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The Three Gunas: Our Three Characteristics

We are each striving for the same goal in life, but many do not realize that. Instead, we see each of us in search of different, disparate goals. One of us desires love, while another wants wealth. All one person wants is to be healthy, while all another dreams of is success. But in the end, what each of these goals represents to the individual is fundamentally the same: peace.

However, although all of us crave peace — in whatever form we each desire — the vast majority of humanity does not have it. Part of the journey of this blog is an exploration of why we don’t have it and how we can attain it.

When we speak of the yamas, the ahimsa yama is the first and most important, as it is the building block of all the others. The Sanskrit word ahimsa is most often translated as “nonviolence.” We will never achieve anything in life if we do not bring ahimsa with us. Without it, we suffer — from strife, sickness, illness, and disease. We struggle with it almost every minute of the day. In fact, it’s the most common issue my students raise.

For many people, ahimsa is the most difficult yama to master simply because of its prevalence in our daily lives. However, all five yamas are inextricably entwined — you can't separate them. You can’t practice one without learning the one before it. This is why we start at the most logical place: the first yama.

Working through any of the yamas requires you to set aside judgment, of both yourself and others. Instead, remember that the concepts addressed by the yamas are a natural part of us. They are neither bad nor evil. In fact, there is no such thing as good and evil: There is only ignorance and knowledge.

As we work through the yamas and niyamas, you will learn how to remove all opposites from your way of thinking, which helps you to not pass judgment. Nothing is good, nothing is bad. Everything is about learning. So try to withhold self-judgment for any ignorance you might have on this subject.

Although the essence of ahimsa is nonviolence, we must remember that it is natural for violence to exist within you, so do not judge yourself for having violence within yourself or your life. I chose to use the word “violence” because it evokes such strong emotion. On the opposite side of violence is peace — that one thing we all desire. Much like our appendix, violence is an old trait we no longer need. We no longer need violence to survive, but it’s still one of our instincts, one we must work to overcome. Because it's an instinct, we shouldn’t feel ashamed of our violent thoughts. Instead, we must practice dispelling these thoughts.

When we speak of ahimsa, we must first discuss the gunas, three characteristics that every single living creature possesses, just in different proportions. You may already be familiar with the concept of gunas if you’ve read the Bhagavad Gita. The three gunas are tamasik, rajasik, and sattvik. Each of these has its own relation to ahimsa.

Tamasik Characteristic

The tamasik characteristic deals with lower energy, or the furthest you can be from a meditative state. It is a sleeping state, the state in which we are not present, such as when we are tired or depressed, which is when violence towards the self is most likely to manifest. The tamasik characteristic is also the root cause of most illness, disease, and unhappiness.

Every single human on the planet harms themselves with negative thoughts — of sickness, illness, disease, pain, hurt, about our past, present, and future. Those negative thoughts keep us from the peace that will enable us to leave the lives of our dreams.

Humans have free will, which means we have the ability to choose right from wrong, good from bad. It also means we can decide right now to feel peace and joy. So, why don’t we?

This is a choice you make every single moment of your day. When you are upset, angry, or unhappy, that is a choice. When you choose not to be happy, you’re going against ahimsa — in other words, you are harming yourself, committing self-harm. While suffering is an integral part of life that none of us can escape, how we react to that suffering is wholly within our power, and we choose how we are going to react every moment of every day. And the vast majority of us choose violence — the opposite of peace.

When will your life begin? When will your joy and peace begin? When will you allow it to do so? Because if it doesn't begin this very moment — right here as you read these words — it's not going to begin tomorrow, or when you meet your soulmate, win the lottery, or get cured of whatever disease ails you. It won’t ever begin unless you choose it — right now.

Because when we talk about violence and nonviolence, our thoughts naturally gravitate to placing blame. Whose fault is it? You might believe the fault lies with another individual, or perhaps a situation. This is perhaps the biggest lie we tell ourselves, because no matter who or what was responsible for your past, you are the only one currently responsible for how you react to it.

I am not minimizing pain and suffering. Many people have gone through traumatizing events: sickness, death, heartbreak, physical and emotional pain. All of these experiences and emotions are real and true. But even if you’ve had the most traumatic childhood, suffered the most anguishing pain, or lost the person who was most dear to you, you can still choose ahimsa — peace.

If your experience was so horrific that you decide you cannot choose peace, joy, and happiness, ask yourself: When will it stop? You are not the first being to suffer, and you certainly won’t be the last. It will stop when you realize that every moment of every day is an opportunity for it to stop. The ability to be happy and peaceful exists in you right this very moment.

Although this is a difficult concept to grasp. Life can be incredibly difficult until we understand how important this one choice is.

As mentioned earlier, the tamasik characteristic is the opposite of being in a meditative state — it’s low energy that harms you through negative thoughts. I'm not pretty enough. I'm not smart enough. I'm not young enough. We all think such thoughts at one time or another, which pulls us out of the present moment and causes us to daydream about what would happen if you won the lottery, met the love of your life, or moved to an island paradise.

