How Can Karma Yoga be Practiced in Contemporary Life?

by Linda Munro


In order to explore the ways Karma Yoga can be practiced in our contemporary lives; we must first know what Karma Yoga is.  I’ve heard it described as “selfless service” for years and understood this to mean doing work for others for free.  With the help of the Gita
I have a more accurate understanding of Karma Yoga.
Krishna’s Karma Yoga



It was a path taught by Krishna to his disciple, Arjuna, in the historic spiritual scripture, The Bhagavad Gita.  The essence of his Karma Yoga teachings were that one must participate in the world, performing their proper activities without attachments to the outcome (positive or negative) while all the while devoting themselves to the path of union with the Divine.  Therefore, the term “self-less service” doesn’t necessarily imply free work for others – it is doing the work intended for you without any longing for the fruits of this work for only oneself.  This is extremely difficult not only because it is our conditioning to be attached to the benefits for ME, I, MYSELF but determining what are proper activities and what are not proper activities takes being deeply in tune with one’s intuition or self.

Being Raised in our Contemporary Society


In fact it could be argued that our contemporary life encourages the exact opposite of Krishna.  From an early age many of us are taught to do things to “get” a star in our notebooks, to be good to get presents, to get a higher education to get a good job, to get a good job to make lots of money, to make lots of money so you can buy lots of things to live more comfortably and do what you want to do, to dress in fashion to be liked or admired by others, to be famous or important to be “someone”, etc.; basically everything to try to satisfy the little self superficially with material success rather than the big Self within.

Because I have two small children I connect with this as it is true, it is definitely easier to get a child to do something if they are given a reward.  However, keeping the teachings of Krishna in mind I think it is important to make an effort to explain to children the importance of being happy inside and not being greedy.  That this makes us grateful and beautiful inside which is more important than being beautiful outside and having material things.

When using “rewards” with kids we can try to focus more on the consequences of our actions.  That when we do good things we feel good inside.  That if we hurt or lie there is a tiny place inside us that gets hurt or is lied to.  And, that we must do our duties in life because they are our duties.  In addition, we must do our best when performing our duties because it feels good to do our best.  I’m quite impressed with how much a small child can connect to.  Perhaps when they are given the opportunity to be trusted to grow inner values they naturally feel the connection within.  As they mature we can gradually explain more and we’ll see if between all our good intended work and all our karmas if they grow into adults who can continue to follow spiritual paths while living an active life in this society.

Karma

The consequences of our actions in thought, word and deed are called our karma.  It is a natural law of cause and effect, of which we can only escape upon liberation.

“The Bhagavad-Gita (18.23ff) distinguishes three fundamental types of acts, depending on the actor’s inner disposition: (1) sattivika-karman, actions that are prescribed by tradition and performed without attachment by a person who does not hanker after the “fruit”; (2) rajasa-karman, performed out of ego sense and in order to experience pleasure; and (3) tamasa-karman, performed by a deluded or confused individual who has no concern for the moral and spiritual consequences of his or her deeds.”  (Encyclopedia of Yoga)**

Sva-Dharma

In distinguishing proper activities from improper activities we can refer to Krishna’s teaching of Sva-Dharma (own norm or one’s own duty).

Paramahansa Yogananda explains Sva-Dharma in the following quotes:

“Man’s first and highest obligation is to follow those righteous principles and actions pertinent to the unfoldment of the Self (Sva).”

“…one should analyze his continuous inner urge, or consult a divine guru, to diagnose his past karmic impulses, to find out the life to which he is most suited.”

“But one should not run from those karmically imposed duties that place before him lessons that are essential to his self-evolvement.”

“…svadharma (“soul’s duty”) signifies the spiritual duty necessary for the realization of the Self (Sva).”  

(p. 403 GTA)**


Improper Activity and Qualities

Bringing these very profound teachings to our daily life - first we need to be clear on what are not proper activities and be open to seeing them in ourselves instead of denying them. Technically improper activity is all actions except those done with only the service to union with the Divine in mind. However, it is difficult to get to a place where all your actions are done in such a deep spiritual manner until we break through the little self more so let’s look at improper activities from where most of us actually are in our spiritual paths. 

