Karma Yoga: Always Be Practicing, Always Be Serving
“The ideal man is he who, in the midst of the greatest silence and solitude, finds the intensest activity, and in the midst of the intensest activity finds the silence and solitude of the desert.” – Swami Vivekananda
Originally published here on the Be Here Now Network blog.
Break The Cycle of Debits & Credits
So in life, there’s the stuff we enjoy. Stuff like rest, leisure, hobbies, games, socializing, celebration, pleasurable eating/drinking, creative work, intimacy, spiritual practices, etc. These things bring us calm, joy, inspiration, or are at least less angst-ridden than other modes of life. Generally, this stuff provides a certain amount of nourishment – it gives rather than takes.
And then there’s the stuff we don’t enjoy so much – the less inspiring chore-like stuff we feel “obligated” to. The stuff that feels like work. This is where we seem to be spending the energy that the more pleasurable, nourishing modes of life fill our tank with.
Up and down the hill of pleasure and drudgery we go. This model locks us into a cycle of debits and credits. Of trudging resentfully through doing the things we don’t want to do in anticipation of hopefully having some more pleasurable experiences on the other side. It’s a prison sentence of effort only for the sake of potential reward. This means if no pleasurable rewards come, then all that drudgery is believed to be wasted effort.
What if we could live a life where every moment is meaningful and every action, big or small, sweet or sour, is in service of something infinitely crucial? All it takes is a simple shift of mindset into a Yogic one.
Yoga is often considered something you do in isolation because many of its most common practices – like meditation and Asana – seem to require a separate compartment from the grit and grime of daily life. For example, you can’t effectively meditate or do sun salutations while driving, disputing a credit card charge, managing your production team, etc. Those practices require their own attention, along with the chores of our life.
However, all daily activities – no matter how routine, dull, painful, or fraught with conflict – can be transmuted into their own Yogic practice that provides just as much inner nourishment and growth as any cozily isolated Yogic practice we depend on to feel “whole”. When our actions have this role in our lives, it’s called Karma Yoga.
The Yoga of “Get It Done”
To understand Karma Yoga, you must first understand that here the word “Karma” isn’t meant to refer to the cosmic adjudication system that everyone thinks it means. In fact, that’s never what it means. Karma just means “action”. And all action creates certain effects and feedback in reality. All action brings consequences over time. And here “Yoga” means the same thing it always does: to integrate and unify yourself. To end the inner conflict that oppresses your life. To restore health, clarity, and wisdom. “Karma Yogi” means you are cultivating this state of self-mastery through understanding how to act, relate to your doing self, and navigate the consequences of everything you do.
The origin story of Karma Yoga is found in the ancient Indian text The Mahabharata, written over two thousand years ago. Basically, a kingdom is divided when the rightful heirs to the throne, the Pandava brothers, get usurped by their cousins. Eventually, war breaks out and most of the Pandavas’ family feels like they need to side with the Usurpers (I forget why, but it involved a lot of “‘tis the way” language). So it gets to the point where two enormous armies are squaring and ready for the epic battle to end all epic battles. Standing between the two armies is Arjuna, the leader of the Pandava brothers. Speaking of origin stories, this guy is a warrior of superhero proportions. He can mow down entire battalions with his machine-gun-like use of the bow and arrow (complete with magic arrows that can blow things up like heavy artillery). He’s been trained from birth to fight and defend what is good and right. The problem is, he can’t fight. He looks across the battlefield, sees his family, and suddenly decides he wants to be a nice guy. Fortunately, he has his best friend Krishna beside him, who also happens to be the resident deity of defending what is good and right.
Krishna offers words of support like, “You’re a coward.”
Arjuna is like, “What? But this is my family! Why can’t we all just get along?”
Krishna is like, “This battle is bigger than your attachments to your family. If it’s not fought, super predatorial people are going to take over the nation and things are going to be much worse off. And you know this.”
