Learning to use new senses17 min read

One of the things that science has taught us is that we can perceive nothing unless we have the necessary sense organs. We are completely unaware of those parts of the universe which we are not equipped to perceive. One of the latest instances of this is the discovery by the use of radio telescopes of many radio stars in the sky which give out no visible light and whose existence we did not even dream of until these instruments were developed. The part of the electromagnetic spectrum to which our eyes are sensitive is only a very small band of wavelengths ranging from what we call red light through the spectral colours to what we call violet light; the radio waves are beyond the red, just as the cosmic rays are a long way beyond the violet and the ultra-violet.

There are animals, as we now know, who can see parts of the spectrum which we cannot see. The owl, which hunts by night, is sensitive to infra-red, and can see clearly objects which to us are as if they were in darkness. The bat’s cry, which we cannot hear because it is too high a frequency for our ears, is not only heard by the bat but is used as its means of guiding itself most skilfully. It hears the echo of its cry from any obstacles and avoids them even in complete darkness. This is another example of the fact that we only perceive that for which we have sense organs.

In our own bodies once the surgeon has penetrated the skull under a local anaesthetic he can operate on the brain with impunity because, unlike the skin, the brain feels neither touch nor pain. As soon as the layers which do feel it—like the skin— are passed, we have no sensation of the surgeon’s knife. Our stomachs are insensitive to light, our tongues are insensitive to sound. Any part of our body only feels that sort of sensory stimulation for which it has developed sense organs.

But man, unlike all the other animals, is in a very special position because he is actually able to make new senses for himself. The radio telescope is one example of this, and there are many others. The light microscope and the electron miscrocope have made available to him areas of the outside world which his own unaided senses would not have had access to. Through telescopes he has been able to see things far finer and at a far greater distance than the lenses of his eye would allow. Through X-rays he has been able to see the bony structure in the living body. And so he alone of the animals has been able to augment his senses and to develop new senses and in this way to open up new regions of experience to himself,

When one develops such new senses one has to learn to use them. Anyone who is presented with a microscope or a radio telescope will not get very much information out of it until he has learnt to use it; exactly the same is true of senses in our own body which by some quirk we have been given anew. We do not remember learning to use the senses as babies because the process is part of our general growth and development and it is lost in that time when the mind itself is developing. The experiencing entity is developing and so we do not record this process. But in certain people where, for instance, cataract of both eyes has existed from birth, an operation may suddenly give them their sight when they are already adult. Then one finds that, although they have the same sense organs as we have, it takes them many weeks to be able to make sense of the impressions and they have to learn laboriously by analogy with the things which they know so well through touch, what these new things that they are meeting are.

They have to learn what a table and chair look like. Some of the accounts describe how these patients may have to count the corners of a square or a triangle in order to realize how many corners it has and thus to realize the shape; only gradually do they learn what the whole shape looks like. So when we have new senses given us we have to learn to use them. We are like Plato’s men in the cave who, having lived all their life watching the shadows on the wall cast by the objects moving outside in the sunlight, are suddenly taken out to see the objects themselves and, having only known shadows, they have to learn to see the objects as they really are.

Now the teaching of Yoga is that man spiritually is in a similar position, and that he must develop certain latent spiritual faculties which he possesses; not only awaken them, but also learn to use them, if he is to become a fully human being. The ordinary man is only half-awakened: there are many regions of experience to which he is blind. It is as if they did not exist, because he has not got the necessary senses. And the Yogis say that one of the great tasks before each and every man is to awaken the spiritual faculties within him.

This process is not like acquiring a new brand of learning. It is not like going to school and learning mathematics or philosophy. The Persian mystic, Rumi, says: “There is the intellectual quest. What is the use of such a quest, O ingenious one ? That perchance by its means a man of weak understanding may find his way to that place and gain some idea of the truth.” Rumi is saying that intellectual enquiry into the spiritual science may satisfy an intellectual curiosity; a man can go to the teachings of the Yogis and find out exactly what they say and try to understand their philosophy and their doctrine; but the use of this is simply that someone of weak understanding, that is, someone whose spiritual senses are not awake, may gain, not the truth itself, but some idea of it. And he goes on: “Yet the intellectual quest, though it be as fine as pearls and coral, is other than the spiritual quest.

The spiritual quest is on another plane, the spiritual wine has another consistency…. The intellectual man is perfect on the side of sense perception and understanding but he is ignorant in regard to the spirit. Know that the quest of the intellect and the senses is concerned with effects and secondary causes. The spiritual quest is either wonder or the father of wonder (either wonderful or beyond wonder). The illumination of the spirit comes; then there remains not, O thou who seekest illumination, conclusion and premise or that which contradicts a statement or that which renders its acceptance necessary. Because the seer on whom God’s light is dawning is quite independent of the logical proof, which resembles a blind man’s staff”.

