The Sanskrit term Brahmacharya literally means Walking with God. A person in the period of life before sexual relationships begin is referred to as Brahmacharin. Sexual activity is seen as a normal part of life and sexual reproduction is one of the four basic urges.
This becomes possible when sensory input and desires are enjoyed in a context permeated by kindness, truth and the other principles of yoga. It is often translated as celibacy and some choose this path. For others the focus is on conscious appreciation of all the senses and on action that brings no harm.
In yoga philosophy, sex or no sex is not a concept relating to sin or morality. Having sex or not having sex is of small significance in comparison to what is happening in the mind. How attached are we to the actions of our body? What is the purpose this sexual act? Are we concerned only with our own pleasure or also with pleasing our partner? Are thoughts of sex obsessive and at inappropriate times? Are we able to act with intention and integrity around sex or do we feel driven or ashamed by our actions? Has the juice gone out of life because we are avoiding something? Do we feel we are acting with integrity?
In this highly charged, highly personal topic, we need an attitude of non-judgmental curiosity and friendliness. Ahimsa towards ourselves and others permeates all of the yamas and niyamas, including and perhaps especially Brahmacharya.
Our culture in the economically developed world is based on over-stimulation of the senses. We are a curious mixture of shut-down and over-stimulated. We rarely have a moment of silence. We turn on the television with our morning coffee to help us wake up as we rush around getting ready for work. All day there is stimulation from sugar, food, music, television, talking, thinking and other ways of keeping busy.
We can feel bored when this excessive stimulation is withdrawn. We are tired and ‘relax’ in front of the television where our emotions are stimulated through the ups and downs of the depictions of other people’s lives, triumphs and despair. We go to bed exhausted.
It takes time to let the effects of the over-stimulation die down so we can even begin to enjoy stillness and silence. That is why it is a good idea to try 5 minutes of a relaxation or 10 minutes of a meditative walk without headphones. Turn off the music or radio in your vehicle a few times this week and enjoy watching the flow of your breath.
Stuck in a rut
The word karma is commonly used in the west as an attribution of blame, as in ‘it’s his bad karma coming back to get him’. The concept of karma is often misunderstood or misused. Here are the basics as they relate to our senses.
Everything we think, say or do creates an impression in the mind field. When we think, say or do the same thing many times, it creates a groove. When the space program began in the 20th century, people were amazed to see that wagon tracks across the Nevada desert from the gold rush were still visible from space. Yoga calls these grooves in the mind samskaras. It is an impression that creates a tendency. If we have an occasional ice cream, it could be a samskara. If we eat ice cream all the time and especially if it becomes something we think about a lot and crave, it becomes a vasana. Vasanas are strong grooves in the mind that influence our behavior. They can become addictions or compulsions.
The strength of the impression in the mind is affected by emotional charge. If we are absolutely crazy about ice cream, it has a stronger effect on our behavior than if we merely enjoy it on a summer day.
As we have created certain grooves by our habitual thinking and behavior, so we can create new grooves and let the old ones lessen. Those wagon tracks that are visible from space are no longer visible from the ground because sand and dirt have blown into the old ruts over the years. It is the same with patterns created by habitual behavior. If our ice cream obsession eventually faded as we stopped feeding it, the ruts would not be as deep as they used to be. The tendency may still be there but it would no longer control us.
We create new grooves, a new momentum, as we transform our relationship with food and our body. The negative decreases as we find we’re no longer stuck in a rut of unhealthy, oblivious behavior. At the same time, the positive increases as our new habits become established and it takes less effort to remember to eat with awareness or keep the shoulders relaxed. The momentum is working with us now.
Pratyahara is the fifth of the eight rungs of raja yoga. The word pratyahara means withdrawal of the mind from the senses. It does not mean shutting down the senses. It involves redirecting the focus of the mind to a higher level.
We’ve all had the experience of being woken up by a sound. Say it’s Saturday afternoon and you’re enjoying a rare afternoon nap. You become aware of the sounds of someone washing the dishes in the kitchen. It is your partner quietly cleaning up so the two of you can go for a walk along the river later. You smile and snuggle down into your blanket, drifting into sleep.
Your reaction to the sound depends on your emotion and thoughts attached to the sound. Perhaps you interpret those sounds as your partner trying to make you feel guilty for not helping. It starts a train of thoughts. “Maybe I haven’t done many dishes lately but I do other things to contribute. I’m just not appreciated around here.” Perhaps it escalates into thinking “What kind of idiot won’t even let me get five minutes sleep after lunch?” Instead of feeling cared for by the activity in the kitchen, you feel resentful. Sleep is impossible because every sound is loud and annoying.
The level of sound in this example could be identical yet in one case, it drifts to the background of our mind and doesn’t interfere with sleeping. It’s not the sound, it’s the attention we pay to the sound and the thoughts it ‘triggers’.
The emotions aroused by the touch of someone’s hand on our shoulder will vary depending on the person and circumstances. If it is a welcome touch, you may notice it arouses a warm feeling inside of being loved and touched. Remembering it later can bring back that feeling. If you find yourself lost in thoughts about it during a business meeting or when your friend is trying to carry on a serious conversation with you, it creates a problem. Perhaps the memory triggers fear that person will leave and then you’ll never find someone else to love you like that and …. Once the drama builds and the emotions seem overwhelming, we sometimes use food or other ‘drugs’ to self-medicate. Whether we’re lost in fantasies and memories of being loved or off on a stream of thoughts about what-ifs, we are missing what is happening right now.
Most of us spend a huge amount of time lost in thoughts of the past or fears for the future and we miss out being present in our lives.
Pain can be a challenge. Some people with chronic pain in the body learn meditation and pratyaharapractices to help cope with it. Pushing away any kind of pain doesn’t work in the long term. It takes immense amount of energy to keep something out of our awareness, creating a tightness that makes the pain worse. When we turn and pay close attention to the pain, we find that it isn’t this huge unchanging entity. It is quite fluid and changes regularly.
There is a difference between pain and suffering and the difference lies in our reaction to a stimulus. We don’t always have a choice in our circumstances. We do have a choice in our response. When the mind obsesses about something, when we let ourselves get carried away on a stream of thoughts and be triggered, then we temporarily lose our freedom of choice.
Children often lie on their backs outside and watch the sky. If you haven’t done this for awhile – try it again soon. Say you’re on your back, watching the sky. You notice the cool tickle of the grass under your bare calves. The sun feels warm on your face and arms. You let your body settle in and be supported directly by the earth. Your gaze rests softly on the clouds in the sky and your senses are alive. You watch as clouds shift form and reshape. You are fully in the moment and fully engaged with the senses.
Pratyahara, withdrawal of the mind from the senses, does not mean to block things out, ignore or repress the senses. We learn to be fully present, alive, while at the same time not letting the mind drift away from real life by thoughts and emotions triggered by sensory input. Say you notice the cloud being in the shape of a train and that reminded you of a train trip you took when … You’re no longer in the present moment. When that happens, we have a choice to follow the train of thoughts or to gently come back to the present moment.
We learn to be free. We have a body, although we are not just the body. We have thoughts and emotions and that is not all of who we are. Being fully present without attaching our identity to our body, senses, thoughts and emotions, we become aware of the witnessing present through our ever-changing experience.