In many ways we are sensory receptors. Each day we encounter other objects, people, and places with which we interact in order to survive. We must interact with the world unless we want to become rocks or recluses; in order to even leave our beds in the morning, we turn to the side, plant our feet on the ground, and stand up—all simple acts that require interaction and the senses.
Although one of the major limbs of yoga, Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), encourages us to withdraw from the outside world in order to turn in, ultimately this practice produces an altered interaction with the world. In teaching and practicing Pratyahara, we often arrive at the conclusion that we do not need to be slaves to our desires. By being mindful of our desire for things we do not “need,” we can more easily change self-destructive habits. We do not “need” to consume alcohol, to smoke cigarettes, to over eat, or to starve ourselves. Pratyahara asks us to engage in the practice of locating a middle ground that is healthy and lacks excess. Sometimes we stop here as teachers of Pratyahara. The current landscape of our social reality suggests that this stopping point is not good enough.
The next step involves recognizing that our “needs” and abstaining from unnecessary wants allows us to acknowledge and tend to other people’s unmet needs. At a time in America where so much of the general public feels an intensifying sense of fear—fear for their personal safety, fear for their physical wellbeing, fear for the environment, fear for the future (that is not here yet, but will result from what we do NOW)—Pratyahara gives us the ability to see that the interaction with those around us affects us profoundly. When one person experiences a lack of something necessary for a full life, it impacts the rest of us.
Here is a very small and trivial example: When I do not have food for too long, I get “hangry” (a combination of hungry and angry). I live in a privileged place where I do not actually know what it feels like to be starving, and yet any skipped meal affects my mood negatively. If I am engaged with the outside world in this “hangry” state, I am prone to a shorter fuse and a general lack of patience—get in my path and this may indirectly impact your day.
Now amplify that by imagining a real unmet need or a real, tangible interaction with the world that constantly reinforces a message that you are somehow less than (i.e. racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia…the list goes on). These are practical, logistical concerns in our current political environment. The way we each interact with our environment can either reinforce this message or negate it. Give yourself the opportunity to realize that you do make a difference—that your engagement with the people, places, and objects in the world impact others and adjust accordingly.