Few in the West will ever have heard the term “guna”. Yet the concept of the gunas is a powerful tool for understanding and mastering mind, body and emotions, and transforming every aspect of your life.
Originally derived from Samkhya philosophy, ‘guna’ is a Sanskrit word with no real English equivalent.
The closest translation is ‘rope’, ‘string’, ‘thread’ or ‘strand’.
The word ‘thread’ is particularly appropriate. Just as cotton threads are the substance and essence of a shirt or dress, the gunas are the threads that constitute material existence.
These three qualities are present in everything and their interplay determines the form, quality and behaviour of all things.
An Ancient Model for Understanding How Life Works
In Samkhya philosophy, the material universe is referred to as prakriti.
Every aspect of prakriti is shaped by the dance of the three gunas — from the level of atoms to living beings and stars, planets, and galaxies.
The three gunas are known as sattva, rajas and tamas.
- Sattva is experienced as stillness, balance, harmony, and clarity. Emotional states associated with sattva include happiness, joy, peace, love, freedom, friendliness, openness, creativity, fulfilment and inspiration.
- Rajas is movement, activity, agitation and desire. Rajasic states include passion, alertness, determination, self-centeredness, anxiety, restlessness, anger, greed and worry.
- Tamas is the densest of the three qualities and experienced as inertia, obscuration, inactivity and fear. Tamasic states include laziness, doubt, sadness, hurt, shame, boredom, apathy and ignorance.
These three gunas form the basis of all our experience.
They are always at play in our lives and their influence is reflected in our physical, mental and emotional states.
While we all experience a mix of all three, some of us veer more toward rajas, tamas, or if we’re lucky, sattva.
The Daily Dance of Rajas and Tamas
How often does the alarm clock go off and we have to DRAG ourselves out of bed, bleary-eyed, sluggish and in desperate need of coffee?
Welcome to tamas!
Tamas is responsible for sleep, so it serves a necessary function. Too much tamas, however, and we experience inertia, laziness and apathy.
It makes us dull physically, mentally and emotionally. It obscures the mind like a thick cloud and makes it difficult to think clearly. Even the simplest action can become an inordinate struggle.
People with excess tamas tend to suffer depression. It can be a deadening state and one that’s very hard to get out of.
The moment we reach for the coffee pot, we’re unconsciously trying to manage our gunas.
To get going with our day and burn off the tamas, we require some rajas.
Rajas is the mode of action, movement and activity. We need it to function in the world. It’s what drives us to get things done.
It has a downside, however.
Too much rajas stirs up desire, greed and anger. We end up anxious, agitated and stressed. We’re always in conflict with people and find it very hard to switch off.
People with primarily rajasic natures can be exhausting to be around. Restless, overactive and manic, they have endless to-do lists and frequently suffer stress and burnout.
Rajas is responsible for our modern pandemic of anxiety.
The Rajas-Tamas Cycle
Rajas and tamas are rarely far apart. Most people cycle between the two during the course of the day.
That’s why, at the end of a long and stressful day (rajas overload), we collapse on the sofa, physically and mentally exhausted (tamas overload). Unable to even think, we reach for a beer, heat up a pizza, and passively watch television for several hours until, courtesy of tamas, we eventually fall asleep drooling on the sofa.
Excessively rajasic people find it hard to sleep. They’re constantly wired and unable to switch off. Tamasic people, on the other hand, might want to sleep all day and night.
Both rajas and tamas can be a source of great suffering.
Rajas is responsible for anxiety, stress, self-centeredness and greed. Tamas is the cause of depression, apathy and inertia.
Thankfully, life doesn’t have to be just a seesaw between the two.
The Benefit of a Sattvic Mind
Sattva is a state of harmony, balance and equilibrium. Anytime you feel happy, peaceful and calm it’s courtesy of sattva guna.
A great analogy for understanding the gunas is to think of three buckets of water.
- The first bucket, tamas, is filled with mud so the water is cloudy and murky. You can’t see anything in muddy water. Even if it’s a bright, sunny day, you’ll see no reflection in the water. That’s why tamas is known as the obscuring guna.
- The second bucket, rajas, is agitated; the water is choppy and always moving. There might be light reflected on the water surface, but due to the movement, it only appears in dancing glimmers. Rajas is projecting; we can see there’s light but because the water is moving we think the light is moving.
- The third bucket, sattva, is completely still and clear. Without obstruction or agitation, the water is a perfect medium for the light to shine. That’s why sattva is considered to have a revealing quality. When the mind is sattvic, we see things as they actually are.
All desires are desires for sattva.
Sattva is the root of calmness, peace, well-being, creativity and inspiration.
