Restraining the Senses (Dama)

Most of us have no idea how many processes are vigorously at work inside a computer to make it easy for us to write or read a text, to watch a video, or to listen to music. A software code may look like total gibberish to the untrained, but thanks to those apparently nonsensical set of numbers, letters and symbols, and the hardware that complements them, even dummies like us can understand what we get to see on our screens. Something similar happens when the world appears on the screens of our minds. There is a lot going on below the surface. Really a lot!

What the senses (indriya) bring to the inner instrument (antaḥkaraṇa) are an incredible variety of sensations of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. The moment the sensations come in, they are at once compared to the database in the mind and decoded. Each sensation is assigned a meaning with a corresponding idea and word. The incoming information gathered by the senses then seems to coalesce magically into a recognizable world, bringing to life what feels like a three-dimensional reality with all its colors and flavors, sights and sounds—and that is what we see on the mind’s screen. All of this happens instantaneously. As Swami Vivekananda wrote (CW, 9. 297): “Something—‘x’—acts on the brain through the nerves, the reaction is this world.”

Swamiji elaborated on this in a lecture he delivered in Lahore (presently in Pakistan) on November 12, 1897 (CW, 3. 403):

 

“Suppose we represent the external world by ‘x,’ what we really know is ‘x’ plus mind, and this mind-element is so great that it has covered the whole of that ‘x’ which has remained unknown and unknowable throughout; and, therefore, if there is an external world, it is always unknown and unknowable. What we know of it is as it is moulded, formed, fashioned by our own mind.”

 

It is clear that we don’t really see the world, we only see the interpreted version of the incoming sensations. It feels like a colossal cosmic conspiracy meant to delude us into believing in the existence of the world as we see it. What is really out there, if anything at all, is something we may never know.

It is the outward movement of the senses that starts the ball rolling. It doesn’t take too long to find ourselves getting embroiled in the world, an involvement that makes our life inseparable from stress and strain, pain and suffering. The problem begins with the senses going out. That’s the only thing the senses do! They go out, not in, so outside is all that we see, not inside. It is almost as if the senses are deliberately designed with this deficiency. Listen to the words of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad (2.1.1):

पराञ्चि खानि व्यतृणत्‌ स्वयम्भूस्तस्मात्पराङ्पश्यति नान्तरात्मन् ।

parāñci khāni vyatṛṇat svayambhūs-tasmāt parāṅ-paśyati na antar-ātman.

 

“The self-existent [Supreme Being] destroyed the senses by creating them with outgoing tendencies. That is why people see only what is outside, not the inner self.”

 

Even one of the senses—what to speak of five!—is enough to bring about destruction. Attracted to the sound of a mimic deer call, a deer is lured by hunters. Attracted to touch and moving in tightly knit groups, elephants often walk into pit traps. Attracted to the light of a flame, a moth is burnt to death. Attracted to taste, a fish bites the bait. Attracted to smell, a bee dies by foraging on the nectar of toxic plants. Śrī Śaṅkarācārya’s Vivekacūḍāmaṇi, 76, points this out in a powerful verse:

शब्दादिभि: पञ्चभिरेव पञ्च पञ्चत्वमापु: स्वगुणेन बद्धा: ।

कुरङ्ग-मातङ्ग-पतङ्ग-मीन-भृङ्गा नर: पञ्चभिरञ्चित: किम् ॥

Śabdādibhiḥ pañcabir-eva pañca pañcatvam-āpuḥ svaguṇena baddhāḥ;

Kuraṅga-mātaṅga-pataṅga-mīna-bhṛngāḥ naraḥ pañcabhir-añcitaḥ kim.

 

“The attraction to even one of these five sense objects, such as sound etc., becomes the cause of death to a deer, an elephant, a moth, a fish, and a bee. What, then, to speak of the human being who is attracted to all of these five!”

 

This is at once a sobering and frightening realization. The senses are at present a source of our happiness but they also bring a lot of sorrow and suffering. That is what the “outside” does to us. What about the “inside”? Inside is where the self is, the real me. To see the inner self I have to stop looking outside—and the only way to do that is to shut the outgoing senses, which is by no means easy. It needs a courageous, determined person to do this. The Kaṭha Upaniṣad goes on to say in the same verse (2.1.1):

कश्चिद्धीर: प्रत्यगात्मानमैक्षदावृत्तचक्षुरमृतत्वमिच्छन् ।

Kaścit dhiraḥ pratyag-ātmānam aikṣat āvṛtta-cakṣuḥ amṛtattvam icchan.

 

“Seeking immortality, a rare discerning person shuts the senses and beholds the inner self.”

 

Obviously, the difficult part is to shut the senses. How can we stop the chronically outgoing senses from going out? One way is to try to shut the door on them, at least as best we can. That is what we try to do while praying and meditating. We close our eyes, we don’t eat, we try to find a place free from noise and offensive smell, and we don’t wear skin-tight clothes. We can’t close the senses totally but even a partial covering helps. What cannot be shut down as easily is the mind, hence the importance of having the mind under control, the practice known as śama, which we discussed earlier.

While it makes sense to stop feeding the senses as far as it is possible during prayer and meditation, we obviously cannot do that all the time for the simple reason that it is not possible to do so, but even if it were, what would be the point of living if the senses are shut down all the time? The senses are troublesome all right, but is there anything we can do about it? Since we cannot change their basic nature, let us at least learn from the experiences they bring us.

The vital question therefore is: can we allow the senses to do what they do while still retaining control over them? The answer is yes. We only have to train the senses properly through the practice of discernment (viveka) and detachment (vairāgya). This should normally free us from suffering, but that is not what happens, because life happens! Past habits force us to go back to thinking and doing the way we have done countless times before to our own detriment and sorrow.

Only when an experience is especially traumatic or challenging does it leave behind a deep enough impression which prevents us from repeating the action. If I have suffered from poison ivy, I shall instinctively keep away from areas that have more of them. If looking directly at the sun has damaged my eyes, I will never again attempt to do that. If I am allergic to certain foods, then I’ll avoid eating them. With the exception of such situations, our senses take in everything quite indiscriminately. They have no inbuilt filters and that’s a problem.

It is helpful to remember the evocative “chariot imagery” (ratha-kalpanā) presented in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad (1.3.3-9). The body (śarīra) is the chariot and the self (ātman) is the master. The intellect (buddhi) is the charioteer, the mind (manas) is the reins, and the senses (indriya) are the horses galloping on the path of this world, which is filled with varied objects of all kinds. To reach the destination quickly and safely, it is vital that the charioteer remains alert, holding the reins tightly (śama) and controlling the horses (dama), so they don’t go berserk but remain on the path. What we need is a charioteer who is vigilant, determined and in control—and that is what makes restraining the senses easier.

The two practices—restraining the mind and restraining the senses—are clearly connected and interdependent. They support and enhance each other. A disciplined mind helps the process of restraining the senses, and the restrained senses make controlling the mind easier. We might as well think of the two practices as one, since the mind is often considered “the sixth sense.”

We have so far seen two of the “six treasures”—namely, restraining the mind and restraining the senses. The third is the practice of pulling the mind and the senses back if they manage to slip out in spite of the restraints. This is called uparati, and we will take a look at it next time.



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