This passage makes clear at the outset that we are not here dealing with an extension of the intellectual knowledge. Yoga is not offering man yet another theoretical science, but the chance to awaken those spiritual faculties which will give him knowledge of the spiritual truth of his own nature.

This awakening comes through the discipline of Yoga called samyama, and it leads to that kind of knowledge which Plato described as “something which comes in a moment like a light kindled from a leaping spark, which once it has reached the soul finds its own fuel”. There is something in the being of man, say the Yogis, which is already there, which only needs to be lit, to be awakened; and once that knowledge has come, then, as Rumi says, that man, that seer, is quite independent of the logical proof, which resembles a blind man’s staff.

The first step in samyama, in Yoga practice, is to be able to withdraw the mind at will, called in the classics pratyahara. As the Gita says in the second chapter: “He who draws away the senses from the objects of sense on every side as a tortoise draws in his limbs into the shell, his mind is firmly set in wisdom.” Being able to withdraw the mind implies that one can overcome distraction, that one can at will concentrate the mind on what one wants to. It is a negation of the mind following the aimless stream of irrelevant ideas. It is, in fact, the practice of conscious living which is the definition of Yoga given in the Gita. This control, consciously achieved by the efforts of the will, is the first stage of the Yoga discipline.

According to the classics of Yoga there are three stages in meditation, called in Sanskrit dharana, dhyana and samadhi, which we can translate for convenience as concentration, meditation and absorption. The first of these, dharana or concentration, means the focusing of the withdrawn and tranquillized mind, restricting the mindstream to one point. This one point may be an object of meditation or it can be a point in space (one can think of the heart centre or of the region between the eyebrows or concentrate on a line of light down the centre of the body). Or one might concentrate on the syllable OM. All these practices are examples of dharana. The root meaning of the word dharana is to maintain or support, and the idea behind it is that the attention is maintained consciously by the will on the object or the spot chosen.

The mind is withdrawn (pratyahara) and then concentrated. One could say that dharana is practised even by many non-Yogis in a certain sense all through ordinary life. There is a very good example in the life of the great Russian physiologist Pavlov, who was taken by his wife to see a performance at the Bolshoi. The great scientist was one-pointedly interested in his work. And when he was asked by a friend the next day how he had enjoyed the performance, he said, “Well, I’m very sorry, but I really remember nothing at all about it, because I had a very important experiment I was going to do and I spent the whole evening thinking of that”. This is an example from ordinary life of dharana, the ability to withdraw the mind completely from the surrounding distractions and to concentrate it on the object which one chooses.

When dharana has been done for some time, then supervenes the stage of dhyana, or meditation proper. Here the mind becomes fully concentrated “like a lamp in a windless spot”, unconscious of anything else but the object of meditation. There is a continuous flow of the mindstream upon the object, unbroken by any other cognition. Consciousness of the external world is lost, but it can be restored by a strong stimulus. In this stage the meditator is entirely absorbed in the object of meditation. Again it is possible to give instances of something which comes near to this in ordinary life, but they are very exceptional occurrences.

Two examples come to mind described by Russell in his book Portraits from Memory. He says of his teacher Whitehead that “his capacity for concentration on work was quite extraordinary. One hot summer’s day when I was staying with him in Grantchester, our friend Crompton-Davies arrived and I took him into the garden to say ‘How-do-you-do?’ to his host. Whitehead was sitting writing mathematics. Davies and I stood in front of him at a distance of no more than a yard and watched him covering page after page with symbols. He never saw us, and after a time we went away with a feeling of awe.” Now this is not, of course, dhyana; but it shows something of the degree of concentration which is characteristic of dhyana, because technically in Yoga the characteristic of dhyana is that the concentration on the object is so strong that any outer stimulus, unless it is very strong, will not distract the attention. A strong enough stimulus will do so. If they had gone to Whitehead and shaken him, no doubt he would have (with regret) left his mathematics and attended to them.

Russell also described the intense degree of concentration which he himself achieved when he was writing a series of lectures on Our knowledge of the external world: “Throughout 1913 I thought about this topic; in term time in my rooms at Cambridge, in vacations in a quiet inn on the upper reaches of the Thames. I concentrated with such intensity that I sometimes forgot to breathe and emerged panting as from a trance.” This is another instance, not from the field of Yoga itself, of the use of intense concentration by people who have been very creative in their thinking.

Meditation itself is not the same as knowledge. It is not held in Yoga that when you take a meditation you are gaining knowledge. Russell says that by this intense thinking he filled his mind with the ideas. Then he left it for some time, and when he actually came to write the lectures he found that his unconscious mind had done a lot of the work and that he was able to dictate them straight off”. This illustrates another principle of meditation, that what is done consciously at the time of meditation is only a small part of the meditation, and that it is through the effect of the practice sinking into the mind and bringing about the changes in the mind, awakening the latent faculties of the mind, that meditation becomes truthbearing.

