Last year an Indian spiritual teacher guided our Mount Kailash expedition to Tibet; a key concept we reflected on back then was ‘the wave and the ocean'. While we are all trying to be the best possible wave, and in fact compare ourselves to other waves, we ignore that we are part of the bigger ocean that is complete and whole by itself and is never disturbed by the activity of the 'busy' waves. These reflections and discussions led to Swami’s Bodhananda invitation to visit his Ashram in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to study the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient sanskrit scripture that provides ample learning opportunities on the self, the call for action, consciousness, our energetic predisposition and actually on the concept of leadership itself.
Whoever is interested in authentic and inspirational leadership is well advised to have a look at the following book: The Bhagavad Gita
The small i's and the big I
Sages and philosophers through all the ages have explored the question: who am I? The Bhagavad Gita suggests that ‘I am consciousness' (big I). That I am both the wave and the ocean. The way how we express ourselves, how we bring our talent to the world is through the manifestations of small i’s (egos), as a father, as a wife, as a business person, through our bodies, our emotions, our material lives etc. In that sense these small i’s are content that we express; the container and source of this content is the big I, infinite consciousness.
The small i’s manifest through the body-mind complex like instruments, i.e. I am doing, I am feeling, I am achieving, I have; while the big I is consciousness that you experience when ‘it is working through me’, when you tap in this bigger experience of the ocean of beauty and order, when you feel in flow.
The expression of the egos as such is not the problem, in fact having egos is essential to us manifesting powerfully in the world. What makes our lives at times difficult is the attachment to those egos. Whenever we get attached to our small i's we can experience how the space shrinks, we get stuck in what in sanskrit is called ‘Dukha’. Dukha can be best translated as suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness. This is when we reduce ourselves to a finite thing, separate from others and disconnected from the big I. The solution space gets small, we get obsessed with a topic, we loose perspective. Hence, the old scriptures suggest: ‘I am not my body, I have a body’; ‘I am not my thoughts, I have thoughts’; ‘I am not my emotions, I have emotions’; ‘I am not my house, I have a house’; ‘I am not my job, I have a job’; or ‘I am not my ego, I have an ego’.
When we experience consciousness, when we connect with others and with the big I, then we get into ‘Sukha’, the infinite space, best translated as happiness, truth, and ease. Good examples of ‘sukha’ moments are when you feel a surge of powerful emotion, are touched, feel connected with others beyond words, when you feel that something bigger is working through you. These are the moments when you become truly creative and experience your potential expanding.
Become aware of your energetic predisposition (and of those around you)
The Bhagavad Gita introduces the concept of ‘gunas’, fundamental energies that shape our existence as small i's. There are three gunas, according to this worldview, that have always been and continue to be present in all things and beings in the world. These three gunas are called: sattva (reflectivity, rationality, peace and harmony), rajas (passion, activity, power), and tamas (inertia, inactivity, pleasure). All of these three gunas are present in everyone and everything, it is the proportion that is different, according to the Hindu worldview. The interplay of these gunas defines the character of someone or something, of nature and determines the progress of life.
The gunas determine our bodies and our minds: the rajas mind has an incessant stream of thoughts that race along, desiring, worrying, resenting, scheming, competing, frustrating and getting frustrated. Many achievement-oriented leaders are nurtured by rajasic energy. The tamas mind, is often confused, not being able to see the unity of life and ignorance of any other need than one’s own basic urges.
Sattwa, finally, is the so-called higher mind – detached, unruffled, self-controlled. It is a natural state of harmony that comes with unity of purpose, character. Negative states of mind still come up, prompted by tamas and rajas, but there is no need to act on them.
The rajasic person is full of energy; the tamasic person is sluggish, indifferent, insensitive; the sattvic person, calm, resourceful, compassionate and selfless. The Gita suggests that a highly effective person (Gunatita) is one that can choose, at will, to step into the right combination of gunas for any given task thus engaging in what is called 'reflective action'.
The same individual will have times when he is bursting with energy and times when inertia descends and paralyses his will, times when he is thoughtful and other times when he is moving so fast that he never notices those around him. By training the mind, however, anyone can learn to step in and change old ways of thinking; that is the central principal of yoga. The Gita speaks of this kind of growth as part of spiritual evolution.
