Stress is the great pandemic of modern life.
The world is constantly throwing demands and challenges our way.
From the moment we wake up to the moment we nod off to sleep, our day consists of an endless array of actions and choices. In addition to this, we relate to events through the screen of our own assorted desires, fears, habits and conditioned responses. This in itself is the source of much stress, because life rarely matches up to how we think it ‘should’ be.
The Fundamental Desire
We can divide the motivation behind our actions into three basic categories:
- Desire for security
- Desire for pleasure, and
- Desire to be righteous or virtuous.
Vedanta adds a fourth desire. Considered the highest human goal, it is the desire to achieve enlightenment, liberation or freedom (moksha). In other words, you want to be free of relying on ‘things’ to make you happy.
The desire to be free is common to every other goal.
You want to be free of ignorance so you spend a significant part of your life in education.
You want freedom from insecurity so you work to make money.
To be free of loneliness you seek out relationships.
To be free of boredom you might watch television, listen to music or trawl Youtube and Facebook.
You want to be free from unhappiness so you spend your life chasing the things you believe will make you happy.
Heck, even brushing your teeth is motivated by the desire for freedom — freedom from toothache!
Every single action you take — and everything you want and pursue in life — is born of this fundamental desire to be free.
Unfortunately, there’s a big problem when you rely on action to bring you freedom.
The Big Problem In Life
You have the ability to take action, but you have no say in the result of those actions.
Although you can do your very best, you can rarely control the outcome.
If you could control the results of your actions, then everything you did would be successful. Every time you bought a lottery ticket you’d hit the jackpot!
Sadly, life doesn’t work like that.
This explains a basic human insecurity.
You never know how things are going to turn out. You’re always seeking what you assume will bring you freedom — what you think will make you happy. But you’re constantly anxious about the results of your actions.
The truth is, life doesn’t care what you want. It has bigger concerns. It’s never going to match up with all your hopes, desires and expectations. Reality doesn’t work that way. It can’t. There are so many other factors come into play beyond what “I want”. Most of which we have no control over.
Because you have no say in how things turn out, life is unpredictable and stressful.
To make matters worse, even when you do manage to achieve your desires — the perfect relationship or the well-paying job — you know deep down that whatever you gain, you will, in time, inevitably lose.
Nothing lasts forever. Life is forever changing. As my teacher often says, life is a zero-sum game. Every gain entails a loss (and, indeed, every loss has an upside). There’s no getting around this fact.
So how can you ever hope to be free when you have no control over the results of your actions and when every gain entails an inevitable loss?
A Way Of Eradicating Stress and Worry
A solution to this existential pickle was already figured out thousands of years ago.
It’s called Karma Yoga.
Karma Yoga is a means of neutralising stress and worry. It’s simple, easy to grasp and helps create a peaceful, tranquil mind. It may take some effort on your part, but it has the potential to transform your life.
Karma Yoga isn’t what you might think it is.
It’s not a technique or something you ‘do’. It’s more a mindset and a way of processing reality.
In the West, the word ‘Yoga’ has strong connotations with elaborate physical poses and breathing techniques. Yoga, however, has a much broader meaning. Meaning “to yoke together”, Yoga is about balance and unity of mind, body and spirit. It encompasses a wide spectrum of practices, of which physical exercise is only one.
Karma Yoga is, without doubt, the most important yoga for day to day, moment to moment living.
It’s an attitude of mind; a way of approaching life and dealing with action and the results of that action. A means of navigating life with ease and grace, its practice helps neutralise the stress so prevalent in modern culture.
An Ancient Philosophy
The word ‘karma’ translates from Sanskrit as ‘action’. It refers to action and the results of action. There’s nothing mystical or supernatural about it.
Everything we do is karma (action). Our actions are not only generated by past actions but also sow the seeds of future actions. And so goes the dance of karma.
The essence of Karma Yoga is outlined in an ancient Indian text called the Bhagavad Gita.
Part of the epic Mahabharata, it features a dialogue between Arjuna, a warrior prince and Krishna, his mentor and teacher.
Arjuna is a nobleman forced to take part in a terrible battle. He finds he must fight some of his most loved friends and family. Although it’s his duty to fight in this conflict to make right a terrible wrong, he is deeply confused and no longer knows what to do in life.
