DAAJI continues his series on refining habits, in the light of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga and current scientific and yogic principles and practices. Last month, he shone some light on the habit of stealing, asteya, exploring the spectrum of theft and lack versus generosity and abundance. This month, he focuses on the fourth Yama, brahmacharya, which literally means “one who dwells in Divinity,” and is generally understood to mean moderation of the senses.
A cautionary tale
Before exploring brahmacharya, let’s take a moment to revisit the importance of the Yamas. I call them “the five vows of a seeker,” as they provide the very foundation of self-discipline in all aspects of life, from the worldly to the spiritual. After all, who succeeds in any endeavor without self-discipline? But the Yamas also provide us with a cautionary tale, as it is possible to journey along the spiritual path (at least to a certain extent) without fulfilling these five vows, and there is a very good reason why this must be so. Yoga is the path of self-transformation and refinement, of molding our living to such a high order that we become universal beings. Yoga demands a lifestyle of continuous improvement toward that goal of unity.
This process of transformation is most effective when it begins from within, in the subtle body, through doing meditative practices. The inner transformation paves the way for us to change our programmed habits by unravelling the accumulation of patterns stored in the subconscious mind. And the ultimate catalyst for the subtle transformation is yogic Transmission, as happens in Heartfulness.
It also paves the way for us to adjust our outer behavior and attitudes, so that they are in sync with the inner changes, and this is our role as seekers. It means working on our character. Otherwise, as our innate human potential is progressively manifesting, more and more power can be generated, and that can only end well if our lifestyle is of the highest order. As the British Baron, John Dalberg-Acton, once said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Without purity, the mind’s energy is easily corrupted.
The Yamas are an opportunity to remove those unwanted habits that lead to power grossness and stagnation, which would otherwise jeopardize the manifestation of our true human potential. There are many stories of devoted seekers who did not let go of unwanted habits. As a result, they plunged into some shadowy area of existence which can perhaps best be described as self-inflicted purgatory or hell. It is often called “falling from grace,” and the Archangel Lucifer is one of the most famous examples, falling from the right hand of God to hell. We find similar tales in all traditions and cultures, and it is always behavior and attitudes that lead someone into the abyss. The major culprits behind such behavior and attitudes are desire, ego and ignorance.
For example, how did the Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader? He allowed himself to be consumed by grief, anger and fear after losing his mother Shmi and his wife Padme at the hands of evil forces. While grieving, he was easy prey for the Emperor, who took advantage of his vulnerability and fueled his negative emotions. Two things that we would normally consider to be very beautiful – a son’s love for his mother, and a husband’s love for his wife – sowed the seeds for his destruction, because he was not able to transcend his emotions, and allowed revenge to be stoked inside his heart.
The thing is, we are all imperfect. As a result, we are all at risk of falling from grace unless we are continually aware of our imperfections and allow ourselves to be molded and guided in the right direction with humility and faith. The Yamas are the guiding principles that hold us firm and help us move upward toward unity with all life. When these five vows are fulfilled, the ego is naturally subdued, taking its role as our identity and motivating force, rather than raising its hood of self-centeredness and arrogance.
Actually, if ever we were to try to fulfill these Yamas for egotistical reasons, in order to feel self-righteous and morally superior, they would be of no use. It is always good to ask, “Why am I doing this?” If whatever you are doing feeds your self-importance and identity, then you are not going about it correctly.
To be able to fulfill these five vows, a regular spiritual practice is vital, and in particular the practice of Cleaning, which purifies the subtle body. Otherwise, how else are we going to remove the subconscious programs that lead to all the unwanted habits and behaviors that frustrate us?
Previously, we have explored the first three Yamas: ahimsa, removing all forms of violence, forcefulness and imposition in our character; satya, removing the programs of falsity that prevent us from being authentic and truthful; and asteya, removing the habits of stealing from our lifestyle. This month we will explore the fourth Yama, brahmacharya, which means the moderation of our senses and sensual tendencies. Given that our life on Earth requires us to interact with the world through our senses, this particular Yama is involved in everything that we think, feel and do other than when we are in deep sleep.