Arjuna kept doubting, worried what was going to happen to his poor family and (subtly) his sense of himself as a virtuous man.
Krishna continued smacking him into Yogic sobriety. “You’re attached to some idea of yourself as this one-love Yogi. What is required of you at this moment is for you to play your role as a killer, not a hippy.” (I’m paraphrasing).
And in three simple words, Krishna summed up the Karma Yoga imperative: “Yogastha Kuru Karmani.”
This translates to: “Established in Being, perform action”, which means:
“Be aware of yourself, and exactly what you know needs to be done…and then do it.”
Krishna emphasizes the importance of not worrying about the results of your actions. Don’t worry about whether they will make you happy or sad. Awareness of who you really are, and constant action in line with your truth will bring you beyond the ups and downs of pleasure and pain. Anything else, you’re following your whims and impulses and you’re totally spinning out from your true path – and you end up being in the middle of the most important battle in known history and choking.
So this part of the Mahabharata gets deep into the philosophy or practice and devotion. Krishna emphasizes that all of these practices of meditation, Yoga, prayer, ritual, Bhakta, etc., are all well and good, but they are all meant to connect you to the Krishna within (AKA: your true Self), and prepare you to take action when action is needed. But if you do nothing else, act from a place of “being” (AKA: inner calm, clarity, and knowing), and you are embodying your role in this life to its highest potential.
This story is a great example of Karma Yoga because it reveals that Yogic principles are applicable (and, in fact, essential) to situations with the highest possible stakes (Arjuna’s army was believed to have 1.5 million soldiers, which were facing off against the opposing 2.5 million soldiers – I’d say a lot was on the line there). And being “spiritual” doesn’t mean that in every possible context you get to tick some boxes of what you imagine a nice person to be. It means that you need to be aware of what is demanded of you right now and act without hesitation and expectation that things are going to go the way you want them to.
How Karma Yoga Changed My Life
Important caveat: Karma Yoga is not “better” than meditation and yoga, and it’s not meant to replace whatever practices you’re already doing. The brilliance of Karma Yoga’s ergonomics is that it can slip into our lives without requiring any additional time commitment. It just requires doing what we are already going to be doing day in and day out with a different mindset. It’s more of an adhesive agent, the glue that integrates your spiritual life, pulling the meditative state of mind into every other phase of your life. Without it, life is fractured and compartmentalized, as it was for me for so many years. For the longest time I considered meditation, retreat experiences, hanging out with “high vibe” people and having “high vibe” conversations, and all the other spiritually pleasurable modes of life to be the only thing that fed my spirit. And all of my work obligations – the jerks I had to serve, the mindless “low vibe” tasks I had to perform – was all a needless distraction. This rendered my practices to be a crutch that merely improved how I hobbled through the life I was mostly rejecting.
I kept thinking, “Life would be better if I could work for a monastery or consciousness-raising not-for-profit.” As I began to shift my mindset into one that is more Karma Yogic, it became clear that the first thing that needed to change in my life was my perspective on everything I was doing right now.
Everything demand, action and experience fed the expansion of my self-knowledge and wisdom. And even the humblest of interactions was an opportunity to contribute something that matter – there was no requirement of any loftier positioning in life in order to export my value to it.
Karma Yoga Connects You With The Power and Possibility of Service
So I’ve reported to you that a life of ever-blossoming self-awareness and service to others leads to all kinds of untold fulfillment. Great, so how do we start living like this? Do we try to always be doing better, more heroic stuff? Absolutely not. And this pursuit of “significance” in our actions can actually be more of an obstacle along the path of Karma Yoga. If you’re truly of service, then you limit yourself by responding only to the calls that offer a maximum possible impact. And needing to derive a sense of self-importance from the work you do will taint its integrity.
