Calm your mind by controlling your senses
Last post I talked about how, through our interaction with our surroundings, we can overload the mind with excessive sensory information, and how this can leave the mind feeling sluggish and clogged. But there are times when the external environment is beyond our control. Now, for example: as I am writing this email, a gang of our friendly neighbourhood teenagers are racing up and down the street on motorized scooters that sound like leafblowers on wheels.
At times like these I could allow myself to get angry, lose my train of thought, or give up my work altogether and tune into the equally high-volume conversation across the street regarding whether ham is better value at the corner store or the more distant supermarket.
Instead, I try my best to tune the distractions out. My ears haven’t stopped hearing, any more than my eyes have stopped seeing. My mind has simply chosen to screen out certain sensory inputs to which it doesn’t need to pay attention.
You’ve almost certainly observed this process at work in the people around you – perhaps when you’ve asked your partner what they’d like for dinner while they’re immersed in reading a book. Your query falls on deaf ears, or meets with a non-committal grunt. Again, your partner isn’t deaf, nor necessarily being an ignorant so-and-so. Their mind is just intently focused on the information entering via the eyes, so that it pays scant attention to any of the other senses.
Each week in class we practice a form of sensory control: breath awareness. As we learn to focus completely on whether the breath is warm or cool, whether the inhalation is longer than the exhalation, whether the air flows evenly into both nostrils. As we watch the rhythm of the breath, our awareness of the sounds, sights and smells around us begin to melt away.
In yoga this process of withdrawing our senses from what is happening around us is called pratyahara. And, learning to master this practice – to consciously filter out unwanted sensory information – is an essential prelude to meditation.