“Life is a gift granted to us and we deserve it when we share ourselves.” –Rabindranath Tagore
Karma means “action,” which we all perform, consciously or unconsciously. When we add Yoga to the word, it means an action performed with meditative awareness. So Karma Yoga is actually the yoga of dynamic meditation.
The Special Position of Karma Yoga
Karma Yoga has a special position and significance among all fundamental kinds of yoga. The Yoga of Action is a path that somehow links all the other forms of yoga. It creates an essential connection between formal practice and daily life. It is a way of bringing awareness, sacredness, and spiritual significance into any moment of our life. All other kinds of yoga rely on Karma Yoga, because action is not something that can be avoided in the material world.
Of course, when we meditate, we can be in a state of peace, of equanimity. But, what is a spiritual attitude when we eat? Or when we walk? Or work? As spiritual practitioners, “right action” is an action that is not only morally correct, but also conducive to spiritual transformation. Otherwise, action is karmically binding—that is, it reinforces spiritual blindness (avidya, ignorance) and, thus, leads to suffering.
Therefore, Karma Yoga is, at least from this perspective, the most complete of all branches of yoga. It incorporates the mindful attentiveness of Raja Yoga, the discriminative capacity of Jnana Yoga, and the heartfelt devotion of Bhakti Yoga. Our entire being, with all its levels and structures, is engaged in this practice in all circumstances of life. Another virtue of Karma Yoga is that it serves to refine and validate our progress in all the other branches of Yoga. Thus, life itself becomes Karma Yoga.
Karma Yoga—Selfless Action in Awareness and Love
We can look at Karma Yoga from two perspectives:
- As a formal practice in which we selflessly act for the benefit of others (for example, in a community). Sometimes this form of service is called seva.
- As an attitude which spontaneously brings awareness, detachment, and sacredness in all the moments of our life.
1. Social Duty—Seva
According to the Bhagavad Gita, the first step is to approach Karma Yoga as the yoga of social duty. In this way, Karma Yoga is a practice that gradually brings maturity in understanding surrender, detachment, and awareness.
Formal Karma Yoga practice (seva) is the first step on this path. It is done when we decide, for example, to help and serve others without the idea of getting something in return. Thus, we may start to practice Karma Yoga for a few hours, or for a longer period of our time, in a hospital or a community, etc.
2. Acting with Awareness, Detachment, and Love
The second aspect reveals even more profound dimensions to Karma Yoga.
- First, it helps us understand that if we are practicing any kind of yoga, our daily life should be also in tune with it.
- Further, Karma Yoga provides wisdom and the inspiration on how to act from this new spiritual perspective. Therefore, Karma Yoga simply means acting with awareness, detachment, and love.
Detachment from the Doer and the “Fruits” of Action
All actions, whether physical, oral, or mental, have far-reaching consequences, and we should assume full responsibility for them. Acting with this awareness, we become Karma Yoga practitioners.
If an action cannot be avoided at the physical level, at the psychic level, it can be done with a kind of neutrality, detachment, and dis-identification from:
- The doer (the limited individual consciousness, the ego), and
- The fruits of the action.
In this way, the action itself starts having different dimensions. The act in itself becomes a modality to remember what we are. Therefore, it is a ritualization of the activity in which every gesture is charged by sense, significance.
Karma Yoga’s most important principle is to act unselfishly, without attachment, and with integrity, awareness and love. Karma Yoga combines the qualities of efficiency, renunciation, equanimity, egolessness, and duty in one action.
Attachment and Non-Attachment
When we are successful in attaining whatever it is we want, we usually experience a rush of satisfaction and happiness. The problem is that it doesn’t last very long. Things change, situations change, we change.
Karma Yoga is the science of learning non-attachment through practice. It is learning to perform all acts without selfish motives or expectations. In its highest form, non-attachment is the same as unconditional Love, Stillness, and Pure Joy.
The Doer—The Biggest Obstacle
The doer is that part of the ego that takes credit for accomplishments and blames others for (or laments) failures. The doer brings the feeling that we are the agent of action. It is the sense that we are in total control, that we are making it all happen—envisioning, planning, and executing the different aspects of our lives.