This spirit drives my whole educational project, Serve Conscious: you don’t need to be doing any major in order to be delivering the you highest value to the world. I often discuss that through using the principles of Karma Yoga, serving tables in a restaurant can be the most powerful Yogic practice. You just need to serve in a way that is fully connected to the value of what you are doing with zero expectation of your actions yielding any payoffs.
Let’s quote the modern godfather of Karma Yoga, Swami Vivekananda (he didn’t invent it, he just wrote the most definitive text we have available to us since the Bhagavad Gita was written over two thousand years ago):
“Every fool may become a hero at one time or another. Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man.”
So how do we do things in this masterful way? Just get really, really good at them? It’s more about developing a conscious relationship with your actions. Doing things with your fullest attention is a start (this is often called “mindfulness”), but doing things like a Karma Yogi requires a deeper awareness.
Every decision and action requires the question:
- What does the moment demand of me right now?
- Is my choice something that I feel is 100% right for the moment?
- Am I able to accept the results?
Step 3 is key to Karma Yoga: the answer to this question always has to always be “yes”. The Karma Yogi endeavors to always engage in “right action”, but with a totally selfless mindset. Because actions are not truly “right” if they are on the terms of “things need to go my way”. There must be total openness and non-attachment concerning however things go after you act, and anything otherwise will limit the potential of how much others will gain from your actions as well as what you will gain in growth, wisdom and self-knowledge.
The Karma Yogi knows that you can’t resent any results no matter how much you turned out to get under-appreciated, ignored, or downright exploited. The results don’t have to be fair, honorable, or sensible in any way. The Karma Yogi knows that in every moment they are playing a role in a game much bigger than their small individual preferences. They can’t possibly know the true ramifications of their actions as they ripple outward through time, affecting more and more people in ever-shifting ways.
Like the Taoist story of the farmer that lost his horses. You can’t fairly make a “good or bad” adjudication of an event in the moment – its ramifications will continue to shift. You just need to be open and ready for whatever the results bring, trusting that they will provide everyone the growth they need.
The only certainty you need to concern yourself with is how you feel about your decision in-the-moment. What guides the Karma Yogi is their intuition – a deep, clear, un-conflicted sense of knowing. As the Taoist farmer would attest, no amount of analytical thinking can provide a dependable evaluation of the quality of the events. Everything is simply happening rightly, it’s our job to simply own our roles, own our actions and then dis-own 100% of the fruits of our actions. What comes to pass belongs to the collective. This is true service, being able to say “I’ve done entirely what I can know to be right…the rest is for all of you. If you need me, I’ll be here, ready for the next call to action.”
And, really, if you’ve done what you know to be absolutely the right thing, then you wouldn’t need to control results, would you?
If you’ve put your highest self out there, life will handle the rest.
If You Think It’s Impossible To Be Selfless, Then You Aren’t Using Karma Yoga
I’ve written in the Be Here Now Network Blog before about the impossibility of selflessness. Among many other things, I discuss how being selfless is not a matter of how little you are benefitting from your actions (i.e. “I’m doing this for someone other than me, therefore, it is selfless”). I argue that it’s impossible to try and divorce yourself from the exchange of your actions. You’re always going to be impacted by your actions and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. So on those terms, you can’t ever truly be selfless because if you do something that wholly benefits another person, you’re doing so because it’s the kind of action that most makes you feel good. And doing what makes you feel good is an ultimately “selfish” act (sort of).
What the article hopefully revealed is that the question of how much an individual benefits from an action is irrelevant. The question is “how big is their sense of self that is benefiting from their actions.” Is their sense of self-identified with their own individual material needs or all of humanity? If it’s the latter, then their actions are sure to benefit as big of a radius of people as possible. Of course, they will benefit by feeling good about what they do, but so will countless others, so the question of whether they are being “selfish” is moot. And, I’ll add, both parties benefiting from an action will connect, rather than creating a martyr/saved dynamic – wouldn’t you want to know that something feels good about helping you rather than feeling nothing but suffering from it?