These tamasik thoughts are one reason many people have such difficulty with meditation. The ultimate state of the eight limbs — and the hardest one to obtain — is samadhi. Even if you practiced every single day for twenty years, you would not obtain samadhi if you have not contemplated ahimsa.

You also could practice and reach a point where you have attained ahimsa, but then something negative happens — something as small as an unkindness or as large as a catastrophe — and you’re back at square one. But if someone can take it from you that easily, then you never really had it to begin with. You did not truly have ahimsa.

Back in my thirties, I was terribly unhappy, even though I had everything I’d ever wanted: a loving husband, a beautiful home, and three wonderful sons. I didn’t confess my unhappiness to anyone and instead kept it secret. I never told anyone. I simply lived in my tamasik state.

My only escape was reading. I was such an introvert that I didn’t even speak to other people. I just read, day and night, anything I could get my hands on. It became an addiction, which is itself a form of self-violence. But we choose addictions because we don't want to be present.

These tamasik thoughts bombarding our minds prevent us from practicing our meditation with a clear mind. We instead think of pleasurable things, past and future, but not what exists right here and now. We miss out on experiencing — and enjoying — the present. We find distractions, such as television, food, or other nonproductive, unnecessary activities. We fill in space because we ourselves don't want to be in that space. All of these are aspects of ahimsa.

We don’t like to admit fault. But our unhappiness is our fault and our fault alone. This is not a judgment. This is simply a fact we must accept if we are to obtain the peace that we each seek.

Thoughts are nothing but energy, filled with what happened earlier or what is to come — but hardly ever what is right here in the present. Contemplate that. Watch your thoughts on a daily basis and see where they are. Are they right here, or do they quickly wander into another realm? In my yoga teacher trainings, I instruct my students to choose a full day of ahimsa, to observe their thoughts for the positive and negative. I ask them each to begin their day when their eyes open. For a brief moment, all is forgotten and bliss exists, but very quickly our thoughts begin to line up, pile up! I ask them to watch those thoughts, and watch what pops up. Are they negative or positive? Are they thoughts of the day and what you need to do that you think of with a sigh? Do you rise and have thoughts of the way your body feels as it turns to get out of bed? Do you enter the bathroom and see yourself in the mirror and think a negative thought, such as …” Oh my God! I look just like my Mother!”

Take a day and watch how quickly negative thoughts arise, only observe them, record them and don't change them, watch yourself and realize the level of negative thoughts that arise, naturally throughout your day. These are violent thoughts that are bombarding you every moment of the day. How many do you have? I ask my students to record them to contemplate the discrepancy of positive thoughts. How is it possible that we all exist on this level? A level of violence towards ourselves and others, with every thought we have.

Negative thoughts are ours, and ours alone. If you have angst, annoyance, irritation, anger, fury — all of that is yours. There isn’t a single other person who can create it for you — nor can anyone or anything alleviate it for you. No one. Just you.

You should see that as good news. You don’t have to wait for anyone or any situation to make this change. You can choose joy and happiness right now, rather than choose to perpetually live in your suffering, which is, in essence, stealing from yourself — and possibly everyone you interact with.

Ahimsa applies to even the smallest of actions, from the moment you wake to when you lay your head down each night. We can choose to greet the day with joy, or we can allow the negative thoughts to ruin the day before it’s even begun. Every day is a good day — if you're present and choose ahimsa.

Rajasik Characteristic

The second guna is the rajasik characteristic, which is violence towards others. We often view rajasik traits as positive because they tend to go hand in hand with being efficient and productive, aggressive and passionate. But just as those traits are core to a Type A personality, so is the stress that goes along with it.

When we talk about violence against others, we also have to talk about protecting ourselves. Is that protection itself violence? Violence exists outside of ourselves because it exists within ourselves: We manifest what lives within us. Even the emotions we work hard to suppress will emerge eventually.

I was born into violence. My father was a very aggressive, violent man. But I have no issue with him. In fact, it’s because of him that I began on my path. He was my catalyst. In a sense, I needed his rajasik characteristic to build to where I am today.

So, when someone is violent against us, do we have the right to be violent against them? Contrary to what many may think, we do not. We can stop someone from hurting us without resorting to returning the violence they served us. That’s the only way to break the cycle.

For the violence to end, we first need to take care of the anger that rises within us and this is no mean feat. I can attest to that. But you can do so through a combination of meditation, contemplation, and knowledge.

I am by no means perfect. But I have learned to recognize when violence is beginning to well up within me, even if it’s just a minor annoyance. I cannot ask someone to not be violent If I will not stop it first in myself. I cannot place fault on another human being when it lives inside of me. If I think negative thoughts about myself, I cannot ask someone not to think negative thoughts of me.

When I recognize these thoughts within myself, instead of blaming my father, I thank him for bringing to my attention what lives within me. Being a victim is easy because you receive compassion from those outside your situation, when in fact you were the target of a violent person. Our inner violence is like a secret locked deep within ourselves that percolates up when we become upset. To put an end to the violence, we first must end it within ourselves.

Instead, many people choose to blame someone else for their problems, as if that will help dispel them. But blaming someone else is merely a lie that keeps us in the past and perpetuates the same violence in our future. We are the ones who suffer, not the person we are blaming.

