Exploring the Branches: Karma Yoga or the Path of Selfless Service

karma-stonesIn our first article, we began our journey into Yoga with a look at the key principles, as well as a brief exploration of how each of the four branches of Yoga are designed to cultivate & support those ideals.  We then continued with a deeper exploration of those branches, starting with the physical branch, Hatha Yoga, and then Jnana Yoga or the cognitive tradition.  In today’s article, we’ll take a closer look at the third branch: Karma Yoga or the “Path of Service.”   

 Recapping the Goals & Principles of Yoga

 Again, to begin with a recap of our principles, you’ll recall the Yogis observed that, underneath the distinct, ever-changing elements of our individual selves, including our bodies, thoughts and feelings, we have a deeper, unchanging Self or “witness.”  The Yogis referred to this as purusha or atman, and pointed out that it is always whole, always peaceful & always present.  The Yogis then went on to observe, by learning to build awareness of that timeless presence while learning to see the transient parts of ourselves for the conditional things they are, we can learn to ride the waves of life while never losing our natural state of ease and joy.   From here, the Yogis went on to observe that each of these goals can be pursued through the four aspects we humans have in common – that is our bodies, our minds, our social self, and our sense of spirit.  This leads in turn to our four branches of Yoga, of which Karma Yoga is the one most directly focused on our “social self.”

 The Path of Service & Its Components 

 To begin our discussion of Karma Yoga, though the name may be unfamiliar, most of us already are well aware of this branch, in part through one of its great proponents, the great Indian saint Mahatma Gandhi.  When we hear the word “karma,” we tend to think of the idea of consequences to our thoughts and actions.  This comes from the literal meaning of the word karma which is “action,” which in turn as we know begets reaction.  In this sense, when Yogis and Buddhists speak of karma, they’re referring to how our actions, both physical and mental, lead to positive or negative consequences or “reactions” in our lives.  When we speak of Karma Yoga as a branch, we’re using the word in its literal sense, that is the path of action or more precisely acting on the behalf of others.  Again, this is a path we’re already familiar with – not only through Gandhi but also such western luminaries as Mother Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi, and many others.  As you may infer, the path Karma Yoga is quite simple in technique, so in today’s article we’ll focus a little more on the philosophy and rationale behind the technique.

 Karma Yoga & Moving Beyond Ego

 Again, starting with our key principles, the Yogis realized one of the great challenges of life is that ego-based behavior tends lead to a downward spiral.  Basically, when we act out of ego – either striving to attain a goal or to avoid a situation because we feel our happiness depends on it – we have a tendency to intensify that striving over time.  Interestingly, this is true both in success and in failure – that is, even when we achieve our goals, we tend to yearn for “more” or “better” or “longer,” and when we “fail,” we either find our drive intensified or we shift focus, aspiring toward something different but with even greater zeal as a result of our frustration.  Importantly, both of these also tend to grow incrementally, as the more we strive, the more frustrated we become when we fail, leading in turn to even greater effort.

 The cognitive path, Jnana Yoga, offers several tools for addressing this, including learning to look at our assumptions and ask if we truly “need” a thing or situation to be happy.  Karma Yoga offers a different approach, starting with our actions themselves – that is, rather than examining the grounds of our wants or aversions, the Path of Service involves shifting our focus from our desires and feelings to those of the people around us.  Obviously, one benefit of this is it breaks this cycle of aspiration and frustration – that is, by letting go of the (false) belief there is something we need to be happy, we stop intensifying the process of craving described above.  Further, when we learn to do that consistently, we ultimately move beyond the habit of craving or aversion itself, returning to our natural state of wholeness and contentment.  Of course, this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the Yogis were advocating inactivity – remember, after all, this is the Path of “Action” – rather, the Yogis are encouraging us to learn how to act without attachment or assumption, so we can enjoy the act and engage in it with the presence and clarity that are absent when we act from a place of craving or fear.

 ”Business Love,” Selfless Service & “The Platinum Rule….”  

 At this point, it’s worth noting this approach only works if our service is itself free of attachment – that is, if we’re serving others in hope they will return the favor or even just appreciate our actions, we are still engaging in attached behavior, just with a shifted emphasis.  Further, even if we act for others but do so with the goal of “making” them happy, we are committing the same error as with ourselves — again, just with a shifted focus.  Simply put, because others are conditional just like us, the Yogis realized we can’t assure their happiness any more than our own.  In this sense, it’s important to see that, in Karma Yoga, our intentions are even more important than the actions themselves and even the most “virtuous” behavior won’t liberate us if our intentions around it are skewed.

 My teacher frequently referred to this skewed type of service as “Business Love” – that is, we are giving, but with the assumption we will (and “should”) get something in return.  Of course, he emphasized this is not necessarily bad – for example, in the world of business and even some relationships it can actually be healthy – the important thing it is not Karma Yoga.  In true Karma Yoga, we serve others for their own sake – first with no thought of reward, including recognition or appreciation, and second, with awareness even our best actions can’t actually “make” someone happy.  Of course, because this runs counter to our usual way of approaching life, it takes time and dedication to truly achieve and maintain.  But if we stay aware, this form of service can be a powerfully liberating tool for stepping beyond ego and into our natural joy.

