Setting a Course for Serenity: Ayurveda for Cultivating Sattva

by Emma Kate Veader

Navigating through difficult times can be exhausting, frustrating, and even nauseating. Whether we’re sailing into forceful winds or lacking direction, confusion can arise when sudden shifts in our course ensue. When the waves are rough, how do we find what is known in Ayurveda as sattvathe quality of balance, harmony, goodness, and serenity?

To mitigate the nausea and confusion, it is important to orient ourselves so we can safely address the rocky, unstable situation. Sailors on the high seas would refer to this approach as “the horizon watch.” The horizon is set on sattva.

According to Ayurveda, the material makeup and expression of all existence can be identified by three basic gunas, or qualitative energies: tamas, which translates as "darkness" or "inertia"; rajas, relating to passion or action; and sattva, which relates to goodness—that which is pure in nature. Continuing the sailing metaphor, anchoring to find stillness in choppy waters would be the tamasic approach, while actively going against the winds of change in attempts to reach that horizon can be thought of as rajasic.

Regardless of the perceived positive or negative aspects of the gunas, we are bound to all three in our pursuits of a healthy, happy, and purpose-filled life. Everything on earth has a primary qualitative energy. Anything we hear, smell, see, taste, or touch can be classified into the categories of sattvic (purity), rajasic (action) or tamasic (inertia). The three qualities are present in everything.

So how do we observe, perceive, and translate life according to the gunas? How can we tell if something is rajasic, tamasic, or sattvic in nature? More importantly, how can we find harmony and balance through taking a complementary or opposing action to what is out of balance? In order to create sattva as well as inspire sattvic environments and communities, we need to have a deep internal sense of the sattvic qualities in our own nature.

Taking a broader look at the qualities of these three essences will help to set the stage for how we can better work with them to find support in cultivating a more sattvic life.

Tamas correlates to feelings of stagnation, darkness, or, in some classical texts, even ignorance. The other side to tamas is the limitless potential energy that exists within static substance. A tamasic space provides a time of rest, drawing in, stability, and support. Simplified, tamas is matter. From a dietary perspective, tamasic foods tend to be processed, canned, deep-fried, fermented, leftovers, or anything that causes a dull, heavy feeling in the body, mind, or emotions.

Rajas is commonly associated with action, movement, desires, lust, and ego. It also provides creativity, an ability to change and adapt. We can utilize rajas to move toward nourishment or move farther away from something that is not supportive. Simplified, rajas is dynamic energy. Rajasic foods include spicy, hot, excessively bitter, sour, and pungent tastes.

Sattva is goodness, beauty, pure aspect, and awakening light. It is the expression of harmony, calm, and, contentment. Within sattva are the five sense organs (ears, skin, eyes, tongue, and nose), motor organs, and the manas, or mind. Simplified, sattva is pure essence. Sattvic foods are traditionally easily digested, high in prana, and produce a light yet grounded, stable, and clear post-digestive effect.

From an Ayurvedic perspective, here are some basic sattvic diet and lifestyle practices.

  • Eat fresh/properly cooked organic whole foods—think simple, easy-to-digest foods that produce a calm belly and mind.
  • Spend time in nature—allow it to flood your senses.
  • Limit time in the digital jungle of social media and television.
  • Establish a regular meditation practice.

Ayurveda utilizes the practices of yoga to reduce the presence of rajas and tamas so that the mind, which is qualitatively sattvic, can more clearly deliver information to the body. Causes of derailment from a sattvic sense of being exist both externally as well as internally. Beyond taking part in sattvic experiences through choices of certain food, activities, and observances, Ayurveda also recommends that we work internally to cultivate sattva.

The Shifting Seas of the Mind
A clear mind, with an absence of moving thoughts or dull cloudiness, is sattvic—pure and clean in nature. You can imagine it as a transparent piece of glass, or even a mirror that can reflect qualities of sattva back to you. When your point of focus is moving or, in other words, rajas is present, it is difficult to concentrate and discern supportive actions. On the other end of the scale, when tamas sets in, increasing layers of dirt or smoke create a film on this mirror, making it difficult to see clearly. What we want is different from what’s actually happening. Sometimes, in order to establish sattva, you have to use rajas to move at the same speed of the reality around you—or tamas to meet it where it is. You either need to change your environment or change how you’re acting.

Anchor in the Swastha
When you are unable to take action, anchoring in yourself is the next best option. Ayurveda and yoga guide us to anchor ourselves internally to the qualities and characteristics of sattva. One of the classical texts of Ayurveda, the Sushruta Samhita, explains that the definition of health, or swastha, is “to be established in oneself.” The Baghavad Gita says, “When light and discernment dawn in this body, as well as in the mind and senses, then one should know that sattva is predominant.” The key is to discern what will support you in maintaining your internal sattvic essence.

Identify Your Horizon Line
Much like a magnetic pull, your calibrated alignment to these qualities will direct you when the waves of thought shift or when the guiding winds die down. This orientation with Spirit, or pure essence, is the ever-present horizon beckoning you back to sattva—watch and feel for it. You will not only be able to recognize what you need to sail into sattva, but regular sattvic practices will help you stay in a state and expression of goodness.

Orient Your Course
It is important to orient yourself daily; anchor in the essence of your identity, refine your connection to Spirit at the horizon of each morning, and set sail in sattvic practices. These three masts will be faithful companions along this grand adventure of life. Determine what is supportive, move toward it, and sattva will be a natural byproduct.

Emma Kate Veader is a former Kripalu School of Ayurveda Intern. 

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