Improper activity includes all immoral actions done to satisfy the desires of the senses or bad qualities such as greed, selfishness, lust, fame, envy, jealousy, hate, sloth, laziness, power, pride, etc. Krishna listed a whole lot of them as “demonic” in verses 16.7 to 16.18.  Although in my opinion the language used is too harsh since until enlightenment we all hold tiny bits of bad qualities in our ego and if there isn’t room to accept this then we are in danger of being more delusional than we already are.

Very often our mind doesn’t let us see the “ugly” qualities of our ego.  After all, who wants to see that they are being selfish and greedy?!  It’s much easier to let the mind cover up our less admirable qualities by blaming someone or something else or justifying or denying our actions.  “Oh, I have every right to do this or that because he did this to me or everyone does it.” “I can’t act differently because the society is like this or the organization is like that.” Or, the mind just completely covers up these things we don’t want to see about ourselves that we’re in complete denial that they are even part of us.  “I’m definitely not an angry person.” First, we can never put any kind of blanket statement on ourselves (or anyone else for that matter); secondly, we all have a little bit of an angry person in us. We need to constantly check in with our motivations and expectations in order to evolve.

Transforming Undesirable Habits and Qualities

Krishna doesn’t speak about how to transform these undesirable qualities directly per se but hidden in the teachings of renunciation, meditation, faith and wisdom are the ways one gets more in touch with the buddhi (the higher mind).  When we are more in touch with the buddhi we are closer to using our discrimination while acting in our life.  Therefore, progressively we are able to see what’s happening in our mind and be more honest in our acceptance of ourselves.

Personally, I believe this to be one of the keys to transforming our undesirable habits and qualities; looking at them honestly and accepting them as being part of our self.  That we are ok, even “perfect” just as we are; that we are still an image of God despite our imperfections. Somehow this acceptance gives us the power to transform them.  Before we accept them, we are going to fight and struggle with our undesirable areas, in a way giving them more importance than they deserve.  When this importance is taken away then they don’t have as strong a hold on us anymore.

While “making friends” with the “bad” qualities and actions we need to cultivate good qualities and actions.  And there are 26 good qualities that Krishna suggests we should possess; in verses 16.1 – 16.3 he lists all these: fearlessness, purity of heart, steadfastness, generosity, restraint, sacrifice, self-study, austerity, uprightness, non-harming, truthfulness, absence of anger, renunciation, peacefulness, non-slandering, compassion, non-greediness, gentleness, modesty, absence of haste, vigor, forgiveness, patience, cleanliness of body and purity of mind, absence of malice and absence of excessive pride. 
“These 26 qualities are all divine attributes of God; they constitute man’s spiritual wealth.  A God-seeker should strive to obtain all of them.  The more he manifests these virtues, the more he reflects the true inner image of God in which he is made.” (p. 969 GTA)

Proper Activity

Proper actions include our work, taking care of our families, our spiritual practices, taking care of the body, our home and all our day to day duties however, without any interest in the outcome benefitting the self; all is to be performed for the ultimate goal of re-uniting with the Absolute.  Honestly when I heard this it seemed so far out to me that I couldn’t connect at all with the idea.  Now with hours of contemplation and looking at it from many different angles, it seems so very obvious.  The way Paramahansa Yogananda puts it helped make it clearer to me: “...one should embrace those requisite duties to which one is bound by the laws of nature and those divine duties that foster soul culture.” (p. 345 GTA)


Listening to the Heart or Intuition


To me a part of this means following the heart when deciding what kind of work one needs to do (or, any other life path questions).  I understand that this can be more difficult than it sounds and it is something that needs to be cultivated.  In short I would describe it as doing work or following a path that feels natural and nourishes you, rather than something that is only about the pay check at the end of the month or the admiration from others.  In a way I think that the dilemma for many people about “what to do with their lives” is a Western luxury.  We have so many choices and the opportunities can be endless that we can’t decide what to do or we get bored with what we are doing (by the way, this applies to dedicating oneself to a yoga practice and relationships).  For those who have this kind of “problem” I’d say that in addition to what feels natural and nourishing you need to look within and find out what your expectations are (perhaps you expect too much) and you need to calm the restlessness of the mind and body. 

