A compilation of Bhagavad Gita verses, comments from the masters (sometimes paraphrased), and personal introspections presented for your pondering and enjoyment.
Chapter 2, Verse 58
“The tortoise can draw in its legs
Sages draw in their senses.
Their wisdom is steady.”
When a telephone is turned off, its ring is silenced immediately. With practice, Yogis can cultivate the ability of a switchboard operator, enabling them at will to switch on and off the mind and the life-force (prana) flowing through the five message-carriers of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. When a soul is hungry to find its own lost peace, it cannot do so through the sense-life. Pranayama is the art of switching off the life-force from the five senses. Breath is the cord that ties the consciousness to the body and the senses. By deep stillness, the heart is released from constant work, becoming free to withdraw prana from the five senses. No sensations then reach the brain to harass the mind.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of Patanjali’s Ashtanga (eight-limbed) Yoga as expounded in his Yoga Sutras. By controlling the breath through specific techniques, it becomes possible in a gradual way to shut out distracting sense-inputs during sitting practice, enabling the Yogi to more effectively focus on the object of concentration.
Withdrawal of the senses is pratyahara. The mind has a natural tendency to run towards external objects. A Yogi with the power of pratyahara will not be affected by outside vibrations. The senses have become obedient servants.
When a certain level of mastery of pranayama has been attained, the fifth of the eight limbs pratyahara is reached, as Swami Shivananda elucidates. A Yogi who has reached this stage of mastery can sit on the sidewalk next to an intersection of two busy thoroughfares in a large city and be able to focus within while being completely oblivious of all that is going on in the vicinity. It then gradually becomes possible to master limbs six (dharana, concentration), seven (dhyana, meditation) and eight (samadhi, super-consciousness). These stages correspond with states of consciousness in which the Yogi prolongs an intimate connection with an object of concentration to the point of merging with it (sabija samadhi, super-consciousness “with seed”) and ultimately goes beyond even that state in an ultimate and final release from the wheel of birth and death (nirbija samadhi, super-consciousness “without seed”). This is the goal. It is called kaivalya which can be translated as “liberation.” Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras provides a map, and if a Yogi is devoted, dedicated and determined enough, success is eventually assured.
The first movement must obviously be to get rid of desire which is the whole root of evil and suffering. In order to get rid of desire, we must put an end to the cause of desire, the rushing out of the senses to seize and enjoy their objects. We must draw them back when they are inclined to rush out, draw them away from their objects into their source, quiescent in the mind, and not desiring anything that the objective life can give.
Now Sri Aurobindo was a great sage, and I do not doubt that the spirit of renunciation that he is espousing in this commentary is based on his own experience and that he had success by getting rid of desire in himself. It is said that in the higher stages of samadhi, the karmic imprinting from the past, both in this and previous lifetimes, can be dissolved and made no longer binding. Karmic seeds are roasted, so to speak, and obstacles are removed as one proceeds towards ultimate liberation and freedom. This is work done on the inside where personal, evolutionary growth and expansion are attained in increasingly subtle and focused meditative states. Again, I do not doubt that this freedom-path is possible and recommended for those with sufficient, purposeful single-mindedness to follow the map to the end. I tried it and was unable, for various reasons, to muster the required drive and determination. Part of my difficulty was no doubt of a contextual nature. A psychology major in an American college and attracted to the work of Carl Jung, I was schooled in a point of view that runs counter to the one described above by Sri Aurobindo. According to Jung, the problem of evil and suffering is not solved by getting rid of desire, but rather by the recognition of one’s own shadow side.
A few weeks after Jung’s death in 1961, Alan Watts gave a tribute to him, and in it he said:
There’s a nice German word – hintergedanken – which means a thought in the very far, far back of your mind. Jung had a hintergedanken in the back of his mind which showed in the twinkle in his eye that he knew and recognized the element of irreducible rascality in himself; and he knew it so strongly and so clearly, and in a way so lovingly, that he would not condemn the same thing in others and therefore would not be led into those thoughts, feelings and acts of violence towards others, which are characteristic of people who project the devil in themselves upon somebody else, the scapegoat. This made Jung a very integrated character, a man who was thoroughly with himself, having seen and accepted his own nature profoundly. He had a sense of unity and absence of conflict in his own nature.
Watts then quoted Jung from a lecture he had delivered many years earlier in Switzerland. What follows is an excerpt:
We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate. It oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, and not his friend and fellow sufferer. I do not mean in the least to say that we must never pass judgment when we desire to help and improve, but if the doctor wishes to help a human being, he must be able to accept him as he is; and he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is. Perhaps this sounds very simple, but simple things are always the most difficult. In actual life, it requires the greatest art to be simple, and so acceptance of oneself is the acid test of the outlook on life that I love my enemy in the name of Christ. That which I do to the least of these my brethren I do unto Christ, but what if I discover that the least of these, the most impudent of all offenders, is within me and that I myself stand in need of the arms of my own kindness, that I myself am the enemy who must be loved.
Alan Watts continued
One of the basic things which all social rules of convention conceal is what I would call the fundamental fellowship between “yes” and “no,” like the Chinese symbolism of the positive and the negative, the Yin and the Yang, like two interlocked fishes. The whole game of most societies is that these two fishes are involved in a battle between the “up-fish” and the “down-fish,” the good fish and the bad fish. They’re out for a killing, and one of these days the white fish is going to slay the black fish, but when you see into it clearly, you understand that the white fish and the black fish go together. They’re twins. They’re really not fighting with each other. They’re dancing with each other. That, though, is a difficult thing to realize in a set of rules in which “yes” and “no” are the basic and formally opposed terms. When it is explicit in a set of rules that “yes” and “no” are the fundamental principles, it is implicit…that there is this fundamental fellowship between the two. 1
When the understanding dawns that it is not beneficial to attempt to get rid of, once and for all, these “things” in ourselves that society tells us are dark and shadowy and shameful, but that it is much more sensible to make space for them to co-exist with our more noble attributes, much inner struggling will dissolve and life will flow more like a mountain stream, just so. The great teacher, Joseph Campbell, was addressing a group of physicians. He had an array of slides showing an assortment of religious symbols. When a slide of Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance in the Hindu tradition, appeared, a doctor asked Campbell to explain the dwarf-like person under Nataraja’s foot. It appeared to the doctor that the little man seemed to be looking for something. Campbell replied, “The image of that little man captures our human predicament perfectly, searching in such earnest for the Divine when all along, we fail to realize that the living God is already here, dancing upon our very heads.” 2
1. Alan Watts, Tribute to Jung, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCW3YFbjb8k
2. This story is told in a book by John Astin, Searching for Rain in a Monsoon