Are you in control of your senses, or are they in control of you?
For most of us, our senses are in control in an attempt to ward off any rejection or disappointment while boosting joy, happiness, and stimulation when good things happen.
A study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology studied the brains of 10 women and five men using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), a technique for measuring brain activity that monitors blood flow through areas of the brain as it responds to stimuli.
Each of the study participants had recently been rejected by a partner, but reported they were still intensely “in love.”
When the participants were shown a photo of the “rejecter” in their lives, their brains lit up in areas responsible for love, despair, good and bad memories, and remorse, along with areas of the brain responsible for motivational relevance, gain/loss, cocaine craving, addiction, and emotion regulation.
The study suggests that our senses can light up in just about every aspect of the brain related to reward, addiction, and emotional regulation—and this happens mostly unconsciously.
Just think: what is your go-to response to stress? Coffee, sweets, overeating, online shopping, yoga, or working extra hard? We self-medicate for stress in a variety of ways without realizing that our senses are driving these impulses.
Pratyahara: Withdrawing with Intention
Ayurvedic and yogic philosophy developed a practice called pratyahara to mindfully take control of the senses. It comes from two Sanskrit words, “prati” which means “away or against,” and “ahara” which means “food.”
Pratyahara is a practice that helps us control the intake of things that nourish us. There are three types of ahara that nourish us. The first is food itself, which sustains and builds the body composition—the vata, pitta, and kapha of the body. The second are the impressions delivered to the mind through the five senses. The third are the subtle impressions felt through the heart that impact our emotional body type (sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic).
Gaining control of the senses through pratyahara does not mean that all sensory stimulation is bad, or that we should discard all of our material possessions. More so, it is that most of us are unconsciously being controlled by our senses and have become slaves to the brain’s reward system—driven by the hormone dopamine.
Just look at the culture we are living in: NPR recently reported on a new term for our cultural desire to constantly feed the ego and be stimulated, “thirst trap,” which they say “translates to a desire for attention on social media.” We are a culture set on receiving a reward—a dopamine response—as quickly as humanly possible. Online shopping, social media streaks, 24-hour news cycles, more money, bigger houses, new cars, careers, fame, power…the list is endless!
Our brain’s reward chemistry is not something we can rid ourselves of, but it is something we must have at least some control over.
Pratyahara is a practice designed to help us limit external influences. Instead of allowing our senses to be constantly directed outward, pratyahara is a discipline that allows us to control our senses and direct the mind inward.
Avenues of Consciousness
The senses are described as avenues of consciousness whose primary purpose is to take the mind within, not without. A perfect example of this is forest bathing—a therapy now with science-proven health benefits—where just a walk in the woods using the senses can bring the peacefulness of nature inward and reset a sense of inner calm.
Yogic and ayurvedic philosophy described four types of pratyahara:
- Karma patyahara: the control of our actions.
- Indriya pratyahara: the control of the senses.
- Mano pratyahara: the control of the mind.
- Prana pratyahara: the control of the breath.
1. Karma pratyahara (control of actions):
This is the practice of performing action without attachment, without a need for a reward or return on investment. In chapter two, verse 48, the Bhagavad Gita describes this as, “Establishing being (inner silence) and then performing action.” These actions can come from inspiration gained from a deep meditation, restorative yoga class, or some forest bathing. These actions typically involve some aspects of loving, giving, or caring through the window of compassion, understanding, joy, and happiness.
2. Indriya pratyahara (control of the senses):
This is control of the senses by recognizing where we have become addicted or attached to the reward chemistry that our senses deliver from the outside world. The senses are like four-lane highways with bright lights on them. The more we use them, the bigger the highway becomes, or the more facilitated the sensory neural pathways become.
One of the best ways to gain control of the senses is to give them a break with a meditation or silent retreat. This can be done at home, simply by turning off the Wi-Fi signal, cell phones, and even lights for a weekend—something I call a “No Artificial Light Circadian Reset Weekend.”
Meditation is also a key practice here, where we dip the mind in the dye of inner silence once or twice a day to help direct the senses and the mind inward.
3. Mano pratyahara (control of the mind and thoughts):
These are the practices that help us control the mind where food is the sensory stimulation. This has a lot to do with what we let our mind experience. The old saying, “what we see, we become,” is becoming more and more documented, especially with the emerging microbiome science. Our gut microbes feel impressions of the mind and send bidirectional messages from the gut to the mind and back.
Choosing the movies you watch, the amount of news and TV shows you watch, and the books you read all have an impact on the mind. The body’s health is directly affected by what you see and experience in your mind.
4. Prana pratyahara (control of the breath):
This is the use of the breath to bring the awareness within. How you breathe determines how your nervous system responds to stress. Shallow mouth breathing activates receptors in the upper lobes of the lungs, which triggers a fight-or-flight stress response. Breathing deeply through the nose carries the oxygen into the lower lobes of the lungs, where there is a predominant amount of parasympathetic rest-and-rejuvenate nervous system receptors.
Bonus: The Simple Buddhist Trick to Being Happy.
Author: Dr. John Douillard
Image: Emily Mucha/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina