Awakening Our Spiritual Senses

I routinely speak about ‘awakening our spiritual senses’ in my classes.

As often as not, a student or two will linger after class to ask what I mean by ‘spiritual’ senses. The idea that we have a dormant set of spiritual senses waiting to be stirred is a curious notion. We assume that senses, by definition, are made of matter and are designed to interact with material things.

That we would have another set of senses of which we are completely unaware seems highly unlikely simply by virtue of what it means to have senses in the first place.

Traditional yoga philosophy categorizes our material senses as five instruments of perception – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin – and five sensory actions – speech, touch, locomotion, reproduction, and elimination. The instruments of perception and the objects of action are, obviously, all composed of matter.

In yoga philosophy there is an eleventh sense: the mind. The mind acts as the reservoir of the other senses. Curiously, yoga philosophy categorizes the mind as a form of matter, too, albeit a much more subtle kind of matter than our physical senses.

As all of these eleven senses are made of matter, either physical or subtle, they are also temporary: dust-to-dust and all that. And like matter, they are unconscious unto themselves, ignorant of their own existence in the same way that a bookshelf or lamp has no conscious self-awareness.

This can be hard to fathom, especially when we take up a meditation practice. One of the first things we notice when we begin to meditate is that the mind has a mind of its own, that thoughts and feelings arise of their own accord. In fact, our initial attempts to control the mind present us with a formidable challenge.

Welcome to the machine.

And since the mind is presenting us with a reflection of our own thoughts and feelings, we naturally think that we are the mind, the reflecting instrument.

But if we are to believe yoga’s explanation for this phenomenon, the mind we think of as ‘us’ is actually an automaton: a machine that perpetually rummages through a vast collection of impressions stored in mental file folders and pulls out thought after thought after thought, based on those impressions, to present to the consciousness that’s associated with the mind.

But the machine of the mind has no independent existence from the consciousness that’s associated with it. The Wizard of Oz is actually the man behind the curtain, not the sound and light show of the machine he controls. Without the man behind the curtain, the machine would sit idle.

In our case, it’s as if we put the machine on autopilot and then became so enamored by its mechanical phantasmagoria that we forgot the difference between our true selves and the machine.

We regain control of the mind by controlling the senses that feed into and out of the mind. When the senses settle down then the mind settles down with them. Once the mind settles down then we can see our own true nature reflected back to our consciousness.
And once we see ourselves as we truly are, we experience ourselves as we truly are without the aid of the mirror of the mind. In the ultimate state of pure consciousness, we experience ourselves as pure consciousness.

If the material mind and senses have been jettisoned in favor of pure consciousness, how do we perceive anything?

The senses of perception that allow us to experience our true nature are not material. Perception of pure consciousness is made possible by pure or ‘spiritual’ senses.

But we don’t have to wait until we achieve a state of pure consciousness to get a glimpse of our spiritual senses. We can start to incrementally activate our spiritual senses from whatever state of consciousness we’re in right now.

The place to start is with a conceptual understanding. To understand the concept of spiritual senses, we first have to understand that consciousness itself is categorically different from the material mind and senses that we’re conscious of.
Don’t believe me? You can discover it for yourself. Just sit for a few moments and observe your mind. It should only take a few seconds for you to notice that your mind has a mind of its own, that it won’t wait for you to propose something to think about; that it will just run off on its own and, if left unsupervised, will pull you into who knows what kind of random thoughts, memories, or fantasies.

None of these thoughts, memories, or fantasies that you can observe is you; you are the observer. Nor are you the mind and senses that conjure up these thoughts, memories, or fantasies; you are the person who animates the machinery of your mind and senses.

As soon as we’re able to make this distinction between consciousness and the instruments of conscious experience, we’ve begun to activate our spiritual senses. And although the limits of language oblige me to speak of our spiritual senses in the possessive, the truth is that we ARE our spiritual senses.

Unlike the material senses that we’re different from, our spiritual senses are our very selves. Being the opposite of matter, they are absolute in that spiritual senses are not different from pure consciousness itself. Whereas material senses are relative to consciousness, spiritual senses are direct manifestations of consciousness.

Sound the alarm!

So how do we wake these spiritual senses up? With a spiritual alarm clock: transcendental sound. This is the true function of mantra meditation. When we expose our consciousness to transcendental sound the original quality of consciousness gradually awakens.

The same applies to our other senses: when we engage our eyes in seeing transcendental forms, such as images of divinity, hear about the qualities of divinity and spiritual relationships, and participate in social activities centered on the developing our spiritual consciousness, our senses become spiritualized.

The idea of a dormant set of ‘spiritual’ senses may seem counter-intuitive at first. But with just a little bit of practice we can experience the distinction between consciousness and our material senses. If we’re truly interested in having spiritual experiences, we can follow the breadcrumbs of yoga down the path that leads to the awakening of our spiritual senses.

What do you think?

Does the idea of a dormant set of ‘spiritual’ senses seem plausible to you? Can we go beyond the physical and measureable to experience the metaphysical and immeasurable? Share your thoughts on the idea of a difference between pure consciousness and embodied awareness.

 

Hari-kirtana

I’m a yoga teacher based in Washington, D.C. and the author of In Search of the Highest Truth: Adventures in Yoga Philosophy. I lead Yoga Teacher Training courses, workshops, and yoga classes. I also serve yoga practitioners as a private instructor and assist yoga teachers in their professional development.

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