The Law of Three

The three universal forces are described as active, passive and neutralising. The first two are easily defined and the words speak for themselves. The third force is ‘neutral’ but is nevertheless still a force. Spain’s neutrality in the Second World War was an advantage for the Axis, but a disadvantage for the Allies. A car’s gearbox has three modes, forward, reverse and neutral, all equally essential. Having a neutral gear is an active advantage when going forwards or backwards is inappropriate.

The law of three is represented in the Vedanta by the concept of the three ‘gunas’ or qualities, (‘guna’ means literally, ‘a string or a rope’) which together create, sustain and finally eliminate the illusion of Maya, the universe as we subjectively perceive it. As in the western formulation, rajas is active, tamas, is passive, and sattva is neutralising, but in the context of human experience to which the concept of the three gunas is mostly applied, they are given more specific definitions. Rajas is always active, like fire, tamas is always passive, like darkness or ignorance, and sattva, neutralising, is once again less closely defined but always conveys an unmistakable quality such as light, love, purity, harmony, intelligence and wisdom.

These three strings vibrating together create the whole universe. As stated in the Mahabharata: ‘The unmanifest Absolute, by means of the six unions of the gunas (sixfold yoga of gunas) transforms himself into the hundreds and thousands and millions and millions of forms.

Helped by his knowledge of Samkhya philosophy, Ouspensky further developed the concept of the three forces into a framework that became known as ‘the six activities of man’. Three forces can give rise to only six combinations (and one more, ‘incomprehensible to the human mind’) and all possible phenomena can be classified as belonging to one of these six combinations. This applies not only to the physical level but also to mental and emotional activities and also to those activities that require more than one level of action. The basis of the idea is that the order in which the three forces act upon each other determines the nature of the phenomena they create:


1. Growth or development.
Order of forces: ActivePassiveNeutralising
Everything that grows, a universe, an idea, a human embryo, building a house, is using this combination of forces.

2. Elimination or destruction.
Order of forces: ActiveNeutralisingPassive
Demolishing or burning down a house, getting rid of waste products. Mechanical turning thoughts and emotions.

3. Refinement.
Order of forces: PassiveActiveNeutralising
Distillation, making shoes, Meditation, any good professional work requiring directed attention. Any process by which the result is ‘higher’, or more energetic, or more useful than the raw materials.

4. Healing or Invention.
Order of forces: PassiveNeutralisingActive
The restoration of the right form after it has been attacked or degraded, or the discovery of new forms for a new purpose – inspiration.

5. Creation.
Order of forces: NeutralisingPassiveActive
Bringing spirit into matter is the essence of artistic creation and it also applies to the process of self-development.

6. Corruption, or crime.
Order of forces: NeutralisingActivePassive
In human affairs this always begins with a negative emotion, directed to depriving someone else of some kind of possibility. On a wider scale this triad serves a valid and essential purpose in the cosmic cycle of life and renewal.

Each activity is the result of a triad, the meeting of three forces in a particular relation and order. According to this relation, the repetition of a triad forms either an ascending or a descending octave. ‘Refinement’, for instance, forms an ascending octave, transforming coarse matter into a finer matter, like distillation, or meditation. ‘Elimination’ forms a descending octave, producing something less active or valuable than the original substance, like burning down a house or the waste products of digestion.

Although the given categories are very wide and it might seem difficult to suggest any human activity that cannot be identified within this framework, it is best not to focus too closely on the labels and descriptions. An even wider and much more vital understanding arises from the development of ‘conscience’ (in its purest form, ‘the emotional realisation of truth’) which, when awake, perceives these different activities with a heightened emotional sense, like an unmistakable ‘taste’, that instantly distinguishes between actions that may superficially look alike but which are entirely different. The development of this new sense, Ouspensky said, opens up a whole new world of ‘things as they really are’.

The only human activity that always requires some measure of consciousness is ‘refinement’.  All the other activities can occur mechanically — and this explains how everything just ‘happens’ when we are in the state of waking sleep and identification. Personal motives have nothing at all to do with these activities — the idea of any kind of motive, personal or otherwise, is entirely irrelevant and illusory.