[A version of this article was first published in my "A to Zen" column in the March/April 2014 issue of Unity Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.]
What is the most important relationship in our life? Is it the one we have with our spouses or life partners? Our parents? Our children? Our friends?
None of the above.
The most important relationship is the one we have with ourselves because that is the ground out of which all the others grow. Who you are and how you navigate the terrain of your inner life affects everyone and everything around you.
In ancient Athens Socrates was fond of repeating the motto chiseled into the marble at the Oracle at Delphi – “Know Thyself.” For Socrates self-knowledge meant far more than simply knowing your place or playing your role well. It meant digging deep, questioning everything, and seeing what remained after every pretense was turned to ash in the blazing light of reason. Journeying through the abyss of the unconscious is no walk in the park – it takes tremendous vision and willingness – the vision to penetrate the smoke of denial and the willingness to let go of everything false. When the goal is authenticity, no price is too high.
But what is this self that we are supposed to get to know?
In Vedanta philosophy – the ancient wisdom of the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita – a subtle and sophisticated philosophy of self emerges. We, like everything else in the universe, are said to be woven from three strands or gunas – tamas, rajas, and sattva. Tamas is the quality of unconsciousness, ignorance, darkness and inertia. Rajas is the quality of undirected energy, manic self-centeredness, and restless anxiety. Sattva is the quality of illumination, stillness, and inner-wisdom. All three gunas are ever present within us, but one is always eclipsing the other two.
When tamas is dominant we are lethargic, deceitful, and lost in delusion. We take pleasure in vulgarity and intoxication and have no regard for the well-being of ourselves or others. We procrastinate and waste time. Covetousness and envy cloud our minds. Tamasic consciousness is hell on earth.
When rajas dominates, we swell full of ambition and self-seeking, working hard for outer rewards and recognition. Greed, rather than the good, motivates us. Fear and competition drives us like a lash. We view others either as rivals or as means to an end. Even when we attain our goals, satisfaction eludes us because there is always someone who has more. Rajasic consciousness is busy-mind incarnate.
When sattva dominates, we work with the greater good in mind. We move out of thoughts of I, me, and mine and awaken into unity consciousness, realizing our underlying oneness. A genuine sweetness wells up through the cracks of our ordinary lives. Healing and serenity replace dissatisfaction and craving. We finally realize that we are and have forever been in the Kingdom of Heaven. Sattvic consciousness is self-illuminating enlightenment.
The tamasic person suffers continually, yet is too sick to do anything about it. The rajasic person stays stuck in the illusion of separateness, beset by endless longing and fear. The sattvic person realizes their inner divinity and experiences fully the blissful nature of this now moment.
The good news is that each of us has the capacity to shift into sattvic consciousness. The spiritual practices of the world’s wisdom traditions offer ample support. Study, pray, meditate, love, create, devote, serve – there are many paths to the summit.
Simply put, sattvic consciousness is our inner light. Others call it Christ-consciousness, Buddha-nature, Atman, or our unseverable connection to the Source. It is not something we attain, nor is it the fruit of our spiritual discipline – it is what we already are and have always been. We have only to awaken to it. In fact, it is our tamasic lethargy and our rajasic busy-mind that cloaks this divine reality within us. When we feel the compulsive, addictive, and self-destructive energy of tamas, when we feel the manic, racing, fearful, self-obsession of rajas, we have only to shift our attention to the sattvic inner light that shines behind the fog of tamas and rajas. It may not be as difficult as we think it is. Turning enlightenment into an arduous ordeal is a favorite game of the rajasic mind. What if we allow it to be easy? What if we take Jesus at his word when he says, “My yoke is easy, my burden light.”
Now self-knowledge takes on a whole new meaning. When Socrates says, “Know thyself,” he means come into alignment with your higher self, the part of you closest to the divine and therefore most real. In Buddhist enlightenment, it is the sattvic consciousness that finally lifts us out of the haze of tamas and rajas, illuminating the whole world. “Be lamps unto yourselves,” said the Buddha, and when you realize your inner light, “don’t hide it under a bushel basket,” added Jesus. Coming into right relationship with whom and what we really are is our greatest gift to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to the whole world.