Karma yoga

……  and the pitfalls and joys of trying for selfless service.

A continuation of a previous post in a way. I have recently discovered that there are so many blogs on WordPress talking about yoga. Maybe because yoga is like a huge sweetie shop! Not only are there different general forms of yoga such as jnana yoga for those who question deeply, kriya yoga for those who like ‘things to do’ (like me), bhakti yoga for the devotionals… etc., but within the world of ‘meditation’ there are so many approaches and techniques.

(The one everyone calls yoga is ‘hatha’ yoga, physical postures. Usually pranayama, breath-based prana practices, is not included. I personally think it’s very ambitious to sit down to do meditation with focus and ease of body, without first doing some hatha and pranayama. It’s part of a process).

When it comes to the meditation part, often it’s a question of terminology. Because meditation happens when thinking stops and the mind becomes totally focussed, one-pointed, in the definition of the Patanjali eightfold path. So meditation is meditation. Usually people mean what Patanjali calls Pratyahara, sense withdrawal. Here the sweet shop is vast, so many beautiful practices to slow the mind, occupy the mind, bring one to ease and comfort in life, ready for meditation. They are a joy in themselves, especially if one relinquishes the ‘goal’ of meditation, or moksha, or whatever spiritual ambition one has. One of my favourites, ajapa japa (see song of the breath), antar mouna, one I love to really get the focus down ready for concentration is anuloma viloma… and so on and so on. And the myriad techniques of kriya yoga. Beautiful, we’re spoiled for choice.

But I have so much benefitted from teachers. This is a story of a teacher’s advice taking me outside and beyond my relentless quest for wisdom!

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Ever since I was at University, I’ve looked for people who tread the yoga path. Visted people of reputation, met people without wisdom, met others who have wisdom. How does one know? Because you know, you feel it. Your heart resonates because they’re in touch with the same stuff that you’re trying to get in touch with.

And although it’s great to bask in the presence of a great soul in silence, I’ve also asked questions. Words are important in finding a direction, a path to travel. I may believe that there are many paths to wisdom, but I still have to choose one and start walking!

I become aware that the relentless pursuit of realisation is in itself a block to achieving that goal. How does the ego agree to it’s demotion from top dog? It’s a trick. My ego wants realisation as another achievement. What a catch 22, because my ego is the only aspect of me that can formulate goals, do things, set about a course of action.

(Obviously adding a layer of ‘spiritual ego’ on that is just going backwards, but I’ve blown it so many times that no-one would believe me if I put on one of those holier-than-thou voices and started talking spiritual blah blah, so the least of my concerns!)

But all is not lost. I have to ‘put in the hours’. Have to practice, and that’s what my ego is about, helping me do that stuff.

But then I see there’s something like ‘grace’. By ‘showing willing’, by wanting surrender in some part of yourself (I guess the part way back that is yearning for it’s true home beyond the false security of the ego), that which I cannot attain starts to approach me. I have to make myself available, that’s all. I guess this is the meaning of surrender. How beautiful, actually. To put it another way, Reality wants only to fill my glass, but first that glass must be empty. A well worn spiritual cliché but only because it’s so profound. For me it’s not always a smooth ride (!!) but then neither is my life when surrender is not my direction.

Some time ago I met someone who deeply lives yoga;  I found his presence transformative.  So I had to ask questions! Why am I stuck? Where am I stuck? What should I do?

He didn’t give me advice as such. He told me a story; of his teacher asking his teacher a similar question. The reply was to forget his spiritual progress, and go out and serve his fellow human beings. I told Swamiji I had been feeling that imperative strongly and so I had booked a trip to one of the poorest places on Earth, in Africa, to spend time seeing what could unfold by making whatever skills I have available to people who have nothing. And I mean nothing.

And that trip turned out to be more beautiful and transformative than I could have imagined. Largely I think I forgot about myself. Started just doing stuff that needed doing, but more importantly, connected with people from a very very different culture to mine, and found tham to be compassionate, loving fellow humans. I ended up learning from them. Many of them became my friends and still are, and when the layers of complexity of affluent society are absent, it’s much easier to share love in a simple and beautiful way.

So Karma yoga is described far better than I can, in the Bhagavad Gita, but basically to surrender the fruits of one’s action is liberating. It’s also a trap if I think merely by not being paid, I’m doing selfless action. The ego can thrive on that feeling of ‘I’m doing good in the world’ (Welcome to the ‘white knight syndrome’ in the world of ‘voluntourism’).  Fortunately most of the time, action is just…. get on with it! And if one’s motivation is pure, then surely that is another way of ‘making oneself available’ as talked of earlier.

And Transformative. As Swamiji suspected it would be for me. It’s so much easier most of the time to do meditation, without thought for the fruits of my action. And because such fruits are a block to going beyond the smaller self, how could this be anything but good?

I continue to feel that imperative. The more I realize that which lies in my heart, the more I see it is a common thread within ALL life. Not a belief but a growing realisation. Therefore pay homage to that oneness not as some spiritual duty, but as a delight.

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4 thoughts on “Karma yoga

  1. Tony sir, yesterday when you started following my blog I visited your page and browsed through some of your blogs quickly without reading them. among them I got the blog on “KARMA-YOGA” as I was in a hurry yesterday, I didn’t read that. and today I just opened your page again and got through that blog. While I was glad and “proud” to have the concept of ‘YOGA-SAADHANA’ being so enriching for a person who is not from the land where this concept was laid (or originated). But latter two things happened while reading – first when you mentioned that ‘egos setting out goals’ then thinking for just a few seconds the feeling of ‘being proud’ gone which I written at the starting of my comment as I learnt after reading ‘BHAGWAD-GEETA’ and recalling its learnings.
    Second, when I got the mention of ‘BHAGWAD GEETA’ in your blog yourself I found that how so simple this could be that “NARAYAN’ himself says that of the two ‘SAANKHYA-YOGA’ and ‘KARMA-YOGA’ the person which follows ‘KARMA-YOGA’ is dearer to me compared to the former one.
    God “NARAYANA” himself says that “what we do is not done by us but by him, still I am not affected by the ‘deed’ or the result of that action -the ‘KARMA’.
    Then he continues and say that , “even though the “KARMA” doesn’t bound me, still if I don’t indulge in the same then the humans who are always following him would also get diverted from ‘KARMA’ and with out it the “WORLD” -the “LAUKIK SAMSAARA” or the visible world would not be living.
    I am sorry that I am unable to put the exact words in either languages. But I find this really enriching my soul that at least some one is there who sees this world with a vision of the supreme God and is a helping hand to the ones who need him.
    One mention also affected me deeply relating to the filling of the glass. Very well said that to be filled with water a glass should be emptied first. similar is the life of a human.
    I can only say that I am lacking words to describe how am I feeling while reading to this blog.

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    1. Vikas, thanks for your learned and erudite comment. Please just call me Tony!! 🙂 We are all brothers and sisters both on the yoga path, and on WordPress! It may make sense if I tell you my teachers have all been from the Paramahansa Satyananda Saraswati lineage (who himself was a student of the incomparable Sivananda of Rishikesh). Now further to this I recently study Kashmir Shaivism. Tattwa Shuddhi tells us that although The Shiva Tattwa (in the sense of Shiva as underlying consciousness and Shakti the manifestation of primal Consciousness as all things manifest, not in the sense of ‘Shiva the destroyer’) infuses the consciousness principle directly to the individual. But as the illusion of Maya plays out, we have our separate egos. How else could we function as individuals, and so the role of ego in that sense is to carry out practices leading to realisation that ego is a transparent filter through which the light of universal consciousness shines. Ultimately words and intellectual understanding are worthless without the intuitive wisdom that meditation brings. And for me, even more important is the teacher, because ultimately it’s only Grace that allows us to experience, and Grace, manifesting through the teacher, brings us to understanding of what to do in order to experience meditation. Karma yoga, I think, is bypassing everything by surrendering oneself to whatever Grace chooses to bestow!! Beautiful. And yes, I love those passages from the Gita, I read them when I was about 14 and they changed the course of my life.
      I thank you from my heart for your wise comments, well met Vikas. I don’t want to sound like I have some knowledge, I am a student and everything I have is from my teachers!!

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  2. what a beautiful thinking Tony.
    And what a nice experience to learn Shiva tatva and Shakti and Maya from you.
    Tony I must admit that bound by my “EGO’ I am on my path of achieving some thing in my life and till I am on this path I must have to give equal importance to “karma”.
    But equally the hunger in me often makes me restless with the thought of guilt when I see people in poor condition.
    So on seeing such things around me I often pray to God to be kind and generous enough on me to help me find what I am looking for so that I may start working for others too.
    Swami Vivekananda once said that till you have unfulfilled needs or desires (specially the ones being a basic necessity of human) you can not indulge in a selfless service.
    Having met with you is a pleasing experience Tony. 🙂

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  3. Then if one can’t indulge in selfless service, at least one can do service. How else can we achieve wisdom without being open to grace, which makes all things possible, even selfless service? The first page of my site Ulingana says for an individual it’s easy to help those worse off than ourselves. We just take one step, then another, then another…. And I do my best. As I try to do service I think…’ In the heart of every human being is the same life that is in my heart’. I ask that life in it’s purest form either as the goddess, or as undifferentiated consciousness (which Lord Krishna says is more difficult to worship that!), to accept my service, such as it is. Not to act because one is not wise would take me forever to do anything!!! Dear Vikas, have a great week.

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