Once, when I was feeling particularly vulnerable, my teacher suggested I contemplate a question: "Where does your strength come from?" It’s a contemplation I’ve found useful in many crises, and I often suggest it to others when they are going through difficult times. Hard times are often hard precisely because the support you normally count on has fallen away. That’s when you need to find your deepest source of strength.
I found myself remembering this recently when a student called about her difficult divorce. "Amy" had been married for 10 years to a man she’d considered her closest friend. But the year before, her husband had met someone else, remarried, and persuaded a judge to give him custody of their son.
Amy adored her son and was determined to raise him. Moreover, as a person committed to inner growth, she wanted to get through this crisis with a degree of equanimity. But when she contemplated fighting to regain custody, she found herself cycling through a tumult of feelings—from anger and anxiety to sadness and impotence. The question she asked me was "How can I find the strength to go through this?" I first suggested she ponder the question "What is the source of my strength at this moment?"
Know Your Strengths
Amy was able to identify three kinds of strength. By far the most intense was one that came from her anger and sense of injustice. It fueled her determination to win the court battle, and propelled her out on her daily run and to yoga class. But that power and determination came at a price. When anger woke her in the middle of the night and left her wrung out and burning from the rush of cortisol and adrenaline it sent through her system, she knew it was wearing her down.
At such times, she would fall into despair. She’d give up hope, surrender to the "reality" of a life that wasn’t the way she wanted it to be. Just the way her anger gave her stamina, that despairing endurance was, in a strange way, supportive. But its price was a feeling of dull passivity.
Fortunately, she could also touch a deeper strength, a thread of confidence that came from her center. "Every now and then," she told me, "I notice there’s a part of me that just watches all this, a witness, and seems to be very steady. It’s a definite presence, and it feels loving. It’s the part of me that wants everything to work out for the best for all of us, and somehow knows that it will."
Listening to Amy talk about these different levels of strength, I suddenly realized that there was a universal pattern behind her experience. Her shifting feelings were mirroring a cycle that the yoga tradition calls the play of the three gunas, or qualities of nature, usually described as passion, inertia, and peace. It occurred to me that if she could look at this pattern, it might help her understand and discover the source of her real power.
The gunas are three basic energetic qualities that run through everything in the natural world—including us. They have a powerful effect on your moods, your feelings, and your actions.
Once you become conscious of the gunas, you’ll start to notice how everything you experience has the quality of one of these three energies—or, more typically, two of them in combination.
Rajas is the energy of passion, aggression, willpower, determination, and drive. Tamas is the energy of inertia, dullness, passivity, and sleep. Sattva is the quality of peacefulness, clarity, and happiness.
The three gunas are inseparable, like strands of a single rope, and are layered throughout nature as the energetic substratum of everything. But since the gunas are energy patterns, they’re always shifting. This changeable quality is especially noticeable in your own mind, with its evanescent patterns of inner state and mood. It’s extremely instructive to notice where your power resides and how it’s being manifested when you’re cycling through a particular guna, or combination of gunas.
The Rush of Rage
Amy, like anyone who is experiencing a crisis, was cycling through the gunas constantly. When rajas predominated, she felt strong and steadfast, but her power came from anger and the intention to win. Rajasic strength is full of drive, so it can be creative and efficient, but there’s an edge to it because it’s fueled by restlessness and the fear of losing or being left behind. Desire and anger are the hallmarks of rajas, so its strength has a burn in it and it always contains an element of insecurity.
The caffeinated rush that keeps you on deadline, the energy that moves an athlete through a tight race, the hormonal urge to "get" someone you find attractive—all these are markers of the great rajasic drive. So is the intense feeling of "I want it" that makes you grasp and cling, or the hamster-wheel round of thoughts that assaults you when you first begin to meditate.
Much of the athletic quality in today’s yoga studios comes from rajasic energy. If you’re running on high-propane rajasic fuel, a teacher’s exhortation to practice harder can accentuate your rajasic energy, inspiring you to harden your muscles and concentrate your will, holding yourself in a posture by sheer force.
Amy felt powerful when she was inside her rajasic energy. But inevitably, its willfulness gave her life an edgy quality. There might be force in rajas, but there was insecurity as well. The confidence she got from anger and indignation could be undermined by bad news, or by comparing her sense of her own strength to her husband’s.
The Drive of Despair
Amy’s setbacks threw her into the tamasic state of despair, where she’d take refuge in a kind of dulled resignation. Tamas is the gravitational pull of inertia, of sadness and depression. Tamasic strength is stubborn and sticky. It digs in its heels and resists life’s demands that you change or move past limitations.
Of course, tamas has its positive side. For one thing, it’s the energy that allows you to sleep or let go. In asana practice, tamasic heaviness helps you relax and release into a pose. It can also manifest as the instinct that tells you that now is not the time to push too hard.
