The Gunas: Stepping Stones to Samadhi

Jim Tarran

Space is an essential element in yoga practice. Space allows a natural expansion. This is true for stars, planets, gases, solids, liquid and it is even true on a metaphysical level, so that consciousness to, depends on space for expansion.

Expansion allows perspective and movement; it is the amount of movement one has that limits choice. The creative mindset which yoga depends on is a mindset that requires both perspective and movement. Without this the yoga cannot move into withdrawal, absorption and Samadhi.

The three Gunas

A really useful way of identifying this kind of space in yoga is to use the three Gunas:

  1. Tamasic: shrouded, dark, ignorant, inert, and dull.

  2. Rajistic: domineering, aggressive, the will to overcome, forceful

  3. Sattvic: illuminated, knowing, seeing.

Here is an example of how you might find yourself experiencing the three Gunas in asana practice: You hear or receive an instruction to broaden the flesh on your heel bones, you make an attempt to do so but the best you can get is a feeling for the location of the heels without very much more depth, it is like lighting a match in a dark cave, one can discern very little, if anything, beyond the basic experience that there is a heel. This then will generally not be enough to sustain our attention for long and soon one finds oneself distracted by something with a little more pull. This can be an internal object, like a thought, or an external distraction. This then plunges the heel back into the folds of the darkness again.

This is the Tamasic state, a state of ignorance. The Tamasic state, can be further characterised, as a condition where communication is cut of, both to and from, in this case, the heel (it could be the breath, a mantra or listening to a sound and so on).

Where one is feeling particularly energised, determined or enthusiastic, one may apply a Herculean effort to take control of the heel, gritting, gripping, determined and resolute, this then is the Rajistic condition. Here one can achieve some limited success and may make some progress in either broadening the heel, bringing the chest towards the legs, lifting and twisting the spine, staying engaged with the breath or whatever else one may be trying to engage with. But this progress will be limited, this generally works by overpowering the opposition, and that usually relies on some kind of repression, which will often come back later to bite you. Many people find this state unsustainable, and before long, are pulled back into the Tamasic or dull and distracted state.

After a long, sustained Rajistic approach, some people even give up their practice altogether, going back to the darkness in a much more total sense. This Rajistic state can be characterised as a state of one-way communication. From the will outwards, but with nothing allowed to flow back the other way. These two conditions usually orbit around one another.

Rather than trying harder to contact the heel, by sending more energy down the line from the will, the antidote can be found by ‘allowing’ the heel to communicate back, this then is the skill of receptivity, opening or mindfulness. This then, allows the dialogue to begin and progress can resume.

Opening up the channels both ways, so that the sensations from the heel are ‘allowed’ in this way facilitates a connection that eventually deepens to the point where, one can no longer distinguish between what is going out, and what is coming in.

Patanjali says ‘then the practitioner is no longer disturbed by duality.’

In this state, the Sattvic state, one is not limited; this is no longer a realm in which limitation can exist. The posture (or meditation object, mantra, breath work) is now a relationship that draws us deeper and deeper in, loosening our attachments to the numerous other preoccupations that our energy is habitually engaging in.

Recognising the Gunas at the breath

The breath is certainty one of the most assessable places to recognise the Gunas.

In the Tamasic state, there is simply no conscious awareness of the breath, no connection.

In the Rajstic state the breath will often feel shallow and disintegrated. There will be a tendency to over breathe. Never fully releasing the exhale means, that a full inhale is never conditioned. This leads to a mild toxicity in the system, generally most clearly discerned around the head. A tight feeling in the brain, a hardening of the eyes, gripping the jaw and tongue. Areas like the heart will feel heavy, as the more limited movements of the diaphragm mean that the heart becomes tense. The throat will often feel unnourished causing feelings similar to thirst to arise (Sanskrit: Trishna. Pali: Tanha)

In the Sattvic state, the breath feels healing, nourishing, calming. This is often accompanied by deep sensations of release, sometimes causing occasional deep full inhales and exhales and perhaps sighing. The breath feels integrating, uninterrupted, unlimited and unbounded. This deeply tranquil condition drops the body out of sympathetic dominance, flight or fight, into parasympathetic mode.

In sympathetic dominance, muscle tissue is hard and nerve receptors dulled, in parasympathetic then, the opposite is true. The body relaxes muscles become more receptive to more subtle instructions; internal organs, are properly replenished and eliminated through the healthy interchange of oxygen and waste products via the heart and lungs.

Buddhism and the Gunas

The hot and cold hells. These kinds of relationships have been long since recognised in the East, and in Buddhism these same energies are expressed in terms of hot and cold hells.

Cold Hell: associated with deep depression. They represent frozen, inert, cut of, immobile, states of mind. The being in cold hell is totally separated from their heart and stuck that way. This clearly runs as a parallel, with the Tamasic states, described above.

Hot Hell: seen as a better place to be than the cold hell, although it is clearly still a hell realm. This is a condition of rage, of lashing out, of anger. Here at least there is still some fight some energy is still involved in trying to move beyond ones limitations. The hot hell burns itself up, one is burning in one’s own fire, as it were. The energy here is deeply ignorant and only projects outwards, lashing out in the dark. This is clearly allied to the Rajistic state. It is like the image of Hercules lashing out in his sleep, driven mad by the Gods and killing his own wife and children. It is a state where with no comprehension of what one is dealing with one proceeds with full force.

The Buddha’s appearance in the hells

Interestingly, in the traditional symbolism on the Buddhist wheel of life, a Buddha appears in the hells. He simply reaches in a hand to pull the beings out. The Buddha is not affected by the hell he represents, the part of us that is up and running and fully awake. The word Buddha means just that. He represents opening, receptivity and ‘seeing’.

The Human Realm

In the human realm, people are depicted living together harmoniously. They have full contact with the joy of birth and the sadness of death they live ordinary lives, and clearly have contact with the Dharma (the liberating truth). This is like the Sattvic state, where all is illuminated, life death and the dharma. In this realm there is a Buddha to he carries the attributes of a mendicant – robe bowl, staff – and appears as the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. He points to the Sattvic state as being one of letting go, of disentanglement, and the simplicity of his lifestyle points towards the mindset of ‘allowing’ and freedom. (Here freedom refers to freedom of choice free from compulsion).