The battle of the Gita is a metaphor for the battle we all face in our daily lives. It’s the battle of having to deal with difficult circumstances and to do things we often don’t want to do. Overcome by confusion and doubt, Arjuna lays down his weapons and turns to Krishna for advice.
The content of the Gita can be divided into two essential categories: knowledge and action, jnanam and karma.
Jnana Yoga is the yoga of Self-Knowledge. It’s about understanding the true nature of reality and our identity as the essential Self (pure awareness). This knowledge leads to liberation, which is what we’re ultimately seeking in every single action we perform.
But as we learn in the text, the yoga of knowledge doesn’t work unless the mind is first prepared. For that, you need a mind that’s free from stress and agitation.
That’s where Karma Yoga, the yoga of action, comes in.
Karma Yoga is a simple psychological tool. It’s a mindset that helps manage stress by neutralising the mind’s entrenched likes, dislikes, attachments and aversions. It helps create a peaceful, stress-free state of mind.
“Even a little Karma Yoga frees one from great fear,” Krishna promises.
So what is Karma Yoga and how is it practised?
Karma Yoga can be broken down into three basic steps:
- Cultivating an attitude of gratitude for all that life has given you.
- Offering all your actions back to life.
- Letting go of the results and taking whatever comes as a gift.
Cultivating a sense of gratitude is important in and of itself.
Gratitude needn’t be forced. It comes naturally when you step back and take an objective look at life.
Life is a gift. It’s given you everything — a physical body and all the necessary resources and conditions for that body to survive and flourish.
You’re provided with a lifetime supply of oxygen. And as long as you attend to the body’s basic needs for food, water, shelter and sleep there’s really very little you need to do to maintain it. You don’t need to worry about digesting your food, circulating blood or taking care of respiration. It’s all done for you.
Everything about your existence is miraculous!
If the conditions on Planet Earth were even a little different — if its orbit was a fraction closer to or farther from the sun — this would just be a barren hunk of rock floating through space.
But here we are— gifted with an incredible body and mind, and all the resources and tools we need to live and experience the wonder of being alive.
Life Doesn’t Owe You Anything
A lot of people labour under the delusion that life somehow owes them something.
It’s already given us everything; everything we have and everything we are!
Karma yoga asks you to recognise the great debt you owe the world for your very existence.
To live a miserly existence only trying to maximise all you can get from life leads to an unhappy life, full of dissatisfaction and suffering. Because no matter how much you get, it’s never enough.
It’s preferable to live with a mindset of giving rather than getting. To live with the intent of giving something back to life — to contribute positively to the world in some way — creates a far healthier state of mind.
It also forms the basis of Karma Yoga.
That doesn’t mean that you have to try to live up to some saintly ideal and deny your basic needs and desires. It means that you live from a sense of gratitude, openness and expansiveness rather than lack, greed and complacency.
It’s true that life doesn’t always give you all you might want or hope for. It can’t. It’s not set up that way.
Some spend their lives wallowing in self-pity and lamenting all that ‘could’ and ‘should have’ been. That’s no way to live. It’s a disempowering attitude. It results from superimposing our personal likes and dislikes onto life.
Again, life doesn’t factor our likes and dislikes into the equation. It has to consider the totality, not the petty whims of little human egos.
It’s important to shift your attitude to one of wonder and gratitude for all the incredible things life has given you. This includes the everyday miracles you maybe take for granted, such as your ability to see, hear, touch, taste and smell; to look up at the stars at night; to feel the sun on your skin; to live, love and dream.
Life has given you everything. It owes you nothing. If anything, you owe it!
Offer Your Actions To Life
Having acknowledged the debt you owe the world for your very existence, the second step of Karma Yoga flows naturally from this.
You now offer all your actions to life; to the universe, God or whatever conception you have of the higher power that governs and maintains the world.
A lot of people have difficulty with the term “God” due to centuries of misuse at the hands of religion.
Vedanta uses the term Ishvara to refer to the totality of the field of existence.
Ishvara is the intelligent, impersonal force that creates and sustains the universe according to natural laws. It’s both the efficient and material cause of the universe; the intelligence that shapes it and the very material and substance of creation.
