Verse 13: Root Cause

The notion of root cause has, for a long time, confounded me. It has confounded me in western mechanistic thinking but it has also confounded me in Yoga thinking. This Samkhya journey in general, and the Gunas specifically, are bringing me some sense of clarity around “root cause.”

In western psychological thinking questions like “what formative childhood event is affecting my current experience?” imply a root cause hidden in a web of complexity. This kind of thinking never appealed to me. Even when I have had realizations about how my past may be affecting my present, they did not seem to have a noticeable effect on my felt experience nor my behavior. One could argue that is because I’ve not yet really connected with the real root cause. This may be true, but, to me, is not very helpful and is part of the reason I distrust western psychological thinking and am suspicious of “the hunt for the REAL root cause.” This is why I was confounded when “root cause” appeared again within the context of Yoga teachings.

I was especially confounded meeting this within the context of the Yoga tradition to which I belong. This tradition deeply respects the unique individual practitioner and their life context. There is no one right way to perform a physical posture. There is an ideal form, but that is rarely practiced. Instead, what is practiced is a modified version that is aligned with a practitioner and their current life context. Practice sequences are also elaborately tailored to meet a practitioner and their life context (age, gender, life commitments, physical well-being, emotional well-being, climate, season of the year, etc.). I could not comprehend, within such a rich and complex tapestry how it can be possible to seek and point to a root cause.

Embracing the Gunas (which are formally named in Verse 13) as material qualities of nature has led to a surprising sense of ease and understanding. Samkhya is a metaphysical framework (25 principles – tattvas) that describes how “what is” comes into being. In order to understand “root cause,” I have to understand it within this metaphysical framework. I was applying my default mechanistic thinking about “root cause” and that was the source of my discomfort with it. In the Samkhya metaphysical framework, the Gunas are the root causes. This changes how I look at any given situation.

Consider, for example, a situation where I am feeling nervous or agitated. Within a mechanistic metaphysics, psychological thinking may suggest that I inquire into my past. If, for example, the agitation was caused by an interaction with a partner, I should inquire into childhood interactions with a parent. From a Samkhya perspective, the situation takes on a present and tangible material nature: there is currently too much Rajas (movement/agitation). This “root cause” analysis leads to a very pragmatic question: what I can do about the material nature of the situation to reduce the dominance o Rajas?

I once taught in a fancy Yoga studio. It was situated along a boardwalk next to a beach. It was a beautiful location but very counter-productive to practicing Yoga. It had huge windows facing the boardwalk so people were always walking back and forth outside. Sometimes, when it was windy, waves would rise above the boardwalk barriers and crash onto the deck and even splash onto the windows. One day I arrived to discover that the previous lesson was running a bit late because there was a TV film crew filming inside. When that lesson ended, a few minutes late, the transition was hectic. The TV crew did not take their shoes off before going into the space so it was a bit messy, students from the previous lesson came out less calm and more excited, and the crew had to fold up their gear and were last to leave the space.

Then I walked in with my group. Everyone stood at the end of their mats, ready to begin a lesson. I gave the first instructions and a mess unfolded. Some people did not move at all (as if they didn’t even hear me), some moved incorrectly, some were unfocused, unbalanced. I remember vividly the feeling that I could almost taste Rajas (agitation) in the air. I stopped and asked everyone to lie down. The “Rajas in the room” needed to be addressed before we could do anything else. Lying down allowed more gravity to work on the body (and mind) inducing a bit of Tamas (restraint, heaviness) to restrain the Rajas. We had to start over, to find a different beginning that respected the material nature of the space.

This view of material nature having these underlying qualities has some interesting side effects:

  • Presence. It brings my attention to the present moment and invites me to sense into and act in accordance with what is actually present. Presence itself, if I am able to access it, evokes a Sattvic (stillness) quality. This is in stark contrast to the experience of digging into my past which in and of itself is more doing, more movement, more agitation (more Rajas) AND, given the complexity of life, there is a high probability that digging into the past will lead to false and likely delusional understanding (Tamas).
  • Distance. Presence feels like taking a step back to see a bigger picture. It makes things feel less personal. Yes, I may feel emotional, angry, or frustrated or pleased or passionate, but that is not really me, it is something about the material nature that surrounds me in the present moment. Maybe I can be less concerned about “myself” and tend to the material nature that surrounds and pervades me?
  • Considerate. The more distant and impersonal perspective makes me less self-centered. It invites my awareness to witness not just my experience but also the the environment I am in. I become more aware that I am a part of something. I realize that I can act on my environment and that a change in my environment changes me.
  • Equanimity. I see how the environment I am in and its guna-material nature is affectig me. I recognize my place within it. I become more accepting of myself within this material-nature. I become more understanding of the interdependence between myself and my environment and its material nature. I get a sense that I change together with my environment. This evokes in me acceptance and humility which in turn evoke Sattva (stillness).
  • Inquiry. Being able to see myself in my environment brings me to inquire about what is this “I” that is seeing and sensing? What is the source of this so called “attention” that leads me away from Rajas and Tamas and towards Sattva?

For almost two decades I’ve been borrowing what I considered to be a flawed notion of “root cause” from a western mindset and mistakenly attempting to apply it to Yoga. It felt like trying to push in a puzzle piece that just doesn’t fit. The Gunas (and everything that is about to unfold from them in the rest of the text) have brought me some peace of mind in relation to “root cause”. I feel even more comfortable about my tentative attitude towards “psychological digging” and feel welcome and safe in witnessing what is present in the material nature of the moment and tending to that.

Just now, as I complete this journal entry, it is dawning on me: the simple and profound extent to which, in Samkhya, Gunas are THE root causes: that which causes but is not caused!

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