Rajas compels us to chase all kinds of goals, objects and acquisitions.
But what is it we’re really after?
It’s never the actual object of our desire that we’re really seeking.
It’s the feeling of relief, satisfaction and peace we get when we attain it. This is caused when rajas (desire) gives way to sattva (contentment), and we experience a natural sense of happiness and joy.
The problem is our mind becomes conditioned to rajas. Our happiness is short-lived and soon the mind is busy seeking other things to attain. Either that or when the sattva wears off, we slip into tamas and get depressed and discouraged.
Fortunately, according to yogic and Vedanta philosophy, sattva isn’t something we need to seek or acquire.
It’s already there.
The mind is sattvic by its very nature.
All we need to do is learn to manage excess rajas and tamas. By balancing rajasic restlessness and tamasic dullness, we can enjoy the natural peace and well-being of sattva.
How to Transform Your Life With Guna Management
We don’t have to be victim to the interplay of the gunas.
Instead, we can learn to actively manage them. By doing this, we take charge of our lives and determine what we what to experience rather than having it determined for us.
Our experience is shaped by what we do.
Everything — from our lifestyle, choice of work, environment, the things we read, watch and listen to and the people we hang around with — has a profound effect on the way we think and feel.
It’s basic cause and effect.
If we find ourselves struggling with excess rajas and tamas and the problems associated with them, we need to be aware of the actions that are causing the imbalance and make the appropriate changes.
We need to take responsibility for how we’re living our lives.
We basically shape our minds and bodies by the things that we do. A rajasic lifestyle, diet and environment will condition our mind to be restless, agitated and anxious. Similarly, tamasic life choices will leave us lethargic, dull and depressed.
To be happy, content and to live well, every aspect of our lives needs to be managed wisely.
Virtually everyone knows how to eat healthily. We all know what foods are good for us and what we should be including in our ‘five a day’. Whether or not we put this knowledge into practise is another story.
Many of us are incredibly stubborn when it comes to our dietary choices. We like what we like (which is usually simply the food we’re used to — the food we’ve always eaten) and are often unwilling to make much change in our dietary routine.
It is, however, essential to consider the effect the food we’re putting into our bodies is having on our body, mind and emotions.
It’s a cliche to say ‘you are what you eat’, but it’s nonetheless true.
In fact, in Vedantic philosophy, the physical body is called the annamaya kosha, meaning ‘food body’. The body is literally made of food. The food we put into it determines not only the quality of our body, but also the condition of our mind.
For a sattvic body and mind, it’s necessary to minimise rajasic and tamasic foods and eat more sattva-generating foods. That’s the essence of a yogic diet.
Foods generally considered to be sattvic include fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, oils and non-meat proteins. Some dairy is also traditionally considered sattvic, but this is a matter of debate. The Sattvic diet, with its emphasis on fresh and unprocessed food, is believed to cultivate a healthy body and a calm mind.
Rajasic foods are those known to be stimulating and include onions, garlic, spiced or salty foods, sugar, chocolate, caffeinated drinks and soft drinks. If one has a tendency to excess rajas, it’s best to steer clear of such foods. Rajasic foods aren’t necessarily bad for the body, but they aren’t good for it either and cause imbalances in the body-mind equilibrium.
Tamasic food is a problem for many people simply because there’s so much of it. Whereas sattvic food is fresh and unprocessed, tamasic food is often heavily processed and is rarely fresh. Meat is considered tamasic, as well as fish, poultry, eggs, pastries, bread, fermented foods, sugary foods and alcohol. Tamasic food is best minimised because it has an unhealthy and dulling effect on body and mind.
The best way to find the diet that’s right for you is to be aware of how you feel after eating certain foods. If you want a predominantly sattvic mind and body, you’re probably unlikely to find eating pizza and drinking beer helps in this regard. Neither is eating too much sugary food or drinking too much coffee.
We may need to take stock of the way we’re living our life and the effect this is having on us.
Is our lifestyle one of balance and harmony, or is it causing stress, anxiety or boredom and apathy? Everything needs to be taken into account, for the gunas come into play in every aspect of our lives.
It may be helpful to consider the following.
With so much of our time spent in the workplace, it’s important that we’re in an environment that’s healthy and conducive to physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Some workplaces are exceptionally stressful, chaotic and high pressure. Spending the whole day in such a rajasic environment can have an extremely negative effect on body and mind. High blood pressure, anxiety and insomnia are almost a given when exposed to too much rajas day in and day out.
Tamas can also be a problem in the workplace. This manifests as negative environments filled with conflict, gossip, power games and backstabbing. This will naturally create a negative and tamasic state of mind.