Everything is thus Ishvara. There’s nothing it is not. Everything is done by and belongs to the field of existence and the intelligence that shapes it.
It’s unnecessary to adopt any such terms. All that’s required is an understanding that the universe is governed by a chain of inviolable laws. You have no say over these laws and you can’t control them any more than you can control gravity.
Take some time to acknowledge the greater intelligence of life. It has given you everything — all of which is simply on loan. Recognising this debt, you may realise it’s your obligation to pay your rent to life in some way.
You can do this through your daily actions.
Whenever you are acting, whether it’s some grand and ambitious undertaking or simply cleaning your teeth, you can offer it as a gift back to the creative intelligence of the universe; the force that gave you your body and which grows your hair and fingernails.
Whatever your action, offer it back to the universe. Dedicate it as a gift. You’ll find you no longer do things simply for your own sake, or out of desire and avarice, but as a way of repaying the debt you owe life.
In this way, every action becomes sacred. It becomes an offering to something greater than yourself.
You’ll also notice you only want to offer actions that are noble and worthy and not actions that are harmful to yourself and others. This will lead to making better and more conscious choices in daily life.
You may find you veer away from harmful, self-abasing actions. You might quit smoking or stop eating as much junk food. Because how is filling your body with toxins any fit way of giving thanks for its creation?
Let Go of the Results
The Bhagavad Gita states, “You can choose which actions you perform but you have no control over the results.”
Having offered your actions back to life, you then recognise that the results are no longer in your hands.
They never were. Every action contains within it the seeds of its own results. The results are determined not only the nature of the seeds but the field in which they’re planted. Countless factors determine the results of actions, most of which you have no control over.
Releasing your actions into the world is like shooting an arrow. You’ve given it your best shot, but whether it hits its target depends on factors outside your direct control. The moment it’s released it’s under the control of the laws governing the field of existence — in this case, the laws of gravity, propulsion, time, space and the nature of the target.
This lack of control creates a great deal of our anxiety.
Karma Yoga is the perfect means for neutralising that anxiety.
You can practise Karma yoga by imagining handing your actions over to Ishvara, God, Fate, the Universe or some entity or benevolent helper. Use whatever representation of this universal creative intelligence appeals to you.
As you dedicate your action to it, imagine lifting the entire weight of responsibility over to this higher intelligence.
The burden is no longer yours to bear.
Why worry about the results of your action when the results are not yours to take care of? It’s no longer your responsibility. Having done your best, you now transfer responsibility to the universe, where it belongs.
You might say something like, “I offer this to you, universe. Please take care of the results.”
You’ve done your part and the pressure is now off.
The Danger of Expectations
Knowing that the results of actions are never under your control, you can let go of all expectations.
That doesn’t mean you don’t want certain outcomes. It means you no longer waste time and energy agonising over something over which you have no control.
Vedanta teacher Swami Paramarthananda poses an interesting question:
“Any single action can only be an infinitesimal part of the immense fabric of life, so what reasonable expectation can we have of a particular result? None. Given the complex nature of the field in which actions take place, most of our expectations will be disappointed.”
That’s why clinging to a rigid set of expectations, desires and ambitions opens you to all kinds of frustration, disappointment and bitterness.
It pays to remember that at any given time, you can only ever see a very small part of the overall picture. You may fixate on a certain result, believing it to be the most beneficial thing that can happen, only to find it wasn’t the best thing for you at all. The object of your desires can often turn out to be more of a curse. Conversely, that which you seek to avoid may, in fact, be the highest of blessings.
As Douglas Adams said, “I seldom ended up where I wanted to go but almost always ended up where I needed to be.”
Life is very much like that.
We often don’t know what’s best for us. We can’t see all the variables and have no way of knowing how things will pan out. Our intelligence is nothing compared to the vast intelligence of the universe. This realisation alone should bring the utmost humility!
Taking What Comes As a Gift
The final part of Karma yoga is to accept whatever results come your way as what’s called in Sanskrit prasad — meaning a divine gift.
Whether you get what you want or not, what life brings is the result of laws of cause and effect. You cannot circumvent these laws. That’s why you must learn to take the results with grace and equanimity.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. A mature mind accepts this as part and parcel of life.
