Sutra II.54 Dissociation is when the senses, disjoined from their respective objects, assume as it were the nature of mind itself
Sutra II.55 From that, supreme mastery of the senses
Recently I've become interested in exploring Indriya-pratyahara, or the control of the senses. Is it just me or is Pratyahara a neglected limb. It only gets two obvious sutra's in Patanjali, but then so does Asana. You could argue that sight and sound are addressed in Ashtanga with the focus on Drishti and Ujaii, touch possibly through asana but what about taste and smell (though we do tend to try olfactory withdrawal with regard to our smelly mats).
Ramaswami has a little section on Pratyahara in his book but it's a little unsatisfying. He has the posture yoni mudra where you seal you ears with your thumbs, eyes by putting the first finger lightly above the eyeball and the index finger on the eyelid. The ring fingers sits softly on each side of the nose and the little finger at the corner of the mouth. Sit like that for five minutes or so after pranayama and that's about it.
Searching around the net I came across this article by Charles MacInerney. The last two paragraphs contain an interesting meditation technique. I used to get up after pranayama and throw the clock with the noisy ticking out of the room or bury it under the futon, now I welcome it and the opportunity to shift the focus from the ticking to something more subtle and more subtle still. You'll see what I'm talking about when you get to the end of the article. over to you Charles.
PRATYAHARA - Sense Withdrawel by Charles MacInerney
The fifth limb of Raja Yoga is called Pratyahara and means sense withdrawal. Before the mind can turn in on itself all connections with the external world must be severed. Only when the practitioner is free from external distractions will he be successful at following the inward journey of self discovery. I would like to point out that I am not talking of controlling, or enduring sensations! I am talking about the ability to withdraw from them at will. The true story that I started this lecture with illustrates this common source of confusion in students practicing Meditation, and Pratyahara. Many students suffer through pains and itches while meditating without flinching and believe they have mastered Pratyahara. The truth is, had they mastered Pratyahara there would have been no pain, no itch.
Here in the West we are starting to explore Pratyahara in terms of pain management as an alternative to drug therapy. In fact, many types of pain cannot be controlled with drugs. I once heard Elizabeth Kubla Ross compare chronic pain to being in a room with a roaring fire in the center. Even when flattened against the wall the fire still burns you. In desperation patients often 'hurl themselves' into the fire in a vain attempt to put it out. But pain is a bottomless pit which will always exist and cannot be extinguished. Focussing on pain only magnifies it and strengthens it until it fills your entire universe. The secret is to find the door to the room, and leave the room and the fire far behind. Simply walk away from it. This is a form of sense withdrawal. It does not mean enduring pain. It means leaving it behind as you walk down the 'Eight Fold Path' of Raja Yoga.
But pain is only one aspect of the senses and by no means the most dangerous. Pleasurable sensations are equally distracting, and pose an even greater threat to the serious student of Raja Yoga. Just as attention magnifies pain, so does attention magnify pleasure. The problem is that while the motivation to withdraw from pain is obvious, the motivation to withdraw from pleasurable sensations is more abstract. Why would one wish to escape from pleasurable sensations? The answer to this question lies in another question: are you content with your life as it is? If yes, then you have no need of Yoga. A 'general discontent', the desire to fulfill your true potential, these are the motivations for breaking the cast iron chains of pain as well as the golden chains of pleasure. A chain is a chain is a chain.
This leaves us with the question of how to withdraw from the senses. The key to this problem lies in taking a positive approach to the senses rather than a negative approach. If you are trying not to hear a noise, you are in effect, fixating on it. The harder you try not to hear it, the louder it becomes. What ever you pay attention to becomes brighter, louder, more intense. The solution is to pay attention to the most subtle sound/sight./sensation.
I recommend you begin the practice of sense withdrawal by focusing on sounds. With eyes closed, covered, or lights turned out, listen to all the sounds in your environment. Of all the sounds you can hear, choose to focus on the most subtle. As you improve your ability to focus your mind, the most subtle sound will become louder, and louder. Then ask yourself, is there a more subtler sound beneath the one you are focussing on. Shift your attention to this new sound until it becomes louder.
This is the most important aspect of this practice... do not attempt to "not hear" the louder sounds. Let them come and go. They are of no consequence. Stay focused on the most subtle. As you step back further and further along this chain of sounds you eventually hear your own breathing, beneath that perhaps your heart, beneath that... eventually you are hearing imaginal sounds, sounds of consciousness. Of all of these imaginal sounds, which is the most subtle? Focus on that. Eventually they say that you hear the sound of creation. The echo left over from the big bang, and when asked what does that sound like the sages would reply AAAUUUMMM.... AAAUUUMMM.... AAAUUUMMM.
Anyone come across anything interesting on Pratyahara or some similar techniques from other disciplines would love to hear about it?