Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A step back from the Apocalypse: The Three Gunas

Recently, a student told me that my classes were apocalyptic. Yikes. I think he was saying it lovingly, but point taken anyway. I guess I've had a rough month and have really been indulging in the darker side of the practice. In and of itself, darkness isn't a problem. It's just one side of a spectrum of light. I guess my students have been wondering about the lighter side of the spectrum, because today, another student asked me about joy. Could I talk about how to cultivate joy? Ok, I can take a hint. I will take a step back from my apocalyptic blinders and gratefully offer a practice that is more balanced. I'm so grateful for my students for dragging me back from the edge every now and then. It begins like this:

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should (as in, just because there's a whole pie on the counter doesn't mean you should eat the whole thing.) Availability shouldn't be the sole criteria for cultivating joy. Likewise, just because something is hard, doesn't mean you should avoid it. There are many lights in the dark spots that will help us navigate our way.

We meet extremes on both ends of the spectrum, and they have names. On the dark end of the spectrum, we have Tamas. It's heavy, weighty, and oh so dark. On the other side of our spectrum, we have Rajas, which is light and fiery.

Now, Rajas and Tamas, like two ends of a see-saw, have a middle point. A point of delicate balance where both sides balance each other out. This point is called Sattva. Sattva is the middle point of the spectrum that has all the perspective to see out to the edges. It's the place where joy and contentment arise gracefully. Have you ever sat on a see-saw? I remember that the first thing my partner and I would do, would be to shimmy forward and back, until we found the point of balance—that sweet spot where you could both balance your 40 pound bodies on the board and lift your feet off the ground. It was magical and always fleeting. Sattva often appears like that. When we find the balance between the Rajasic and Tamasic energies, we balance in Sattva. It's sweet. It doesn't always last, but we always remember it and continue to seek it. Seeking balance is a practice of awareness that requires steadfastness, determination, and compassion. It's exactly the cultivation of these practices that are the act of cultivating joy. Joy doesn't just drop in your lap. You have to work at it. (When we live in that place of joy, we eventually move even beyond sattva. But that's a whole other blog.)

If our viewpoints or actions are off center though, mired in the polar ends of the spectrum of sattvic light, we can't see the dharma, or the most life enhancing choices. We can't see all the way to the other end. When we're in the middle, however, we balance between the opposite ends of the spectrum. As seekers of the sattvic middle, we can't avoid the ends, or we throw the whole thing off balance. Kind of like one kid abruptly getting off the board and sending the other one flying to the ground. Not much fun, I assure you.

Now that I've stepped back from my apocalyptic ledge, I feel a little closer to the middle.