Events do not happen in isolation. Everything is connected to everything else. It’s all part of a vast chain of cause and effect stretching all the way back to the origin of the universe. You may not get what you wanted. But recognising that nothing happens arbitrarily, but according to the laws by which the universe functions, puts things into perspective.
There isn’t an atom out of place in the universe. How could there be?
For this moment to exist as it is, everything that’s ever happened in the entire history of the universe had to happen as it did.
This knowledge enables you to accept the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in life by recognising that your definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are meaningless. You may think we know what’s best for you, but very often you don’t. Life knows better and it’ll trump you every single time.
Karma Yoga encourages you to see the positive and to recognise the zero-sum nature of phenomenal existence. Pleasure is impossible without pain, as is gain without loss and success without failure. There’s no escaping the dichotomy of life.
You do, however, have all the tools and resources you need to deal with whatever life brings.
By recognising the nature of action and its results, you are free from the suffering and anxiety caused by rigid desires and expectations.
This may be a hard sell to many. It’s something that goes against the grain of our selfish, desire-oriented Western culture. But the thing is, the more desires and wants you have, and the more self-centred your behaviour, the more stress and anxiety you’ll experience.
Karma Yoga fosters a mature outlook on life. It helps you outgrow the childish tendency to superimpose what you think life should be on what is.
The result is freedom; freedom from grasping, freedom from expectations and freedom from the crippling weight of attachment to your own desires and wants.
Karma Yoga Summary
Karma Yoga begins with an acknowledgement of the debt you owe the world for your very existence.
Instead of trying to milk all you can out of life, you live with an attitude of gratitude and a desire to contribute something back to life.
Everything you have and everything you believe we ‘own’ is actually on loan from life. This includes your body and even your thoughts.
By living with the Karma Yoga mindset, you are paying back your ‘rent’ to life.
With Karma Yoga, you train your mind to offer all actions (even the most seemingly mundane and insignificant) back to whatever conception you have of a higher power. You simply dedicate your actions to this creative intelligence behind the field of existence.
You recognise that the results of those actions are no longer in your hands. Life will dispense the appropriate results.
As the results are no longer your responsibility, you no longer need to worry about them.
The intelligence of life operates according to unbreakable laws of cause and effect. It also knows far better than you do. This knowledge enables you to take what comes your way with equanimity and evenness of mind.
By practising Karma Yoga, you develop a dispassionate, peaceful mind and a mature outlook on life. You no longer behave like a spoilt child, always making demands of life and throwing tantrums when things don’t go your way.
Incidentally, Karma Yoga should not be used as justification for not taking action where action is needed, or accepting situations that clearly need changing, such as circumstances of abuse.
The Bhagavad Gita is clear that we all have duties to perform and we should always follow dharma and do what we know is right. We cannot be happy in life otherwise.
Karma Yoga is a practical mindset for dealing with action and the results of action. It may take a little time to rewire your brain to approach life in this way. But it’s more than worth the effort. It removes great stress and anxiety and can be done anytime, anywhere, in any situation.
The following is a summary of Karma Yoga from Chapter Two of the Bhagavad Gita:
“Hear now the essence of Karma Yoga. You have the choice to act, but no choice over the results of that action. The results of action are never under your control. Desire for the fruits of your labour should never be your motivating factor. Neither should you give in to inaction.
Remain steadfast in this spirit of Karma Yoga. Perform every action without attachment to the outcome, and accept what comes with grace, whether it be success or failure. Thus you will find inner peace in the midst of action. This evenness of mind is the essence of Yoga.
One gains success by performing one’s duty with the Karma Yoga attitude. Action prompted by desire and anxiety over results will always cause misery. Therefore, seek refuge in this knowledge. Surrender to the Self, and let every action be a form of joyful worship, relinquishing all concern over the outcome. Doing thus, you will free yourself from the bondage of virtue and vice and your mind will easily attain liberation.
Living with the Karma Yoga attitude creates a tranquil heart and dispels the delusions of the mind. One becomes dispassionate toward the things of this world, all of which come and go of their own accord. No longer fixated on the various objects of the senses, the mind becomes serene and steady, and it comes to rest in contemplation of one’s own Self. Becoming established in Self-knowledge is the gateway to liberation.”
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