Everyone on this planet who blames someone else for their anger is suffering. Wars are waged because people point fingers at someone else for their suffering. Revenge is sought in the hopes that it will alleviate the violence of the pain within us. But I would never want another human being to hurt someone in my name, in my honor. I would never want someone to think they are doing me a favor by having negative thoughts toward another human being. That would only perpetuate the violence.

When I lived in Manhattan, I had my car broken into numerous times — a common occurrence, but it happened to me more often than would be considered normal. Each time it happened, I felt angry and violated. I realized something had to change — I had to change.

I then thought about whoever kept breaking into my car and realized that that individual must have far, far less than I do. They were acting in this way because they didn’t know what else to do. Their suffering was much greater than mine. I knew I had to have compassion for them, but that didn’t mean I wanted them to continue breaking into my car.

So, I began to leave my window open a crack and the doors unlocked, and I would leave a sandwich on the front seat. In the mornings, the sandwich would be gone — and no windows were broken.

Now if an item is stolen from me, I get a strong urge to track down the perpetrator and say, “Please don't think you stole it. Please just take it. It's a gift.” No one can take anything from you unless you allow them to. You can't hurt me unless I let you.

This practice can be trying on your patience, because just when you think you're okay, something happens and then you're not. In such instances, I gauge how my body reacts. Did everything just tighten up? My body will only react if I allow it to react, but I have been practicing for so many years that such occurrences rarely faze me anymore. Instead, I feel for the offending party because I can recognize that they are the ones who are suffering.

Even if it’s merely an unkind word, I find a way to counteract their violence, such as by saying, “I don’t believe that was necessary.” I still get my feelings hurt, but then I'll find my way. I work very hard to find my way to a place where it doesn't hurt anymore.

This is not to minimize the suffering in our lives and the harm and pain that we have. It's real until you recognize that it isn't. This is a high state of understanding and being — and that’s not easy to attain. While I don’t remove blame from others, I don’t place blame either. That's their lesson to learn.

Sattvik Characteristic

The third guna is the most meditative, calmest state of being, the one we most often want to attain. Where tamasik is violence towards the self and rajasik is violence towards others, sattvik is violence towards God.

While this may seem impossible, it’s not. Humanity as a whole harbors violent thoughts about different religions and gods. Since the beginning of times, wars have been waged because of violent thoughts against God. God lives within us and goes by many names. Religions are not what God is. God is in everything. Religions are a human construct. Although there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with religion, many contain an essence of violence.

We are all God because we are all one. So when you have violence towards God, you are actually harboring the worst kind of violence against yourself.

One way that the sattvik characteristic manifests is when you lose someone close to you. Such a traumatic experience might cause you to turn your back on God. This is common, not to denigrate anyone's experience but when there is so much understandable pain we might turn from the one we loved previously so dearly. We actually have not turned away, we are just angry. We punish our God by looking away from him, but the only one punished is ourselves.

At the age of 44, my brother died of suicide in 2005, after many previous attempts. The act was a tamasik one, the ultimate act of violence toward the self, after a life full of violence, both outward and inward. His passing filled me with anger, although I was able to feel compassion for my father. My mother, on the other hand, turned away from God, angered at having lost a child. She could not understand the suffering that God had allowed all of us to endure.

I thought I was okay until I realized that my brother had not had the chance to learn. He only suffered. But then I realized that throughout every moment of his life, my brother could have chosen peace, joy, and happiness. Instead, he chose to perpetuate sorrow and violence. That was his choice, and his alone. I have such compassion for him, but there was nothing I can do to ease his suffering. All I can do is choose to never be violent again. I will have more compassion and love for humanity because of both my father and brother.

A few years before my father’s passing, my brother asked me, “Why are you okay? He was referring to our childhood, where we stood together thick and thin through every hardship that came our way. Yet, here he was, suffering with every breath, and there I was.

“I’m okay because I believe in God,” I told him. “I refuse to stop believing in God. I refuse to stop believing in compassion and love and kindness. You can't get me to choose violence anymore because I've seen what violence does, and I choose the opposite of violence. I chose love.”

It is a truth that I’ve loved my father and brother in every moment of my life. When I teach classes, I look at my students and see that they are suffering, and I wish I could take that suffering from them and take it on myself. But it’s not possible, because that suffering is theirs.

No matter how perfect your life may seem, bad things will befall you, if only on occasion. But every hardship that befalls you is due to your not wanting to be present in your life and blaming others for your suffering, rather than changing something within yourself.

I’ve learned to try not to regret anything. But that too is difficult. I regret not laughing more, forgiving more, and taking more time for myself. I regret not loving more. I regret not telling people more often that I love them. But I can make up for it now by being grateful and thankful for every moment of my day. I can choose kindness and compassion. So can you.

You can't get around being a human being. You cannot get around being present. You can't get around learning any of this. You can only look within yourself and get rid of whatever it is that makes this rise within you and destroy it. The only acceptable death is the death of ego, anger, and violence.

At the end of our lives, who will judge us? The only judge will be you. At that point, you will experience karma and repeat a life to (hopefully) relearn a lesson. We are born in ignorance and then freed by knowledge.

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