The feeling of doership is based on the misperception that we are the body and mind. When, in fact, we are not the body and mind, but the owner of both. That part of us that never changes but is constantly aware of all changes, that Awareness itself is who we are.
Karma Yoga teaches us that the sense that “I act” is a sort of illusion, and so are the consequences of “my” actions. But, as long as this illusion persists we are bound by karma. Upon enlightenment, actions are experienced as simply arising spontaneously, without an ego identity.
The Joy of Offering
Karma Yoga means performing an action with meditative awareness, from moment to moment. Not only is an action performed consciously, but our attitude toward an action is also transformed. Usually, acts are motivated by a desire for self-satisfaction or gain. Thus, the ego is reinforced. While in “normal” life the motivation is “take, take advantage, profit,” the motto of Karma Yoga is “give, offer, surrender.”
Therefore, to put awareness into a task is to put our mind and soul into the work, our being into the work, without selfish involvement—to find ourselves free in the work.
Ordinarily, what happens is that although we put our attention into a work or an action, we are not fully interested in that action. Typically, there are very few actions, if any, in which we are wholly present. We have only a small percentage of awareness because our attention is conditioned by many other factors and the mind is agitated.
We don’t typically have unconditioned awareness while acting. When we have an unconditioned awareness of something, our whole mind and psyche are present. This is the meaning of Karma Yoga. This is ultimately the secret of any spiritual practice—it is the essence of yoga and the meaning of meditation.
In ordinary undertakings, our complete attention, mind, and soul are not present, for different reasons. The extent to which unconditional Pure Awareness—the Heart—is present in an action is the extent to which that action becomes Karma Yoga and does not bind us or create other samsaric limitations.
Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga Support Each Other
In this way, we realize how Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga (the yoga of direct knowledge) support each other. Without Self-Enquiry meditation, there cannot be any real success in any field of life. Real success in an action ultimately means performing it harmoniously and efficiently without being bound by it. Therefore, we put our mind and soul into a task or action because where they are, consciousness is. And, it is only when there is no personal interest to interfere that we can be fully present.
In the Zen tradition of archery, the limited egotistical condition is expressed in a very suggestive way: When there is no award expected, the archer acts with calmness and lucidity; when the award is gold, the archer’s mind and body shake.
The Sacredness of Action
The spontaneous inner understanding that “I am not the doer” arises when we are free of egoic expectations. What comes is a kind of intuition, a mystery, in which the sacredness of our being is affirmed. It is an intuition of Stillness—that Stillness which is not touched by our willingness to be good, competitive, afraid of outcomes, etc.
This understanding of the sacredness of our being also means that the responsibility for our actions and their consequences is increased. In the awareness-intuition of who we really are, the world and our actions are not denied or rejected as “illusory.” On the contrary, there is a higher sense of response-ability, a more harmonious way of dealing with the circumstances of life, being fully present.
For example, if we are responsible for keeping the yoga hall clean and one hour after we clean it it becomes messy again, we simply begin anew. At the same time, we are not just lost in our activity—we see it from a higher perspective, finding creative ways to inspire people not to make the hall dirty so quickly. We are not just caught blindly in a job.
Karma Yoga—An Act of Jnana
In performing any action, we externalize our inner being. Therefore, our actions are a reflection of ourselves. At the same time, there is a “feedback loop” between our actions and our being. Every action acts upon ourselves and molds the entire structure of the person we tend to be.
In order to generate a profound inner transformation, we can practice sitting meditation, walking meditation, and working meditation as well. Our entire life can become a meditation… A very important factor is the awareness of where our mind is, and then maintaining the awareness of Awareness itself.
Naturalness and Flow
But “being in the flow” doesn’t mean laziness or not keeping our inner and outer commitments.
