We at the 8 Foot Path love Karma Yoga, because we are all about action, and that is what karma yoga is on about as well. It is easy to talk about change and helping other people, but what really makes a difference is action.
Even sitting meditation, for all its benefits, misses something that karma yoga has. Dharma teacher, Tarchin Hearn, in a retreat he gave at Clear Sky Center, spoke on the importance of “active” meditation:
“Meditation in a still place is meditating on the world in a box. It’s good to meditate physically outside the box.”
Karma yoga is a practice that is intended to bring a person’s actions to greater wholesomeness by, the Bhagavad Gita text states, endeavouring to act not on behalf of our own gratification, but the “greater good”.
In Buddhism, this sort of person devoted to helping others is called a “Bodhisattva”. This does not mean that right away you will be a perfectly altruistic and selfless person. That isn’t even really the aspiration here, but more of a byproduct of seeing suffering in the world, and using your existence as an opportunity to help alleviate the suffering.
We start with developing a Whole View, because it is difficult to act for the greater good if we don’t know what the “greater good” is, or what is at the core of human suffering.
Certainly working for the greater good is not about becoming an important person, or even being valued by others. Ghandhi, a practitioner of Karma Yoga, said:
What you can do in response to the ocean of suffering may seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it – Mahatma Gandhi
In any given moment, the wholesome choice of action may seem insignificant, but Karma Yoga is not about a big, grand impact. It is a ongoig practice in our everyday lives that starts with the most subtle of action that comes from the wholesome Whole View.
Karma Yoga is not personal (be it for personal gain or personal preferences) you could say, because karma is not personal.
Doug Duncan and Catherine Pawasarat Sensei taught that the practice of karma yoga actually unsubjects a person to their karma, because with the awareness of your habitual patterns, and the laws of cause and effect, you are not subject to mindless reactions. Rather, you are able to act with wisdom because you have space from what is happening and are not taking it personally.
You can see that while karma is not personal, it is also not passive fate. Karma is an active law of action and reaction, and depersonalizing yourself from karma by becoming aware of it and thereby being able to choose better actions.
Again, we start with the mind, because in order to step outside of karma, we need to be aware of it. Swami Prabhupada uses a popular metaphor to describe this:
The body is like a chariot, and the mind is the driver. […] If you can control the driver, he will take you where you should go, but if not, he will ultimately take you wherever he likes. If you have no control over your driver, your driver is your enemy, but if he acts according to your orders, he is your friend. […] Since the mind is above the senses, if we can control the mind, our senses are automatically controlled.
Today Karma Yoga is most commonly practiced as service to a Monastery, Ashram, or Meditation Center. There can be some confusion about Karma Yoga, because it can be seen as volunteerism, and while there are some commonalities with volunteerism, it is also unique as a spiritual development practice:
- In karma yoga, you undergo a discipline training similar to apprenticeship.
- In karma yoga a practitioner can become familiar with what their likes and dislikes or strengths and weaknesses are, be it for an activity or for personalities they work with, and learn to come above these preferences.
- Rather than catering your actions for preferences, you cater your actions for what is wholesome.
- Karma Yoga train us to be in a good mind state doing any activity, wherever, or with whomever.
- You train to notice both more details (concentration) and the bigger picture (mindfulness) as you work.
- Karma yoga involves a practice of surrender and trust, where you stop worrying about who is in control, and whether you are getting your way.
- Karma yoga recognizes that if an unwholesome intention stays the same, then even if you change your situation, you will find yourself in similar circumstances again because you have not changed.
The beautiful thing about karma yoga is that it is empowering. You are learning to be an active and conscious player in life. For many of us it can be like a transition from a helpless, innocent child to a position of a parent who has discernment and helps others.
Karma yoga is not as popular a practice in the west as it is in the east, such as at Ashrams in India where you might find yourself scrubbing floors such as Elizabeth Gilbert did in “Eat, Pray, Love”. However you do not need to travel so far to do karma yoga. Visit the Dharma Centres page on this site under the Appendix & Library menu to view dharma centers in Canada. Many of them have karma yoga programs, or incorporate karma yoga into meditation retreats.
What are three activities you do that you think are pretty selfless? The next time you are performing these activities, watch your thoughts/ feelings. What is your motivation for doing this activity? How do you feel while doing this activity? Do your thoughts/feels affect how you perform these activities in some way?
Choose one activity that you enjoy doing. In future, while you are enjoying this activity, try to watch the people around you and if you see anyone struggling in some way, or even needing a kind smile or word, to pause from your enjoyment to share that.
Choose one or more activities that you dislike, and maybe even avoid. Think of a situation where doing these activities would be beneficial for other people, and when that time comes perform these activities that you dislike. While doing the activities, keep the people in your heart/mind who are/will benefit, especially if you start to dislike the activity. Notice if you start to think about any favour that doing these activities will put you in, or some way that you will benefit.
Spend some time to read “whole view” and meditate on what this means. For one day, hold the consideration for whole view with you, and watch for any ways that your subtle or gross actions are influenced.
Catch actions in your day that are not coming from a place of “whole view” and are not helping others, but maybe having an adverse affect. Think of ways that you can transform these actions to be in alignment with whole view and endeavour to change these actions. The idea here is not perfection. Maybe at first all you will do is start recognizing when an action feels wholesome or unwholesome. Then, eventually you will naturally increase the occurrence of wholesome actions, maybe even by transforming one action a day to start.