When students can identify their energy level and moods, classroom management is enhanced. After acknowledging, how they feel, the class or student can make an effort to regulate their energy and adapt to the needs of the situation. Students I have worked with in middle school found this language intuitive and simple. With the rise of mindfulness in education, taking wisdom from the ancient east is not as unfamiliar as it once was.
According to Vedanta, the gunas are the great states of energy that permeate all of material creation. Just as water is liquid, solid and gas, the guna indicates how dense material is. Eastern tradition views all of creation, whether material or ethereal as a continuum of the same substance. Some physicists describe matter as being a swirl of particles, waves, and vibrations; this is aligned with that view. It is a spectrum of the most concrete to the most subtle or perhaps the least alive to the most alive. This view presumes that our world, as we perceive it, is Illusion or Maya. There is a Sanskrit aphorism that states, ‘‘Everything exists in Name and Form only.” That is, all objects are in some form of birth, growth or decay but are essentially the same substance, consciousness, which, in its current state, is named this or that form. Since the universe is in constant flux, creation, or Purusha as it is called in Sanskrit, manifests in ways that are governed by the guna and humans are subject to its influence.
The Sanskrit names for the guna are: Satva, Rajas and Tamas.
Satva is considered pure, generous, balanced, attentive, awake, but still.
Rajas is passionate, restless, full of desire, acquisitive.
Tamas is dull, sleepy, oblivious, crystallized.
The rise and fall of civilizations, the seasons, organic life, and individuals flow through stages of birth, growth and decay. In relation to human consciousness, this describes how aware and connected one is.
There is an intuitive or self-evident logic to describing states of energy in this way. It is fun for students to discuss which guna best describes how, for example, foods make you feel. It seems easy to recognize that pizza is heavy and tamasic and fruit is Satvika. Although that concept is easily understood, it was also useful to describe the gunas to the kids as Sloth energy, Tiger Energy and Swan energy and avoid the Sanskrit terms. Using Sanskrit words might be interpreted as teaching religion, which is not allowed.
After a discussion with seventh graders about the states of energy being sleepy, dull, active-passionate, awake and calm, I have asked students which animal they thought could represent a certain guna, and they usually guessed these animals right away. I brought in pictures of a sloth, swan and tiger. It delighted me that students usually agreed. The symbolism for this can vary; it is important only that the concept be portrayed accurately. For high school students who are more sophisticated in their understanding, you may be able to find psychologically based words such as: Oblivious, Active, and Awake which will stimulate their thinking.
My students noted that swans can be big, nasty birds, but they also look gorgeous floating on the water; although they appear still, there is a lot of power underneath. So the Swan became the symbol of Satva. A tiger with its restless pacing, subtle aggressiveness and power, captures the essence of Rajas. You might even extend the metaphor that the tiger is also moody, unpredictable, and alternately lazy or intense while tracking its prey. The attachment to hunting its victim might be used to relate to the concept of attachment to a goal. The image of a sloth languidly hanging from a tree with its long limbs and droopy shape certainly embodies the image of indolence, turpitude and sleepiness.
The purpose of identifying the different gunas is to help the students to be aware of their own physical and mental statesplus that of the surrounding environment. After students get a handle on these concepts, they often begin to understand the possibility of adjusting something to compensate. For example, if everyone is getting sluggish and inattentive, then opening a window, a bit of stretching, or the breath of fire might be just the thing to increase the energy level. It is important to note that although Satva may seem desirable, there is nothing inherently bad about any guna. Gunas happen. All of our physical, mental and emotional systems are suffused with them. It is also believed that one can’t simply jump from Tamas to Satva, but rather needs to get more energized in order to become awake.
The chart on the next page is an attempt to illustrate the three gunas and the three levels within each guna that are referenced in Vedanta philosophy. A quote is included that implies the general attitude and behavior within the level. The theme of the chart is that the lower the guna level, the more self-absorbed and isolated; the higher the gunalevel, the more aware of others and the environment, more generous and flexible in attitude. Gunas which suffuse the mind and body are constantly in flux and can be pushed in one direction or another.
You are welcomed to copy and use the chart below. Get in touch if you’d like more information about Cognitive Yoga.