The ego develops over successive incarnations. The ancient Indian teachings gave the first stage of ego-development the name, tamas, or tamo guna. (Guna means quality; tamas translates roughly as “mental dullness” and “inertia.”)
During this stage, the ego submits somewhat passively to whatever circumstances occur. Dull-minded people do not consider themselves responsible for what happens to them, but view it more or less with the resignation most people accord to the weather.
People with a tamasic nature feel no urge to be creatively intelligent. Like pawns in a chess game, they move and act within narrow limits and never consider the possibility that they might, by their own effort, avoid sorrow and attain happiness. Tragedy merely numbs them: It doesn’t stir them to deeper understanding. When they suffer, they wish only that other people, or “the authorities,” or God Himself would “do something about it.” And when things go right, they are satisfied, simply, that they’ve somehow “struck it lucky.”
Tamasic people develop mostly through pain and suffering. They respond not so much reasonably as with emotion. Grieving greatly, but learning little, they are driven haphazardly toward any change that occurs in their lives.
As the ego develops in awareness it begins to wonder if it doesn’t have some power of its own to avoid sorrow and find happiness. From passive acceptance, it begins to acquire a more positive outlook. Increasing awareness brings one, in his ascent toward maturity, to the next guna, called rajas. Rajo guna impels people toward activity.
The nerve-searing restlessness of rajo guna
When tamasic people begin to look creatively for ways to avoid sorrow and attain happiness, the influence of rajo guna appears in them. Rajasic people seek above all to fulfill their own ego-generated desires. Intense outward involvement makes them intensely restless. Restlessness, indeed, like a whip, drives them relentlessly through the storms of life. Lashed by their desire to own and control everything they can, rajasic people long at last for peace. They arrive, thus, at the third and final stage in their upward climb: sattwa guna.
Sattwa develops out of more, however, than the painful recognition of one’s need for relief from the hot winds of worldliness. It also comes when one desires inner peace as a positive blessing, not as merely passive relief. This positive desire is the fruit of a gradually expanding understanding.
Tamasic people never introspect, and never even examine things closely. Since mental suffering usually results from disappointed expectations, tamasic people suffer only slightly on a mental level. Their suffering is primarily physical in nature.
The suffering of rajasic people, on the other hand—apart from those ills to which all flesh is heir—is primarily emotional. It includes the agony of a nerve-searing restlessness. For sattwic people, finally, the keenest suffering results from distress in their conscience.
Good company stimulates evolution
At all levels of refinement, development can also be inspired by good company. This influence is even more important than suffering. Tamasic people, too, can be helped toward spiritual maturity by surrounding them with uplifting influences. Particularly helpful to them is service under persons more highly evolved spiritually than themselves.
The clearer a person’s awareness grows, the more rapid his psychological evolution becomes. Good company stimulates that evolution; it balances the whips of pain and suffering which drive a person toward greater understanding. Rajasic people, if they find themselves among peace-loving, harmonious people, can be inspired to recognize that happiness exists in themselves, and needn’t be sought only in outer circumstances.
Thus maturity is achieved, ultimately. On the one hand, the ego is driven forward. On the other hand, it is attracted upward. Good company magnetizes. So also does good action.
The quest for security
Suffering, on the other hand, repels one from the behavior that attracted it. The suffering of rajasic people is often due to the loss of some prized possession. Sattwic people, on the other hand, suffer more in the excess of possessions! Even in artistic matters, their taste inclines them to simplicity. Sattwic people suffer keenly also if they realize they’ve offended against some principle—a consideration that has little meaning for most rajasic people.
Everybody wants freedom, but the rajasic person equates freedom with material security, which the sattwic person sees as utterly unstable. Rajasic people think to find security in a large bank account, and in worldly prosperity. Sattwic people seek security, rather, in themselves. They want few possessions, and desire above all to control their own thoughts, emotions, and energies, all of which they direct consciously toward attaining supreme bliss.
