.

In any event, in the beginning stages it is more a matter of withdrawing one’s outer senses – i.e. of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling. This is what Patañjali calls Pratyaahaara. First, though, as an example let us consider the following situation:

Example of shutting out the outer world

You are sitting at the Airport, waiting to board a plane for a 10 hour flight when a young mother comes along with a carriage and a BABY. Now, you can literally see the thoughts going through the minds of all the other passengers: “please, I love babies, but please do not let me be the one to sit close to it”.

I mean, most people certainly claim to love babies; after all, there is no reason not to. But on a 10 hour flight?! There you are, thinking that you would use the flight time to read, write prepare for your business meeting the next day or simply just relax.

So far this is an everyday situation that most of us have encountered one way or the other. Now, let’s assume you actually are the lucky one to sit close to Mom and baby. What is to be done? You have a hard time to concentrate. So you think “I’ll just put some earplugs in my ears, and I’ll be fine.” Hm. Still, you find, you are not really able to concentrate your thoughts on the report at hand. The reason is you feel cold. So you begin to wrap yourself up in a blanket. Better? – Well, not really. The baby is beginning to play around with its mom and is waving its little arms around. And of course your eyes keep getting distracted by the movements going on to your left. So you think, “what the heck, I’ll at least try and get some sleep.” So you add a blindfold to the earplugs and the blanket.

By now you have more or less successfully shut down 3 of the 5 senses that let you experience the external world. So, little by little, and normally totally unconscious of what one is doing, the outer reality is being forcibly shut out.

But hey, wait a minute. What is this smell? Oh ooh. Has the baby just pooped? – If you do not want to add a nose peg to your list in order to shut out the world, it is high time you consider alternatives.

A first conclusion drawn

It really is interesting, isn’t it? We use all sorts of instruments to make us feel cosier, more able to concentrate or to relax.

However, looking like a mummified freak does not help you read that report or arriving at your destination feeling refreshed and ready for that meeting or the sunny beach for that matter. Why? For one, it is normally impossible to create an ideal situation where you are not and feel not disturbed and for another, closing your eyes (for instance) will not help you read that report.

Hence, one observation is the following: By shutting out the outer world you do not shut out reality.

Pratyaahaara: Alternative solution to shutting out the outer world

An alternative to using external props in order to shut out the outer world is given by Patañjali, the great yogic sage. In his Yoga Sutras, he explains in Chapter 2, Verse 54: “Pratyaahaara is that which excludes the interaction of the senses with their objects (i.e. outer world) and follows as it were the nature of the mind.”

Hence, if one practises restraint on one’s senses (that constantly strive to have contact with the outer world or external objects), the senses then simply cease to bother us further. In other words: The baby may cry, poop and play to its heart content – in a state of Pratyaahaara you will be totally unfazed by the outer commotion and will be able to read your report, totally absorbed and concentrated.

Although Pratyaahaara is said to be a preparatory stage to Meditation only (and as such does not yet go into the depths of meditation itself), it certainly goes a long way to at least make the long flight to the sunny island or your business meeting bearable. OM.