Meet the Gunas

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Sattva, Rajas and Tamas or the gunas as they are also collectively known are three modes of being according to the ancient medical system of Ayurveda. The gunas are a condition of our mind and body: how we respond to events in our lives depends on our balance of sattva, rajas and tamas. Being able to identify what state you are in, and how to use the three harmoniously in your life is of great assistance in understanding your own nature and how it can effect your decisions and actions.

The gunas are somewhat of a coverall - not just people but things are also subject to the gunas. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna talks about the gunas, declaring that nothing on earth or amongst the gods in heaven is free of natures modes, frequently referring to sattva, rajas and tamas as goodness, passion and darkness. These modes, Krishna says, permeate everything including food, faith, work, worship, family, charity, bodies, structures and pretty much every free choice that we make. Its comforting to know that from the spectrum of gods to us, the modes are non discriminating and we all have to negotiate our balance and our choices when deciding which state we are going to let dominate.

Firstly, lets understand more about the gunas. According to Ayurveda, the sister science to yoga, nature consists of three primal qualities, these are called gunas in Sanskrit, meaning ‘what binds’ because they keep us in bondage to the external world. The three gunas are seen as the subtlest qualities of nature. These qualities are said to underlie matter, life and mind. They are the energies through which not only the surface mind, but our deeper consciousness functions.

Sattva

Sattva is the quality of intelligence, virtue and goodness and creates harmony, balance and stability. It is light (as in not heavy), luminous and brings about the awakening of the soul. Sattva provides happiness and contentment of a lasting nature. It is the principle of clarity, peace and the force of love that unites all things together. Sattva is the state that infuses enlightenment and our old friend from the sutras ishvara pranidana. It is an aspirational place of evolution that shows the inner work is being done, that it is having an impact, and is fundamentally changing our behaviour. This is a good thing, and having the intention of keeping our lives and selves heading towards sattva as a predominant part of our nature is a useful way of determining the choices we need to continually make.

When you understand sattva, and how it can be applied positively to so many areas of your world and business, you can ask yourself as a decision making tool: is it sattvic? If not, do you need to monitor your other modes or switch to more sattvic actions. To live in sattva is to be lapped by the delicate sea of bhakti, flowing with the tide of giving and receiving. Attuned, intuitive, strong, decisive and clear. You want this. Sattva is the space that we should all attempt to occupy, as it is where you will find the embodiment of your work through your holistic yoga practice.  Making your life sattvic is the aim of the game, as it is within a bhakti practice that sattva naturally exists, as love is a perfect expression of sattva.

Rajas

The mode of Rajas is the quality of change, activity and turbulence – a quality that defines the time we live in without doubt. It introduces a disequilibrium that upsets an existing balance. Rajas is motivated in its action, ever seeking a goal or an end that gives it power. While in the short term rajas is stimulating and provides pleasure, owing to its unbalanced nature it quickly results in pain and suffering. It is the force of passion that causes distress and conflict. In the West, we practically live in Rajasic Park. Our culture is turned towards rajas and celebrates and rewards the kind of striving and egoism that is a hallmark of a rajasic nature. It’s the guna that celebrates the all-nighter to get work done, that closes the deal and goes on a massive bender. If it had a motto, it would be work hard, play harder. If you’re thinking that rajas sounds kinda fun, and a little like a party, remember rajas comes from the ego. It sits in the ‘I’ and is all about the doing. Rajas is the state that causes the elation of winning to soon turn to the anxiety of holding the world above your head alone. It is the separate and suspicious and is unsustainable, and indeed undesirable in the spirit of bhakti when we are all one.

This sounds upfront like I’m giving rajas a bad rap. Not at all. Raja is completely necessary and is part of the balance of the gunas. It is the bridge from tamas to sattva and is absolutely necessary to stimulate action. When there is a cultural sattva deficit, however, and rajas predominates, it tends to cause us to seek happiness outside ourselves and lose track of our inner peace. As long as we remain immersed in the pursuit of sensory enjoyment we fall under the instability of rajas. This is the attachment to sensory pleasures and the eight worldly dharmas that Buddhism talks about, and warns of the misery that comes from getting trapped into the belief of permanency and forever chasing sense pleasures.

Rajasic people have good energy but burn themselves out through excessive activity. Their minds can be agitated and seldom at peace. Those with a rajasic nature tend to accomplish their goals and appear in control of their lives. However, they are not fully awake to their spiritual purpose, and are dominated by the ego in their pursuit of happiness. Even when they achieve their goals they find that they are still not happy – any of this sounding familiar? To get to the state where you are actively seeking change, and seeing that there are big gaps in happiness and fulfilment, you are likely to be living in a rajasic way, with frequent collapses into tamasic states as your body enforces rest.

