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The Elusive Nature of the Modern Sensory Experience

Contemporary Western society swims in a flashy, neon dream. One need merely
walk down any city street to be bombarded with its images: billboards of half
naked teenage girls pouting at the camera, Macdonald’s food restaurants with
reminders that “billions” are served, store windows adorned with skimpy,
brightly colored clothes, flashy jewelry, cell phones, school children sulking out
from under pierced eyebrows and green hair, bottle blonds with tight jeans and
an attitude, chubby, balding men cruising in sports cars. It is as if we are all
chasing something, trying to attach ourselves to something, and yet somehow
falling short. What is it that we are pursuing? Sensuality: contact with the
external environment through those sense perceptions that we access from our
base, physical self.

For the average city dwelling Westerner, this seemingly simple ability has
become elusive. Separation from this supposedly innate capacity to connect with
and experience our external environment has occurred as a result of the modern
lifestyle, which fosters individualism to the point of isolation from other people
and the natural environment. It is in a frenzy to experience sensual connection
that we adopt such drastic lifestyle measures as are seen in cities today.

Classical Yogic texts recommend the total renunciation of all sense pleasures if
one is to reach a state of enlightened, spiritual being. The Sanskrit word for this
kind of purposeful, sensual restraint is Pratyahara. According to Patanjali’s
Yoga Sutras, Pratyahara occurs “when the senses are detached from their
respective objects”. This seems, at first glance, to be the opposite of what is
happening in cities today. However, the poor, distorted sensory stimulation that
one receives when living in a contemporary, urban environment actually forces
one to experience a form of modern day Pratyahara, where one is detached from
accessing their senses.

There are, however, marked differences between modern, urban and classical,
Yogic forms of sensual restraint. In contemporary society, the withdrawal is
partial rather than total, relying on the overuse of certain senses to the
detriment of others. Moreover, even those senses that are engaged tend to be
stimulated in a base, crude fashion that encourages one to devolve rather than
evolve the sensory apparatus. Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani states, “our
sensations are the mere masks and symbols of reality, which is filtered through
our sensory apparatus but of whose true nature we can never have a direct
experience”. The limited and distorted nature of modern sensory stimuli works
to thicken these masks, making it more difficult to see the inherent falsity of
their perception. Modern sensual “restraint” thus takes one further away from
being able to penetrate direct, unmitigated truth while classical, Yogic
Pratyahara works to bring one closer.

According to Swami Gitananda, we must experience the senses comprehensively

and respectfully before we can transcend them; and we have eighteen senses,
each one irreplaceable and relevant. They are: the sense of sight, taste, smell,
touch, warmth, cold, pain, muscular co-ordination, balance, thirst, hunger and
sex, inner sight, inner hearing, inner smell, inner taste, psycho-kinesis, base
senses of sympathy and empathy and the higher versions of these same
sentiments. A fault in the proper functioning of any of these sensory apparatuses
represents a corresponding psychological block. For instance, poor eyesight is not
merely an inherited physical weakness. It is also a manifestation of one’s refusal
to look clearly at the outside world. Adults who wear glasses tend to have been
brought up in families where things happened that they did not want to see.
Such a situation, combined with the artificial stimulation of modern society,
creates a kind of mental “shut out” that narrows and weakens the senses to the
point where physiological blocks such as “near sightedness” arise.

A major contributor to this kind of mental “shut out” and its consequent
perceptive, sensory limitations is the reliance on television and movies for one’s
basic, sensual contact. The information presented by these mediums engages
only two of our eighteen sensual organs: the eyes and the ears. We may spend
hours watching a flashing screen and listening to filtered, pre-recorded sound,
thus relying greatly on our senses of sight and hearing while totally ignoring
others such as touch, taste and smell. Moreover, the information presented to
these two senses is of an artificial, two dimensional nature. The television or
movie screen is poker flat and lit by artificial light. The accompanying pre-
recorded sound is channeled through concentrated, electric speakers. Through
repeated exposure to this kind of presentation, even those senses that are
utilized are at the same time, diminished and dulled.

Sensory impressions are further distorted through the highly contrived nature of
television and cinematic material. The brief final cuts we watch are the result of
days, months, or even years of preparation. A friend of mine who works in the
film industry spends a couple of weeks working twelve-hour shifts in preparation
for the filming of a two-minute commercial. We see a beautiful woman singing
the praises of “Dove” soap, or a crowd fresh faced children gazing in saucy eyed
wonder at a bowl of “Honey Nut Cheerios”, and not the painstaking preparation
behind them.

Children’s television cartoons further warp the real into the televised. While the
cartoon medium, in theory, creates a unique opportunity for artistic expression
through the use of vivid colors and expressionist forms, in actuality, its televised
images are frequently simple and uninspired. Furthermore, they may provide
children with a poor substitute for a real site of the objects portrayed. For
instance, a child may only know about forests through their depiction in
television cartoons. The crude boredom of images of clumsy brown poles topped
with bubbly, green blobs thus becomes familiar while the whispering, swaying
grandeur of the “real thing” remains unknown.

We are expected to take in the artificial landscape of television and movies in a

totally passive state. To enjoy the featured program, suspension of belief is
required. One must abandon awareness of the immediate surroundings and
focus upon a highly contrived, two-dimensional world. Unlike reading, which at
least requires the imagination of the reader to visualize and hear the told
scenario, television or movie watching, at its most basic level, asks for no viewer
participation. The audience is encouraged to maintain an attitude of
complacence while watching material that is laden with commercial slogans,
sexual innuendoes, racial stereotypes and gratuitous violence. A movie theatre
full of docile viewers, casually munching on popcorn while witnessing multiple
murders is an all too common scenario. At home also, one tends to adopt a
simple, sleepy state while watching TV, reclining in an easy chair or even lying
on the couch. The use of the remote control to change channels, rather than
bothering to get up, contributes further to this state of physical collapse.
Psychologically, one adopts a corresponding attitude of compliance and dullness,
using the television as an escape from the demands of the harsh, fast paced
modern world. A child knows not to bother his parents with questions when
they are on “vacation” with the TV, their slack jawed, semi-trance state a
familiar, yet disturbing sight.