A sattvic environment is one where people come together to work for a common goal, and they do so with cooperation, calmness, clarity and kindness.
Our surroundings can be rajasic, tamasic or sattvic, and have an enormous impact on our emotional state. Noisy, chaotic and disordered environments are rajasic in nature. Cluttered, dirty and squalid environments are tamasic. The ideal environment to cultivate sattva is one that’s clean, orderly, bright and calming.
The way we choose to spend our free time should be carefully considered.
Rajasic activities, such as sports, running and working out are good when balanced with adequate rest and downtime.
Tamasic activities may be fine when unwinding but should be kept in moderation as they can have negative effects. This may include drinking alcohol and passive entertainment such as watching television and aimless net surfing.
When it comes to entertainment choices, again the gunas should be considered.
What kind of television, movies, books, etc, are we exposing our mind to?
A lot of entertainment can be very tamasic and rajasic in nature. Extreme violence is becoming the norm in a lot of television and film and is highly tamasic. Sensationalism, noise and fast editing heighten rajas.
The gunas clearly be seen in music as well. Listening to highly rajasic music such as trance, metal, hard rock and a lot of pop tends to generate a rajasic state of mind. This can admittedly be helpful at certain times of the day.
Tamasic music is often sad, melancholic music that leaves us feeling disheartened and depressed, or it can be music with aggressive, violent and negative lyrics as found in some genres such as some hip-hop.
Sattvic music is not something you generally hear on mainstream radio stations, but can include classical, ambient, electronic and even sometimes pop or rock.
Again, pay attention to how you feel after doing certain things.
Sometimes things that feel good at the time generate significant problems afterwards.
Do you feel rested or anxious after watching a blood-thirsty slasher film or attending a death metal concert? Do you feel physically comfortable after overeating? And how good do you feel the morning after a night of binge drinking?
Sattvic leisure pursuits are pleasurable, beneficial to mind and body, and cause no negative aftereffects. Examples may include moderate exercise, time spent in nature, gardening, and engaging in creative pursuits such as painting, singing, etc.
The effect of media is a huge issue for many people. The mainstream media is a hotbed of rajas and tamas, responsible for an unaccountable amount of mental and emotional agitation.
In the smartphone era, we’re constantly plugged into media — whether it’s news on tap or social media and endless newsfeeds. Scientists are finding that the digital age is actually bad for our brain, causing a great deal of stress and imbalance.
The mind isn’t designed to be constantly switched on to endless stimulus. The constant input generates a lot of rajas which inevitably leads to a tamasic crash.
I’ve found one of the keys to cultivating sattva is to limit the amount of media I expose my mind to. I watch very little television, rarely read newspapers and spend virtually no time on social media. This may seem horribly ‘disconnected’, but I still find out everything I need to.
This can be a little hard at first given the prevalent role that media and connectivity play in our culture and everyday lives. But I’ve found limiting and curating my media input to be vital for keeping my mind in a sattvic state. It may be worth experimenting with short media fasts and seeing what effect this has on you.
Gunas are highly contagious!
Whether we like it or not, other people have an immense effect on us.
We tend to become like the people we spend most of our time with. So it’s a good idea to make sure that, as much as we can at least, we spend time around people we’d happily be like ourselves.
We may not have much choice when it comes to family or colleagues. But beyond that, it’s up to us who we spend our time with.
Being around highly rajasic people can be agitating and exhausting. Those with predominantly rajasic temperaments are always on the go, restless, agitated and constantly driven by anxiety and avarice.
While rajas has its positive functions, it can also be a curse. It can rob us of our ability to enjoy life. Rajasic people are rarely happy or satisfied. They’re always seeking more, better and different. Nothing, no matter how good, is ever good enough for the rajasic person.
In comparison, tamasic people can seem chilled out and easy-going.
They can certainly be easier to be around that rajasic people. Tamas is different to sattva, however, in that it clouds the mind. Lost in a narcoleptic stupor, it becomes hard to think or see clearly. Alcohol and drugs can create very tamasic states. We might feel super relaxed, but our mind is muddy and we’re incapable of thinking or doing very much.
While tamas can be enjoyable — just ‘vegging out’ with a takeaway, Netflix and a six-pack — people with too much tamas are best avoided. Left unchecked, Tamas leads to depression and a sense of apathy, hopelessness and pointlessness. It can cause a great deal of suffering. The mind gets distorted and people lose themselves in all kinds of delusions and destructive mindsets.
Once you’ve slipped into it, climbing out of the pit of tamas can be exceptionally difficult. It’s better to avoid that potential fall at all costs.
If you want to enjoy a sattvic life, it’s beneficial to find sattvic people to hang out with.