We seem to expect to constantly feel stimulated to see it as “interesting work” however, this is unrealistic and this is why I use the word “nourished” rather than passionate or exciting for example.  Nourishing is more than excitement or passion.  Excitement and passion are felt in the instant, in the moment while nourishment is deeper and allows you to grow, eventually connecting with the soul.

When something feels natural, there is less of a struggle.  Not saying there are no obstacles, there will often be obstacles to test your perseverance, strength, faith and abilities.  We need obstacles to push us to grow and keep finding nourishment. If we feel we are always banging up against a brick wall however, we should sit back, meditate and find out if we are following the wrong path or if we are too attached to a specific expectation of outcome.

Living an Active Life


We have been born into this world and we need to participate in it.  We are in a way bound to action because even when not acting we are still doing the action of “non-action”.  For example, a man who is lazy and slothful is still “acting” lazy and slothful despite the fact he is not really doing anything.  We have been endowed with the gift of free-will.  This free-will can be used to generate positive or negative karmic actions.  How we act is our choice; however the results cannot be determined by us and in Karma Yoga we are advised to remain in equanimity no matter the perceived outcome, positive or negative, liked or disliked.

I believe this is a very inspiring way to live.  It is living in the moment, doing your best to follow the direction of your heart and intuition, persevering and trying to be light and joyous while living in your daily life and doing whatever is necessary.

Necessary Action

“2.47 – 2.48: These stanzas transmit the essence of Karma-Yoga, the yogic path of self-transcending action:  Do what is necessary, but resorting to the wisdom-faculty (buddhi) or higher mind, engage all your actions without hankering after rewards.”  (p.117 Gita course book)***

This word “necessary” is a word I often use when performing my actions or even more precisely, in deciding which action to do.  For example: “It is necessary that I get down in front of my children and explain that they need to solve their problem without hurting, rather than me yelling from across the room, even though I would rather be finishing whatever else I’m in the middle of doing.” Or “It is necessary to face a problem straight on with a co-worker rather than avoid it, allowing it to build into resentment or animosity.” Or even, “It is necessary that I rest and take care of my body to allow it to recover from a cold rather than do a rigorous asana practice to which I can find myself very attached to.”

But how to know what is necessary?  I think this is where the actual techniques of yoga practice come in.  Krishna says we need to meditate.  Meditation is very difficult; usually one of two things happens: our mind is super active, thinking about anything and everything or we are dull, zoning out and maybe even nodding off.  However, when we stick to the practice we start to observe what is happening and slowly, slowly there is more clarity and more space between the thoughts.  This will translate itself into our daily lives.  So, that before meditation practice we just re-act, do the first thing that comes whereas while developing our meditation we will begin to experience more clarity and have more space between our thoughts.  As a result, we’ll be more likely to choose the correct necessary action.  It takes time, it takes practice and perseverance and even then we’ll notice that we can’t always act from this “necessary” place which is unattached to the selfish motivations.  It’s a practice; both a minute by minute practice of being present and an allotted daily time devoted to a sitting practice.  To sum it up developing a daily meditation practice is developing awareness that will bring more awareness to your actions in daily life.

Fruits of Actions

“O Dhananjaya (Arjuna), remaining immersed in yoga, perform all actions, forsaking attachment (to their fruits), being indifferent to success and failure.  This mental evenness is termed yoga.” 

(Verse 2.48 translation from GTA)


Again, this in itself is a liberating concept.  I feel that in a way it takes the pressure off us in our contemporary life.  Of course, we have to practice remembering not to be attached to the outcome of our work but once we remind ourselves that all we can do is do our very best; we feel liberated from the need to have things be the way we want them to be.  The result of our work isn’t up to us.  The outcome doesn’t even belong to us.  I feel this builds humility; we are not the most powerful, there is something greater and more powerful than ourselves.  (Note: in using the word “work” I mean our job, our duties to our family, our yoga practice, taking care of our environment and any other life duties we have.)

When we can do our work and duties “as if” the outcome will be a certain way but not “needing” them to be that certain way, we begin to accept the way things are without feeling sad or depressed or over elated about the way it is.  This brings us emotional stability.

