Have you ever paused to think about the mechanics of distraction? Like, how does it actually work? If your mind is focused in one direction, what causes you to suddenly start thinking about something entirely different?
Let’s say you’re writing an important email and your phone dings… One second you’re trying to articulate a difficult point. But after the sound of that ding, all you can think about is who liked your last instagram post.
Or you’re sitting on your balcony reading a great book when the smell of freshly baked cookies comes wafting out of your neighbors window… Your eyes might keep scanning the words on the page, but your mind is now consumed with sugar cravings.
Or you’re driving down the road and pass the restaurant where your college boyfriend dumped you… One minute your mind was happily thinking about the dinner party you were heading to, but after seeing that restaurant, you’re utterly lost in memories from years ago.
Even though we could go on and on with examples like this—because we experience distraction all day long—let’s just stick with these three for now. What do they have in common?
You’re writing an email, but suddenly thinking about instagram. You’re reading a book, but suddenly thinking about sugar. You’re driving to a party you’re happy about, but suddenly remembering sad things from a long time ago. Why? What triggered the shift in your thoughts?
Sound, smell, and sight.
We experience the world through our senses. We take in sound through our ears. Scent through our nose. Light and form through our eyes. Flavor through our tongue. And touch through our skin. Sensation, in one form or another, enters the body through the sense organs and the mind goes to work selecting, organizing, and interpreting the data. And because it would utterly overwhelm us to process everything as if it was new every time we encountered it, our minds create patterns. Through experience, we learn things. We become conditioned to respond to certain sensory data in particular ways. We’ve been conditioned to understand that fire is hot and will burn our skin so we don’t touch it. We’re conditioned by our powerful experiences. Whether an experience is deemed good or bad, if it’s powerful enough it will be forever intertwined in our minds with certain smells, sounds, sights, feelings, flavors. So any time we experience those sensations in the future we can be immediately dropped back into the past. This kind of sensory time travel happens all the time. Marketers manipulate it. They create ads designed to trigger certain sensory and mental experiences in order to push us toward craving.
I know this is a ridiculously obvious statement, but our senses are part of every moment of every day of our entire life. So it’s not surprising that they can feel like both a blessing and a curse. Of course they’re a blessing. Who would we be without our senses? How could we understand or experience anything without them? It’s a blessing to experience and interact with the grandeur of this world through our senses. But what happens when a sound pulls our focus away from something difficult we’re trying to work through? What happens when the smell of someone else’s cookies separates us from the moment? What happens when the sight of a restaurant ruins the potential of a great night?
Our senses are the bridge between our inner and outer worlds. We experience an external sound, sight, smell, taste, or touch and suddenly we’re in an internal state of reaction. Feelings flood the body, thoughts flood the mind, the stories we tell ourselves over and over again rise to the surface, and before we even realize it, we’re strategizing, justifying, and taking action. All this, in response to the ding from our phone, the smell from our neighbor’s window, and the sight of an old restaurant. A sensory experience can cause distraction. A sensory experience can fill us with happiness and nostalgia. A sensory experience can send us into a painful trauma response.
Our senses are the bridge between our inner and outer worlds. Which means our sensory experiences and the state of our mind can’t be separated. So it’s not surprising that Yoga Sutra 1.35 offers the senses as a worthy object of meditation.
This teaching—meditating on our senses—is found in a set of teachings from the 1st chapter of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. As we put forth effort on the path of yoga—the path of transforming the mind and realizing the Truth of our Being—we encounter obstacles. Along our path we will face sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, indulgence, confusion, groundlessness, and instability. These obstacles are physical and mental. They’re internal. They manifest as discouragement, depression, and pain in the mind. As agitation and restlessness in the body. As irregular and disturbed breathing. In response to these obstacles and their symptoms, we’re given the practice of training the mind. We’re told that the obstacles on our path can be eliminated by focusing the mind on one single reality. So far, we’ve been invited to focus on our attitudes toward other people and on our breath. And now, we’re being invited to focus on the senses.
