“Where can I find the strength for this?” the young woman asked me. “I feel as if all my power is sliding away from me.”
“This” was a divorce – a particularly tough one. Nancy (not her real name) had been married for ten years to a man she’d known through college and graduate school, and whom she’d always considered her closest friend. But the year before, her husband had met someone else, wanted to remarry immediately, and more, wanted custody of their son. He was now the one with the stable household, and a stay-at-home wife. Nancy was flaky, he said, and her job as a seminar leader kept her on the road too much of the time. Considering their relative positions in the community, it wasn’t so surprising when the court awarded him custody of the child.
Nancy adored her son, and she was determined to bring him up. Moreover, as a person committed to inner growth, she felt that she should be able to get through this crisis in her life with a degree of equanimity. But when she contemplated fighting for custody, she would find herself cycling through a confusion of feelings – from anger to anxiety to sadness to a feeling of impotence. The question, “Where can I find the strength for this?” was not casual. A lot hinged on her ability to find out.
During one of our conversations, I suggested that she spend some time practicing self-inquiry with the question “What is the source of my strength ‘at this moment’?” It seemed to me that if she could go deep into this inquiry, she might be able to find out which sources of personal power would actually sustain her over the long haul.
The Strength of Anger
Nancy spent a week doing this investigation. Several times a day, she would ask herself “What is the source of my strength?” then pay attention to what came up from within her. She began to identify several different kinds of strength. By far the most intense was the power she felt when tapped into her anger and sense of injustice. Righteous anger seemed to fuel her determination. With that as her impetus, she came up with plans and strategies, called lawyers, amassed documents proving that her husband was unfit to bring up the child. Anger got her out on her daily run, and propelled her to yoga class 3 times a week as she tried to build up her stamina for the fight. But that same resentment also ravaged her heart, woke her up in the middle of the night, left her wrung out and burning from the rush of cortisol it sent through her system. She could feel it literally burning her out.
The Strength of Hopelessness
When her anger had exhausted itself, she would become aware of another mood entirely, just as gripping, which she saw had its own kind of strength. It was the strength that comes from giving up hope. She characterized herself in this mood as “wronged woman endures the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” The quality of that strength was low and sad, and its voice in her mind said something like, “This is how life is. Some people have power and others don’t. You blew it. Just accept that and keep going.”
Just the way her anger gave her a kind of stamina, that despairing endurance was, in a strange way, supportive. But its price was a feeling of dull impotence. When she was in that state, it seemed impossible that she could make anything happen. All she could do was let life act upon her, and somehow survive. Like the character in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, she would find herself saying, “I can’t go on. I must go on. I will go on.”
There were days, she told me, when that was the only thing she ‘could’ do.
But she also became aware of a deeper kind of strength, a thread of confidence that seemed to come from her center. “Every now and then,”she told me, “I notice that there’s a part of me that just watches all this, and seems to be very steady. I’d call it a witness, but it’s more than a witness. It’s a definite presence, and it feels loving. It’s the part of me that can’t stop loving my husband even though he’s being a bastard, and wants everything to work out for the best for my son, and somehow knows that it will.”
The Strength Inside
She began experimenting with this inner witness. She would try to access it in meditation each morning. Then, she would do an act of faith. She would think to herself – “I don’t know what will happen, but I rely on you – my own inner witnessing self – to take me through it.” Sometimes she would visualize this inner being as a motherly presence that hovered over her, protecting her. Sometimes she thought of it as God. “It feels like part of me, but there’s something comforting about feeling that it’s someone else, that it’s taking care of me.” she told me.
Listening to Nancy talk about her experience of these different levels of strength, I realized that she was actually cycling through a familiar inner weather pattern. Her process, while deeply personal, mirrored a universal cycle that the yoga tradition, calls the play of the three ‘gunas ‘, or qualities of nature.
Inertia, passion, and clarity
The gunas, according to the ‘Bhagavad Gita, ‘ are three basic energetic qualities that determine our moods, our inner affect, and the tone of our actions. Once you’ve learned to identify them, you can also realize that they play incessantly through every part of the natural world. It helps to know the Sanskrit words for the gunas, because the bare English translation doesn’t do full justice to the complexity of each of these energies.
Tamo guna, or tamas, is the energy of inertia, dullness, and brutality. Rajo guna, or rajas, is the energy of passion, aggression and drive. Sattva guna, or sattva, is the quality of peacefulness, clarity and happiness.
Once you become conscious of the gunas, you start to notice how everything you experience has an energetic tone that can has the quality of one of these three energies, or often two of them in combination. In our internal world, the gunas are constantly combining and re-combining. According to the ‘Gita ‘, the three gunas are inseparable, like strands of a single rope, and are layered throughout nature as the energetic substratum of everything. (My friends and I used to play a parlor game called “Name that Guna” where we’d characterize places, events and people by their guna. Among Martin Scorsese films, for example, we’d call “Raging Bull” tamasic, “Gangs of New York” rajasic, and “Kundun” sattvic.) But since the gunas are energy patterns, they move and change. This changeable quality of energy is especially easy to see in our own mind, with its shifting patterns of inner state and mood. It’s extremely instructive to notice where our power seems to reside when we’re being affected by a particular guna.
