By David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)
The five senses are the key instruments that we have in life to perceive the world and make our way within it. How we use them determines how our lives will unfold; whether towards health or disease, creativity or stagnation, enlightenment or ignorance. Learning to use our senses correctly is one of the main skills that we need in order to master our existence and experience life in the optimal manner possible for us.
Our outer activities revolve around the messages that the senses convey to us and how we respond to them. Our culminating experiences of pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow depend upon the acuity of our senses and their range of function. Our minds orient themselves according to the information that the senses bring in, which becomes the basis for building our thoughts, emotions and imagination. The senses provide the nourishment of impressions through which the mind is either made calm or disturbed.
If our senses deteriorate, it is a loss that no external wealth or improved outer equipment can compensate for. Yet we seldom care for our senses properly or treat them with respect. Often we abuse them for short term enjoyment that weakens our greater sensory capacity to experience life in all of its vastness. In our pursuit of healing, we seldom look into how to care for our senses and open up their healing energies. While we are willing to buy better entertainment screens, we don’t work to improve the power of the eyes that we use to see through them. While we try to detoxify the body periodically, we seldom strive to cleanse the doors of perception that the senses provide for us.
The Senses and Spirituality
The senses play an important part on the spiritual path, both in the negative sense as obstacles that get us caught in outer attachments, but also in the positive sense as higher perceptive powers. Many spiritual approaches require that we deny or limit the senses, which may be regarded as illusory or evil in their function. However, if spiritual development was as easy as shutting down the senses, the deaf and mute would be wise and enlightened!
Our spiritual lives are also based upon our ability to awaken deeper powers of perception. These include connecting to the ‘inner senses’ hidden behind the outer senses. We have higher forms of seeing and hearing connected to inner powers of light and sound that link us to the greater universe of consciousness inside ourselves, just as our outer senses connect us to the external world. The spiritual path requires a mastery of the senses, not simply their denial, unfolding their deeper potentials along with the higher energy and awareness that lies within us.
Ayurvedic medicine regards the wrong use of the senses as one of the main causes of all diseases. While overuse of the senses is usually the main problem, lack of use, or wrong use have negative consequences as well. How we use our senses reflects how we use or bodies, minds and deeper consciousness and is an index of our entire existence and the overall meaning of our lives.
Yogic Management of the Senses through Pratyahara
The role of the senses in Classical Yoga is dealt with under the practice of Pratyahara, the fifth of the eight limbs of Yoga, which is often styled ‘control of the senses’. Pratyahara is sometimes crudely described as attempting to control of a group of wild animals with a stick. It is more accurate to compare control of the senses through Pratyahara with control of the prana through Pranayama.
The real practice of Pranayama is not mere suppression of the prana, or simply not breathing, but deepening of the Prana – helping us breathe from the core of our being, removing pranic blockages, releasing Prana to flow freely through the nadis or subtle channels within us. Similarly, real pratyahara is a deepening of the senses, helping us to have better sensory acuity, removing impairments to the functioning of the senses, increasing the relationship between the different senses and, above all, releasing the senses from their bondage to habitual forms and patterns of perception that create negativity within us. Pratyahara entails uniting the senses with the light of consciousness, the deep sense of feeling and knowing in the heart, aligning the outer light with the inner light by harmonizing the senses and the core consciousness within ourselves.
How do we accomplishment this internalization of the senses? First we must honor the senses and what they reveal to us as sacred, not as mere opportunities for personal gratification. The senses are our God given instruments of life, knowledge and expression. They reveal the world of nature, which is imbued with divine energies, in all of its beauty and glory.
The senses should be instruments of worship to honor the Divine presence in the environment around us. For this, we must look to the inner light that the senses reflect, not just attach ourselves to particular forms of sensory enjoyment. We need to connect with the light that is present in what the senses reveal, which the light of the Seer, the pure awareness or clear light of consciousness within us.
A Vedic Approach to the Senses
Everything in the universe is made up of light and revealed through light. According to the ancient Vedic vision, the light behind the colored forms on Earth is Agni or the Divine fire. The light behind the clouds and the lightning in the Atmosphere is Vayu or wind, the Divine spirit. The supreme light of the sky or heaven is Surya or the Sun. All these three are aspects of the same light of awareness. The Vedic way is to use the senses as powers of light, allowing them to perceive, increase, expand and ascend with the cosmic light that they are part of.
In the Vedic view, our senses both perceive and reflect the cosmic reality. The eye relates to the Sun, the ears to the directions of space, the nose to Vayu or the cosmic Air, and the mouth to Agni or the cosmic Fire. To use the senses with a knowledge of their cosmic counterparts enables the senses to help us link to the cosmic reality. It also enables the inner senses, the inner hearing and seeing, to awaken within us.
It is important that we use our senses with reverence, honoring the divine powers through which they work. This means using the senses in a contemplative manner, along with a focus, steadiness and peace of mind. It is because we no longer contemplate life through our senses that our lives are losing their meaning, moving too fast and leaving us in stress and anxiety.
Closing our senses entirely for a time and directing our attention within is an important aid for meditation. It allows our senses, which are overworked and over stimulated, to rest and realign themselves with the inner light of consciousness. Once we have rested our senses, we will find our field of perception cleansed and clarified once we open our eyes again, and the world will appear fresh and revitalized as well.