Before we dive deeper into this sutra, let’s take just a moment for practice…
- I invite you to bring your attention to your eyes. Maybe blink them a few times. Notice what you feel. Is there any tension present? Do your eyes feel dry or hydrated? Tired or refreshed?
- Your eyes are an organ of sense perception. Their function is seeing. And their natural object—what they go out into the world to find—is light and form.
- As you look around in this moment, what do you see? And how does what you see impact the state of your mind?
- Think back into the past week or month. Did you see anything that was disturbing—an external image that caused an internal sense of agitation?
- What about an external image that was pleasurable, that brought internal feelings of happiness?
- Can you remember a time recently when you were distracted by something you saw? Maybe an advertisement that turned your mind toward craving… Or maybe you saw something that turned your mind toward memories of the past…
- And here’s a big question: What knowledge do you have because of your eyes? This answer is obviously vast. So much of our knowledge in this world comes from direct sensory experience.
- Knowing this, how do you care for your eyes? Do you have any regular practices to keep your eyes clean and hydrated? To keep them free of tension?
I could go on and on with questions about your eyes, but I think you get the idea. We could follow this same line of questioning in regards to the nose, smelling, and scent; tongue, tasting, and flavor; skin, feeling, and touch; ears, hearing, and sound. In fact, that’s exactly what Yoga Sutra 1.35 is asking us to do. This sutra is asking us to focus on the relationship between sense organs and their natural objects (like nose and scent) and the knowledge that arises through the perception of those objects. If we can pay attention to the working of our senses—to the way our eyes are drawn to light and form or our ears are drawn to sound—and the knowledge that arises from what we see and hear, we will begin to notice patterns of reaction. What’s the relationship between our sensory experiences and the state of our mind?
Yoga Sutra 1.35 says:
“Or (by focusing on the relationships between) the perception and cognition of objects via the senses, and the knowledge that arises from that perception, the mind can be stabilized.”
The senses play a huge role in every aspect of our life… But how often do we actually turn our attention toward the senses themselves? How often do you pause to honor the fact that much of your knowledge arises through sense perception? How often do you intentionally care for the health of your sense organs—your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin? How often do you give your sense organs time to rest and rejuvenate? Yoga Sutra 1.35 is inviting us to understand how powerful the senses are. And it’s inviting us to notice the direct relationship between sensory experience and the state of our mind. How often do you pause to notice how your sensory experiences are causing distractions and leading you in the opposite direction of where you’re trying to go?
We are multidimensional beings and the various parts of ourselves are often competing with each other, which causes distraction and diffuses our attention. Without the ability to focus, we can’t move forward with intention. In the Katha Upanishad there’s a story about a chariot. It’s a metaphor for all the different parts of ourselves. The chariot’s owner is the True Self, the Atman. The chariot itself is the physical body. The driver is the intellect. The reins are the mind. The horses are the senses. And the path the horses follow are the objects of the senses.
The function of the sense organs is to sense. The nose is always smelling for scent. The ears are always listening for sound. It’s the natural working of our senses to constantly move the attention outward into the world, trying to detect and understand what’s happening around us in every given moment. Through the story of the chariot, the Katha Upanishad reminds us:
“When a person lacks discrimination and their mind is undisciplined, the senses run hither and thither like wild horses. But they obey the reins like trained horses when one has discrimination and has made the mind one-pointed.” (1.3.5-6)
As we meditate on the sense organs, their function, and the natural objects they go searching for in the external world, our knowledge will deepen. Through this kind of exploration we can learn about the world around us, we can learn about the workings of our own body, and of course, about the habits of our mental patterns.
If your senses are always running hither and thither like wild horses, then you’re living in a state of distraction and you can’t move forward with intention. If there’s a specific direction you’re trying to move in, you have to learn to pull the senses inward when you need to. You have to train the mind not to respond to every sensory experience it encounters. Through the practice of meditation, we can learn to interrupt the natural outward flow of the senses and redirect them inward. We can take time to rest in the inner silence always and already present within—the inner silence that allows us to sense the Truth of our Being.