The Energy of Aggression
Nancy, like most of us, was cycling through the gunas constantly. When rajas predominated, she felt strong, but her power came from anger and the intent to win. Rajasic strength is full of drive, so it can be creative and efficient, but there’s always an edge to it, because it’s driven by restlessness and the fear of losing or being left behind. Desire and anger are the hallmarks of rajo guna, so its strength has a burn in it, and always contains an element of fear, anxiety, and restlessness. The flight or fight syndrome, the energy that moves an athlete through a tight race, the caffeinated rush that keeps us on deadline, the ambition we feel in a room full of strivers, the hormonal urge to “˜get’ someone we find attractive””all these are markers of the great rajasic drive. So is the squirrel-cage round of thoughts that assaults us when we first start to meditate, and the intensely out-going tendency that drives our senses. Forcefulness, needing, the terror of losing or dying, the sheer intensity of the “I want” that makes us grasp for whatever we can get – all these are markers of rajasic energy. Much of the athletic quality in today’s yoga studios comes from rajasic energy. When we’re running on high-propane rajasic fuel to begin with, a teacher’s exhortation to practice harder, to break through, can actually accentuate our rajasic energy, inspiring us to harden our muscles and concentrate our will, holding ourselves in a posture by sheer force.
Nancy felt powerful when she was inside her rajasic energy. But inevitably, its willfulness gave her life an edgy, dodgy, off-center quality. There might be force in rajas, but there was insecurity as well. The confidence she got from anger and the sense of injustice could be overthrown in a moment by a setback or some bad news, or by comparing her strength to her husband’s.
The Energy of Inertia
That was when she would fall into the tamasic state of despair, and take refuge in a kind of dulled resignation.
Tamas is the energy found in those states we call ‘the pits’. Sadness. Depression. Inertia. The “I can’t get out of bed in the morning’ blues. Tamasic strength is stubborn and sticky. It digs in its heels and resists life’s demands that we change, that we give up old habits or move past our limitations. In fact, tamasic strength rests on a deep seated belief that nothing good can come from change, and that change isn’t possible anyway. So we know we’ve been overtaken by tamas when we find ourselves sinking down into the familiar – even when its painful – and clinging like a barnacle to the boundaries of our old ways, even when our old ways make us feel like victims or brutes. The strength tamas gives us is the strength to simply endure, to barricade ourselves in our bunkers, and stay there until the storm passes. Tamas is also the energy that lashes out at the people around us, or pushes away help.
The Power of Being
It was in those moments when her mind had stopped racing through torrents of emotions and plans, yet held itself back from slipping into despair, that she could contact her feeling of essential goodness. After a while, she learned to catch her mind in its squirrel round of cycling through solutions and revenge scenarios and turn it inside. Then she would touch a core of optimism, the sensation of basic security and well being that belongs to sattva. Sometimes it seemed untrustworthy, too good to be true. Most of the time, she just wanted to hang onto it, keep it from going away.
The word sattva comes from the root ‘sat’, which means “being” or “truth”. It’s literally the power of beingness, the inner integrity that let the Buddha sit under the bodhi tree until he became enlightened, the power that supported Gandhi and Martin Luther King, the power that we feel in cathedrals and redwood forests and in people who quietly offer help to those who need it. Sattvic strength is one part discipline and three parts trust – trust that the invisible is stronger than what we can see or touch, and that what we are speaks louder than what we say.
Sattva is born in stillness, and truly sattvic strength arises out of our willingness to keep still, to wait, to allow our actions to arise out of the quiet of our own center. The forceful agent of sattvic strength is the force of clear intention – a subtle, yet unbending clarity about what it is that your heart and soul truly want. Intention is an arrow aimed at your goal. Intention – the formulation of what you want to happen – is formed in silence, through contemplation. It is refreshed each time we return to it. Then, often without our knowing how it happens, the subtle power of intention will guide our actions and our words, and gradually, almost invisibly, create change. The key is to keep touching and acting from that stillness out of which the intention was formed.
But holding ourselves in stillness is not easy. Its one thing to feel our sattvic strength when we’re meditating, because that’s a time we officially give ourselves to spiral inward towards our silent center. But the real test of sattvic strength, as my friend discovered, is in whether we can stay in contact with it while we’re acting. Sattvic energy doesn’t always feel strong, because it is so subtle. We wonder if it’s enough to propel us forward. “I’m so used to using anger and the feeling of righteous indignation to get me going that it’s really hard to trust that this place is really the source of strength,” Nancy said one day. “What if I just get passive? What if I get so laid back that I just let him take my kid?”
I told her my suspicion: that she was simply afraid that getting quiet would propel her into the immobility of tamas. Many of us – especially those of us who are active strivers – fear our own tamasic energy. We associate it with failure and depression. So to avoid it, we drive ourselves remorselessly, and resist moments of simple quiet. We lose touch with our real power in the process.