Yet, in its unproductive manifestations, tamasic strength carries with it a deep-seated feeling that nothing good can come from change. Tamasic energy can push you into the familiar where you cling like a barnacle to the boundaries of old ways, even when they’re painful or make you feel like a victim or a brute. The strength tamas gives is the strength simply to endure until the storm passes.
The Strength of Stillness
In those moments when her mind stopped racing yet held itself back from despair, Amy could connect with her feeling of essential goodness. After a while, she learned to stop her mind’s cycling through solutions and revenge scenarios and turn it inward—where she would touch a core of optimism, the sensation of basic security and well-being that belongs to sattva.
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 Jr., the power that you 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 you can see or touch, and that what you are speaks louder than what you say.
Sattva is born in stillness. True sattvic strength arises out of a willingness to wait, to allow actions to unfold out of the quiet of your 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—the formulation of what you want to happen—is created in silence, through contemplation. It’s refreshed each time you return to it. Then, often without your knowing how it happens, the subtle power of intention will guide your actions and words, and gradually, almost invisibly, create change. The key is to keep acting from that stillness out of which the intention was formed.
Stay Still, Not Passive
But holding yourself in stillness isn’t easy. It’s one thing to feel sattvic strength when you’re meditating, because that’s when you "officially" allow yourself to spiral inward. But the real test of sattvic strength, as Amy discovered, is staying connected to it while you’re acting.
Because it’s so subtle, sattvic energy doesn’t always feel "strong," and you may wonder if it’s enough to propel you forward. "I’m so used to using anger and righteous indignation to get me going that it’s really hard to trust that this soft place can be a source of strength," Amy said one day. "What if I just get passive? What if I get so laid-back that I just let my ex-husband take my son?"
I told her my suspicion: She was afraid that getting quiet would propel her into the immobility of tamas. You may fear the same thing, especially if you’re an active striver. The achiever in you may associate your tamasic energy with failure and depression. To avoid it, you drive yourself remorselessly, and resist moments of simple quiet, but in the process, you lose touch with your real power.
Turn to Your Heart
I’ve found that one way to tap into my sattvic strength is to play a waiting game. I have a tendency to speak up whenever there’s a silence, even when I don’t have anything to say. But when I speak just to fill the air, there is little power in my words, and people tend not to give me their full attention. I’ve trained myself to resist this impulse and to listen more deeply not only to other people but to the energy behind their words. Out of that listening, I find that my own words arise more naturally, and when they do, they’re usually empowered by an instinctive sense of timing that doesn’t come from willfulness or the compulsion to fill a silence.
The Sanskrit word for the discipline involved in this waiting game is pratyahara. Often translated as "sense withdrawal," pratyahara is the ability to turn your attention inward so that a part of you is focused on your center.
I like to practice this by directing attention to my heart center. When I notice that I’m being pulled by another person, or by an emotional reaction or impulse, or even by the urge to fidget or nibble, I’ll make an effort to turn some part of my attention toward my heart.
It really doesn’t matter what you do to take your attention inward. You could tune into your breath or stop mid-stride to feel your feet on the ground. Or you could take a moment to remember the interconnectedness of everything. As you do, you should notice 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 open presence, you touch your deepest source of strength. In that state of stillness, recall your intention. Then act or speak in a way that’s congruent with that intention.
Hold Your Intention
A few weeks after she began contemplating strength, Amy went to family court. It was the make-it or break-it moment for her, the endgame in a long train of depositions and previous appearances. As she sat there, 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 that intention. Then 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 stayed with the breath, remembered her intention, and reminded herself that no matter how beleaguered she felt, the truth was that a single energy flowed through everyone in the courtroom, and that on that level everything was fine. "The words seemed to come out of my mouth on their own," she told me later. "I could feel the power coming from my own center, and in that moment I knew I would win." She did. The judge awarded her and her ex-husband 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 ex-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 in to anger."
I believe Amy had uncovered the deep secret of sattvic strength. When, through practice, you find the ability to keep your attention firmly centered inside and still keep enough of your mind focused on your actions so that you function skillfully, you draw on this strength. This is what lets you remain steady no matter what distractions storm around you.
This kind of strength doesn’t have to be aggressive or hard; it has firmness that comes from observing your emotional reactions without identifying with them. It doesn’t have to overexert itself, because it knows how to follow the path of least resistance, flowing like water.
Sattva strength always radiates from the inside out. It comes from the center, and it doesn’t matter how you discover or access that center as long as you get there. As you become more familiar with this steady power, you’ll begin to recognize it in the gaps between the driving energy of rajas and the inertia of tamas. You’ll find it in moments when your intention and motivation are clear. This strength is an infallible source of support—the support that never leaves you.