Atman and Sattva

Atman and Sattva

One of the curious things about the spiritual journey is that the reality of one stage is not the reality of another. As each stage is a shift in being, it brings its own sense of self and the world. As Maharishi Mahesh Yogi used to say, “Knowledge is different in different states of consciousness.” For example, we can easily compare waking and dreaming states. The reality in each is quite distinct.

This also means that terminology that well-suits one stage doesn’t work as well for another. My book editor, for example, steered me away from a few phrasings like using “here” as a personal pronoun. (laughs)

Another example would be transcendence. When we first learn to meditate, we discover a space beyond the mind that is silent, joyful, and peaceful. For some time, we step beyond the mind into simple being. We transcend.

But at a certain point that inner sense of Amness becomes ongoing. Meditation doesn’t take us beyond anymore as we’re already there. We just turn the attention within. Words like presence become more suitable for that growing inner being.

And then with awakening or Self Realization that presence becomes who we are. We shift from being aware of it to being it. It is lived 24/7 and we enjoy an inner continuity of silent, universal Self. We are the detached observing presence to life’s unfolding.

In Sanskrit, that universal Self is known as Atman. Ayurveda tells us that our development of presence or Self is cumulative. We pick up where we left off from prior lifetimes. It will vary when that kicks in during this life, depending on various dynamics. But it often waits for some physical maturity to embody it stably.

We continue to develop in Atman throughout Self Realization and Unity. We come to embody all aspects of consciousness and the wholeness of Atman.

Ayurveda also tells us that sattva development is cumulative. Sattva is one of the three gunas or qualities that gives objects their basic characteristics. Sattva is the most subtle of the three, being the quality of clarity or purity. It brings clarity of perception, refinement of the means of experiencing (via soma), and the awakening heart.

The balance of development of these two, atman and sattva, is the greatest influence on the style of an awakening. Established Atman or presence but with less sattva and there can be a clear awakening but more world-as-illusion and inner emptiness. There is also less likely to be a God Consciousness phase that follows. Lack of sattva may even hinder later stages like Unity.

But if there is more refinement of the physiology then there is a much richer, clearer unfolding with fullness rather than emptiness and world-as-divinity rather than illusion.

This points to the value of good practices. They culture both presence and refinement.

Even Yoga chimes in on this:
“Through samyama on the distinction between sattva and purusha* comes knowledge of purusha.”
– Yoga Sutra, 3v35 part

Knowledge of purusha doesn’t mean awakening. It means knowing about the cosmic Self and its distinction from what arises within it.

But what is sattva purity or clarity of? This is a rather interesting exploration as the answer depends on our stage of development. From one perspective, it is clarity of each of the layers of our being. Clarity of the body, emotions, mind, intellect, bliss, and consciousness itself. And clarity that arises from refinement of the means of experiencing, our physiology. It allows recognizing the distinction between sattva and purusha mentioned above.

From another perspective, it is simply clarity of consciousness itself. In other words, atman and sattva are both ways of knowing one thing, consciousness; by its nature and by its qualities.

And yet consciousness itself is beyond the gunas, beyond sattva. Only in expression does it gain qualities. Here we can refer to the quote on the foot of this blog:
“The face of truth is hidden by a covering of gold.”
– Isha Upanishad 15

Gold is the colour of sattva. The face of truth is beyond the gunas, even beyond the quality of clarity.

It may seem odd that a quality of clarity has a colour but if you think of sattva as an influence that clarifies or a quality of flowing consciousness, it makes more sense. The flow gains the colour of its dominant quality.

And yes, you can quite literally see sattva. You see it as living things having a golden glow or halo or the world immersed in a sea of gold or the ocean from which all form arises or as hiranya garbha, the golden egg/seed form of the universe.

What does it mean that consciousness will “gain qualities?” Our experience of pure consciousness will at first be a field of silent being, an apparently empty void. But later, we come to know the lively aspect of consciousness which brings out its intelligence and qualities. This distinction points us deep into the origins of consciousness. At its root, it is composed of alertness and liveliness. Liveliness stirs alertness, and it becomes consciousness. Further stirring and alertness flows, curving back on itself and becoming self-aware. From self-awareness, distinctions become conscious and qualities emerge.

Personified, this is Shiva and Shakti, the Observer and Observed, the silent witness and the alive flow.

And yet all of this is a perspective of duality, a perspective of Self Realization. In Unity, there is no separation of observer and observed. There is only flowing consciousness. There is no inner silence and outer expression; it is all one flow.

And yet, sometimes when describing the nature of consciousness and the world, it’s easier to use dualistic terms and context to communicate. Words require distinctions. Perception of the world does too but seeing isn’t believing if an inner reality overshadows surface perception. We see yet know that seeing is just an appearance. In the same way, we use words as pointers to what we know within. 

*Purusha can be translated as cosmic ego (cosmic I sense) or the observer aspect of consciousness, an aspect of Atman (observer, process and observed)

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  1. N

    Hi David,

    Is is correct that emotions can be purified from negative to positive, for instance fear into love, which would make one more sattvic?
    Alternatively, if the fear was felt or surrendered, rather than transformed into a positive emotion, then that would turn into something beyond sattvic qualities – closer to the Self?

    I hope I make sense, but I’m not sure. Maybe I’m completely misunderstanding and misusing the terms 🙂

    1. Hi N
      Well – it’s not so much that individual emotions get changed. More it’s emotions in general get shifted as we shift. When unresolved fear and anger get resolved, for example, there is more room for love. When we gradually become more sattvic, our emotions and other forms of experience will reflect that.

      However, there is also another way of seeing this. I’ve seen how you can follow any emotion back and find either peace or happiness “behind” it.