From an external perspective, real Karma Yoga might be seen as acting continuously with great exertion. In reality, because we become more and more open to the Spiritual Heart, to what we are, we can work for many hours without feeling tired or exhausted or psychically depleted. There is a constant feeling of joy, enthusiasm, and passion in our heart and mind. What seems exhausting or impossible for others becomes easy for us. In this way, Karma Yoga teaches us a new attitude to work and life in general, and we become convinced that nothing is impossible for us. Additionally, our sense of ourselves becomes less selfish, more open.
If we are in tune with the Heart, we are in tune with the universal energy that is passing through our structures and energetically, psychically, and mentally sustaining the action that we are engaged in.
Joy in Acting
Thus, we will discover something astounding: there is a joy in acting (serving). Not just from acting (serving), but in it. When we are able to let go of the anxieties, fears, expectations, and cravings that attend most acts, our minds are free and our heart is open. We discover a way of acting naturally out of enthusiasm and generosity.
We Cannot Be Tired of What We Really Are
When we are totally present in what we do, it is not that we become the work, but the work becomes us. It is not the same as when we are absorbed completely in an action and forget about ourselves—as happens, for example, when someone is passionately involved in a computer game. Instead, the work becomes one with us, it is not separate from the Awareness that we are. This is the essence of Karma Yoga.
As a consequence of this, we will not be tired of the work, because we cannot be tired of what we really are, the Heart.
Any action, task, or function that is bereft of the soul-element easily becomes tiring and annoying because we act using our personal energetic resources. On the other hand, any action or function in which the Heart is present cannot be tiring, because it is connected to the universal source of power, Shakti. Any natural thing is not tiring. For example, we are not tired of or annoyed by breathing.
In Karma Yoga, actions themselves are not considered the most important aspect. Rather, the focus in on the inner attitude, the harmony of mind with which the act is performed. The awareness of the action is what is emphasized. The quality of the work itself is simply the consequence of this inner attitude. It is this change of attitude that eventually creates change within ourselves and in the world.
The Story of the Three Brick Masons
It is not just what we do that matters, but how we do it. There is a story about three brick masons. When the first man was asked what he was doing, he answered, “I’m building a wall.” The second man replied, “I work in order to earn money for my family.” But, the third man enthusiastically said, “I’m building a cathedral!”
Purity of intention
Karma Yoga is a way of acting and thinking based on pure intentions. We orient ourselves towards realization by first acting in accordance with our sense of harmony and duty (dharma).
Karma Yoga is not just an offering of the fruits of any action, but a self-offering, or the surrender of the ego. Thus, Karma Yoga involves considerably more than just doing our duty. It goes beyond conventional morality and animates a profound spiritual attitude.
Meister Eckhart said, “It is not by your actions that you will be saved, but by your being. It is not by what you do, but by what you are that you will be judged.”
We should meditate deeply on this wise comment by Saint Paul (Corinthians 13:3): “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it brings me nothing.”
Actions done with a lack of awareness and love do not count; it is our awareness, our being that counts.
Devotion in Karma Yoga
Practicing Karma Yoga with a devotional attitude turns our whole life into one unending ritual. It is indeed a ritual, since every action is performed as an offering of devotion to the Divine, not in the hope of personal gain or advantage.
Love for, and devotion to, God sheds another light on this approach. Acts are performed selflessly for the benefit of all human beings or in the name of God. Also, the fruits of the actions are consecrated to God. This perspective is also emphasized by Krishna (the Divine) in the Bhagavad Gita:
“The devotees nearest to Me are those who renounce attachment to the fruits of their actions and instead offer them all to me; who desire Me above everything else; and who, through yogic practices, meditate on Me with a one-pointed mind.” (12:6)
If we start acting in the world with this radiating enthusiasm, out of love, without the need for compensation and recognition, that Stillness is honored. Ultimately, we are not referring to Krishna, the Christian God, Shiva, or Allah. We are offering the act to that Pure Consciousness that we are. We recognize the same beauty and light in the poor and in animals. Thus, the act becomes the joy of helping, supporting, offering.
Action Based on Love
Such offering is not done in a calculating way—to accumulate good karma or to compensate for negative karma. The real spirit of Karma Yoga is when an action is full of love.
