The Three Gunas: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

By Lisa TeasleyJune 7, 2012

The Three Gunas: Breaking Up is Hard to Do
On Marriage, Writer’s Block and Transcendence


MY HINDU HUSBAND, a white Midwesterner, moved in three years ago with an Eastern Philosophy library to covet, even if one is not interested in the vastness of the subject. A third of the pie, Vedanta and yoga, was introduced to the West in the late 19th century by Swami Vivekananda, who lately has been re-emerging as a fascinating figure in the cultural soup. A recent profile in the WSJ magazine highlighted Vivekananda's admirers: Leo Tolstoy, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, W. Somerset Maugham, Henry James, J.D. Salinger, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Henry Miller. While the admirers are in my library, the Swami is not. My husband and I are now separated. But he brought Vivekananda into my life along with an endless host of lucent and otherwise infamous sadhus, yogis, avatars, gurus, or white Western teachers all under the eternal soul persuasion.

Going through stuff in the basement to throw out, there was one Vedic astrologer's self-published, clipped together booklet at the bottom of a dusty box my husband had never unpacked. It found my interest despite the assuming title, Kundalini Chakra Awakening and the Attainment of Self-realization, Mystic Powers and Transcendence. The author advises writing at the top of six pieces of papers the following titles for each: The Blamer, The Complainer, The Pleaser, The Pretender, The Defender, The Believer. You are then to list under each heading the who, what, when, where and how you blame, complain, please, pretend, defend, and believe.

The exercise is based on an understanding of the Three Gunas [goon-uh] or ropes of bondage — Tamas and Rajas, and Sattva — tying one to actions and reactions in the world of Maya, George Harrison's material world. Tamas is akin to apathy, boredom, depression; Rajas includes anger, aggression and arrogance; and Sattva is acceptance, harmony, balance. Obviously Tamas and Rajas are the main contenders for sources of struggle, while Sattva might be a goal. The simple idea that you might free yourself from the lower energy influences of Tamas and Rajas seemed to be most wise during a break-up.

In Volume One of Vivekananda's complete works, he explains the gunas of Vedantic philosophy this way:

Again, the mind is in three states, one of which is darkness, called Tamas, found in brutes and idiots; it only acts to injure. No other idea comes into that state of mind. Then there is the active state of mind, Rajas, whose chief motives are power and enjoyment. "I will be powerful and rule others." Then there is the state called Sattva, serenity, calmness, in which the waves cease, and the water of the mind-lake becomes clear. It is not inactive, but rather intensely active. It is the greatest manifestation of power to be calm.

Three months ago, once my husband and I were in calm agreement that this was not working, he moved out. He took only a bag. All of his things are still here: the wonderful library, the rare vinyl collection of psychedelia, the horror, ninja and Bollywood movie collection, a near pharmacy's worth of Chinese herbs, homeopathic tinctures and supplements, and his car, which I'm driving. The car's license plate pays homage to the Hindu goddess, Kali — the black one, divine mother, destroyer of ego. When we first met he told me he thought he'd been sent Kali in mortal form. This never felt complementary, even though Kali is his goddess of choice. The plate needles almost every time I approach the car. If you look at black or blue Kali with her tongue hanging out, the sword in one of her ten hands, the string of white heads around her neck, and her foot on her husband Shiva's chest, you can understand why I wouldn't want it to fit.

Still, we have dinner a couple of times a week because we're nothing like that Gotye featuring Kimbra song yet, he's not just somebody I used to know. We both did our share of blaming, complaining, pleasing, pretending, defending and believing — though as the more vocal one, I have done most of the complaining.

I have been complaining rather than writing: not only about the relationship, but about the closing of bookstores, the ever shrinking state of education, the ever-lessening ability for writers to make a living. And is this really true? Or is this an excuse to do less, to create less? To settle into the apathy of Tamas? Like most writers, I imagine, I appreciate this Henry Miller quote from Sexus:

Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.

I've been getting quiet. Trying to be desperately honest. And I know it takes more energy to be blocked than to be festively creative.

Last week was my husband's birthday, and we ran around the city — downtown, Koreatown, West Hollywood. We did burgers, bars, bowling, berries and cream cake. Whenever sitting across the table from one another, talking about work, books or the surroundings in whatever setting we happened to be, he would look deeply into my eyes. This felt unusual, particularly at this stage in our relationship, and I was always the first to look away. I never considered myself non-confrontational or intimacy-phobic, so I had to think about why. Suspicion, miscomprehension of our situation, or his intentions?

I thought of one dream scene in Richard Linklater's fantastic Waking Life where the animated characters Caveh Zahedi and David Jewell are featured in a film within the film called "The Holy Moment." Zahedi makes the point that successful literature must convey a story, but in film as in song, it should be more about the person, the moment, the presence, the now. To illustrate this — being, not nothingness — Zahedi asks Jewell, "Let's do it right now, let's have a holy moment." They sit, looking only into one another's eyes, and they have it. Afterward, Jewell talks about the layers of the holy moment, the awareness of trying to have it, and so being in then out of it. I was always accusing my husband of not being present. But had it really been me?

The evening after my husband's birthday, I had dinner with my friend Swami Brahmavidyananda who is writing books on Vedanta. He is a 71-year-old monk of the Ramakrishna order — Vivekananda's guru — he has led the renunciant life since he was 22, but is wholly comfortable in the secular world. He explains the gunas as a natural and evolutionary process, from the Tamas preservation of status quo, to Rajas action and agency, to Sattva's integration. I have no problem looking deeply into Swami's eyes and having those Waking Life God moments. And as we are often laughing, we stop shortly after his remark upon how lightly people take vows.

In a verse explaining why one should strive to transcend the gunas, the ropes, the evolutionary strands, the Bhagavad Gita says this: "Sattva attaches one to happiness; rajas to activity; and tamas, by eclipsing the power of discrimination, to miscomprehension." The order in their value is reversed as I've understood it, but that's probably the point. Because it's particularly in the subject of working away from attachment to anything that Vedantists and Buddhists clearly agree. So the goal would be detachment from all things, situations, and their outcomes. That includes detachment from the quality of productivity, detachment from odious comparisons, from comparisons to the works of the superstar writers, for instance, who admired Vivekananda. Detachment, ultimately, even from relationship. But that will never mean that breaking up isn't hard to do.

Continue to:

"The Most Versatile of Mystics": on Hinduism and Interpreting Ramakrishna

Lisa Teasley's LARB Questionnaire

Lisa Teasley's author page

LARB Contributor

Lisa Teasley is the author of the acclaimed novels Heat Signature and Dive, and the award-winning story collection, Glow in the Dark, published by Bloomsbury. Her frequently anthologized essays, stories, and poems have appeared in publications and media such as National Public Radio, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Essence, Zyzzyva, Joyland, and Black Clock. She is writer and presenter of the BBC television documentary “High School Prom” and senior fiction editor at Los Angeles Review of Books. A painter as well, she is represented by the Marie Baldwin Gallery.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.