Pratyahar in Sanskrit means the inward turning of attention and is Patanjali's fifth limb of yog(a). If unchecked, the whole life long will be spent with our awareness and five sense habitually going out - out to many things necessary, and a whole lot unnecessary as well. The habit is so ingrained that we, perhaps as a society, maybe as a humanity, have become uncomfortable without something out there to capture our senses, partly because there is in fact nothing "in there" to do that.
Patanjali says that the practice of pratyahar will result in the control of the senses, a phrase I try to avoid using in yoga classes. The senses are likened to that of five wild horses, running high speed to try to get themselves filled with the likable experiences, and running with equal exuberance away from the things they dislike. For example, my two-year-old logically concludes that if one piece of chocolate made his mouth happy, that five pieces of chocolate is going to make him five times as happy. We know from experience, however, that if we fill the senses excessively, a few things happen: We get over-stimulated to the point of anxiety (picture a room full of two-year-olds on five pieces of chocolate), and then that over-stimulation turns to dullness and even sickness. And the kicker is, if we keep eat too much of any food in a sitting, our taste buds stop registering the experience.
Four days at the Winnipeg Folk Fest used to burn out my ears so that by the end of the festival I could as if hear the music, but it wasn't reaching me or giving me any joy. As a meditator I learned, however, when this began to happen, that I went off, found a quiet place to close my eyes and my ears, come back quite ready to absorb and be delighted by more high music culture.
Traditional yogis, before the days of the Buddha, were expected to renounce sense experiences and become ascetics in favour of the experience of God. And still modern day priests are asked to take a vow of celibacy (though that may be changing), and Indian gurus will tell their aspirants to practice brahmacharya, a conservation of energy that includes the practice of celibacy.
But here's the paradox... Unlike the deadening of the senses that comes from too much input, requiring more and more of the sense object to satisfy, the practice of pratyahar, taking our attention away from the beloved objects, makes the senses more alive and sensitive as ever. Open your eyes after even a few moments of meditation, and wow, the colours are more vivid than before. Close your eyes, and wow, the sounds in the atmosphere come into focus. Every practice of inward attending is matched by a resounding bell from our senses that they exist and are delighted by their objects.
The recommendations of teachers and so forth that students practice asceticism have often been accompanied by stories of behind-the-scenes behavior. For example, Indian gurus telling students not to have sex, have often later found to be having sex with everyone. Priests who dedicate their lives to marrying the church have frequently been engaged in sexual abuse and even with children! The repression of the sense instincts serves only to push them into the unconscious, from where they proceed to rule with the very power of the unconscious, and unfortunately, with hugely crappy outcomes, especially in the realm of the spirit and where students give teachers spiritual authority over them. This kind of spiritual abuse is much deeper and damaging than emotional or physical ever can be.
Pratyahar is actually a grand favour to us, if we are in favour of sense experiences. The inward attention is going to give us an accurate picture of how we are doing under the influence of one or many pieces of chocolate.
When the senses register the Space, the very place from where the senses arise and to where they return, they will call that Space nothing. The senses require an object with light, sound, flavour, odour, and feeling. So when they go "inside" to the centre of our being (and every being) we have to train ourselves to realize that when the senses are out of their realm, that we have reached the core of our Self, a fine and healthy resting place for our over-worked senses.
Please let me know what your experience is. Kind cheers to all!