SWAN – A Meditation and a Principle

Swami Anandakumar Saraswati

We live our lives on two distinct levels at the same time. There is the life we lead externally, interacting with the world; and the life we are also living internally, in another world as it were, with a different set of agendas.

We are principally aware of the outer physical world. It attracts us, magnetises and mesmerises us, and absorbs our waking hours. But the inner world continues unknown to us, subject to the influences of all that takes place in our external world, in ways we may not be aware of. Because it is so little understood, a conscious connection with the inner world develops into an understanding and wisdom, which becomes effective in relation to our activities in daily life – this is one of the main purposes of meditation. It should then become possible to identify our main priorities in life. How often do we find ourselves in a situation, an activity, a job, a career, a relationship, a life, which is the result of outside influence and pressure, not of a measured understanding of our own real needs? So it is necessary to look inward in order to discover our essential priorities; and then, by bringing all our resources to bear, to act decisively upon them.

Four areas of investigation

SWAN meditation, also called Hamsa Dharana, or the Swan principle, is an effective tool in developing the power of discrimination in these matters. It enables us to develop an ongoing awareness of the most influential forces in our lives. It gives us the opportunity to look closely at ourselves, in a mirror as it were, and see things for what they are, not what we think they are or what we would like them to be.

SWAN is an acronym that stands for four separate areas of investigation: S – strengths, W – weaknesses or limitations, A – ambitions or desires and N – needs or essentials. Each part sets up a different perspective or awareness, which may then interact with one another, depending on aim, intention and focus. We will look at each in turn and then see how they can combine to produce different dynamics.

The first is Strengths. When reflecting on one’s strengths, the aim is to discover all the abilities, the virtues, the best qualities you have, which are active and present now. And then also to discover those qualities that are still in a state of potential, lying dormant, waiting to be tapped. This is not a time for false modesty. All the best you have must be seen and recognised, while at the same time being honest and true to yourself.

The second is Weaknesses. Here there is a realistic appraisal of one’s limitations. It is discovering the parameters within which we appear to be contained. This may relate to limitations of circumstances that we are in or limitations in personality that are holding us back. There may be things that we are unable to change that we have to come to terms with and accept, and also certain limiting qualities that may be overcome in the course of time. Weaknesses are the polar opposite of strengths.

Next comes Ambitions. This can also be translated as Desires. As well as those desires and ambitions we are aware of, it is essential to get in touch with the subterranean forces – the desires that lie beyond our immediate comprehension, but which have an enormous influence on choices and decisions we think we make knowingly. Here you let the mind go free: there is no analysis, it is not checked by reason and may be completely unrealistic; and there is no measure of morality. It will reveal your hidden desires and fantasies – what you would have happen in your secret dreams – which make up the hidden agendas in your life.

Lastly there is Needs. This is the reality check. It is an attempt to become aware of only those things we would consider essential. This will include the obvious material needs, like food and shelter, but you should also consider the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects. It is an attempt to pare life back to the basic requirements. This will give an overall awareness of what is essential to you, which may then indicate a clear sense of direction or purpose. It is the way to simplicity in life. Like strengths and weaknesses, ambitions and needs also have a polar relationship with each other.

The influence of circumstance

When we look at how this process can be applied in life, we will recognise that certain factors have a strong influence on how we see ourselves. Strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs will show different qualities according to which part of life we are looking at.

Take an example of two men who go hiking together. During their adventures they come to a river they must cross. One goes confidently ahead into the river. The other follows but becomes frightened because he can’t swim. Eventually he panics and calls out to his companion for help. His friend is not a patient man and berates him for being so scared, takes hold of him and drags him to the other side. After this incident there is a clear sense of the status between them.

The journey continues. After some time they leave the river and come to higher ground. They begin to climb and the way gets very steep. The man who nearly drowned moves confidently ahead, but the other is getting panicky because he is scared of heights and can’t move. He calls to his companion, who comes back and gently cajoles and encourages him up to a safe place, where they both look out and pause to reflect.

Overall, who is the stronger or weaker? If their adventures had been only in the river, one man would be a hero and the other a coward. And the reverse would also have been true in the mountains. Discovering SWAN will be affected by four factors that influence everything we encounter in the external world: time, place, people and most of all circumstance.

Applying the practice

There are three areas that together occupy all the waking hours for most people. The first is the home and the family – as far and as wide as you consider your love, duties and obligations to extend. Second is the principal occupation – the job you do, your career, how you feel you are productive in your family and society. Third and last is the social life – activities and relationships outside the family and work circles. This may include friendships, pastimes and connections with societies. Each of these areas is important, and our relationship with them defines much of our sense of self-worth, of achievement and satisfaction in life.

