By Steve Taylor, Ph.D. | Guest Writer
Around 2000 years ago, a Hindu sage named Patanjali developed one of the world’s first-ever personal development paths. Nothing is known about Patanjali as a person – some scholars doubt that he even existed and suggest that a group of different scholars compiled his teachings. However, if he did exist, there is no doubt that Patanjali was an exceptional psychologist. His path is referred to as the ‘eight-limbed path of yoga and is described in the Yoga Sutras.
The first two stages of the path are ethical guidelines, while the third is bodily postures. (These have become known as the modern practice of yoga, although asanas are just one limb of the path as a whole). The fourth stage is control of the breath. The latter stages deal with mental abilities, such as ‘one-pointedness of mind, which is equivalent to what modern psychologists call ‘flow.’ Following this, there is meditation, leading to the final stage of samadhi when the person attains a state of oneness with the world. (This reflects the literal meaning of yoga, which is union).
However, in my view, the most important stage of Patanjali’s path is the fifth stage, Pratyahara, which can be translated as ‘turning the senses within,’ or simply inwardness. This is the ability to live inside ourselves, to rest inside our own mental space, without immersing our attention in external things. Inwardness means living in a state of being without needing to be constantly active. It means living in a state of connection to our own being rather than in a constant state of self-evasion.
The Yoga Sutras describe inwardness as the beginning of the spiritual life, but it is also the beginning of real happiness. It marks a major shift when we begin to seek wellbeing inside ourselves rather than outside. Certainly, it is impossible to find any lasting inner contentment without the capacity of inwardness.
Outwardness – Living Outside Ourselves
Unfortunately, many people lack the capacity to be inward. When they are alone with themselves, with nothing external to immerse their attention in, they feel uneasy. It’s as if there’s a kind of psychological discord inside them, on the surface of their minds, which they encounter when their attention isn’t occupied. They feel an impulse is to escape from this discord, so they immediately seek out distractions or activities.
Television is probably the best method ever devised to keep human beings’ attention outside themselves and escape psychological discord. This is why, from the 1950s onwards, television became the most popular form of entertainment in the world. Since the age of the Internet, TV has become slightly less popular, but at its peak, people in the US watched TV for an average of 35 hours a week, or five hours a day.
While we live in a state of ‘outwardness’ – unable to rest inside our own minds – we live in dissatisfaction, chronically prone to boredom and loneliness. Like addicts, we depend on a constant supply of stimulation – usually in the form of activities and distractions – and when the supply comes to a halt, we find it difficult to cope. There is a continual sense of restlessness, which means that we can never truly relax.
Modern entertainment cultures thrive on outwardness. In the age of the Internet, stimulation has never been so readily accessible. Many people had grown so used to immersing their attention in their smartphones and computers that they had become more alienated from their inner worlds than any generation before them – even the generations who watched endless hours of television.
The Benefits of Inwardness
Living inside ourselves means no longer being addicted to stimulation. It means no longer living a life of constant doing, interspersed with periods of distraction. Inwardness brings a fundamental sense of ease and contentment. We are perfectly happy even if there are no entertainments or activities to occupy our attention. We can rest peacefully inside ourselves, occupying our own mental space and observing our own thoughts and feelings.
In other words, we are able to be. We are able to do nothing in particular without being bored. We are able to spend time alone without feeling lonely. In fact, when we live inwardly, we relish inactivity and solitude as periods of deep relaxation and re-attunement.
The good news is that it isn’t so difficult to cultivate inwardness. To a large extent, it’s a question of habit. Almost from the moment, we’re born, we’re encouraged to keep our minds occupied, to do rather than to be. In the modern world, there is so much encouragement to immerse our attention in electronic devices and social media that many of us have completely lost the ability to be. As a result, our inner worlds have become a kind of terra incognita. We’re so unaccustomed to it that whenever we’re forced to spend time there, we feel uneasy, like explorers on the edge of a dark forest. We feel frightened by the unfamiliar noises and the strange shapes and shades, so we turn around and run away as quickly as possible.
But once we do spend time inside ourselves, this sense of unease usually fades away. We quickly grow habituated to our inner space, and our psychological discord begins to dissipate. This is when the great benefits of meditation are probably the best single method of cultivating inwardness. Meditation makes us feel more at home inside ourselves. It’s a kind of therapy that helps us overcome our addiction to stimulation. It heals the discord on the surface of our minds so that we can gain access to the wellbeing and stability deep inside our beings.
And as Patanjali knew, this is only really the beginning. Once we have cultivated inwardness, then we journey deeper into ourselves. We find it easier to enter the state of flow and live in a state of presence, simply being aware of the experience at the moment. And beyond that, we may reach the state that Patanjali called samadhi when our sense of separation dissolves away, and we become aware of our essential oneness with the universe.
Originally published at Psychology Today and reproduced with permission.
About the Author
Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. His latest books in the US are The Calm Centre and Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. He is also the author of The Fall, Waking From Sleep, and Out Of The Darkness. His books have been published in 19 languages. His research has appeared in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, The Transpersonal Psychology Review, The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, as well as the popular media in the UK, including on BBC World TV, The Guardian, and The Independent.
As the author of Out Of The Darkness, one of Steve’s research interests is “awakening experiences” – moments when our normal awareness intensifies and we feel a sense of connection and meaning. What causes these experiences? Is it possible to control them? Steve’s work also examines the sources of psychological suffering – Why is it that human beings find it so difficult to be contented? His research also shows that many awakening experiences are triggered by intense psychological turmoil, such as depression and loss.
Connect with Steve at StevenMTaylor.com.