In Patanjali’s classic treatise on yoga, written well over two thousand years ago, he describes eight “limbs” or topics to practice and master, to ultimately regain union with oneness (Samadhi). While the first four of these limbs focus on the ‘externals’ of this world, the latter four focus on the training of the mind. It’s fascinating to see the parallels between the old Indian spiritual schools, especially the nondualistic Advaita Vedanta, and A Course in Miracles. This is not only for scholarly reasons, but also from a practical point of view. Patanjali’s fifth limb is called Pratyahara, which roughly translates as “withdrawal of the senses”. It describes the process of shifting your focus from the world of externals to the inner world of the mind. Since this is also one of the main thrusts of A Course in Miracles, let’s briefly review what Patanjali says about Pratyahara and how we might apply this in our own spiritual practice.
According to Patanjali, the focus on externals results in scattered vital energy (prana). To successfully fuse with oneness (in the mind), we first need to learn to control and utilize the flow of prana, as a prerequisite for effectively training the mind. This is done by shifting the mind’s focus from externals to internals. At first, these can be very physical internals, such as the heartbeat, the flow of breath, or what the ears register. Since the senses have a ‘natural’ tendency to roam between sensory inputs, focusing on just one sensory organ silences the others, and calms the flow of prana. A more energetic form of Pratyahara focuses on each of the seven chakra’s consecutively, thereby veering the mind’s attention away from externals. On a more advanced level, one could focus on observing the stream of thoughts from a distance, gently dismissing them like fluffy clouds, on the rhythm of the breath. Either way, the mind shifts from external stimuli to an inner focus. This readies the mind for Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and finally Samadhi (union).
Some misconstrue the goal of Pratyahara as renouncing the world and stop being active and stop caring for others. However, a host of teachers emphasize that this is not what Patanjali meant. As the Bhagavad Gita clearly states: “Live a very active life, but as a man centered within himself”. As clearly exemplified by role models such as Gandhi, Mandela and mother Teresa, you can live a very active life and yet be spiritually focused on the inner realm of the (right) mind. The value of Pratyahara is that it can end the slavery of the mind being tossed about by external stimuli. All worldly actions that you perform from such a trained state of mind will inevitably be much more effective. The goal is oneness, but the practice remains within the framework of duality, where it is needed.
In A Course in Miracles, Jesus invites us to go through roughly the same process. As I’ve quoted several times before, Jesus reminds us that “An untrained mind can accomplish nothing.” (W-pI.In.1:3). The goal is “…to train your mind in a systematic way to a different perception of everyone and everything in the world.” (W-pI.In.4:1) To this end, Jesus teaches us that love, peace, happiness and salvation cannot be found in externals (“Seek not outside yourself. For it will fail, and you will weep each time an idol falls”, T-29.VII.1). But he must also convince us that we are not a body; we are spirit (“Your reality is only spirit. Therefore you are in a state of grace forever”, T-1.III.5:4).
However, no matter how spiritually nice it may sound to read that our essence is eternal spirit and not mortal matter, we read A Course in Miracles experiencing ourselves in time and space, with people and events that seem to impinge upon us, and with death and taxes as inevitable parts of life. The workbook’s goal is, first, to undo the way of separation-victim-thinking that we’ve been brought up with, and, second, to acquire a consistently right-minded way of thinking. Unfortunately, too many students sigh in desperation that they’re just not able to tame the scattered mind from the focus on externals. The mind resists the workbook’s ultimate implications. The mind then seeks all sorts of distractions, which are available in mass quantity in the external world.
For those students, the daily practice of Pratyahara may be helpful. You want to ‘tame’ your mind in that it becomes less easily distracted by external stimuli. The mind-part of this practice is the realization that choosing to be distracted serves a purpose, namely to avoid the ‘threat’ of acquiring right-minded thinking. However, since this realization is oftentimes not enough in itself to end these habitual distractions, it can be beneficial to ‘play’ with the energy flows in your body. You can thus structure the availability of vital prana energy, which then facilitates the mind’s consistent focus on the mind training that Jesus urges us to do. And just as taking an aspirine to alleviate a headache is not seen as evil by Jesus (T-2.IV.4:1), neither is it ‘evil’ to employ a bodily practice to facilitate a concentrated mind.
So why not try, for example, to close your eyes and concentrate on following the flow of breath from your nose to your lungs and back? Or try to focus solely on the beating of your heart throughout your body for a while. A practice that I personally like is to consecutively ‘turn on’ the lights of the seven major chakra’s in the body, starting at the base of the spine, going up through the heart, and ending at the crown of the head. You can train yourself to increase the inner ‘radiation’ of these lights up to the point that your entire body is immersed in light. While this is not in itself the mind training that Jesus advocates, it does help the mind to become less easily distracted by externals. In terms of ACIM scholar Kenneth Wapnick, this practice helps to shift figure and ground. Where we usually see the external world as figure and our spiritual journey as background, this practice helps us turn this around: we can now more easily focus on the spiritual journey as the prime figure in our mind, with the external world as the background. It’s a bit of ancient wisdom that still has practical value in our over-crazed western society.
Also see my seven “guidelines for living in an illusory world” in “Miracles or Murder: a guide to concepts of A Course in Miracles“. This guidebook, endorsed by Gary and Cindy Renard, was published in March 2016 by Outskirts Press and is available at Amazon.com: