Reflections on the teachings of karma yoga from the Bhagavad Gita

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A translation of verses II: 47-50 of the Bhagavad Gita, describing the path of karma yoga (the yoga of working in the present moment with awareness), is as follows:
•    II:47 do whatever you need to do in daily life, but minimise attachment to the results. Let go and trust in Life.
•    II:48 endeavour, again and again, to keep the mind relaxed and spacious whilst acting, remembering the teaching – yoga is equanimity in action.
•    II: 50 ‘yoga is skill in action’  - patiently doing your best to bring an efficiency, quality and presence to the way you act in daily life

Based on these three verses, following are personal reflections on the application of these teachings to daily life, by one of the students on the ashram's current yoga teacher training course:

My determination to change career has been very affected by this month’s focus on karma yoga. Over the past few months, my wish (and need) to become more aligned with my dharma has become increasingly urgent. Encouraged by the Bhagavad Gita, I have consciously sought to dismiss negative thoughts about my situation, and instead ask myself daily, ‘How can I do my duty to the best of my ability in my present situation, despite the discontent and dissatisfaction with the work I do?’ I have come to realize that the mental energy involved in negative thinking is exhausting, and has actually left me unable to take the action needed for change. I wanted to see what could happen if I allowed myself to focus with a singleness of purpose to each task required of me, (and which I would have to do anyway in the role of employee,) rather than fighting with my mind. I experienced a certain sense of release to my suffering in surrendering to action ('escaping into life') (1). Allowing myself to be absorbed fully in a task, even one to which I felt an initial resistance, become an enjoyable and motivating ‘project’ in itself! In moments where I managed to maintain awareness, my mind did become stiller, more spacious, more sattvic in quality (2).  There was a sense of lightness, of ‘going with the flow’, and importantly the quality of my actions felt improved. By focusing fully on one thing at a time, it’s as if energy is channeled more effectively. Even dedicating myself to the thinking process, when it had its designated time, was more fruitful. And so I am hopeful that with continued practice of “focused attention... [I can] just be there for whatever turns up” (3),  to receive answers to the guidance I seek on finding my dharma. However, keeping that wandering mind tethered, remaining focused and aware in action, is no easy task, I realize, despite seeming such a simple gesture.

Of course, a job isn’t ‘selfless’ action, in the sense that personal financial gain does underpin my motives to work. So at home, I dedicated myself wholeheartedly to my weekly task of cleaning the kitchen floor in my shared house. With two dogs and cats, it can feel a futile act. I noticed how I had previously been keen for my effort to be acknowledged by my housemates and even praised. Over the past few weeks, I made the effort to carry out the task when no one else was around, being sure to return everything to its place, without leaving evidence of my work - to act in the spirit of selfless service. I didn’t want the personal gain of being appreciated to be my motivation for doing it in the first place. Seeking to remain present as I worked, I came to value the actual process of ‘washing the floor’, rather than being motivated by the end result (4).  Reflecting on my life, I felt a little disheartened, realizing how little I ‘give’ in life, so I began actively seeking out opportunities to serve others around me in whatever way I could. I realized there is ample opportunity to do more; then the more I did, the more I wanted to do, and the closer to life I felt.

I realize that the attempt to draw the teachings of karma yoga into my daily life has had a significant impact in making challenging life circumstances much more bearable, and even exciting, providing material to work with on the journey of my spiritual evolution. My desire for personal growth is not intended as an ego-centered desire for personal gain, but it’s the way I feel that I can contribute in making the world a better place. (And I suppose we have to start somewhere – with the human desires that define the current human condition!) In short, I find the teachings empowering, as they offer very practical guidance on living more skilfully and, importantly for me, more peacefully. I feel more efficient, decisive and productive, while also more able to relax into the spaciousness created around work. I feel more detached from the drama of life and consequently more able to make better decisions.

References:

(1) Yoga Darshan, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati (Yoga Publications Trust, 1993 [2005], p.78.
(2) Ibid, p.77. “If there is struggle in our mind, our thoughts or our beliefs, then we are living under the influence of rajas.”
(3) The Spirit of Yoga, Cat de Rham and Michele Gill (Thorsons, 2001), p.157.
(4) In a talk at Resurgence Readers Camp, July 2009, Satish Kumar spoke about the difference between ‘cleaning’, to which an end result is alluded, and ‘washing’, which refers to the process itself.