Non-involvement—a backwards step
Tamasic people never really try to achieve any sort of control. Suffering makes them ask at last, “Why—Why?” They begin to wonder, “What can I, myself, do about it?” Thus it is that rajo guna begins to manifest in them, and with it the desire to control more and more of their environment.
What rajas causes, finally, is an over-extension of energies. Restlessness robs people of whatever peace and happiness they once knew, perhaps as children. They come in time to realize that the world is simply too vast, and life too fluid, to be controlled by mere human effort.
At this point the ego, instead of continuing to ascend further, may slip backward in rejection of life’s challenges altogether, choosing, rather, the passive “peace” of non-involvement that is tamo guna. If, however, the ego decides it wants to continue growing in maturity toward higher awareness, it seeks the positive peace that is sattwa guna.
Each person’s destiny is the consequence also of his own actions in the past. He can change much of the destiny that has been set in motion by those actions, however, by raising his present level of consciousness.
Sattwa guna and the desire for perfection
Sattwa means “to elevate, to uplift.” The true goal of all upliftment of consciousness is to perceive truth. Sattwa guna influences one in ways that rajasic people cannot easily comprehend. It makes a person, for one thing, less inclined to see things as involving him personally. This doesn’t mean he becomes less loving. It is simply that he feels less motivated by self-interest.
The more sattwa guna influences him, the less inclined he feels to give much thought to the demands of his own ego. Acclaim by others no longer attracts him, for he no longer defines himself in terms of anything he has done. He seeks, for companions, people whose inclinations are similarly expansive. And he determines to depend no longer on anything outside himself. He understands deeply the purport of Jesus Christ’s words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
The company a person keeps has a strong influence on the images of happiness he forms in his own mind. If everyone he knows considers it the goal of life to own a large bank account, he will not easily dismiss that thought-form from his mind even if his own desire is to embrace a more expansive ideal.
If, on the other hand, the people around one are generously interested in the well-being of others, whatever temptation he feels to seek only his own happiness will be more likely to fade away like morning mist in the sunshine.
The need for a guide
In the development toward maturity, one feels an increasing desire for true understanding. Aware at last of how much, and how often, he has erred even though trying his best—for delusion is very subtle—he begins to yearn for the guidance of someone who has himself attained wisdom.
It will be his supremely good fortune if he is led to such a person. If, moreover, that person consents to take on the Herculean task of leading him out of the labyrinth of delusion, he will, after great effort also on his own part, attain freedom at last. Without such guidance, the way is endlessly tortuous and, repeatedly, disappointing.
That person alone can assume the task of leading others out of delusion who has himself achieved that perfect freedom. It is, in the highest sense, Conscious Bliss itself which sends such free souls to guide others, deeply sincere in their spiritual quest and eager to exchange their narrow ego-identity for one that is infinite.
Ego transcendence—the final stage
Ego-transcendence is the final stage of ego-refinement. With it comes the realization that there was, after all, nothing to be transcended! For behind the whole universe, sustaining and inspiring it, is the ever-conscious bliss of satchidananda.
Each level of refinement brings the inspirations that are appropriate to it. The inspirations themselves become increasingly subtle. For the tamasic person, inspiration means only the stimulation of his animal appetites.
For the rajasic person, it means emotional excitement, and requires an appeal, usually, to his desire for self-aggrandizement before he’ll even consider an attempt at self-betterment. For rajasic people to want sattwic consciousness, they must be convinced of the superior attractions of inner peace and, above all, of bliss.
It is the sattwic quality, however, that enables one especially to realize that it is God, truly, who bestows every fulfillment. As sattwa guna develops in a person, he feels motivated increasingly from within. Consequently, he depends less and less on outer influences. All his thoughts, energies, and desires are directed toward reaching the only lasting reality: Conscious Bliss.
The delusion of ego is dispelled when the soul wakes in infinity. Self-awareness is not obliterated in divine wakefulness: it is simply expanded to infinity.