The final stage of Yoga practice, of samyama, is samadhi or absorption. In this the consciousness of the meditator as a separate entity is lost in the object of meditation. The subject meditating and the act of meditation are merged into the object of meditation. This is what Dr. Shastri says in the book on Meditation about this state of absorption: “When under the influence of the object meditated upon the meditation becomes free from all separate notions of meditation, object of meditation and meditator and continues to subsist entirely in the form of the object of meditation, this state is called conscious samadhi. Relative or total loss of the subject-object consciousness produces the conscious samadhi.”

In the Eastern classics they give the simile of an arrowmaker working outside his smithy on the roadside who was so absorbed in concentrated attention on the arrow tip that he was making, that he failed to notice the king passing by in procession down the street. The Yogis say that this state is the culmination of the meditation practice, which is acquired consciously through the application and effort of the will applied in the preceding stages of preparation, concentration and meditation. But samadhi itself is not maintained by the will. In it the will is absorbed.

St. Theresa’s account of the role of the will in the stages of meditation or mystical illumination is in many ways a very close parallel to these stages of samyama in the Yoga practice. She likens the soul and the mind to a garden, presided over and cared for by a gardener who symbolizes the will, the faculty responsible for the conscious efforts of the individual to achieve the state of spiritual illumination.

The spiritual light she symbolizes as the water which, when it is given to the garden, renders it fresh and sweet. It is, in fact, the cause of all the growth of the plants and trees in the garden. In the first stage of the mystic practice, she says—which we can liken in Yoga to the stage of conscious control and withdrawal of the distracted mind from outer objects—each bucket of water has to be brought by hand by the gardener from the well. The will has to make a separate conscious effort on each occasion to still the mind. It is very laborious, and the watering itself is not very efficient; the few buckets hardly suffice to keep the ground moist. So it is at the outset in meditation. The will has to work very hard to achieve concentration and to keep the distractions at bay, and not much result seems to be got for it.

As practice is continued we soon reach the second stage which corresponds in Yoga to the stage of dharana or concentration. St. Theresa says that here the bucket is still used but we have a waterwheel at the well. Many more buckets can be carried for the same effort. The watering is still entirely the result of the gardener’s labour—the will must still the mind and must be used consciously all the time on the mind—but it is much easier and more successful. By the efforts of will in the stage of concentration the mind is kept saturated in the thought of the meditation. But at this stage if there is any slackening in the efforts, any falling off in the labours of the gardener, then the garden will soon dry and the results achieved by the efforts will be dissipated again.

Dharana in Yoga, the stage of concentration, gives way to dhyana, meditation, in which Patanjali says that the ideas in the mind flow in a continuous stream on the object of meditation. According to St. Theresa, the third stage is like watering the garden not by bucket and waterwheel but by diverting a stream or brook through it. This method waters the ground much more efficiently because the ground becomes thoroughly saturated. There is less need to water the garden often and the gardener’s labour is much less.

The will only has to direct the stream, but once it has been directed then the stream itself does the work. He must still tend it to some extent but his work is relatively easy. In this stage of meditation the distractions have died away and the will is not so active. The meditation can be disturbed, but only by a strong interruption. It is, as the Gita says, “like a lamp in a sheltered spot which bums steadily.”

But there is a further stage, absorption or samadhi, and it corresponds to the fourth stage spoken of by St. Theresa. In this the garden is watered not by any effort of the gardener but by the showers of rain from on high. This, she says, is incomparably better than any of the other ways. It is not a function of the individual will of the meditator; it is the grace of the Lord Himself which brings about this final stage in meditation.

It may be surprising to those who do not recognize that the spiritual truth is one and that it has been approached by the great saints and mystics of all religions, that the writers of these two traditions, who can have known nothing of each other at the time that they were writing, should have spoken with such unanimity on these stages. In his Yoga Sutras Patanjali actually calls samadhi, dharmamegha, ‘a raincloud of dharma,’ because it showers forth countless streams of the water of immortality.

Some people may say: “Isn’t this emphasis on meditation a doctrine of retreat from the world and a withdrawal from life?” Those who have read the Gita will know that this is not the teaching of Yoga. Yoga teaches that man should live amphibiously; that he should be able to turn within to the spiritual sources of peace and light within his own being, but that this light which he gains in this way is be to expressed in active life in the world.

One of the great modern Yogis, Swami Rama Tirtha, says, “The temporary experience in which the subject becomes unconceived of bodily sensation is called samadhi. The process by which he comes out of samadhi time after time to work its volume of force into his daily life is known as realization”.