Verse 12: Quantum Qualities

Verse 12 introduces the three Gunas (though they will only be explicitly named in the next verse), three essential qualities that, according to Samkhya are the foundations of … well … everything. Choosing keywords for this verse was noticeably different from previous verses. My intention with keywords is to capture the essence of a verse with as few keywords as possible. But this time, almost all the words felt essential. There is so much packed into this verse.

The three Gunas correlate to three qualities: pleasure, pain, and delusion. Together they form a kind of “quantum mechanics” in Samkhya. In fact, they are so fundamental that (spoiler alert!) they will be used to describe both mind and matter. The divide between mind and matter that dominates (and bewilders) western thought does not exist in this metaphysics.

In a mechanistic world of atoms, elements, chemistry, and quantum physics, the Gunas can be a challenging proposition to trust, ingest and assimilate. My feeling is that this perspective is not in conflict with established scientific knowledge. I sometimes wonder (since I myself am not a scientist) if the idea of the Gunas could somehow contribute to scientific inquiry. Could it shed light on some of the voids that exist in our scientific theories? Could it point us in different directions by complementing the mechanistic and theoretical aspects of scientific thought with a fundamental narrative that is aligned with a lived experience everyone can relate to?

The Gunas seem to draw a whole picture:

  1. I am either delusional (incorrectly perceiving) or seeing clearly.
  2. If I am seeing clearly I am either experiencing pleasure or pain.
  3. If I am delusional my ability to move and act in the world is inhibited (hence the purpose of delusion is restraint/obstruction).
  4. If am experiencing pain I am moved to act to reduce or address the pain (hence the purpose of pain is action/movement).
  5. If I am experiencing pleasure I am a present witness (hence the purpose of pleasure is illumination/stillness).

For example, in woodworking, I’ve learned to hammer nails:

  1. Originally I thought I knew how do to this, it seemed simple enough, I probably had a little play experience with it in my childhood and I probably I saw it done on TV. Now that I have done it for a while and have some embodied experience with it I realize that I was delusional in thinking I knew how to do it (and now that I know more, I consider myself an amateur). And that points to the challenging nature of this element of delusion: the mode delusional I am, the more I think I am not … hence its nature of restraint/obstruction … I simply can’t see! In the real world it means nails not going in well, not consistently, some get bent, some have to be pulled out and redone. Icky work.
  2. When I am rushing (or delusional) I make plenty of mistakes. Some of them cause mental pain such as “this is not fun” or “this is taking so long to do”. Some of them cause physical pain such as “ouch, I just hammered my finger instead of the nail.” There is clearly way too much movement going on (physically and mentally). When this happens and I am agitated there is a negative feedback loop that just makes things worse. When this happens and I have some capacity for patience and attention, I observe and ask myself what could I be doing differently, and may actually learn to do it better.
  3. When there is a quality of stillness in me, when I am feeing fresh, present in the moment, holding the hammer correctly, am physically placed correctly in relation to the work … nailing feels simple and beautiful. Each nail goes in precisely, with a minimal number of hammer strokes, without damaging the surface around it. The work takes on a rhythm, I stop being concerned about progress, time seems to melt away.

If I take the time to look, I can see such dynamics in almost anything I do and think or situations I am in. If this seemingly comprehensive and comprehensible narrative of felt experience rings true, can it tell me something about the underlying nature of the world? If these are the basic building blocks of my lived experience, do they correlate with some fundamental building blocks of everything that is (the manifest)?

The Gunas have been a part of my vocabulary for two decades and they have slowly worked their way into my consciousness. This has gradually shifted the way I look at the world: objects, people, plants, weather, processes, thinking, relationships. It is a kind of game I play, especially when things don’t seem to make sense to me. I try to step back from my mechanistic cognition (equally applicable to both matter and mind) and look at the “guna material nature” of the situation: what kind of mix of movement, stillness, and heaviness is manifesting? This framing often evokes in me a sense of understanding and ease. The framing itself seems to cause an increase in stillness (apparent at least to me, and sometimes to others). The framing itself seems to affect the “material nature” of a situation!

Extra credit: For most of the last two decades and up to the present, I’ve gravitated to viewing the Gunas as “alternative elementary particles.” However, recently, as I’ve been studying the text, I feel something elusive and hard to describe shifting in my own view and understanding: are the Gunas “things” or “relationships”? When I ponder this, I can almost feel tiny cracks forming in the armor of the narrative of mechanistic matter which is so deeply embedded in me. What if what I consider to be real (at this moment, the plastic keys under my fingertips and the electronic circuitry beneath them) is really a constant dance of relationships of stillness, movement, and heaviness? What if the sub-atomic reality of the world is not made up of discrete things, but of relational qualities?

  • Does delusion cause heaviness or stickiness? could it explain gravity or dark matter?
  • Does pain cause attraction and repulsion? could it explain electromagnetism?
  • Does pleasure cause persistence, fit and belonging? could it explain quantum entanglement or morphic fields?

If I could see past the words and the familiar constructs they evoke, If I could come into resonance with the underlying experience that precedes the words, would I be able to see into the fundamental nature of the manifest world?

  • What if fire is an abundance of movement with very little stillness and almost no heaviness?
  • What if water is a dance of movement with more heaviness and little stillness?
  • what if clay is a lot of heaviness with more stillness and little movement?
  • What if anger is a lot of movement with some heaviness and little stillness?
  • What if Joy is a balance of movement, stillness and heaviness?
  • What if peace is aan abundance of stillness with a little movement and a little heaviness?
  • What if stillness is somehow a dance of movement and heaviness?
  • What if heaviness is somehow a dance of movement and stillness?
  • What if movement is a fundamental relationship that acts on stillness and heaviness, without which there would be no-thing?

… -> tree -> flower -> apple -> seed -> sprout -> tree -> …

… are there really things … or are there really dancing sequences and rhythms of relationships?

1 thought on “Verse 12: Quantum Qualities”

  1. Two sentences stand out to me in your journal entry:

    “The framing itself seems to affect the “material nature” of a situation!”

    “What if the sub-atomic reality of the world is not made up of discrete things, but of relational qualities?“

    To me, what is pointed to is that “you” are at the center. Your framing affects the material nature of any situation. Your relationship with the sub-atomic reality of the world is the key to how you experience discrete things. The witness matters.

    I can replace the word “you” with “me” and “I.” I am talking to myself.

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