When I first came to Vedika Global, I was unhappy and confused about the way my life was going. I had a habit of finding myself in hurtful situations and often feeling I was the victim of the cruel behavior of others. It was a miserable way to live, but I had no idea how to change.
While I initially came to Vedika Global because of my interest in Ayurveda, I learned that they also offered Satsanghas, a gathering of students who sit with their spiritual teacher. The Sanskrit word, satsangha, translates to “being with truth,” and at these meetings, which have now become the Vedic Studies Program, Acharya Shunya discusses spiritual matters with her students. It is through this offering at Vedika that I learned about the incredibly rich and sensible approach of Vedanta, spiritual philosophy based on the ancient sacred scriptures of India called the Vedas. The teachings of this tradition have been, and continue to be, a great catalyst for growth and change in my life, for they have allowed me to see that there is a way to live that diminishes this sense of victimization, pain and helplessness, and helps me to lead a more empowered, fulfilling and joyful life.
One of the first concepts I learned about in Vedanta (though it is also a concept in Ayurveda and Yoga psychology) was the three gunas, or “qualities,” known as rajas, tamas, and sattva. The three gunas pervade everything in various proportions, and describe the quality of our minds, food, environment—the universe. Understanding the nature of each of the gunas has given me a different framework to examine my life and, ultimately, has helped me to acknowledge and change some harmful patterns in my own behavior, as well as become more accepting of, and compassionate toward, others. To explain how this new perspective has helped me, we must first look at the each of the gunas and how to recognize the warning signs that let us know when they are out of balance.
Rajas is the guna, or quality, of action, movement, and excitability. If you have ever been on a rollercoaster, played an intense video game, felt wound up, or frantic, this is rajas at work. When I think back on my younger years, I now see how full of rajas they were. For instance, my friends and I would often go from club to club to see rock bands play. The clubs were often small, but the music was loud, and the throngs of people crowded into these small spaces were typically dancing/moshing, drinking or having fragmented conversations by yelling in each other’s ears over the music. Cocktail servers would be rushing around while bartenders scurried back and forth behind the bar. Some of the bands would even have light shows using flashing strobes or colorful lights moving in all directions. These noisy, very active, fast-moving environments are the ultimate rajasic experience.
However, when too much rajas is present, it manifests its more negative aspects such as aggression, agitation and greed.
When an imbalance of rajas occurs, you may find yourself feeling overly anxious, reactionary, impatient, or easily irritated; or you may notice yourself over-indulging, whether it’s with food, drink, shopping, work, affection, exercise, anything.
Tamas, on the other hand, is the quality of rest and inertia, with its more negative connotations as laziness, ignorance, cloudiness, negligence, and apathy.
I found myself walking into a classic tamasic environment recently. It was a gorgeous day and I was ready to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. But when I went to pick up my friend, I found him and a couple of his other friends in a room with all the windows and shades closed, lounging on the couch in front of the TV watching football teams they didn’t even like. They seemed to barely notice I had arrived as they stared dully at the TV screen and muttered some sort of greeting in my general direction. One of them had already popped open a beer at 11 A.M. I stuck around and tried to motivate them to come out on a hike with me, but I wasn’t gaining any ground here. The longer I stayed, the more I began to feel like I had walked into a pit of quicksand. And if I didn’t get out of there soon, I, too, would be spending the day inside, slothing around the TV, numbing my mind and body. This is the quicksand of tamas.
You can be sure too much tamas is present if you notice yourself not completing tasks, taking lots of short cuts, spending a lot of time “vegging out,” or feeling indecisive, depressed, or forgetful. Excessive tamas is also responsible for those times when you are feeling shame and a disconnection from your own personal power.
And then we have sattva, the quality of purity and balance. Sattva does not have a negative aspect, as it is the perfect balance of rajas and tamas. Sattva has the ability to heal, clarify, and purify an environment, whether it’s our living room, minds or bodies. It does not disturb or cause harm to yourself or anyone else. And when I was able to wrench myself out of that tamasic quicksand last week, I went walking in the redwoods on a quiet trail of sattva. Here, the sun was shining down through the peaceful and expansive trees, and birds were foraging about and singing their songs. I was relishing every step, every breath, every tree, every bird, and butterfly. I felt a great sense of tranquility and gratitude for this day and this beautiful show of nature, a feeling I carried with me long after the hike was over.
Returning to sattva, a more balanced state, can be easily accomplished by engaging in activities which cultivate a sense of peace and celebrate beauty. For example, simply chanting an Om, sitting quietly in a room lit with candles and incense, lovingly caring for a plant or pet, spending time in nature, or reading an enlightening text will all bring sattva into your life.
As I came to understand and identify the gunas at play out in the world, I took the focus inward to look at my behavior, activities, and the people with whom I was associating. One area of my life I began to examine was how my job was affecting me. I work with attorneys, which usually means I work long hours, often under tight deadlines. This creates a lot of rajas in my life and causes me to be overly anxious and sleep poorly. While I can’t just up and leave my job, I can look to see how I react to the stress, and I can look for ways to reduce rajas overall in my life. For example, when the workday is over, I can take some time to disconnect from that world by going into a quiet room, lighting some incense and meditating, or doing some pranayama. I also decided to stop watching those suspenseful TV shows I like before bedtime. While I used to think of watching TV as relaxing, shows that intentionally keep you on the edge of your seat or have violence bring about that excitability aspect of rajas, which is not going to help my sleeplessness. Now, I’m spending that hour before bed doing more sattvic activities such as reading, talking with my husband, or having a cup of warm spiced milk. And before I go to sleep, I close my eyes and focus on my breathing for a few minutes, or until I fall asleep.
These simple, sattvic lifestyle changes have significantly reduced my insomnia and overall I feel much less anxious than I did before. But most importantly, this knowledge has empowered me to change the quality of my life. For if I know how to increase sattva, thereby decreasing tamas (the guna that brings depression) and/or rajas (which creates anxiety), I’m already on my way to a happier, healthier, peaceful state of being.
About Nicole Matthiesen
After years of working long hours and weekends in the corporate world, Nicole first came to Vedika to discover what Ayurveda could do for her deteriorating digestive health. After finding some relief at Vedika’s clinic, Nicole enrolled in Vedika’s 2-Month Self-Care Course where she fell in love with the art and science of Ayurveda. She continues her studies at Vedika through the Ancestral Teachings Classes, as well as the Vedic Studies program. Now a Yoga instructor, Nicole incorporates Ayurvedic principles and Vedic philosophy into her classes to help her students create balance, peace and health in their daily lives.