The Meaning of Life and the Gunas


The first chapter of the book The Pleasure Trap reveals the meaning of life. What could it be? To love our fellow humans? Take consciousness to the next level? Discover the secrets of the universe? After sorting through mountains of research, the authors distilled their findings to five less-than-glamorous words:

To survive and to reproduce.

This is the meaning of all biological life, which employs 3 strategies to reach these goals: pursue pleasure, avoid pain and conserve energy.

I personally found this a bit of a let down, although it meshed with my observations of the natural world. But then I realized that these scientists are saying the same thing yogis described centuries ago. Using the concept of the gunas, yoga states that all life forms have the following qualities:

[ guna       - yogic definition     - biological definition]

1) tamas    - inertia, darkness   - conserving energy

2) rajas      - passion, activity    - avoiding pain

3) sattwa   - luminosity, balance - seeking pleasure

One benefit of the biological terminology is that it reveals the positive side of each guna. Tamas often gets a bad rap, as it is defined as heaviness, laziness, stubbornness. Who wants to be labeled as any of these? But when we take the view of conserving energy, we realize that tamas is actually beneficial to our health on all levels, and it becomes more appealing to embrace the idea that we have it.

Rajas is activity, specifically self-serving activity, which is exactly what enables us to move away from pain. A lot of training and motivation is necessary to overcome this biological imperative - see professional athletes and military personnel who drill for months to be able to put themselves in danger for the good of a team or community. Yoga manages rajas through seva (selfless service), teaching us to put others’ needs ahead of our own and to channel our energies for something bigger than ourselves.

Sattwa, or balance, is the biological imperative of homeostasis. Anything we can do to get back toward metabolic or mental stability is deemed pleasurable: sitting in front of a fire on a cold night, eating when blood sugar levels drop, creating long-term relationships. When we are in balance at all levels we experience deep joy, and yoga supports us in this goal through various practices.

The biological view of the gunas explains why yogis exhort us to transcend them. Many students think of sattwa as the ultimate goal - who wouldn’t want to experience pleasure all the time? But we need to go beyond sattwa because we are more than our biology - looking at our society bolsters that truth. If surviving and reproducing were truly the be-all of humanity, then we should all be ecstatic because our species has mastered both to the point of overpopulation. Mothers and fathers should be in continuous bliss, without any further hopes or dreams  - except perhaps to have more offspring. Addicts should also be very happy, because they have found the means to take themselves to great pleasure again and again. Do you see this as the truth of our world? Who are the happiest, most satisfied, most exemplary people you know?

Yoga and biology both posit that the happiest people experience, accept and move beyond the three natural imperatives. Those who enjoy conserving energy when it is appropriate, take action when needed and savor pleasure without being addicted are the most satisfied individuals, for they have transcended biological urges and opened to deeper ones, which grant access to what we might call spiritual experiences. The lucky souls who do this are described vividly in chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita:

“They live in wisdom who have renounced every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart. Neither agitated by fear nor hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger. When you move amidst the world of sense, free from attachment and aversion alike, there comes the peace in which all sorrows end, and you live in the wisdom of the self.” *

Both yoga and biology give us tools to transcend the three biological requirements for mere existence and reveal us to be something more. In September’s Yoga for Your Mind classes, we are learning techniques to understand and manage our three gunas. You can take the next step by joining us live Tuesdays 6:30 to 7:45 pm Eastern, in person at Partners to Empowerment or via video; or, ask for a recording of these classes.


* from Eknath Easwaran’s translation, verses 35, 36, 64 and 65.