Yoga is founded on a unique perspective on human life & existence. As a Yoga practitioner and teacher this knowledge paints my life with a sense of “coming home” – it inspires me, it directs me, it refines my experience and it resonates with my intuitive perception of what is happening in my life. This knowledge has a mysterious affect on my mind – it refuses to get pinned down into a fixed and clear explanation – is it both confusing and settling at the same time. It dances inside me.
I chose to start this journey with the introduction of Elements & Gunas – the building blocks of existence and the forces that shape them.
I found an inspiring description of the elements in Vaisesika Philosophy. It is a practical approach that claims that the fact that are diverse materials and objects in existence, indicates that there must be different subtle (basic) elements – building blocks. We cannot perceive these subtle elements directly – we can only infer their existence based on how they make themselves known to us.
Let’s take for example – Water. We intuit there is a basic element called water from the different forms it takes – we know that water flowing in a river, wine and apple juice share a common element. But we can never perceive this subtle element directly – we can perceive it only when it comes into being in some gross form.
Then how do we know what elements there are? Vaisesika suggests that all subtle elements have numerous qualities. Some of these qualities are common, and some are special & unique. We can’t tell things apart by their common qualities, but we can identify them uniquely through their special qualities. A special quality is so tightly related to it’s subtle element that you can’t separate them – you can’t take the wetness out of water. If we could identify such special qualities – then we could say that each special quality is associated with a unique subtle element.
Vaisesika suggests that an examination of the objective clearly reveals such special qualities – and each quality reveals a subtle element:
- The special quality of Sound points to the existence of subtle element of Ether
Ether is that which has the special quality of sound
- The special quality of Touch points to the existence of subtle element of Air.
Air is that which has the special quality of touch.
- The special quality of Form points to the existence of subtle element of Fire.
Fire is that which has the special quality of form.
- The special quality of Flavor points to the existence of subtle element of Water.
Water is that which has the special quality of flavor.
- The special quality of Odor points to the existence of subtle element of Earth.
Earth is that which has the special quality of odor.
Samkhya philosophy suggests that the subtle elements are evolved from one another – each having the special properties of it’s preceding elements in addition to it’s special element:
- Ether – sound
- Air – sound & touch
- Fire – sound & touch & form
- Water – sound & touch & form & flavor
- Earth – sound & touch & form & flavor & odor
And so we have the building blocks that make up everything in existence. Because it seems so obvious, it may be interesting to note that the special qualities relate not only to the subtle elements but also to our knowing senses – BUT they are not the same. Sound is not hearing,touch is not feeling, form is not sight, flavor is not taste and odor is not smell. This is something to meditate on.
Gunas describe the dynamics of matter – they are the forces that “pick up the pieces” of subtle elements, shuffle them around cause them to take the different forms of matter and objects we perceive. Gunas are foundations of existence, but unlike the foundations of a building, they are constantly shifting and changing. Gunas are also the roof of all change – nothing can manifest beyond the limitations they impose.
There are three Gunas – Rajas, Tamas & Sattva.
- Rajas is a perky Guna – it is activating and exciting, always leaning into change, destabilizing.
- Tamas is an inhibiting Guna – it slows and prevents movement, it allows things to settle.
- Sattva is a content Guna – it is where it needs to be and has no need or motivation to change.
Connected & Ever-changing
According to Samkhya the Gunas were in perfect balance before the objective world manifested – and then there was a disturbance. Which of the three Gunas do you think moved first? Sattva is just fine with the way things are, Tamas does not initiate -so it can only be Rajas. Then Tamas kicked in opposing movement initiated by Rajas. Sattva is a state of balance & harmony of Tamas & Rajas. The Gunas are always affecting one another, leading into and through change.
Dominance & Continuity
At any given time one of the Gunas is dominant:
- Do you ever get the feeling that the world around you is busy or hectic? That would be dominant Rajas.
- Do you ever get the feeling that the world is heavy and depressing? That would be dominant Tamas.
- When you feel that everything is sweet, simple and peaceful, nothing needs to be changed? That would be dominant Sattva.
It would be great if it were that clear and obvious all the time, and though it’s not too far from that, it’s not always so straightforward. When a Guna becomes dominant it tends to stay that way for a period of time. This is most obvious with Tamas – since it is in it’s nature to persist: if you’ve ever been depressed or gone through a phase of heaviness and low motivation then you have experienced Tamas – it is very difficult to escape it.
Rajas is required to move away from Tamas. Rajas is by definition a less continuous Guna – it is prone to change. A continued state of Rajas is likely to pass through Tamas and Sattva. If you’ve ever experienced a period of hyper-activity then you may have noticed that eventually you will probably end up in either sleep (Tamas) or a special kind of stillness, often just gazing at something in a kind of meditative trance (Sattva).
Depression (Tamas) can last days, weeks, months and years. Hyper-activity (Rajas) usually lasts minutes, or hours, very rarely more then that. It if does last longer it will go through periods of rest which can be Tamasic or Sattvic. Still, Rajas can be a dominant quality in people through out life – and for many people it is.
There is no tool for measuring Gunas. They can be observed on subtle and gross levels. We may say that sleep is dominated by Tamas, yet who has not experienced a Rajasic night of sleeplessness and agitation? Gunas also need to be observed in context: for an athlete, running a race may be a Rajasic experience; for a person who is ill, getting out of bed may be a Rajasic experience.
Gunas are not Good or Bad
There is a tendency to fall into a trap of simplifying and judging the Gunas: Tamas is bad, Rajas is good, Sattva is the best. This is a common mistake and a source of much misapprehension. Tamas cannot be good bad any more then ether can be good or bad. Gunas are qualities and life is an ever changing balance of their relationship.
Gunas can be functional or dysfunctional. Sattva is a meditative quality but if it was always dominant and unaffected by Rajas & Tamas there wouldn’t be life. Rajas is a functional quality in our waking ours, but if it were not for Tamas we would not be able to sleep at night. Tamas can be a burden when it prevents us from moving, but it can be a lifesaver when we need to stop.
One of the most useful realizations I had in observing Gunas in my life is that they are bigger then me – I am playing in their playground and everything I perceive, feel an do is under their influence. It’s useless and hopeless to pretend to be meditative when a storm is upon you.
I recall a story about a person who went kayaking. He got caught in a stormy current and fought to get free. He drowned, died and was shortly afterward released from the current further down the stream. An experienced person would have known that your best chance of surviving is to surrender to the current and let it carry you through.
There are times when I sit down to meditate (Sattva) and immediately notice that my mind is all over the place (Rajas). At times like this it is almost useless for me to choose a focus for meditation, as I am not likely to stay with it for a long time. The best meditation practice for me at times like this is to ride out the storm in my mind. When I do this there is chance I may end up in a peaceful place.
The Gunas & You & I
The Gunas connect us all. We may experience the Gunas differently as individuals but we are all swimming in the same ocean, we are all lifted up and dropped down by it’s currents and waves. We are in this together you & I.