Return to the Cave of the Heart
By Craig Williams -
However when one examines the tradition of Yoga in India, a vastly different image is revealed. From the Rishis of the Vedas and Upanishads, from Krishna’s voice in the Gita and from Patanjali’s Sutras, the means of seeking personal as well as global security is traced upon a path that leads to a place the modern conditioned mind has forgotten: the Hridaya or spiritual Heart. Modern Rishis such as Yogananda, Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo have expressed this forgotten path as well. Yet how many Western Yoga teachers or magazines devote time or space to such important voices? If Yoga is to survive it transplantation from India into the West, a true Yogic vision must emerge within the Western world. The eternal flame of the Spiritual Heart must not be allowed to be stifled or suppressed by the Western conditioned consumer mind. An environment must be created where the Hridaya can burn and illuminate the perpetual day of Light that resides within each of us regardless of race, gender, status or culture.
For this to occur, the constant focus on the physical aspects of Yoga must be challenged and re-examined. Is the legacy of Yoga in the West to be a media driven image of a beautiful body or a trademarked sequence of asanas? Are we to prescribe Yoga asanas to address anxiety and existential malaise? The only true succor for our insatiable desires and fears is the realization that our essential Self is pure, unconditioned awareness and not a commodity to be bought or sold. Our Spiritual Heart never ages, never fatigues and desires nothing save Its revelation. To hear the quiet voice of the Hridaya we must silence the world and the conditioned chatter of our minds.
This requires the involution of attention. Our focus must be drawn away from the physical body and the external world. This requires pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi over a new yoga mat or asana sequence. To envision a true evolution of Yoga in the West, we must practice and emphasize involution. The Western mind is not used to this type of thinking. The West views all evolution as an external phenomena. New trends of thought are constantly directed outside of ourselves and while dramatic technological advances can be seen in the external phenomenal world, the inner world of the West is becoming a vacuum.
The Western mind is also unable to hold its attention and focus for any substantial amount of time and is constantly jumping from one new trend or fad unto another. These characteristics of externalization and instability have taken hold of Yoga in the West as well. Yoga is marketed as a system of physical fitness or at best a method of relaxation. Yoga teachers scramble to put their unique spin on asana sequencing and avoid bringing up spiritual matters to avoid offending an audience of predominantly Judeo-Christian background. As a result, the Western Yoga tradition, despite glitzy and aggressive marketing, is becoming diluted and almost unrecognizable when contrasted with traditional Classical Yoga.
To realize a true evolution of Yoga in the West, we must use the spiritual methods of the Yoga tradition itself and not rely on Western pop-psychology to categorize or re-define Yoga into a exercise fad made more attractive to a palate used to bland and homogenized nourishment. Our attention must turn inward and this cannot be accomplished with a Western “Asana Yoga” but rather first requires the forgotten limb of Pratyahara or inversion of the mind and senses. If one does not take the time to sit down, which in actuality is the accurate definition of “asana”, one’s attention will be externalized. Pratyahara is the reversal of this natural tendency of the mind to externalize itself and seek fulfillment in transient emphemeral experiences. Such external seeking only leads to sorrow which in turn causes the mind to search at a more frantic pace for something to assuage its pain. This fruitless and blind search is essentially the root of all sickness. Therefore for true healing to occur, one must first stop the externalization of the mind and to accomplish requires Pratyahara.
One of the reasons for Pratyahara’s importance in the West is due to the virus-like spread of media driven consumerism. We are constantly bombarded with media images of beauty, success, psychological happiness and sex, all served up in 20-30 minute time slots. Is it any wonder that today’s children have trouble with concentration and focus? Is it any surprise that rates of anxiety and depression continue to rise despite the explosion of Yoga in the West? Even Yoga is market in 20 minute DVD’s with novel asana recipes that claim to provide a quick respite from the fast paced modern world. People claim to not have time for meditation yet will rarely miss their favorite television show which they cherish as some type of personal relationship. How can we expect an asana driven Yoga to provide a solution to this dilemma?
