Among the three modes of material nature, tamo-guna is the mode of ignorance. Like the other modes, it affects everything from the building blocks of matter, to personality, society and the cosmos. Compared to passion and goodness, ignorance has fewer spiritual applications.
Symptoms of the mode of ignorance include:
- Anger issues
- Prejudice / bigotry
- Know-it-all tendencies
- Abusing the generosity of others
- Delusional thinking
- An argumentative personality type
- Chronic fatigue / sleeping too much
- Chronic unhappiness / depression
- Irrational fear / phobias
In this article, we’ll focus on a couple practical ways that tamo-guna impacts us, and ways to manage its effects.
Shielding beliefs from new information or opinions is a form of ignorance known as knowledge resistance. It can prevent us from learning matters of fact, or new opinions, tastes, values and so forth. In other words, knowledge resistance can be either objective, or subjective.
In science, this is referred to as confirmation bias. Under this failure of logic, we are prevented from learning something because it doesn’t fit with an assumption we make about reality. Instead of fairly considering new information, we seek to reinforce the belief we wish to be true.
Other results of knowledge resistance include:
- Difficulty in learning new subjects
- Isolation from, and fear of those who believe differently
- Conflicts of interest
- Unnecessary boredom due to refusing to try new things
Life-affirming values like the belief that “I deserve as much care as the next person.” are worth protecting. But in general, why not be open to challenges about our opinions? Rigidly defending our beliefs usually keeps us from growing spiritually.
Knowledge depends upon memory. Without memory, we can’t relate experiences together and discover patterns. Patterns in turn inform our choices. Since forgetfulness undermines this learning process, it’s also understood as an effect of the mode of ignorance.
Like knowledge resistance, forgetfulness can sometimes be useful. Being able to forget traumatic experiences, for instance, allows many people to move on and live fulfilling lives. As a principle, we can say that when protecting a belief promotes health and safety, then ignorance is a blessing.
Usually, however, forgetfulness entails locking oneself out of the car, missing appointments and anniversaries, and in general losing valuable time and resources. Even forgetting something as simple as a new contact’s name can affect relationships, career opportunities, and so forth.
Taking forgetfulness and knowledge resistance as samples of the many effects tamo-guna can have on us, let’s look at some solutions. In brief, the effects of tamo-guna need not be eliminated altogether, but we can try to manage and redirect them for spiritual growth.
Managing the Effects of Tamo-Guna
The modes of nature, including the mode of ignorance govern every part of the world, and much of our lives. Moderating the effects of the modes is a central benefit of yoga practice. Sleep, for example, is a function of tamo-guna, and in the classic yoga text Bhagavad-gita, it is said:
“There is no possibility of one’s becoming a yogi, O Arjuna, if one eats too much or eats too little, sleeps too much or does not sleep enough.”
So, how much sleep is too much?
It’s less about hours and more about needs. 12 hours may be healthy in some situations, but napping just to escape a problem could be unhealthy. The big idea is that in spiritual life, even our periods of unconsciousness are valued and handled with care.
Dealing with the mode of ignorance involves the awareness of unawareness. As lifelong learners, we have to know where there is room for educational development. The Ishopanishad of the Yajur Veda, speaks about this need in mantra 11:
“Only one who can learn the process of ignorance and that of knowledge side by side can transcend the influence of repeated birth and death and enjoy the full blessings of immortality.”
Answering the question, “What don’t I know?” can be a challenge. As mentioned earlier, many of our beliefs are unexposed to alternative facts or opinions. Also, we often compare our learning to that of others instead of acknowledging the biases of our own educational backgrounds.
Here are some tips for performing an accurate and fair education self-assessment:
- Follow your heart
- Where are you unhappy with your knowledge or self-awareness? What do you wish you knew better? Why does it matter to you? The answers to these questions will produce a hunger to learn more efficiently and effectively.
- Ask Around
- Create a free anonymous web survey to find out what others think about your understanding on a topic. Write up the questionnaire, and make sure the participants know that their answers are anonymous so the results are reliable.
- Phone a Friend
- Know that you’re not alone in your drive to succeed. Your friends and family care about your learning and will encourage you when you need it. There’s no shame in ignorance, particularly when you’re trying to learn.
Learning what you don’t know can be a source of inspiration about how much grandeur there is in the world waiting to be discovered. There’s an expert out there in practically every subject too. The world is a really diverse place, and everybody has a lot to learn.
Ignorance vs. Preference
Ignorance in some field is not necessarily a character flaw. No one really cares how good of a chef Einstein was. His genius lay elsewhere. If you’re exhausted by dealing with your shortcomings, take a break to find your strengths, and cultivate them.
By looking at our knowledge gaps, the gains stand out by contrast. If most of our learning is focused on a particular field, we are specialists. If we try to learn a lot across many fields, we’re generalists. Do we favor breadth or depth in knowledge? Both are perfectly fine.
Discrimination against individuals based on preferences for certain music, art, clothing, learning styles, etc. has nothing to do with knowledge. To assume that other people should like and dislike the same things we do is a form of ignorance summarized by the Sanskrit aphorism:
atmavan manyate jagat
“Everyone thinks others to be like themselves.”
Finding Yourself in the Dark
Even if you didn’t know anything else, at least you know you exist. Self-knowledge is unique because it’s undeniable and self-evident. It doesn’t depend on any prior knowledge. Without it, even our other knowledge is said to be in the mode of ignorance.