Maintaining an Even Keel: Understanding our Mental Temperament
If you’ve ever tried to sail a boat, fly a kite, or surf the ocean waves, you have a sense of what it means to keep ‘an even keel.’ An ability to focus, to hold the mind steady in the moment, while also perceiving the ever-changing conditions, are essential in any sporting endeavor we choose. Holding the mental balance among the uncertain waves of life requires the same qualities: moment-to-moment attention, a willingness to make split-second adjustments, and a sense of light-heartedness that allows for playfulness in the midst of whatever comes.
Understanding our mental make-up can help us to maintain the balance that allows sattvic, or positive, qualities to emerge in our life. Looking at life through Ayurvedic eyes, we notice the continuous process of balancing the doshas (vata, pitta, kapha), which helps maintain our positive health during a long and active life. We get hungry; pitta goes up; we eat; pitta goes down. We get sleepy; kapha goes up; we sleep; kapha reduces (but increases when we oversleep!). We go dancing; we express our vata; we practice restorative yoga; vata goes down.
But Ayurveda also considers the balance of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas in a person’s constitutional make-up. These three cosmic or maha-gunas are the forces of nature that guide and direct all of creation. They also reflect in ourselves as mental qualities or mental doshas.
Sattva is the force of purity, of consciousness, of balance on the cosmic level. On the personal level, this force shows itself as inner peace, in a sense of contentment and tranquility, and in the ability to give and share love (both human and divine). The sattva quality is sometimes referred to as ‘the serene sage.’
Rajas is the cosmic force of passion and activity. Its nature is movement; it’s the energy of creation that vitalizes the serenity of sattva and challenges the static nature of tamas. As humans, a rajasic type will seek stimulation and satisfaction through the senses, indulging in sense pleasures. When out of balance, rajas manifests as ‘the mad-monkey mind.’
Tamas is the cosmic guna of stability, inertia. This is the force of cohesion that keeps planets in their orbits and suns in their galaxies. On the personal level, we see tamas expressed in the stability of our meditation seat, as well as in a state of withdrawal from the world (which can manifest negatively as depression). When out of balance, tamas may look like ‘the lazy log.’
Since we are living, sentient beings, these great cosmic are operating within us all the time. Rajas activates us; tamas slows us down. The cycles and rhythms of nature attest to the fact of this constant change, constantly monitoring and regulating the balance. So in learning to hold our mental/emotional balance, all three of these factors must be considered. When we are able to balance our rajasic and tamasic tendencies, sattva guna is able to manifest more fully. We can readily see that these mental doshas are a place where yoga and Ayurveda intersect.
In exploring and understanding our mental nature, let’s take a look at how the doshas and the maha-gunas intersect. See how many of your own characteristics show up in different columns!
|Sattvic Qualities||Rajasic Qualities||Tamasic Qualities|
|Vata||Creative, inspired, artistic, intuitive,clarity, lightness||Nervous, anxious, fearful, worrisome, overactive||Depressed, addicted, bogged down, confusion|
|Pitta||Clear thinking, perceptive, focused, understanding||Angry, passionate, resentful, judgmental, controlling||Violent, vindictive, competitive, vengeful, aggressive, hurtful|
|Kapha||Nurturing, generous, patient, forgiveness, compassionate, love||Attached to things and people, stubborn||Attached to pleasure and sense experience, lethargic, dull-minded|
Now, most all of us sense that thoughts exist in the mind, and feelings in the heart; we see thoughts and emotions as separate. In the Charaka Samhita, however, it is said, hridaye chetana sthanam, which means, “the seat of consciousness is in the heart.” The heart and the mind are intimately connected, because the heart is the seat of consciousness. From this perspective, even though the emotional heart feels and senses more in the realm of the body, emotions are actually processed through the mind.
How do we maintain a balanced approach to our life, enjoying the good times, and not surrendering to the negative emotions that can overwhelm us and derail our positive intentions to lead a virtuous life? Ayurveda teaches us that mild emotional imbalance can be counteracted with simple guidelines for creating a more profound connection between the heart, mind and consciousness.
One way we work toward this is to strive to increase sattva while reducing rajas and tamas. The practices of yoga help to support the sattvic qualities, keeping the mental doshas intact and serene. Our daily sadhana (whether it’s 10 minutes or 2 hours) helps to maintain the peaceful state of mind that maintains a balance between the rajasic and tamasic tendencies in our nature, and ultimately strengthens our sattvic nature until all we are is holding the bliss of the bodhisattva state. Sattva Buddhi (pure mind) – Bodhisattva –- mental peace.
Babaji often reminded us: Love, truth, peace, beauty, reality, God – all are the same. Developing these positive qualities within ourselves will help train the mind to keep the mental balance that nurtures and sustains our each and every moment. Wishing you success in each moment.
Pratibha Queen is a yoga instructor and Ayurvedic practitioner, who attends Salt Spring Center of Yoga retreats on a regular basis. Feel free to email with any questions that arise as you engage in health practices to support your yoga practice: pratibha.que[at]gmail[dot]com.
“Sails” photo by Constant Progression via Flickr creative commons