The Western mind is addicted to quick empty stimulation. Even if a person desires to change this conditioning process, the means to accomplish such a goal are rarely taught or discussed in a Western Yoga class. Even if the average person attempts to meditate, they are unable to achieve any true success due to the continual external stimulation of their conditioned mind. This is one of the reasons Eastern scholar Mircea Eliade chose the word “entasy” over “ecstacy” to describe the internal Yogic process as even language has been affected by the externalization process. This is where Pratyahara becomes the key turning point for breaking the cycle of external conditioning. Pratyahara becomes the doorway to the journey into our spiritual Heart, the only true source of sustenance and healing.
The first area to consider when utilizing Pratyahara is the exposure to mass-media. This is perhaps the hardest yet most relevant area to remove entanglement from for most Westerners. Most people begin and end their day sitting in front of the television absorbing images that stimulate and alienate rather than illuminate. Westerners are obsessed with dieting and fasting to lose weight yet rarely consider what they are consuming on a mental or emotional level. “Fasting” from the media is of primary importance if one desires to search inward and explore the spiritual universe that exists within the Heart. This media fast can be more powerful than drugs or herbs in cases of psychological and emotional disorders. Deeply embedded samskaras can be thawed and uprooted by the tapas of our sadhana, but only if we are not constantly feeding the samskaras with unwholesome and vapid images and trivial information via the media.
Pratyahara in relation to speaking and noise exposure is another powerful therapy and practice. Mauna or fasting from speaking can be a very effective form of Pratyahara. We are often unaware of the needless or mindless manner in which we use our voice. Sitting in silence, quieting our environment and our voices, we can start to hear the soft pulse of the unstruck sounds of the spiritual Heart. This also includes quieting the background “voices” of our mind with its ongoing conditioned dialogue. The tradition of Laya Yoga is a beautiful expression of this approach. Krisna states in the Gita “I am the silence of all hidden things” ( X.38 ). When we immerse ourselves in silence we can experience Krishna’s eternal message for ourselves. The more frequently we practice this sadhana the more natural it becomes. Ramana Maharshi often referred to this practice as “periodic dips into the Heart” and the in process of Atma Vichara or Self-Enquiry, this silence becomes the womb of our spiritual Heart. We can offer our fears, desires, and samskaras into the Flame of our Heart. This eternal Flame can transform our lives and deliver us to the Cosmic forces residing within. This is the Agni Yoga referred to in the Shvetasvatara Upanishad: “He has no disease, nor old age, nor death, who has attained a body born of the fire of Yoga.”
Fasting from unnatural and unwholesome visual stimuli is yet another important practice of Pratyahara. The images we gaze upon leave their imprints deep within our minds. We can use this to our advantage or disadvantage. Artificial and rajasic / tamasic images will plant seeds of discord and desire and will drain the mind. Natural and spiritual images have the potential to plant seeds of equanimity and peace leaving us feeling whole and renewed. Spending time in nature and natural environments is an excellent form of Pratyahara. We can gaze at a flowing stream or the open sky and feel the effect upon the “stream” of our thoughts or the “sky” of our minds. Just as we are polluting or external world, we are also polluting our internal world. We need involution not pollution to experience the spiritual Heart.
We can also use spiritual images such as Yantras or use the practice of Trataka or candle gazing as forms of Pratyahara. This also reveals the ways in which Dharana or concentration and Pratyahara are inter-related limbs of Yoga. Once the mind is focused on a single image, it is much easier to reverse the tendency for externalization. With repeated efforts we can cultivate Dharana as well as Tapas, both of which are necessary to successfully involute the awareness and allow Dhyana and Samadhi to spontaneously emerge. This emergence cannot be forced. We must spend time in silence and focus cultivating an environment conducive for the spiritual Heart to speak to us. This cannot be accomplished with asana therapy alone. We must listen to the Hridaya to awaken the new Rishis to allow the Yoga tradition to grow spontaneously in the West. This awakening will express its voice in our physical bodies but the source of Its growth will be the magnetic pull of our spiritual Heart drawing us inward to our true home in the cave of the Heart. Awaken Bhairavi!! Awaken Agni!!
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