The simplest way to start with the practice is to select the area or problem for investigation and then apply each of the four points of SWAN in turn. Comparisons can then be made between the conclusions for Strengths and Weaknesses, and Ambitions and Needs – which can bring further understanding of the nature of the issue and how it applies to you.

Different dynamics at play

However, it is not always necessary to go through SWAN in the same order. Let us take an example to see how it might work. There is a fundamental issue to decide; it may be at an important point in life, certain options are there and a decision has to be made.

Begin with ambitions, desires. Fantasise on what you would have happen in the best of worlds. Go through that process and cover all the bases: contradictions, impossibilities, fantasy sequences going who-knows-where, things that bring up strong feelings, attachments – everything. Allowing freedom of expression at this stage will ensure all the potential forces are taken into account and will not remain hidden. Now go to needs. Isolate the essentials, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually – the fundamentals that you need to live with for genuine satisfaction. These must be realistic and attainable.

Now compare needs and ambitions. Subtract the needs from the ambitions, the essentials from desires. Those desires also included in the needs may possibly be realised and satisfied. Those left over you can consider to be impracticable or unrealistic, at least for the moment.

Now discover your strengths and then look at them in relation to your needs. These two together make the quickest, straightest path. By applying your strengths to your needs, you will be able to develop a clear idea of what direction to take and how to go about it. The strengths have been given a purpose and needs are reinforced by the application of your strengths. Focusing intently on these two, reinforcing the positive qualities, creates a sense of discipline, which will strengthen the management of the weaker qualities and therefore, by extension, of your ambitions and desires.

Now bring in the limitations and weaknesses that are holding you back, preventing decision and action, and consider them in relation to your needs. Identify limitations that are a force of circumstance, which cannot be changed. These kinds of limitations – the fixed parameters – have to be accepted if there is to be any contentment in life. (If necessary reassess your needs if they are proving to be unrealistic.) Identify limitations that prevent you from doing what you know in your heart is the right thing. These are limitations of character, which should be worked on, and can be changed in time with perseverance. Use your strengths to find ways to use your positive qualities to balance and overcome the limitations.

Now return to those leftover desires, which are not automatically going to go away, and may raise their heads again later, perhaps in a more subtle, devious way. If you apply and compare your identified weaknesses, there is the possibility of discovering where the desires come from – the little person inside who is craving something. There may be a reaction, because that little person is now going to find out what he/she wants, but can’t have. This is a sadhana in itself that requires complete openness and honesty with oneself. Unfulfilled ambitions have to be properly managed, so that they are neither suppressed nor allowed to influence your life unnecessarily, because obviously not everything we desire is attainable, nor even desirable. So again apply your strengths, so that the weaknesses in personality, which like to give in to the desires, may be properly managed.

If you come to this point, you will find there is less stress and more energy, because so much is put into dreams and fantasies, big or small, grandiose or petty, if you allow them to overtake you. All effort can now be put into the identified necessities.

Coming to a decision

Once the process of investigation through the SWAN technique is complete, you need to form some kind of resolution. It is not always going to be possible to find easy solutions. Everything is in a continual state of flux and ever changing. There should be an acceptance of uncertainty, or even chaos, at some level. Nothing is ever perfect; there will always be unknowns, so the process should be seen as evolutionary, needing ongoing reflection and insight at gradually deeper levels of understanding. So don’t try to achieve too much too quickly, give it time.

Even if a decision is not immediately forthcoming, a sense of direction or an awareness of changes to make can certainly always be found. Once these changes are put into play, the nature of the situation changes, which is likely to bring more positive insights later. It is an evolutionary process.

It is also important to make a resolve because any insights you have are possibly going to be challenged later by a more sceptical, cautious and questioning mind; or conversely by a mind that goes: the hell with it, I think I’ll just give in to all those desires that are so attractive. So once you have a resolve, decide to act upon it, positively. You have given it your best consideration. You can always go back later to refine and examine more closely.

To realise it, you have to do it

SWAN can be done as a strict meditation practice or as a practice of contemplation in a relaxed state like yoga nidra. It can be done with eyes closed, or open with pen and paper. And when it becomes integrated as a sadhana, it can be done almost spontaneously at any time.

As a technique it can be applied generally, in areas or aspects of life, or very specifically in a particular activity, in problem solving or decision making. To identify, isolate and remove all that is unnecessary, which causes so much unnecessary confusion. It will help at some stage to be introduced to the practice by a qualified teacher, but if the need is there, with the will to find answers from within, it can certainly be done now.

This is a very powerful and effective practice, which gains momentum and strength with practical application and personal experience. You have to use it to find out its full potential. Those who have tried it have found it revealing and helpful. Be ready for both.