Many people think that brahmacharya means celibacy, but that is far from the extent of its meaning. A better definition would be moderation of all the senses, or chastity, given that the word “chaste” means “pure.” Chastity is purity of intention in anything that we think, feel or do. Is brahmacharya against sex? No, it is not. Sex is essential for human life to continue, and kama is one of the divine emotions given to humankind. As Yoga offers a life-affirming lifestyle, how could it possibly be against the procreative energy that is essential for life to exist? Brahmacharya is about purity of intention and conservation of energy. Ask yourself: “Is there purity of intention in my sexual relations? Is there love and compassion, honesty, and generosity, fulfilling the first three Yamas? Is my intention based on love and giving? Is there moderation in my sensual desires?”
Many people think that brahmacharya means celibacy, but that is far from the extent of its meaning. A better definition would be moderation of all the senses, or chastity, given that the word “chaste” means “pure.” Chastity is purity of intention in anything that we think, feel or do.
Also, sensuality is not only associated with sex. Our senses can be stimulated by food, clothes, drugs, digital technology, or any other pursuit that leads to desire-based indulgence. Brahmacharya refers to moderation in all areas of life.
How do our senses work?
To understand the practice of brahmacharya better, we need to explore how the senses work. I often talk about the four main subtle bodies – consciousness (chit), thinking and feeling (manas), intelligence (buddhi), and ego (ahankara) – but when it comes to explaining how our senses work we need to understand all nineteen subtle bodies of the mind and how they function together.
Here is the list of the nineteen:
The five sense instruments or jnanednriyas – the ears, eyes, nose, tongue and skin.
The five energetic processes in the body or karmendriyas – elimination, reproduction, movement with the feet, grasping with the hands, and speaking.
The five energy flows or pranas – the inward flow, the downward and outward flow, the balancing and integrating flow, the ascending flow, and the circulatory flow.
The four ants – consciousness (chit), thinking and feeling (manas), intelligence (buddhi), and ego (ahankara).
The first time I read Swami Vivekananda’s Complete Works, I was struck by his understanding of this topic, long before science could fathom the workings of the sense organs and the brain. He describes the physical senses, the jnanendriyas, not as the organs of perception but simply the physical recording instruments. For example, the eyes are the instrument of vision but the associated nerve center in the brain is the organ of vision, and yet both of them need the mind in order for us to see. So we can say that the mind acts through both the external instrument and the internal nerve center of the brain. When we look at the world through the eyes, the mind goes outward, whereas when we close our eyes the mind turns inward, although it is still active – we still see, even in dreams. Whether we are focused outward or inward, the mind is active, and the same is true for perception with all the senses – smell, sight, hearing, touch and taste.
When we use our five sense instruments, they record impressions and send them to the respective brain centers. These centers then carry the impressions to the mind, which are then shared with the intellect, and the ego also becomes involved. They are then transmitted through the subtlest layers of our being to the soul, which receives them. The result is perception. The soul then responds, giving instructions back through the layers of the subtle bodies to the motor centers, the karmendriyas, which then act. All this happens within the field of consciousness.
All three of our bodies are involved – the physical, the subtle, and the causal. The field of consciousness is the instrument through which the soul interacts with the physical body and the world.
Mastering the senses
When this field of consciousness is regulated and stilled through meditative practices, we are then able to choose whether to pay attention to one sense, to none at all, or to all the senses at once. In other words, we learn to master our senses. How is this possible? When we meditate, we close our eyes and gently turn our attention inward, eventually stilling the mind. We go beyond the influence of the senses, both external and internal. This is known as Pratyahara, the fifth limb of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, and it is interconnected with brahmacharya.
With sincere practice and the support of the Guide, we may reach a stage where there is no longer any pull of the senses, and this is known as Uparati. It is a very high state of natural carefree freedom where the soul is no longer tethered to worldly pursuits, no longer enslaved by wishes. In this state, we are able to live in the world with a very humane and loving approach to life. It is not a detached unfeeling state – it is a loving state. As with everything in Yoga, there is a stepwise progression, beginning with the moral restraint and self-discipline of brahmacharya and arriving at the effortless and joyful freedom of Uparati.
The intense craving for this freedom is known in Yoga as Mumukshutva, the last of the four yogic sadhanas. It is the craving to go beyond the realm of the senses, to reach a positive untethered state of natural attraction to God. The self-discipline and restraint of brahmacharya becomes carefree and loving. There is no transaction, and no desire to achieve or attain anything. Instead, there is moderation as a natural condition and an embrace of life from the highest perspective of universal love.
