Karma yoga is another way of talking about the practice of presence.
The word “karma” in the Sanskrit literally means, “to do.” Thus, while we are performing the simplest of actions, practicing presence brings with it an abiding sense of peace and an enduring feeling of happiness.
Like all the yogas (whether it be the path of action, knowledge or love), karma yoga moves away from our normal way of egoic thinking and doing, which asks, “What’s in it for me?”
Some of the great teachers of this path that come immediately to mind are Vivekananda, Gandhi and Mother Theresa.
In 1893, Vivekananda traveled to the United States on assignment from his teacher, the great Ramakrishna, to speak at the Parliament of the World Religions in New York. This was the first public east-west moment on American soil to have reached such a wide audience.
In his book on karma yoga, he wrote “To work we have the right, but not to the fruits thereof. Leave the fruits alone . . .If you want to do a great or a good work, do not trouble to think what the result will be.”
When we let go of the ego-based result of our actions, then we might just awaken to the blessedness and power of the action itself.
Returning to his home country after completing his law degree at Oxford University, Gandhi was thrown off a train by wealthy, white South Africans. It took a momentous act of self-restraint not to retaliate. Later, Gandhi worked toward freeing India from British rule by appeals to the disempowered castes to apply the concept of civil disobedience through non-violent means.
But this did not occur until he underwent a rigorous program of self-transformation, which included an essential principle of karma yoga: the renunciation of the fruit of actions. Gandhi’s karma yoga was essentially an experiment in self-discipline derived from exercises in patience, simplicity, service and forgiveness as a means to control thoughts of anger, lust and greed.
How can we gain something from Gandhi’s great feats of spiritual strength? If we choose to not act on one selfish thought and instead to redirect that energy toward one self-less action, it will become charged with spiritual power.Stringing a few of these together might just produce an epidemic of love!
Perhaps the most famous karma yogi in our more modern times is Mother Theresa of Calcutta. In her ministry there was no goal of saving lives through miraculous cures as in western medicine. Her practice was simple and courageous: To extend a hand to the dying and assist their process with kindness and to bestow upon those suffering their last breaths the dignity of companionship. To give to the dying the same loving presence that one would give to a newborn infant.
The Bhagavad Gita (circa 150 B.C.E) is a timeless text of wisdom that connects karma yoga to an unlikely and private event that focuses on something much smaller than compassionate service for the multitudes. Karma yoga begins with the most basic act of internal observation itself: “To the unmeditative (mind) there is no peace, and without peace how can there be happiness?” (Gita, 2:66)
In those moments of practicing presence, we’re not roasting the seeds of thoughts that move like a swift pendulum between pleasure and pain. The Gita echoes this sentiment when it states that “there are three gates of hell, destructive of the self: lust, anger and greed. “(Gita, 16: 21)
Perennial Indian philosophy speaks of three tendencies (i.e. the gunas) in our nature, from the lowest, which are triggered by self-interest, to the highest that promote self-less action. The tamas guna is guided by our instinct to survive and reproduce. The rajas guna is led by the ego’s desire to achieve power and recognition. The sathva guna is motivated by the highest ideal, the best good of others. Ego-based acts imprison, through attachment to results, whereas self-less acts set free via detachment from likes and dislikes. (Gita, 3:9,25,34). The sathvic mind is attracted to presence, the one place where the drama of attachment and aversion can’t so easily gain entry.
How can we apply the teachings of the great karma yogis in our daily lives to attain a measure of their inner peace, happiness and freedom?
- Detach from outcomes—
Stay in the moment and do whatever you do with a passion about that moment and not about what will come your way. Believe in one-way victories when you do the next right thing, not worrying about what others are doing or not doing, forgiving or not forgiving.
- Perform simple acts consciously—
Rather than focusing on the big pictures and big splashes of your life, wash your own dishes for a change, make your bed with mindful care, fold your clothes and let the smell of cleanliness and aura of orderliness establish a tone for your life.
- Become a conscious witness to your thoughts and actions—
This is most easily accomplished in meditation with a little effort. Sit in a position of relaxed alertness and breath deeply and naturally with your eyes closed. Watch the parade of your thoughts and emotions from an imaged vantage point, such as a riverbank. Begin to establish a “watcher “of your egoic mind.
- Experience patience as a wise doing—
The sage Lao Tzu presented a perennial concept of “Wu Wei,” meaning the practice of active non-doing to achieve the wisdom of intelligent action. Although the Gita says that being human creates a necessity of action, this includes actions of the mind before they result in external activity. When exercised with mastery, patience is not passivity but a matter of timing, poise, and grace.
- Practice presence in meditation—
Sit in relative quiet and listen attentively to all external sounds that arise and disappear. When you find yourself pulled into the drama of thought forms (future or past) allow this listening to the external sounds to bring you back into the moment. After a while, you will begin to sense a Presence behind the superficial present. Many an ego-battle can be fought and won here, right here in the moment of this listening.
- Give in doses of moments loving kindness— Anonymously and intentionally give to another in physical, mental, emotional or spiritual need without thought of benefit or return.
All of us are fated to act but it is our destiny, our choice whether these acts will in turn produce either a thinning or thickening of the veils between darkness and light, misery and happiness, turmoil and peace.
As the Master Yeshua once said, “the kingdom of heaven is in our midst but men (and women) do not see it.” (Gospel of Thomas). This is great news. Karma yoga gives us a glimpse and experience of that heaven that resides as close to us as our very breath.