There are, however, television shows and movies that attempt to go beyond mere
mindless entertainment, challenging the viewer to think, question and interpret
their content. For example, a nature documentary may encourage one to
contemplate the irreplaceable beauty of an endangered species. A well-crafted,
analytical movie about the Holocaust may foster additional awareness of that
critical, historical event. Yet despite such opportunities for intellectual
stimulation, television and cinema remain essentially static and non-interactive
mediums, unable to fully engage one’s subtle, sensual self. Cloaked behind even
the most apparently rich content is a two-dimensional presentation created for
the stimulation of our sight and hearing alone.

The general experience of living in a modern city further denies and distorts the
senses. It is typical for one to grow up in a high-rise apartment or small,
attached flat. In such a dwelling, one lives sandwiched between other people and
separated from the sensually rich natural environment. Apartments windows
look out to other towering buildings, also dark, stark and artificial. One walks
outdoors into a landscape of asphalt and neon lighting and indoors into a
contained, sterile and utilitarian space. Children are especially affected by such
a situation. For these youngsters, free play in nature is not possible. An
essential part of growing up; connecting with the water, the grass, the sunshine,
and even the bugs is, for many of today’s youth, experienced only through the
dim filter of a television set.

Perhaps a by-product of living in such a cold, artificial environment is our

contemporary culture’s avoidance of friendly, person-to-person contact. Children,
from a young age are cautioned: “never talk to strangers”. Such warnings, while
said with the best of intentions, have the effect of instilling in the child a fear of
contact with others outside of the immediate family clan. Even within the
family, children frequently receive little bodily affection from their parents.
Parents, sensually numbed by the aforementioned media may not be able to
demonstrate kind of the physical contact a child requires. Children, in turn,
brought up on a steady dose of cartoons and commercials, may also loose the
natural desire for spontaneous, visceral contact. Such a loss continues to
manifest during the teenage years through a lack of engagement in non-sexual,
sensual contact with peers. Same sex, affectionate touching has become so taboo
among young, western adults that when they travel to India and see two men
with their arms around each other or holding hands, they are assumed to be

The lack of innocent, sensual contact between youth encourages the current
plethora of teenage “free” sex. Adolescents may take a casual attitude towards
sexual exploration, unconscious of the deep need for physical and emotional
affection that drives it. At some level, however, such encounters are anything
but casual. The initial, naïve sex experience is frequently harsh and unconscious
and the rejection that often follows it can hurt a youth deeply. The adverse
effects of such a severe, de-humanizing occurrence can be extreme, and may
include the additional shutting down of one’s sensory apparatus in protection
from further, mindless abuse.

Even in such a sensually repressed and distorted contemporary world, there is

still hope through Yoga. A basic Hatha Yoga class can help to expand one’s
sensory vista even within the confines of a large, hectic city. Slow body stretches,
conscious, steady breathing and quiet, contemplative sitting help one to
experience the senses in a finer, deeper way. By focusing upon subtle, internal
physical phenomenon, one learns to remain present with less and less stimuli.
Such an exercise in introspection is not necessarily pleasant, as it initiates a
drastic withdrawal from the typical, modern, externally driven tools for “letting
go” such as watching TV. A new Yoga student may thus be bored, anxious or
frustrated by the experience. However, the present popularity of Yoga, in its
quieter, gentler forms, and of other soft, introspective mind/body practices
demonstrates that people are willing to experience some discomfort in order to
undergo a positive, evolutionary, perceptual shift.
It is easiest to fully engage the senses when one is totally removed from the
modern, city environment. Places like the Ananda Ashram serve this purpose.
Here, our senses are stimulated in an unadulterated and all-encompassing way.
For example, the morning Hatha Yoga class takes place outdoors on a rooftop
perched among scores of palm trees and other lush plants. We practice Asanas
while listening to the birds sing, watching the fertile greenery, smelling the salty
ocean surf and feeling the warm breeze wash over us. Experiencing our senses so
vividly, we can begin to comprehend them as the subtle veils of distortion, and to
perceive what lies beyond. Through an aware, respectful and complete use of our
senses, they thus become finer and finer, until they are no longer necessary for

As poet Kabir states:In every abode the light doth shine; it is you who are blind
that cannot see. When by dint of looking and looking and looking you at length
can discern it, the veils of this world will be torn asunder. (II.33.)

Spiritual life, in its early stages, thus need not be sensually deprived. Mindful,
diverse and undistorted sensual enjoyment leads one to become satisfied with
increasing degrees of subtlety, until finally, reaching the gates of true
Pratyahara, he lets go of any desire for external, transient stimulation. Author
Rabindranath Tagore avows: “We do not attain our goal by destroying our path”.
Likewise, only by fully and consciously experiencing something can we fully and
consciously transcend it.

Like climbing the rungs on a ladder, we reach through the senses to more and
more subtle interpretations of our environment. We continue to ascend but by
and by the ladder disappears. To start on a shifty, slanting ladder made with
missing rungs and faulty material would be unwise. Thus, let us start our
pursuit of Pratyahara in as sensually pure and nurturing an environment as
possible. Even if it just means having more plants and watching a bit less
television, it is a step in the right direction; a step towards the realization of
what we must eventually go beyond.