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Managing the Senses

For the past few weeks, I have been reflecting on the “first steps” to happiness—the “yamas,” defined as the “restraints” that we need to practice in our daily living and acting. Without these restraints, according to the Yoga Tradition, in the long run we experience much suffering. I have talked about the first four of these five practices (sadhanas); namely, refraining from harming ourselves and others (ahimsa), speaking the truth all the time (satya), refraining from taking things and ideas that are not our own (asteya), and refraining from our deep desire to possess and collect everything (aparigraha).

However, I believe that the most difficult yama to practice in our culture is “brahmacharya.” Originally it was translated as “celibacy,” that is, refraining from sexual stimulation and sexual relations. It was originally meant for the monks and nuns (sadhus) who longed to experience the divine within themselves.

This idea of celibacy was stressed by the monastic tradition of Christianity and later became seen as the best way to get to heaven. This is part of the reason that Christian morality focused so much attention on sex and sexual issues. It was the best way, Christianity believed, to have union with God when our life ended on Earth; in other words, to get to heaven.

Today, the Yoga Tradition teachers have emphasized the broader aspects of “brahmacharya.” Now it is translated as “moderating one’s senses,” refraining from the overstimulation of the five senses—taste, touch, sight, sound, smell.

Overstimulating the senses is the practice (sandhana) of our culture. We listen to scintillating music which moves our bodies in sensual ways. We long for voluptuous tasting foods that excite our palates. We caress our bodies with fine clothes and lotions that make them smooth and silky to the touch. We deeply enjoy, as a culture, all things sensual.

How could that lead to suffering?

It doesn’t in the short run. In the long run, though, it creates patterns and habits (samskaras) that make it very difficult for us to find peace in ourselves. We develop the habit of always going outside of ourselves for joy and happiness. Going inside and finding the true source of happiness (our Divine, Infinite, Perfect self) is a practice that becomes very challenging. I see this all the time with my grandchildren and all the people who come to learn about meditation here at the Center.

When our lives are focused on the senses and the joy that they can provide, stillness and silence become curses and avenues that “drive us nuts.”

What’s the remedy for this “craziness” of the culture, then?

Yoga and meditation, or T’ai chi and meditation, or Feldenkrais and meditation, or walking meditatively in the woods, or sitting with a blank stare at the evening sunset. Anything that brings us inward REGULARLY will break the “craziness.” We have to establish a pattern (samskara) of stillness and inward movement. These moments will bring us back to the etymological meaning of “brahmacharya;” namely, “the way of consciousness, the circle of the Divine, the pattern of God.”

Practicing brahmacharya brings us to experience total happiness, “God-consciousness.” I smile when I write this because that consciousness is “heaven on earth.”

May you seek that and know that!


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