I once heard psychologist Stephen Gilligan speak about this. An ex-addict, he knew his propensity for inertia, and to keep himself out of it he drove himself into hyper-activity. He said that the technique he used to bypass his fear was to spend a weekend staying in bed until he felt an impulse to get up that didn’t come from his fear of being lazy. Every time his mind would tell him, “Hey, you’re just sinking into torpor,” he’d take a deep breath and relax. Finally, there was a moment when it simply felt ‘right’ to get up and start his day.
At that point, he said, he realized that he could trust his own natural energy to move him. It wasn’t necessary to use his willpower like a whip to goad himself into action. Instead, he could wait and let that natural impulse to act through him. In my own experience, our intention to function effectively but not to drive ourselves can be enough to keep us pointed in the right direction, and keep us out of the swamp of inertia.
I’ve found that one way to touch into my sattvic strength is to play my own version of this waiting game. One of my tendencies is to speak up whenever there’s a silence, even when I don’t really have anything significant to say. I’ve found that when I do this, there is little power in my words, and people tend not to give me their full attention. I’ve trained myself to resist that impulse to rush into speech, and to listen more deeply to other people. Usually, out of that listening, my own words will arise in time, and when they do, they are nearly always empowered by an instinctive sense of timing that doesn’t come from willfulness or the desire to fill a silence.
The discipline involved in this waiting process is basic ‘pratyahara ‘, the ability to turn your senses inward so that a part of your attention is on your own center. My own preferred method of doing this, which I’ve practiced a lot over the years, is to focus on my own heart, breathing in and out through the heart, and checking in from time to time to notice what has happened to my center of attention. When I notice that I’m being pulled intensely by someone else, or by an emotional response, a strong impulse or desire, or just the urge to scratch or fidget or eat, I’ll make a point of turning some part of my attention inward toward the heart.
It really doesn’t matter what you do to take your attention inward. You could merge your mind with your breath, or stop in mid stride to feel your feet on the ground, or tune into your heartbeat. You could look at the sky and feel the mind-expanding feeling of looking at space. You could simply listen to the sounds around you without labeling them. Or you could take a moment to remember oneness, the interconnectedness of everything. As you do that, you should notice a sense of presence, a thread of connection to the part of you that is not totally caught up in the drama of the moment. As you touch that part of yourself, you touch your deep source of strength.
In that state of stillness – even if it’s just a moment – recall your intention. Then act, or speak in a way that you feel is congruent with that intention.
A few weeks after she began her contemplation about strength, Nancy went to family court, to show cause why she should be allowed to resume custody. It was the make it or break it moment for her, the end game in a long train of depositions and previous appearances. As she sat in court, she closed her eyes and formally offered up her attachment to the outcome, asking that the decision be what was best for her child. She focused on her intention: “My son is living in my house. All of us – him, my ex-husband and his new wife – are united in our efforts to bring him up.”
Then, focusing on the breath, she began to attend to the central channel in her body, breathing in with awareness of the center at the base of her spine, breathing out with awareness of her heart. No matter what anyone said, regardless of the fear that contracted her belly, she kept her attention moving with the breath between her belly and her heart.
When it was her turn to speak, she willed herself to keep her attention with the breath, remembered her intention, and reminded herself that no matter how beleaguered she felt, there was still only one energy present in everything. “I didn’t know how I was answering the questions,” she said, “but I could feel the power coming from my own center, and in that moment I knew I would win.”
She did. The judge awarded them joint custody.
“Of course, it wasn’t just what I said,” she wrote me. “A lot of it had to do with the social worker’s report, and also I had the feeling that the judge didn’t really like my husband’s lawyer. But the most important thing to me was that I could feel the strength I have inside me, and that I never gave into anger.”
I believe that Nancy had uncovered the deep secret of sattvic strength. When our practice and focus have given us the ability to keep our attention firmly centered inside, when we can do this and still keep enough of our mind in our actions so that we function skillfully, we tap into the kind of strength that lets us remain steady no matter what distractions storm around us. This kind of strength doesn’t have to get hard or aggressive. It has the firmness that only comes when you are able to observe your emotional reactions without identifying with them. It doesn’t have to over-exert itself, because it knows how to follow the path of least resistance, flowing like water.
Strength always radiates from the inside out. It comes from the center. That’s a core principle of all inner work, and it doesn’t really matter how you find that center, as long as you get there. You can find your core through the body and the breath, or by turning into one of the subtle centers like the heart. Sometimes a phrase or a teaching will take you there, and sometimes you center yourself by feeling the presence of God in whatever form has resonance within you. Yet you can also access your own center by tuning yourself into the energy of a loving friend or elder, or indeed of anyone who’s presence helps you feel protected and loved. Any contemplation that allows you to take rest inside can get you there, because that inner core of strength actually resides in all of us, and will emerge on its own when we keep remembering to turn to it.
The truth at the heart of all practice is that it doesn’t really matter what we do to access our own source, as long as we do something. It’s in the gaps between the driving energy of rajas and the inertia of tamas. Its touch is as soft as a butterfly’s wings, and its leading edge is the power of clarity, of intention. It is, trust me, the only infallible source of support.