Meditation has become a fad today. Everybody seems to be doing it – CEOs, teachers, students, religious people and even you and me. This is undoubtedly a welcome change in this troubled and chaotic world. Meditation has immense benefits to the body-mind complex. Meditation can change the brain and our moods. Meditation may also play a crucial role in physical health. The benefits are clear. We must all meditate.
However, what must be understood is that meditation is not a ritual-like activity that one performs. It must be coupled with an enquiry into the very nature of ourselves. Meditation without enquiry is like practicing a skill without going deeper into why we practice the skill – without the understanding of various nuances of the skill. A good example would be one is good at playing the guitar and does this as a matter of habit. But one who enquires about the nature of music, its influence on the mind and emotions – really knows the guitar. The guitar becomes an integral part of this person.
Self enquiry means asking the question Who am I? What moves my soul? What is the mind? Where is the “I” that “I” know and use ever so often. This technique was the cornerstone of the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, one of the greatest sages who lived in India in the first half of the twentieth century. Whenever someone approached Ramana with a problem, for instance, “I lost my wife and I am suffering”. He would ask the questioner, “Who is suffering?”. To that the person would invariably say, “I am suffering”. He would go on to ask, “Who is this ‘I’ that you refer to?’. At this stage the questioner would become thoroughly confused.
We all think we know this ‘I’. We feel it is an intimate part of us. Is it our name? Is it our body? Is it a thought in the head? Who is this ‘I’ that we keep referring to. Who is the ‘I’ that gets hurt at what people do (or don’t do) to us? Who is the ‘I’ that is has achieved this or that? Who is the ‘I’ that has a family, a career? Asking these questions is the beginning of the self enquiry. There may seem very philosophical and understandably enigmatic. This may be too much for most of us. We can however, begin far more simply. Become aware of how we behave in some situations. In social gatherings. In stressful situations. Asking oneself, ‘Why did I behave in a reactive manner?” Observing one’s own emotions and thoughts in some situations is a good doorway to understanding ourselves. Did your boss tell you, “This is horrible work”? What happened inside you? What thoughts sprang up in your mind? Did you mind go on a self blame trip? “I am useless”. Did your mind go on a other-blame trip? “This guy is horrible. He shouldn’t exist”. What happened at your emotional level? Did you feel butterflies in your stomach? Did your throat constrict? Observe. Observe. Observe.
Once we begin to observe our actions, thoughts and emotions – without any judgement – we begin to accept ourselves as we are.
Becoming aware of what is happening in the mind and the feeling level is the beginning of self enquiry. A simpler term could perhaps be self awareness. This is the foundation for the more profound, ‘Who am I?’. Once we begin to observe our actions, thoughts and emotions – without any judgement – we begin to accept ourselves as we are. Our flaws are okay. We needn’t run away from them. Our positive attributes are okay, we need not show them off, or feel shy about them. Once we stand back from our thoughts and feelings and watch them like a movie on a screen, we begin to get established in witnessing consciousness. This part of us that can watch things come and go. This part of us that is uninvolved with the external happening. As we establish ourselves in this witnessing presence, we come to realize that we are not just the body, not just our thoughts, not just our emotions.
Meditation helps us take that step back – if and only if – we do it not as a matter of habit, but as a matter of exploration. Many people make meditation into a ritual or a habit. We switch on our apps and do a ten or fifteen minute meditation. This is certainly better than no meditation at all. But in the next step, we begin to gently, playfully, curiously, explore the silence. Who is meditating? Who is watching the thoughts? This involvement into the activity not as a matter of “It must be done” but more from an attitude of “Let me explore this dimension of myself” – is critical if we want to progress on the path of meditation.
Remember that meditation is subservient to a larger goal. The goal of understanding who we are.
Remember that meditation is subservient to a larger goal – the goal of understanding who we are. In that journey, meditation is merely a tool – albeit a useful one. And in this journey of self discovery, self enquiry plays a vital and irreplaceable role. Let us therefore begin to examine ourselves. Let us begin to really know who we are.