The Powerful Influence of the Three Gunas

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As I’ve said previously, there can often be a gap between a person starting to intellectually understand that they are the eternal, ever-present Being and actually experiencing the freedom and wholeness that comes when you really reside in and identify as that undivided Presence.

I’ve also written about the importance of scriptural study and Self-Inquiry in bridging that gap. But what if the scriptures just don’t really connect with your experience of yourself and the world, so you find it hard to actually engage with them? How can you even get to a place where you are inclined to spend time in study or meditation or properly pursue a spiritual practice? Or, alternatively, what if you read and practice but it doesn’t seem like you’re making any progress?

This is not just for someone who wants to pursue a spiritual path, but also for someone who just wants to live a happy and harmonious life.

In these circumstances, understanding and working to influence the play of the gunas can be deeply transformative. And this is the case not just for someone who wants to pursue a spiritual path, but also for someone who just wants to live a happy and harmonious life.

In Advaita philosophy, the three gunas—sattwa, rajas and tamas—are understood to be three fluctuating qualities of nature which you and all of creation are formed of, yet which ultimately are not separate from the pure Being, the Self. I sometimes think of them as being like the three basic particles—protons, electrons and neutrons—one with a positive charge, one with a negative, one neutral, which between them make up every atom in the universe and allow the atoms to bind together.

In order to live in the world, all three gunas must be present, but how much of each guna is present for each of us at any given time greatly influences our physical and mental functioning and thus our daily lived experience.

Sattwa provides the qualities of awareness, clarity, alertness, happiness, peacefulness, spaciousness and cleanliness. Rajas brings the necessary qualities of activity, energy and courage but also anger, anxiety, restlessness, fear and greed when it is too predominant. Tamas introduces dullness, inertia, forgetfulness, delusion and destructiveness but also has a necessary grounding influence and enables us to sleep.

The practices of yoga—hatha yoga, pranayam, meditation and scriptural study—have all been devised to increase sattwa.

When we think about the practices of yoga—hatha yoga, pranayam, meditation as well as scriptural study—they have all been devised to increase sattwa. This is not a co-incidence, because a sattwic mental state is essential for a person to be able to recognise themselves as the eternal Being. We can understand why this is the case if we think about the analogy of the sun shining on a lake. When the lake is still and calm like sattwa, the reflection of the sun can be seen very brightly and clearly. If the lake is wavey and choppy (rajas), the reflection of the sun becomes completely fragmented, as if there are lots of small separate suns. And when the lake is full of mud and weeds (tamas), you can’t see the sun at all. The same is the case with the pure Self shining through the atmosphere of our minds.

There’s so much more that can be said about how the gunas impact different aspects of our lives and how we can learn to cultivate sattwa in a world dominated by rajas and tamas, and I’ve only just been able to touch the surface here, so I’ve prepared a PDF booklet that you can download (for free) if you’d like more information about this. For the yoga teachers amongst my readers, it also includes suggestions about how yoga classes (and your personal practice) can be adjusted to influence certain gunas. I really hope that you find it useful. If you have any questions either about what’s written on this page or in the booklet, do go ahead and ask in the comments below.

You are unchanging, undivided and entirely free and untouched by this ever-changing play of the gunas.

So next time you read a line from a scripture and you can’t seem to really “get” its meaning, do consider your mental state and how you might be able to increase sattwa to expand your sense of awareness, so that you can bask in the spacious presence of your own eternal Being. And the magic is that then, when you actually perceive yourself to be the Witness Consciousness of all that is seen and experienced in the world, it becomes clear that you are unchanging, undivided and entirely free and untouched by this ever-changing play of the gunas.

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