From Light to Dark and Back Again – A Trip Through the Gunas

Over the weekend, I attended a talk by Swami Govindananda on the three Gunas. In Sanskrit, the word Guna can hold two meanings; the first being thread or string, and the second meaning quality.  Swami Ji, as he is known, was speaking to us on the second definition.  In the Hindu scriptures, these three qualities are satvic from the word satva (calm, peaceful, conscious, etc), rajasic from the word rajas (fiery, driven, selfish, etc) or tamasic from the word tamas (heavy, dark, angry, etc).  The thing is, all three of these qualities exist in every one of us. Within a matter of moments, one can go from being happily on that satvic cloud to being down in the dredges of tamas.

Most of us live in a state of rajas. Society in fact thinks very highly of the rajasic state. This is the state where one is driven, ballsy, a go getter, a doer, and this is the state where it’s all about the “I” – I am, I want, I will be.  It’s all well and good. You can sit in whichever Guna you want as long as you are aware of the consequences of being there. The only problem is that rajas is only a breath away from tamas. What is tamas? When you see people go crazy, getting into bar brawls, fighting, shouting, in acts of uncontrolled anger; that’s tamas.  People who live in satva, to put it simply include your Mother Theresas and Ghandhis of the world, and even then, it takes one incident to bring a person from a satvic state to a tamasic state, and of course, right after learning about it, the universe had to test me on it.

Participating in Yoga Aid on Sunday, coupled with all the big hugs, a lovely brunch with amazing people and a nice evening had left me feeling all mushy and gooey.  Then the tamas hit the fan. My credit card had been stolen, and used to an inch of its life on things like McDonalds, pizzas, art supplies and cigarettes (I know right?). To top it off, when I called the bank, although the customer service personnel were great, they did not have any information for me. Herein starts the descent into rajas.  Mind you, now my balance has gone into a negative number, and if I were to transfer funds to the account so that I could withdraw it, the bank would take it. In fact, I did, and it did. Side note: the Occupy movement is well justified to me at the moment.  This morning, I went to speak to a local bank manager, and again, not only was everything that I was told in the last couple of days repeated, the lady who was serving me proceeded to school me on checking my mailbox.  And there it was, Ms Rajas ripped out through her shackles and let loose.

Having this happen to me, I can see now how a person can change their mailbox number from the highlands of satva to the dredges of tamas in a matter of seconds. It only takes one instant of losing control, one action to change the story of your life. We would all like to think that we are “better than that,” but while we hold this mentality, we don’t hold ourself in check for the darkness that lurks somewhere in there.  The thing about knowing that the lightbulb can go out is that we can are prepared for when it happens. Everyday, there is something in the news about buildings being burnt, people murdered, fights and the like, and you wonder how they got that way. Sometimes, they themselves wonder how they got that way. All it takes is one moment of being unconscious, not present, unchecked. A friend once said to me in a pub where people were going crazy, “I understand why Muslims don’t allow drinking. You feel like you lose control of things.”  And although alcohol and drugs do limit your control over yourself, things can happen even without them. All it takes is one moment, one breath, one unchecked action or train of thought.

Yes, some situations upset you, and you have a right of speaking your mind, but today, I realized that I could easily have been one of the people who trashed the bank, threw out a laptop, or broke something.  It might not have been likely, but it was very possible.  When we see people in prison, in debt, homeless; sometimes we think “oh, that could never be me.”  The thing is, we don’t know their story.  Where the cycle of the world goes, we don’t know.  It takes a string of thoughts and actions, but if we don’t pay attention, we don’t know where in that string we are currently sitting.  So as Swami Ji said, always pay attention to your mind. Know where it is, feed it with your compassion, because where your string was yesterday is where you are today, and where your string is today determines where you will go tomorrow.

Swami Ji likened the three states to light. Satva is that state where you are in a room and everything is bright and clear, Rajas is that state where the light has dimmed and everything is red, and Tamas, well that my friends, is when the room is completely dark. And who controls this light? Well, you do.  It’s there, in the power centre of your mind.

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