The Bhagavad Gita provides insights into how the gunas impact different aspects of our lives and how the different manifestations of small i’s (the egos) are determined by these fundamental energies. For example:
- Goals: the sattvic energy tends to focus the small ‘I’ on noble purpose and public good; the rajasic energy on personal good and well-being; and the tamasic energy on is sense pleasure and immediate gratification
- Teamwork: when the sattvic energy is strong the focus is on responsible pursuit of the common good while when the rajassic energy is strong the focus of teamwork is to get results for name & fame. Strong tamasic energy leads to non-purpose based work where the focus is meeting our base needs like survival
- Knowledge: the sattvic guna allows for systems thinking – seeing patterns and ‘the connectedness of one in the many’; the rajasic guna focuses the thinking on separation of one from another leading to a focus on differences and divisions, silos thinking and zero sum games; tamasic guna leads to a fixation on one limited idea and the insistence that this is the only truth
- Work or Karma: sattvic energy moves small ‘i’s to pursue work for the public good even to the point of depriving self for the greater good; the rajasic energy leads to a ‘me’ rather than ‘we’ focus in work – it creates incredible amounts of output but comes with a lot of collateral damage and wasted energy – rajas creates restlessness rather than peace. Tamasic energy leads to action without thinking of cost, effort, own capacity
- The idea of yourself of your small i:sattvic energy allows for a special combination of detachment and determination (detached engagement) allowing for the emergence of the big ‘I’. Rajasic energy creates a lot of highs and lows, and creates a strong attachment to the outcome (moving us into Dukha); tamasic energy is non-reflective leading that creates chaos, messiness and stubbornness to not see the bigger picture
- Will power:sattvic energy creates self-discipline to quietly carry out personal practices like yoga, meditation or self-growth. Rajasic energy creates overdrive where will power emerges only inpursuit of wealth and power and leads to enforcing discipline in others – it creates workaholics. Tamasic energy leads to laziness and a victim mindset
- The definition of happiness:the sattvic energy leads to a deep knowing that happiness is our true nature leading to being in harmony with the surroundings and fulfillment through inner values. The rajasic energy focuses on pleasure through material success/well-being and leads to an outward focus where happiness needs to be measured through accumulation. The tamasic energy tends to equate happiness with inaction and frivolous activities like gossip
Note that the gunas have been the basis of the Indian cast system:
- People with a strong Sattvic energy tended to be predisposed of thinking and pursuit of knowledge were considered Brahmin, members of the cast of priests
- People with a strong Rajasic energy fell into two groups:
- the action and power oriented warrior of administrator, called Kshatriyas
- the business and money oriented, Vaishya
- People with a strong Tamasic energy who pursued pleasure and immediate satisfaction tended to follow the direction of the higher three casts and are called Shudras
However a system that was intended to be a way of understanding tendencies of people became fossilized and exploitative when it was misconstrued to mean that people were ‘born in’ to a caste. For example, Swami Bodhananda, was born into the Kshatriya caste but through discipline and practice has enhanced his Sattvic energy. That is the message of the Gita…not a propagation of Indian caste system as we know it today.
The call for action
The central theme of the Bhagavad Gita is the conversation between Arjuna, the prince, who is about to go to war and Krishna, his charioteer and advisor, in a manifestation of the Lord (Arjuna's Big I – thus the conversation is between the small i and the Big I) .
The war is between two camps of a bigger royal family, and the prospect of having to fight against cousins and uncles paralyses Arjuna. Krishna’s deliberations address the following themes:
- Act with purpose
- Fight to (re)establish dharma, the individual and collective life style that sustains life and let it flourish
- Arjuna is a man of action; Krishna is reflective and gives advice. The combination of the two creates ‘reflective action’ which should be our guiding approach when facing a dilemma or conflict
- Go with the conviction that your are going to win the war
- Always be at choice in your decision/action
- Know that there is no perfect choice, only optimal choice which comes with unintended consequences
- As you don’t have control over the final outcome don’t be attached to the outcome and know that you do not have complete control over the outcome
- Practice trust, surrender, and acceptance
- Don’t judge yourself for results – maintain evenness of mind both in success and failure
- Never be idle
Non-action is not an option. Staying in your cave will not establish dharma, the sustainable order. Therefore, the leader needs to take action, confront the conflict, be true to himself/herself, bring the talent and skills to the battlefield, and fight with conviction and at the same time be detached about the outcome. The battle at Kurukshetra where Arjuna’s family is claiming its right is an image for our internal battles, the fight between good and evil within us.
And here are some questions for you to reflect:
- When have you experienced flow, connection, true happiness, this expanding sensation of ’sukha'? how does this compare to moments of anger, ego where you experience how the space is shrinking and you are filled with negative thoughts and emotions ‘dukha’?
- How does the concept of the wave and the ocean resonate with you? Have you ever tapped into the big I, this infinite consciousness?
- What do you think are your fundamental energies? Sattwa (wisdom and harmony), rajas (action and material success), tamas (inertia, short term pleasures)? What energies would you like to foster going forward?
- What purpose in life are you pursuing?
- What are conflict areas in your life today? How can you face them and be true to yourself and your dharma?
- Do you have established a practice to support your personal spiritual journey?
Wish you courage and wisdom for the journey,
Gaurav and Ekki