The Significance of the Four Directions in Practice
I’ve read that the four directions are an important consideration when doing practice. What is their significance?
East is the direction in which the sun rises. It is the source of light, and inspiration—the source of life itself. It is the time of awakening, the beginning point. East tells us that it is time to get up, wake up, start moving. It motivates us to shake off our inertia and begin our day. But as we do this, all our worries and anxieties and doubts and fears come forward. Therefore we need the protector of the East—our own willpower, determination, and clarity of mind—to accompany us. In yogic lore, Lord Indra is the protector of the East. Wielding his mighty thunderbolt he shatters all our doubts, fears, and anxieties so that we can move forward with renewed determination—free from doubt and fear. Because we start our daily journey from the East, the best time for spiritual practice is sunrise.
The scriptures call the night jagatah niveshini, the one who puts the world to bed like a mother.
The sun sets in the West at the end of the day. All day long you experience the roller coaster of life—right, wrong, good, bad, success, failure, honor, insult—and now you come to a point where you need to rest, to let go and replenish yourself so that you can start fresh the next day. Without that rest you will become drained. The protector of the West, Varuna Devata, the Lord of the Waters, brings calmness and tranquility so that you can rest, relax, let go. The West puts you in the lap of the night. The scriptures call the night jagatah niveshini, the one who puts the world to bed like a mother. She tucks you in and lovingly pats you until you fall asleep.
The North is determined by the polar star, the symbol of stability; it is the fixed goal that never wavers. It represents unshakable conviction. There is a beautiful story about Dhruva, a young prince whose consciousness comes to inhabit the polar star. Chased away by his stepmother when he tries to sit on his father’s lap, Dhruva runs to his mother in tears. She consoles him by telling him to turn to his eternal father, Vishnu, in whose lap he will find everlasting happiness. Taking his mother’s advice to heart, the young boy turns inward and becomes so one-pointed in his meditation that he doesn’t even notice the Lord when he finally appears in front of him. Vishnu is so pleased with Dhruva’s devotion that he makes him the guiding force of the polar star.
This story illustrates how to find direction in life and then how to give that direction form. When your conviction is strong, you are under the protection of the guide of the North. Then whenever you become a little bit unstable, the grace of God pulls you in the right direction.
The South is associated with death. It offers complete rest. When our physical body is no longer capable of leading us on the path, then the compassionate protector of the South, Yama Raja, the Lord of Death, makes sure that we get rid of that vehicle and gives us a new one. But the problem is that we form such a powerful attachment to our body, mind, and senses that we begin to believe “This vehicle is me,” and so we have a hard time letting go of it. But once we do, we will find that this “long sleep” is deeply restful. People are afraid of death because they do not understand it. The Katha Upanishad tells the story of the fearless seeker Nachiketa who goes in search of Yama Raja so that he can learn the mystery of life, death, and the hereafter.
How do we align ourselves more with the North and gain an unshakable conviction in ourselves and in Divine Will?
The most important thing is not to procrastinate. When a good thought enters your mind, don’t postpone acting on it. To hear and heed the voice of your soul is to come in touch with the presiding force of the North. Postponing what you are inspired to do is the greatest obstacle on your spiritual path. It invites doubt and fear, and then you start questioning whether or not you should do what you were inspired to do. For those who procrastinate, tomorrow never comes, and they miss their opportunity in life. Therefore, do something! Don’t worry too much about whether you are doing the right thing or not. Just decide and act, and if it turns out to be a mistake, it’s okay. Learn from it and go on. It’s better to act and make a mistake than to procrastinate and do nothing.
Postponing what you are inspired to do is the greatest obstacle on your spiritual path.
Procrastination is the greatest enemy in life. Not falling victim to procrastination is called greeting the Lord of the North. Then you will have a sense of willful determination which, like the polar star, does not change. Once you decide to do something you will be able to do it no matter what. The courage, enthusiasm, and inner strength to be decisive come from the force that rules and guides the North.
In the North you are pulled by the grace of the Divine. In the East it is your own self-effort that is allowing you to move forward. You try your best to accomplish something; sometimes you see a visible result and sometimes you do not. But when you are under the protection of the North there is no chance of slipping or sliding. Then, whether you can see it or not, the grace of God accompanies you in every situation of life.
Why is it that sometimes we don’t see the results of our practices? Does that mean that the practice has not been successful?
According to the law of karma, every action has a result. But sometimes we do not see it and so we think that our practice is not fruitful. What is actually happening is that as we are doing our practice there are other forces—sadness, inertia, anger, hatred, jealousy, greed—that are working against us and these forces neutralize the fruits of our practice. In the process, however, the adverse forces are destroyed to the same degree of energy generated by the practice we have done. And whenever the energy generated by our practice is more than the energy opposing our practice, we will see a tangible result.
For example, let’s say the energy generated by your practice is ninety megawatts and the energy that was standing in its way or coming toward it was eighty megawatts. You will be able to see only ten megawatts of results. So keep doing, keep doing, keep doing your practice, and one day you will definitely see the result.
I’ve read that one should face either North or East when meditating. What if you can’t always tell where North or East is?
Be practical. Use common sense when it comes to what direction you should face when you are doing your practice. Have a space in your house where you can sit comfortably. Organize your house in such a way that you don’t stumble when you walk in the door. Keep your passageways clear. It’s the simple things that are important. You don’t want your space to be cluttered; you should not be bumping into things. There should be enough space for you to move around freely. If your house or apartment is small, have fewer objects, and arrange those objects properly, taking into consideration that convenience, comfort, usefulness, and aesthetics should have equal value.
Don’t get so caught up in the current feng shui and vastu shastra craze that you forget to be practical. The basic thing is to manage your life skillfully. Based on your personal circumstances, you can easily decide which way you should face. I was recently doing a practice where I happened to be facing South every day. But for me no matter where I sit, I face East because I am always focusing on the source of light—whether it is the fire, as it was in the practice I was doing, or the sun. Clarity of direction, clarity of mind, clarity of vision defines the East. The sun is there, the light is there. Therefore whatever direction offers the least distractions and provides the most room to breathe is East.
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>>