Pratyahara: Creating Inner Clarity
Updated: Jan 3
The greatest gift the pandemic has given us is time and space. How we fill the present is a choice that doesn’t always feel like choice. Days can slip like water through fingertips unless we make the effort to cultivate conscious action. The source of conscious action is mental clarity.
Clarity— from what? From too much.
Even in boredom, we suffer from too much: too much to do, too much uncertainty, too much incoming information, notifications that alert us to what is happening elsewhere. Too much pressure, both internal and external, to succeed, to produce, to prove and to provide. We have so many options for what to eat and drink and entertain ourselves with that the options themselves overwhelm, become too much.
The sense of too much is not just for the mind— the body, too, can suffer from too much: food, drugs, confinement, tension. When we are not conscious of how and where there is too much, we easily drop into a daze of depression/anxiety/desire. When the haze of too-much clears into direct perception of reality, then we can relax into contentment and move forward with good energy.
How? By cultivating processes/practices that cleanse.
Clarity is a creative process/practice: it is something we make. In yoga philosophy, this concept of turning away from the external world to work through our inner world is called pratyahara, which means to draw the senses inwards. It is especially powerful and beneficial when we realize we have too much. Rather than continuing to use our vision, hearing, etc to absorb what is available around and online, we decide look, listen, and feel through what we already have within us.
Pratyahara is a break from consuming.
Without time away from consuming, our senses become overloaded, insensitive, unable to perceive and unable to act decisively, creatively. Practice/process is like taking food scraps, composting, tilling soil, and seeding new plants. It is organic—a process that unfolds naturally when the conditions are favorable. Making daily time to step into a meditative space is the creation of favorable conditions.
Which technique we choose for processing is less important than the simple fact that we practice. Most of us will be drawn toward what we feel is easy, depending on individual proclivity. Those of us who like to sit and think will gravitate towards meditation as a seated practice. The athletic will like movement practices. Both are fields for training the body and mind to co-act with skill and intelligence. And both will run us into emotional blocks.
Each of us holds knots of emotional duress. They can be patterns or discrete traumas that prevent a stable clarity. In our inner journey, we have to meet these blocks, transform them into openings so that we can progress. Otherwise, we meet the same blocks again and again, running into a ceiling that prevents our growth. The too much will accumulate, we work through to a point of clarity, and drop back again into familiar confusion/desire/depression/anxiety.
Creating art is the best way to move through emotional blocks into higher states of clarity.
Whether we choose to write, sculpt, sketch, paint, play music, or work with our environment (gardening, decor/design, etc), we take ourselves from the consuming-and-processing cycle into place of creating/transforming. This is the best way to change a difficult block into a thing of beauty, just as composting takes the rotting into a place of fertility. Art allows expression of the unexpressed. And the results are often surprising. We may begin with a vision, an idea, and find that we make something completely different. Noticing the details of what we create give us insight, deepening the self-understanding and self-trust that we develop through our meditative practices. When we return to our regular lives, we find that we have renewed senses.
Our perception is our reality.
The practice/process clears out the “too-much”, distilling what is important so that we can act with joyful certainty, curiosity, and compassion. We stay sensitive to the wonder of daily life, and are poised to act with positivity, as children are, aware and appreciative of life energy.
The cleansing, Pratyahara practice effect, of creating art is also a natural step away from conventional consumer mentality. The reflexive awareness of your capability to create is an empowerment, a demonstration that you can make, and a return to the very core of our human nature. Only humans are gifted with the ability to create art— paintings, beautiful meals, birthday cards, personal websites, etc.
The two most often sited reasons for not-creating are: time, and talent.
Bringing the creative work into the realm of pratyahara means that we can consider creative time just as well spent as we would in any meditative practice. It allows us to separate the act of creating from the product we create: just as any meditative practice, the creative process is ephemeral. You don’t have to keep what you create. The value is in the process.
Valuing the process over the product of creative time is a manifestation of the Bhagavad Gitaa’s teachings to renounce the rewards of action. This detachment allows full focus on the integrity of the action itself. When we choose to let go of the inner pressure to perform, or “be good”, we can be more free in our creative process and feel more content with what we have, both tangibly and intangibly.
The state of contentment, santosha, is a relaxation not only of the modern consumer mentality but also the deeper, hardwired, state of hunter-gather mentality. Drawing our senses inwards, wanting less (aparigraha), and creating more means that the mind can be expansive rather than hunting or seeking a desired target. Cleansing our senses means that we can enjoy what is present rather than imagining/desiring what is not here, or getting lost in thoughts/worries/plans. Pratyahara is the practice that enables us to directly perceive reality, to see, hear, and feel what is around us.
These conceptual layers of practice are built into Patanjali’s eightfold path: aparigraha and santosha are basic lifestyle values taught as the first steps of the path; pratyahara is taught as the fifth step (after asana and pranayama); the mediative steps of concentration and conscious awareness follow directly from pratyahara.
When the yogic path and its philosophy were being developed, the yogis of ancient India were living with many lifestyle choices: villages or cities, forest ashrams or mountain asceticism, wandering as beggars or maintaining households. The energetics of each living situation were unique. We have fewer options today, with far more sensory input and fewer opportunities to disappear into forests for a reprieve. But more time at home is an invitation for increased awareness of our energy flow.
Learning to balance our senses, through meditation, movement, and creative work, creates a homeostasis, an evenness to our energy. With this, we can easily transition from work flow states that require the honed focus of a hunter (concentrated vision, strategic thinking, direct communication), through household tasks that require the searching/ scanning senses of the gatherer, and into the mediative states of the conscious presence that leads to living bliss.