Q&A: Meditation and Self Understanding

October 21, 2014    BY Pandit Rajmani Tigunait

You've wrote that “As a meditator, you are at the center of meditation,” and went on to explain that if you don’t understand who you are, you cannot meditate. How do I gain an understanding of myself so that I can meditate? Isn’t meditation supposed to give us that understanding?
It is true that you are at the center of your meditation—if you are not present with your full self-awareness, you cannot meditate—but it is also true that meditation helps you gain an understanding of yourself.

This is the classic chicken-and-egg dilemma: meditation helps you capture your mind and turn it inward, but you need to have your mind with you and you need to be able to turn it inward in order to meditate. Overcoming this dilemma is an essential part of meditation; it can be done only by gaining a basic understanding of yourself.

Self-understanding requires self-analysis. Observe yourself and see what is delightful and what is unpleasant. Discover what drags you into the past and prevents you from remaining in the present. What makes you sad and interferes with your ability to remain cheerful? What creates inner unrest and causes your mind to attend to something other than your meditation? Based on the conclusions you draw from this self-analysis, you can devise an appropriate strategy for letting go of unwanted thoughts and focusing instead on the object of meditation. I’ll give you an example from my own experience.

Self-understanding requires self-analysis. Observe yourself and see what is delightful and what is unpleasant.

One of my sisters married at an early age. She was only a few years younger than me, and we were very close. Soon after her marriage, I emigrated to the United States, and each time I heard from my family, they mentioned that my sister was having a rough time. According to Western standards, she was being abused by her new extended family. When I sat for meditation I immediately thought of her and could bring my mind to my practice only with a great deal of effort. When I returned to India, I heard the details of her ill treatment, and this further fueled my disturbance. I was both sad and angry—I wanted to go to her home and settle this matter, but I was powerless because Indian culture dictated that it was not my place to interfere. I lost my peace of mind. When I tried to meditate I was consumed by thoughts of my sister and could not stop making plans to rescue her.

Years earlier I had been initiated into the tradition of the Himalayan sages and had been meditating faithfully, but now I could not collect myself for even five minutes. After some time, I traveled to Rishikesh to see my teacher, Swami Rama, and during the two-day journey I was obsessed with thoughts of my sister. Finally, I put my problem before Swamiji, and he said, “Your problem is that you are not able to see the distinction between your duty and your attachment. Go on discharging your duties without any attachment. Take your bath in the Ganges, and instead of meditating, contemplate on what I have just said. Then, with a new mind-set, start your meditation.” This formula worked like magic. I realized that, because of my attachment, I could not see beyond my sister’s pain. Lacking self-analysis, I was unable to see that I was so deeply affected by this attachment that had become an integral part of my mind. And as a result, when I tried to meditate, my mind was more with my sister than with me. With this realization, my mind returned to me and I began to meditate as peacefully as I had before.

I have trouble believing that the main obstacle to meditation is lack of self-understanding. Doesn’t everyone in the world have a basic understanding of themselves?
No, unfortunately, they don’t. In fact, many people lack even the most basic understanding of themselves. However, anyone who sincerely commits to self-assessment will eventually gain self-understanding and when they do, meditation—the inward journey—becomes easier. Those who refuse to know themselves encounter countless obstacles when they attempt to meditate. They do not know what they are looking for, why they are looking for it, or what they expect from attaining it, and yet they go on groping in the darkness and call it meditation.

Self-understanding allows you to look at the source of your disturbance objectively. It helps you draw a line between yourself and the source of disturbance and see that you have been identifying with that disturbance. Self-understanding helps you gain a right perspective on yourself and your relationship with what has been disturbing you. And this perspective enables you to discern whether the cause of your disturbance is outside of you, inside you, or both.

Self-understanding allows you to look at the source of your disturbance objectively. It helps you draw a line between yourself and the source of disturbance and see that you have been identifying with that disturbance. Self-understanding helps you gain a right perspective on yourself and your relationship with what has been disturbing you. And this perspective enables you to discern whether the cause of your disturbance is outside of you, inside you, or both.

This perspective enables you to discern whether the cause of your disturbance is outside of you, inside you, or both.

In the example I have just given, I realized that my sister and I had certain duties toward each other, yet no two people ever share the same fate. Diversity is the law of nature, and this law applies in every realm in our lives. I saw that while I must try to do everything in my power to see that my sister was happy, I must not let my sense of duty become contaminated with attachment, anger, aversion, and anxiety. I could help her only if I honored the circumstances of her domestic life. This is what I mean by “self-understanding.” In this example, the understanding of my “self” includes both who I am in relation to myself and who I am in relation to my sister, and this self-understanding enabled me to reclaim my composure and inner stability. When I did, I was able to both meditate and find a way to help my sister.

You make gaining this basic level of self-understanding sound simple. Yet in my experience it is extremely difficult. Why can’t we pause for a moment, think who we are, and place ourselves, as a meditator, right in the center of our meditation and meditate?
Understanding who we are is not the work of a moment. It takes time and sustained attention. Frankly, people don’t want to spend time finding out who they are. We are immersed in a culture that says, “I want it and I want it now.” We want to achieve the result of meditation instantly, and if possible, through someone else’s effort. Yet in many other aspects of life we expect to spend a great deal of time and effort achieving our goals. We study for years to become a computer scientist or an archeologist, for example. Then we are willing to spend months writing programs or invest decades in locating and digging up fossils. Yet spending even an hour contemplating who we are, what our problems are, what is distracting us, and finding a way to remove the causes of this distraction so we can meditate to attain peace and inner joy, seems to be too much of an investment. When we are at work we put our personal issues aside, but during meditation we fail to do that because somehow we are not convinced that meditation, which leads to peace and inner joy, is as important as our means of livelihood.

What is it that clouds self-understanding and causes us to forget who we are and who others are in relation to us? How can we keep ourselves anchored during meditation so we are not distracted by thoughts and emotions?
It is our attachments that cloud the mind. Because of them the mind keeps returning to the objects it considers most important. Attachment cripples the power of discrimination and leaves no room for the mind to even consider whether or not it makes sense to live with the misery it causes. A mind that is clouded by attachment goes on treasuring that attachment and at the same time it complains that it has lost its ability to attend to the task at hand—be it meditation or a project at the office.

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, Pandit Tigunait is the successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas. Lecturing and teaching worldwide for more than a quarter of a century, he is the author of fourteen books, including his recently-released The Secret of the Yoga Sutra, and his autobiography Touched by Fire: The Ongoing Journey of a Spiritual Seeker. Pandit Tigunait holds two doctorates: one in Sanskrit from the University of Allahabad in India, and another in Oriental Studies from the... Read more>>