They’re easy to spot.
Sattvic people are balanced, happy, open, caring, fun, adventurous, often creative and pretty darn cool in many respects.
Obviously, they’re human beings like everyone else, and no one is immune to the push and pull of rajas and tamas. But we feel good around them. They bring out the best in others and see the good in things. In short, they’re keepers!
Living in Balance
It’s important to note that no one is fully sattvic, rajasic or tamas.
The gunas function in each of us in different proportions. For instance, you might be predominantly sattvic (say, 50%), but have a tendency to tamas (30%) with a little rajas thrown in (20%).
All three gunas are necessary, but with a little self-awareness and discipline we can quite easily manage their proportions to ensure a predominantly sattvic mind. After all, a sattvic mind is a happy mind.
Guna Management 101
Dealing with Tamas
If you find yourself overcome by tamas, you’ll likely feel lazy, fuzzy-headed, heavy and leaden physically, mentally and emotionally. It can be a struggle to get anything done, or even to think. Tamasic states include fear, depression, nihilism, discouragement and demotivation. Everything feels like an effort and life generally seems a pointless plod.
To burn up this tamasic state, you need to cultivate rajas. It’s almost impossible to jump straight from tamas to sattva, so you instead balance it out with rajas.
Some suggestions include:
- Get moving. Exercise, work-out, go running. Moving the body shifts our whole energy and physiology, which in turn changes our thought and emotional patterns. Exercise is probably the quickest and most efficient way to manage tamasic states. The challenge is to initiate it and get moving because when we’re tamasic we don’t feel like doing ANYTHING!
- Tamas makes us feel helpless and discouraged. It’s important to shift out of this mindset by taking a more positive and proactive approach to whatever is troubling us. If something isn’t working in our lives, we have to take an objective look at how we can make improvements and start setting some short and long-term goals. Even small steps forward can make us feel so much better.
- Stop eating junk food. Quit drinking and taking drugs. The deadening effect this has on mind and body simply is NOT worth the momentary pleasure.
- Stop watching the news.
- Ruthlessly eliminate anything that’s contributing to a tamasic mindset, particularly media input in whatever form.
- Listen to positive, vibrant, upbeat music and only watch and read things that inspire and motivate you.
- Be careful who you spend your time with. Spend time with people who bring you UP rather than keep you down.
Dealing with Rajas
To counter tamas we have to get our energy moving. To deal with excess rajas we have to calm it down again. Most people do this by flipping back to tamas, but the ideal is to transform rajas into sattva. Here are some tips.
- Meditate. Meditation is perhaps the greatest Sattva-generating activity there is. There’s nothing better for calming mind and body. Research has clearly demonstrated that meditation physically restructures the brain, with varied and long-lasting benefits.
- Spend time in nature. Even a short walk outdoors in a forest or on the beach can harmonise the mind and body. Nature is tremendously balancing and healing.
- Watch your diet. Eliminate as many stimulants as possible. Switch up that second coffee for water with a twist of lemon or herbal tea.
- Take a media fast. Go offline for a day or two and see how this improves your state of mind. Alternatively, just limit the amount of time you spend on your phone or on Facebook and emails.
- Stop watching the news. There’s nothing worse for creating an anxious, rajasic mind.
- Create a new playlist. If you’re experiencing too much rajas, be careful what you listen to. You don’t want music that gets you even more pumped and wired. You want to listen to music that calms and balances you. Try some chill-out music, classical or ambient.
- Get enough rest and sleep. Learn to consciously relax. The benefits physically and psychologically are well documented.
- Again, try to spend less time with rajasic people. Hang around with people who make you feel calm, happy, content and satisfied.
- Instead of seeing everything in life as a desperate race to victory, start seeing life as a game. Learn to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Life isn’t a battle to be fought or a victory to be attained. It’s a game, and it should be enjoyed — and every moment savoured.
The concept of the gunas is a simple one, but it’s a powerful and practical tool for understanding and navigating life.
By determining which of the three qualities is at play in any given situation or circumstance, we have the power to determine how we will respond, and how we will condition our mind and body. When we understand the cause and effect nature of every transaction in life, we can consciously steer our experience and get the results we want.
Rajas and tamas are responsible for much of our suffering. We should never beat ourselves up when we find ourselves in rajasic or tamasic states. That’s simply part of being human.
We should, however, always keep our eye on sattva. By being aware of what causes rajas and tamas and by taking charge of every aspect of our lifestyle, we can lessen their effect and cultivate greater sattva in body and mind. The result is a life of greater happiness, harmony, peace and power.
I hope you’ve found this article of help. If so, please feel free to share it!
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