Opening our senses wider is part of the awakening of our inner being, seeing the beauty of nature, contacting the wonderful tanmatras or essences of sound, touch, sight, taste and smell that vibrate subtly in the world around us. Nature is the highest work of art and the greatest scripture. Our senses are instruments for the worship of Nature which is the gateway to the Spirit. We must learn to slow our senses down so that our awareness can move with the rhythms of nature. Then all life will begin to flow through us. To experience this requires that we realign our senses from the world of the media to the real world of Nature around us.
Sensory Deprivation Caused by Media Addictions
In the media age, we scarcely do justice to our senses and what they are capable of perceiving. We rarely smell the earth, the soil, the plants or the flowers around us, should we see them at all. We rarely taste the subtle flavors of our food, which is often too heavily seasoned with oil, salt and sugar to allow us to note them. We rarely look at the sky, the sunrise, the sunset, the clouds or the stars. We seldom listen to the sounds of the wind, which are usually obscured by our urban noise pollution.
For all our high tech equipment, our senses are getting dulled and depleted, taking in a progressively smaller range of impressions. We are losing our sensory acuity to bright screens, loud music and artificial perfumes. This loss results in dullness of mind and limits our ability to really see, listen or to meditate. It causes our prana to be depressed and heavy, moved only by external stimulation. We no longer experience life directly through our senses but require some media apparatus to filter and interpret life for us, which often distorts it as well. The color has gone out of us, we might say, for all the sophistication of the screens we look at. We are usually not aware of the sensory dullness create by our consumerist culture, as we are caught in the pursuit of new technical wonders, not improving our own natural faculties.
We try to alleviate ourselves of our ongoing sensory doldrums by occasional bouts of artificial sensory indulgence through movies, games, junk food or other forms of mass entertainment. This only inhibits our finer sensitivities further, though it may provide some momentary relief. Bringing in disturbing impressions through the senses, it pollutes the mind, disturbs our prana and causes toxicity on an emotional level as well. It creates an addiction to junk impressions, like our addition to junk food or drugs, which keeps us off balance, not only at an individual but at a collective level, caught in the latest crisis or cataclysm of the daily news.
No matter how great the resolution in our computer or television screen, it remains limited and two dimensional, inferior to what our senses can easily perceive if we but go out into nature. It keeps us in a two dimensional world in which our experience lacks depth, originality and substance.
It is a great miracle to be able to rise up in the morning and see the sun rise with an open mind and heart. This is what the Vedascall God or Brahman arising in the east. It is very different than jumping out of bed and watching the news or business reports! It does not make us reactive to the external world but allows us to remain in an inner peace and contentment, not needing anything from the outside to make us happy.
Reclaiming the Senses
Reclaiming the senses is an important step for any true healing, psychological well-being or spiritual development. This means using the senses to recognize the Divine presence, light, beauty and bliss in the world of nature around us. The senses belong to the light of consciousness, not to the urges of the ego or to the advertising ploys of the business world. Our senses should at least be our own, able to function naturally in the present moment, not driven by external stimuli and enticements.
There is a famous Vedic Shanti mantra:
Bhadram karnebhih srinuyama Devah
O Gods, with our ears may we hear what is auspicious.
Bhadram pashyemakshabhir Yajatra
O Holy ones, with our eyes may we see what is auspicious.
Sthirangair tusthuvamsas tanubhih
With firm limbs making adoration with our bodies,
Vyashema Devahitam yad Ayuh
May we attain the life granted to us by the Divine!
If we recognize the Divine powers, the sacred presence, then we can find what is auspicious and holy through the senses. If our bodily actions are a kind of worship or adoration, then they will elevate us as well. This is the Divine life that we were meant to attain. There is no need to close our eyes only to open our hearts.
The great tradition of Tantra teaches us the same understanding of the sacred use of the senses as does the Vedas. It tells us that the Devatas, the great Goddess and Goddesses which operate behind and through the senses, are cosmic powers, not merely individual endowments, part of the great dance of Shiva and Shakti! Tantra shows us how to use the senses as part of sacred worship. Tantra teaches us to recognize the body of the Goddess in nature and to look for the rasa, the essences, the Somas in all that we see. It connects us to the Shakti, the Divine power of consciousness behind the senses, which is the basis of all the forces of nature. Increasing that Shakti, the senses function with more sensitivity, depth and acuity. Like a great artist, we learn to appreciate the finer beauties of life, extending to the beauty of space itself. We can use the senses to go beyond the limitations of the senses to the power of pure awareness.
When we use our senses to find the inner light then our senses help extract the Soma or Ananda, the essence delight that is hidden in all that we see. When the light of the senses merges into the presence of being then all that we see reflects the supreme reality of Brahman. This is the natural state of Samadhi, in which we can function in the world as truly aware and sensitive human beings. Then all the senses work together to open the crown chakra or thousand petal lotus of the head. They reflect the light of consciousness, not the darkness of the ego.
This reclaiming of the senses for the inner light is one of the greatest tasks for humanity today. However, it requires a radical movement of the mind away from the mass media realm and back to the cavern of the heart. This does not mean that we have to stop using the media altogether, but that our senses should be rooted in the Divine presence within and around us, not glued to any screen or email update. Once we do this we breathe the breath of life and see with the eyes of light.
So establish a new relationship with your senses as instruments of worship that can make all life sacred for you. Do not use your senses for anything less than Divine. Then your senses can renew your vitality, your life and your awareness, without any equipment necessary to enhance them!