We need to constantly remind ourselves, especially in a bout of anger or depression that “I’m feeling these extreme emotions because I want things to be different than they are right now”.  Very often this will elevate the anger or depression or at the very least let us be with the emotions and accept them.  As a matter of fact, even when feeling totally overjoyed about something we need to remind ourselves to be appreciative that it is like this but not to be attached to it as it will always morph into something else.

“To perform actions thus undisturbed by their results is to maintain the mental balance of yoga.” 

(p. 288 GTA)


We Must Act

One of the key words used in the Gita that helps us understand that accomplishment of yoga is possible despite living in our contemporary society is naishkarmya; which means “action-transcendence”.  In other words renunciation in action rather than renunciation of action.

“By rash renunciation of responsibilities one finds no true felicity.” (p. 335 GTA)

“A devotee can attend to his health, his family, his business and still be a renunciant within.  He says to himself: “I did not create this body or this world.  So why should I have attachments to them?  I perform my material duties to family and others, because God gave those tasks to me.  I will meditate deeply and play this temporary role just to please Him.”  Such a man of inner renunciation is also a yogi, for he is ever moving toward union with God through both meditation and right action.” (p. 323 GTA)

So we have responsibilities and we must fulfill them to the best of our abilities!

Why?

Having a Western mind, we tend to need to know the Why?  Why make all this effort to be so active in our life, to not be attached to the fruits (benefits) of our hard work, to develop good qualities and certainly why devote ourselves to uniting with the Divine (what does that even mean)?! 

Why not lounge around and enjoy life or work hard to have lots of amazing benefits for myself, after all it was my hard work and if my so called bad qualities don’t make me unhappy, why change them?!

Because



To find inner peace!  Even if one doesn’t connect (yet) with the idea of eventually our Self uniting with the Absolute, it is every single persons desire to feel peace within rather than unsettledness.  And if you take an honest look at most people’s lives they are wrought with inner suffering (if not external suffering).  There are certainly times of joy in most of our lives; but when you go deep we see that as a whole our society is suffering.  Look at the need to numb ourselves in endless and creative ways; alcohol, cigarettes, over-eating, junk food, shopping, over working, excess external stimulation, gossip, busyness, sensationalizing, idolizing of movie stars, music stars and now even anyone who happens to get on a reality TV show, drug (prescription and non-prescription) and any other distraction we use to avoid seeing “what is”.

Externalizing our experience of life is in a way avoiding the truth – not even talking about avoiding The Truth.

Krishna explains that we need to get control of our senses to begin to find lasting inner peace.

“2.60-71:  The senses (indriya) are designed to pull the mind out of itself and into matter (prakriti).  They allow us to navigate externally.  But at the same time, they capture the mind and distract if from the task of self-control, which alone can relieve a person from the compulsion of the instincts.  The yogin must withdraw the senses from the sense objects like a tortoise retracts its limbs, so that his wisdom becomes firmly rooted.” (The Gita Course Book)

It is a vicious cycle that works like this: the senses (which includes the lower mind) are attached to the pleasure something gives them, this attachment becomes a desire (either of wanting something one doesn’t have or not wanting to lose something one already has), this results in anger or fear, we have forgotten who our true Self is, this results in loss of wisdom (buddhi – higher mind) which results in loss of spiritual life.  And only with a spiritual life and true wisdom can one achieve lasting inner peace.

In Conclusion


To follow Krishna’s teachings on Karma Yoga in our contemporary society we need to cultivate a meditation practice to support us in controlling our mind and our senses to eventually be able to live in this world, doing our worldly duties to our most best abilities with absolutely no longing for the benefits to ourselves.  Remaining equanimous in success and failure and eventually seeing the Divine in all.  Bringing cleanliness, purity, order and simplicity to our lives, ridding ourselves of restlessness, greed and desire to be able to live in the world but not of the world in supreme peace.


*GTA – Quotes from God Talks with Arjuna by Paramahansa Yogananda.
**Encyclopedia of Yoga – Quotes from The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein, PHD
***Gita Course Book – Quotes from the Bhagavad Gita Course Book by Georg Feuerstein, PHD