In and of itself, none of the gunas are good or bad, they are a balance, and rajas is the mode stirring motivation into action. There are times when the special sauce of rajas is exactly what is needed, it’s the umami of the modes. The trick is to avoid being rajasic as your principal state, and harness it like a seasoning to give life the right balance of flavour. There is a place for rajas, like there is a place for a morning coffee – but you don’t want to be overstimulated all day long and having heart palpitations at night. Keep your rajas to be used when it is needed, and take an inventory of where you are ramping into rajasic mode. When you feel anger arising, and passion overwhelming your rational mind, you now know this is a rajasic state coming on, and the antidote is to quickly apply a sattvic solution – yoga, breathing practice, meditation, mantra chanting, playing with your kids or your dogs or anything that brings you into a loving state.

Tamas

Tamas like rajas is a dominant guna of the current culture, and also while potentially disastrous when out of balance, is critical to getting some down time. Tamas is the quality of dullness, darkness, and inertia and is heavy, bringing about ignorance and delusion in the mind and promoting insensitivity, sleep and loss of awareness. Tamas is also in epidemic proportions in society. If you think about tamas as a mental condition, it would be summed up by depression and anxiety. Tamas as the mode of darkness, like rajas, has a place in our lives: we need to sleep and we need to slow things down otherwise it would be like having a bad crystal meth habit to be constantly on the rajasic treadmill (which of course is not coincidental as a drug epidemic to survive in this era).

But we don’t need to sleep 20 hours a day, or be paralysed with despair, misery and paranoia about the parlour state of our lives. From tamas comes the ignorance that veils our true nature and weakens our power of perception. Through it arises the idea of an ego or separate self by which we feel ourselves alone and isolated. Tamas prevails in consciousness identified with the physical body, and an attachment to it as our primary identity and way of knowing who we are. As long our identity and sense of well-being is primarily physical we remain in the dark realm of tamas.

So keeping tamas to minimal levels, enough to give us rest and allow the balance with our modes of passion and goodness is what is required. In Buddhism, depression is seen as part of the continuum of anger. Its anger supressed and internalised deep within. Buddhism generally approaches depression from a quite different viewpoint than modern Western psychology. The Buddhist perspective is that the overriding cause of depression is self-cherishing - seeing one’s own physical and mental pleasure as more important than anybody else’s. Self-obsession smothers consideration for the needs of others and we stop giving love. Depression is consuming and tends to be inward facing in a way which is reactive and terrified, rather than reflective. TS Elliot describes hell as a place where we have no community. Cut off from the world, we sink into unhappiness, self-doubt, and the thought that we are going insane. This is depression.

Buddha’s diagnosis of the cause of depression is not petty or discriminative. We all have self-cherishing, and if we allow it to take over our lives and block our love and compassion for others, we will be in danger of following that awful path into depression. Depression does not cause misery, depression is misery, at its worst. Unfortunately depression most frequently also results in a state of being completely self obsessed with the desire to get out of the miserable state, which of course is consuming and ultimately self-cherishing. Although for people with depression, there is not a whole lot of cherishing going on in the traditional sense of the word. Tamasic states are dire and miserable, and the type of place we get to when we have been in strident denial of our dharma for so long that hope of ever feeling that we can achieve a level of happiness, or a sense of purpose is lost. This place is a gateway for addiction and numbing behaviours as we simultaneously look to numb the pain, or artificially induce pleasure, all of which creates deeper levels of misery and attachment, and a greater and greater separation from our true selves. At this stage, there is often a deep despair as it seems that the pit is so deep and dark that no light will ever penetrate.

While being stuck in a tamasic state at this level of imbalance is no fun, sometimes it is the rock bottom that spurs individuals on to look for solutions or take advice that is far outside their comfort zones. The desperation that leads to trying anything is often what will bring someone to yoga, or a point of surrender as there is a realization that nothing they do is working, so why not try anything. This is a great example of when rajas becomes the bridge from tamas to sattva. Unfortunately many people are able to simply exist long term in the physical and mental purgatory that is the tamasic realm, forgetting that there was ever any other way. Looking outside of yourself, helping others or indeed working for the good of all sentient beings, working in the mode of sattva, this is the real and perfect long term antidote to tamas.

The mind, or consciousness in general when in balance, is naturally the domain of sattva. Consciousness itself is called sattva in Sanskrit. Unless the mind is calm and clear we cannot perceive anything properly. When Arjuna collapses in the floorpan of his chariot, downing weapons and refusing to fight, paralysed by despair and confusion about where his life was at, he is caught squarely in the mode of darkness. Luckily, having Krishna as his friend and charioteer, and an exemplar of the modes not only in balance, but transcended, Arjuna is able to receive instant triage around his crisis, and be gently chided out of his tamasic breakdown, back into his dharma, and a place of sattva, with a side order of rajas to get him back into the battle.

Sattva is finding the balance of rajas and tamas. Living a sattvic lifestyle with intention, which is living in harmony with nature and our inner self, cultivating purity, clarity and peace is recommended while in pursuit of spiritual growth. And not just spiritual growth, it is essential to our capacity to perform as good hustlers. Ultimately what is needed is awareness. An understanding of the nature of the gunas at play and a recognition of them, being able to witness the gunas gives you the power to use them in balance and in harmony with life and all it encompasses.

Polly McGee