When an action is based on love, love naturally fosters joy and selflessness. We lose ourselves in loving service. And, in losing ourselves (the little self), we reveal the Supreme Self.
Effort and Love
Karma Yoga involves effort and love. Acting involves effort. But, when it is merely a personal action coming from the ego, it can become a struggle. Effort without love is just dry asceticism.
There are two kinds of effort:
- Effort that brings contraction and is ego-affirming.
- Effort done in surrender, with acceptance and love.
Together, effort and love bring the flow and naturalness of being.
Unfortunately, activism, even when motivated by good intentions, is usually focused on changing the world and puts very little emphasis on waking up from ignorance or infusing actions with awareness. Thus, because the ego is still involved, sooner or later saturation, exhaustion, or the need for a break will arise. When we are aware, we simply know what to do or what not to do.
When speaking about Karma Yoga, we don’t speak about the actions we should do, but the proper attitude—the attitude of surrender. Transparency is the very spirit of Karma Yoga.
There is a kind of elegance in the attitude of a realized being—free from self-expectations, self-image. This is the real attitude of Karma Yoga, being free from self-image. We bring intuition and surrender to every action, every gesture. Surrender doesn’t mean passivity; it means letting consciousness manifest freely. Karma Yoga always involves awareness, consciousness.
Karma Yoga is the art of acting while remaining in the pure “I am.” We don’t get involved in the action itself, detaching from ideas like “I am sad” or “I am happy.”
Na Ham Karta—“I Am Not the Doer”
In Sanskrit, the affirmation na ham karta means “I am not the doer.” Hari karta means “the Supreme Consciousness is the performer.” I, as an individual, do not exist; I have merged myself into the Divine Consciousness.
Wei Wu Wei—Acting without Acting
“Act without doing; work without effort.” –Lao Tzu
In Taoism, the spirit of Karma Yoga is called wei wu wei, “acting without acting” (literally, “action that is non-action”). Wei wu wei is also translated, in a seemingly oxymoronic way, as “effortless doing,” and corresponds with sahaja, “naturalness,” from the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. It expresses the state of perfect union with the Supreme Reality.
Natural action is impersonal—as trees grow, they “do,” but without “doing.” When we are acting in the spirit of wei wu wei, we are not really involved in the action because the ego is not present. Even though we physically perform the action, somehow we are just a witness to it because we are not psychically involved in it. There is no personal intention there.
As in the Taoist tradition, we can say: the flower spreads its scent without saying “I am doing this”; the sun radiates light without saying “I am doing this.” In fact, the sun is the perfect example of the Karma Yoga attitude. It never says, “Venerate me because only then I’ll give you light.”
“The Sun never says to the Earth, ‘you owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights up the whole sky.”
Perfection in Action
“The one who has trained the mind to stay centered in equanimity in life has cast aside both good and evil karma. Therefore, by all means, practice Yoga; [Karma] Yoga is perfection in action.” –Bhagavad Gita (2:50)
The Attributes of a Karma Yogi
- Absence of expectations: renouncing the results of action
- Naturalness: expressing simplicity in actions and thought, sincerity in our commitment, goals, and direction
- Non-attachment; Egolessness
- Equanimity: maintaining balance of mind and openness of the heart in success and failure
- Response-ability: the non-reactive way of acting
- Efficiency: being completely present, having a lucid and focused mind, not distracted (based mostly on naturalness, awareness, and love)
- It is not enough to just do something to promote our health and peace every day, because this can still reinforce the ego and the identification with the body and mind.
- We should do something for the welfare of others every day. Never let a day go by without serving others. It could be a humble act: donating to charity, calling on a sick friend, or praying for the welfare of those who are suffering. Dramatic actions, or quiet, hidden ones—it doesn’t matter, as long as it is done mindfully and without any personal expectations attached.
- We should never miss an opportunity to serve. We should meditate on the ways we can serve other people and the environment.
- Practiced in the correct way, Karma Yoga is sufficient to create the proper conditions for the Supreme Self-revelation.
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