      Emotions function within the field of the world so will always have qualities. Self is found beyond all qualities in simple being. Later though, we find Self within all qualities as well. But we have to find the first first.

      1. N

        Hi David,

        Thanks. The reason I asked is because I have heard about transmuting negative emotions into positive and about positive thinking. This is said to have impermanent effects. In comparison, surrendering, feeling or letting go of emotions release them permenantly, where they disappear completely.

        I was thinking that when they disappear, they “return to nothingness” as Kristin Kirk describes it. Thus, that would unveil the Self more directly compared to first transmuting from negative into positive and then from positive into nothingness.

        The first approach would seem like transmuting tamas or rajas into sattva and then sattva into the Self. And first with the last step does the healing get permenant. Is that correctly understood?

        1. Hi N
          There can be a subjective experience of transmutation going on. But in my experience, it’s more a change in the “tone” taking place as the individual emotional impulses shift more towards the positive. Individual emotional impulses themselves stay the same as they have the same source. When we resolve the source, those stop and the overall tone shifts up. It shifts up rather than going to neutral because of bliss. (though it may hit neutral first. Neutral doesn’t mean no feeling as that just indicates its unconscious)

          Really, there are no “negative” emotions. They all serve a purpose. But when we get caught in them, it does bring our life down. They trend darker overall.

          Yes, positive thinking driven by the mind and related approaches can be helpful but if we don’t shift the source, the results are impermanent. If we resolve the underlying triggers, then those more difficult emotions will stop arising.

          hmm – you’re over-thinking the 2nd paragraph. The emotional dramas create noise that obscure the more subtle Self. When we settle them out, then the Self is revealed and we recognize it had always been there.

          The last paragraph follows from the second. Not quite right. The gunas are qualities of expression. The Self is beyond that. Sattva gives us the clarity to recognize Self but operates on a different level.

          Tamas is transmuted into Sattva via Rajas much as ice is thawed by the sun. But here we’re describing qualities, not things. Rage has a quality of rajas. That may be “converting” the energy of shame or it may be self-perpetuating.

          I guess the issue here is levels. We have the field of consciousness. We have the field of qualities. We have the field of emotions which have qualities and we become aware of emotions and qualities. But each of these operate distinctly.

          Healing emotions can shift the balance of the gunas or the balance of the gunas can shift the quality of emotions. But this is talking overall.

          Is this more clear for you?

  2. david kolb

    I also understand sattva as clarity in much the same way as you have discussed. In 3:55 Patanjali says “sattva-purushayoh shuddhi-samye kaivalyam iti = in equalness of purity of clarity and the person (the conscious one) there is absoluteness” Is this the unification of subject and object? the merging of consciousness (chitta) and the Person (Purusha). Equalness of purity would seem to mean that sattva has become so clear, or free of any tinge of objective content that there can no longer be any discrimination of difference between Sattva and Purusha. Yet in 3:35, which you mention a part of above, and in 3:49, Patanjali emphasizes their difference. Scholars, both western and Indian, highlight these sutras as evidence that Patanjali is dualist. Is the difference that Patanjali is speaking of absolute or is it merely one of function. Sattva functions as the subjective consciousness of the conscious one when having content (pratyaya) but when empty of content abides in the inherent nature (svarupa) of the conscious one, the percipient. So would it be in line with Patanjali to say that in essence, or in the essential nature, the two are non-different. I see Patanjali as non-dualist in this way, yet most translation and commentaries see his sutras as dualist in the same way as the Classical Samkhya.

    1. Hi David
      You raise many key points. The first thing to understand is that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra are from the last Treta Yuga. It contains key understanding but the context is from a higher age. Abilities came more easily and waking up was experienced a bit differently. For example, the text uses the word Kaivalya or singularity for waking. Put another way, the point value waking up to its wholeness. In the current time, the point value isn’t usually recognized until at least refined Unity stage. (We can wake up without seeing that detail.)
      The 3:55 translation I use:
      “When sattva becomes as pure as purusha, kaivalya (enlightenment) dawns.”
      “pure” in this case is sama, evenness. When sattva guna becomes even or smooth (unagitated, smooth, pure), the world appearance becomes transparent like consciousness and the point value wakes up to its infinity. The Self recognizes itself aka Self Realization.
      The other 2 verses you mention relate to abilities or siddhis. In this case, there is the intellect recognizing the distinction between sattva and purusha – they function on different levels. (sattva a function of prakriti, purusha of consciousness in this context) When we have clarity of these subtle distinctions, subtle knowledge arises including the dynamics of consciousness and of nature.
      The Yoga Sutra is essentially about waking up. As Self Realization is awake consciousness within and a separate world, it is inherently a dualistic stage. The distinction of purusha and prakriti is also a dualist perspective (from Samkhya) rather than seeing consciousness as one, with subject and object aspects. eg:
      This isn’t a defect. it is necessary to wake up to the Self within before it is recognized in the world. Only then can the unification of subject and object take place. Then Vedanta becomes relevant.
      A lot of modern “nonduality” is mushing these 2 together, seeing them as competing philosophies, or applying nonduality inappropriately to initial awakening. Rather Yoga and Vedanta are about different stages.
      Also, while Yoga and Vedanta are philosophies, they’re very applied ones. For a long time, they’ve been seen as conceptual debates similar to much of western philosophy. But they go far beyond that into describing lived reality beyond the mind and intellect.
      I wouldn’t say Patanjali was a non-dualist – that framework came later from Shankara. But his prescriptions are a means to get to living nonduality.
      (in case this isn’t clear, I don’t see enlightenment as single but rather a process with a series of stages, just like all human development.)

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