When we meditate, we close our eyes and gently turn our attention inward, eventually stilling the mind. We go beyond the influence of the senses, both external and internal. This is known as Pratyahara.
Going beyond the senses
This dimension of universal love is beyond the senses, beyond our sensory perception, and even beyond consciousness. We cannot “sense” God – we cannot see God, smell God, hear God, taste God or touch God. We also cannot be conscious of God, but although the divine plane is beyond the field of consciousness, we cannot move even an inch toward this plane without first refining consciousness. Eventually, we transcend consciousness to reach the Center of our being. As Vivekananda says, “Consciousness is only one of the many planes in which we work.”
So how do we access this realm? The way to the divine realm is through another type of perception, which is known as direct perception, and it is beyond sensory perception. Direct perception is “supersensuous, superconscious,” in the words of Vivekananda. In fact, all our yogic practices are designed to take us up to this realm of direct perception, which is lighter, purer, simpler, and beyond the senses. Fortunately for us, yogic Transmission gives us glimpses of it from the very beginning, so that we are able to steer our helm toward it.
Happiness and misery
Brahmacharya has a direct effect on our level of happiness and sadness. This is because the spectrum of happiness to sadness is only within the sensory realm. I have spoken many times about happiness being indirectly proportionate to the number of desires we have, and the intensity of those desires. Desires are created by the pull of our senses, and by how much we allow sensuality to develop unchecked. It is through the senses that we tether ourselves to the world of matter, keeping our focus on the things we like and dislike. It is through the senses that we build desires and lay down samskaras. It is through the senses that we are pulled externally into greater and greater entanglement and complexity. And yet, with the right training, brahmacharya, the senses can become our ally instead of a hindrance to our evolution.
From sensuality to sensitivity
When the mind is purified through meditative practices, especially when we develop a constant inner connection to our Center, our attitude shifts from sensuality to sensitivity. We become aware of all our various inner states, known as conditions. We also start to witness how the stimuli travel from the outside world through the senses, the brain centers, and the subtle bodies to the soul, and how instructions travel back out again from the soul through the subtle bodies and the motor centers into physical activity. All this occurs within the field of consciousness (chit). In common language we call this listening to the heart and acting upon the guidance given by the heart.
Sensitivity expands. As well as developing sensitivity to what is happening inside us, we also become acutely aware of things happening outside us, including the needs of others, and the atmosphere and environment in which we move. When this Yama is combined with the other four, compassion is a natural outcome. Our sensitivity becomes an asset to refine ourselves on this journey of continuous improvement.
When the mind is purified through meditative practices, especially when we develop a constant inner connection to our Center, our attitude shifts from sensuality to sensitivity. We become aware of all our various inner states, known as conditions.
When we master the process of sensory perception through the subtle bodies, going beyond the pushes and pulls of the senses, we develop the fourth Yama of brahmacharya. Our thoughts and feelings become moderate in all things. We utilize all resources according to need alone, not according to wishes and desires. As a result, there is naturally no indulgence – it is not an imposed state. A person who has reached such a high level of moderation has an extremely light footprint on the Earth, and does not disturb anything or anyone unnecessarily. The ego takes its rightful place as a motivating force for evolution. It also opens up the way to direct perception, which is beyond the senses.
When we master the process of sensory perception through the subtle bodies, going beyond the pushes and pulls of the senses, we develop the fourth Yama of brahmacharya. Our thoughts and feelings become moderate in all things. We utilize all resources according to need alone, not according to wishes and desires.
What a light touch! Humans would joyously coexist with each other and all other life forms on this Earth if we could attain this Yama of brahmacharya! Our tone of speech would be moderate, our moods, our relationships, our way of eating, sleeping, walking, working and playing would all be moderate. There would be no need to set rules for work-life balance or go on diets to promote healthy eating patterns, and there would be no addiction. Everything would take its rightful place within the state of moderation. May it be so.
Article by DAAJI
Kamlesh D. Patel
Kamlesh Patel is the world teacher of Heartfulness, and the fourth spiritual Guide in the Sahaj Marg system of Raja Yoga. He oversees Heartfulness centers and ashrams in over 130 countries, and guides the thousands of certified Heartfulness trainers who are permitted to impart Yogic Transmission under his care. Known to many as Daaji, he... Read more