Sattva: Finding Strength in Stillness

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 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.

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.

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 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. 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.

Turning 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.

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 a 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.