However, according to Karma Yoga, selflessness is actually possible and selfishness is definitely a hazard to avoid. Here, selflessness is a question of how much your expectations of reward are driving your actions. The rewards you seek maybe something very material, like money or success, or something more subtle, like praise or validation. Or, as I’ve mentioned, you could have the subtlest and most insidious expectation of all: the hope that life, as a result of your actions, goes a certain way.
It may seem like your actions require nothing in return, but in witnessing your need for life to unfold a certain way, your need for payoff will become clear. Rejecting any results that aren’t aligned with your narrow bandwidth of what’s “good” is ultimately a selfish mindset. Dropping your attachment to certain results is the ultimate challenge and maintaining full acceptance of what comes to pass no matter what happens, is the crux of the Karma Yogi. It’s also the mark of the true master, able to trust that life is unfolding exactly as it should – just like Taoist farmer.
This can require Herculean amounts of letting go since it’s often difficult to surrender all expectations of a certain result when so much conscious intention has been put into doing the absolute right thing to serve the moment – i.e. “I’ve done the right thing, now a bunch of good stuff has to happen.” But the Karma Yogi understands that their idea of “good” may just be the product of what they’ve conditioned themselves to be comfortable with. Their sense of good may not be someone else’s sense of “good”. And ultimately, they’re acting in service of others so the fruits of their actions belong to the collective and whatever emerges as their sense of “good”.
The Karma Yogi isn’t attached to results, because the results aren’t any of their business – it’s now up to the collective to decide the value and application of their efforts.
This is true selflessness. It’s not just an in-the-moment mindset of service – but sustained over time. The Karma Yogi relinquishes ownership of everything about around actions, including cause-and-effect, knowing that when they have done their part and responded to their intuitive cue to act, the rest isn’t about them.
For example, if you train someone at their job, you might feel totally in service to your colleague: after all, you’re helping them thrive professionally. But let’s say they don’t become as competent as you were hoping and you get frustrated with them. Or let’s say they quit after a month and you consider your investment to be wasted effort. Your actions required certain results that pleased you – i.e. they do their jobs well stay at the company for a long time, are eternally grateful to you, and maybe get you the favor of your boss for being such a good trainer. Seemingly selfless activity turns out to be contingent on all kinds of rewards.
The Karma Yogi is fine with any result because the activity of training the employee is itself deeply satisfying. This acceptance comes from their ability to be aware: they know and trust that the training process is giving both them and the person they are training exactly what they need right now. This trust is not imagining or anticipating the material benefits that the training is giving them (i.e. better professional success in the future, maybe, hopefully), but the palpable lived-in growth that can be witnessed unfolding from the act of simply teaching someone (i.e. greater self-awareness, wisdom, clarity and all the juicy stuff that Yogis seek). In that moment, they have engaged in “right action” (for others and themselves) and their job is done.
Conclusion: Freedom is a Practice
It becomes easy to relinquish the fruits of your actions to others when you’ve done what you know is 100% right, played your role to its fullest and experienced the depth of its present-moment lessons. This is how to live freely. When speaking of “Karma” as meaning “consequence-bearing action”, the art of Karma Yoga minimizes these consequences. The results of your actions can trap you. But the only thing that gives their grip any strength is your mind, holding on to its wishes for you to get your way. With Karma Yoga, you’re freeing yourself from this bondage, and the friction your mind creates as you grind against the undeniable reality of what is. In allowing others to do what they will with your efforts (you can’t control them anyway), you are lightening your relationship with both them and yourself, encouraging their freedom and elevating yourself into an agent of freedom through your service. Life through Karma Yoga becomes lighter, more fluid and full of possibility. You will find yourself capable of meeting any challenge and showing up to it as the person you know you can be. And there will be very few dull moments because the Karma Yogi is always practicing and always seeking opportunities to serve – and they aren’t hard to find when everything is an opportunity to serve.