The Golden & Platinum Rules

A related part of Karma Yoga is what is often called the distinction between the “Golden” and “Platinum” rules. The Golden Rule of course is: ”Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  The Yogis realized this is not a bad idea, per se, but it does have a couple significant flaws, namely when we use it, we presume others either want the same things we do or at least should – that is, we assume others think and feel the same as us, or, even worse, that we know what is truly “best” for them.  Again, my teacher emphasized if we genuinely want to serve others, we need to learn to truly understand their feelings and beliefs rather than simply imposing ours on them – otherwise, again, we’re not really stepping beyond our attachments, just shifting their application.

For this reason, the Yogis suggested a different approach, or the “Platinum Rule,” which is: “Do unto others as they would have done unto them.”  This clearly has two benefits: first, to do this, we must let go of our own assumptions and attachments, and second, we must actively cultivate awareness of what others value and believe in, in the process increasing what could be called our “emotional flexibility.”  Of course, in speaking of the Platinum Rule, it’s important to note this doesn’t mean we should engage in acts we feel might be harmful to others or to go against a sincere belief.  For example, if we know someone loves food but struggles with his or her weight, it is not necessarily Karma Yoga to give him or her a box of candy.  Likewise, just because someone might enjoy poor choices does not mean we should feel an obligation to support if it goes against our understanding.  The Yogis realized one of the wonderful things about our humanity is we all generally have more than enough “needs” so it’s always possible to serve others while lovingly skirting any areas where we sense our differences may be shifting more toward conflicts….

Karma Yoga & Witnessing the True Self 

 This idea of seeing the varied desires and beliefs of others leads to the second major benefit of Karma Yoga, which is how it can help us see the true Self or atman – both in others and in ourselves.  Basically, the more time we spend stepping beyond our own thoughts and observing the widely varied challenges and joys of those around us, the more we start to see the oneness underneath that apparent diversity.  In other words, when we step back from our own attachments, we start to see beyond the superficial differences a common heart – that, while what we enjoy or fear may be different or even “opposite,” the feelings themselves are the same.  We might love different foods, for example, or be moved by different art, or be uncomfortable in different conflicts, but the experiences themselves ultimately are no different.  In this sense, the Yogis realized the more we serve others, the more aware we become of these universal experiences, leading ultimately to the sense of oneness or union that, as discussed before, is the literal meaning of “Yoga.”

 Karma Yoga & Self-Awareness 

One last benefit of Karma Yoga is it can also help us be more aware of our strengths and also areas where we might benefit from growth.  The Yogis saw the more we watch others from a place of love and compassion, the more we come to see their unique gifts as well as the areas where they could perhaps trust themselves to move forward.  In turn, the better we get at seeing these in others – especially when free from the distortions that attachment and “business love” normally bring to these issues – the better we then get at seeing them, honestly but lovingly, in ourselves.

There is a wonderful story about this involving Gandhi.  During his life, Gandhi travelled a great deal by train, stopping at small towns along the way and meeting with people to hear their challenges and offer support.  During one such visit, a woman approached Gandhi with her young son by her side.  “Mahatma,” she asked, “would please you tell my boy sweets aren’t good for him and he should avoid them?”  Gandhi reflected for a moment and said kindly: “A week from today, I will be passing through here again – may I ask you to come back then and make the same request?”  His words surprised her, but she trusted Gandhi’s wisdom and so agreed.  A week later, she returned with her boy and again waited patiently in line.  When her turn finally arrived, before she could say a word, Gandhi smiled warmly, leaned down to the boy, and without hesitation said lovingly: “My dear son, your mother is very right: sweets are not good for you and you should do your best to avoid them.”  The boy smiled, nodded, and went off to play, at which point the woman hesitated for a moment and then said apologetically: “Thank you so much, Mahatama –  I am truly grateful.  But, if you’ll forgive me, why is it you had me wait a week rather than saying something then?”  At which point, Gandhi smiled lovingly and said simply: “Because a week ago, I had had sweets….”

Like Gandhi, we can use our service of others not only to support them in their personal work but also to gain insight and even motivation for our own work – again seeing even in very different strengths and struggles of those around us the common grounds that unite us all and that, in turn, can help inspire and inform our own unique journey.

 Karma Yoga, Family & Community 

 Of course, when we think of spiritual service, we tend to think of caring for the poor or the under-privileged, and this is certainly an important form of Karma Yoga.  But it’s important to realize the Yogis also emphasized there are many other forms – most of which can be practiced right here in our daily lives.  Beyond caring for those struggling physically, there is caring for those in emotional or spiritual pain – something present in even the most prosperous communities.  Moreover, the Yogis emphasized Karma Yoga doesn’t have to be directed toward strangers – serving family or loved ones or members of our community is also Karma Yoga if we do so out of love rather than obligation or attachment.  Indeed, even work can be Karma Yoga if we approach it with a focus on service rather than “earning a living.”  Again, the key that makes it true service is letting go of thoughts of what we might receive and focusing instead on the thoughts, feelings, and well-being of others.  In this sense, Karma Yoga can fit into the life of a householder every bit as directly as it does the life of a swami or nun – indeed, the Yogis asserted that, properly approached, these two worlds ultimately are really one and the same….

Karma Yoga & Its Connection with the Other Branches

Linking back to our other branches, as discussed before, the Yogis emphasized each of the paths can be implemented separately or in combination or even skipped entirely if it doesn’t resonate with us.  But they also emphasized that, properly practiced, each of the branches naturally lead to one another.  Using Karma Yoga as an example, again, in serving others and observing the conditional nature of their thoughts and feelings we become more aware of our own conditioning – that is, we start to realize even our most deeply held emotions and beliefs are a product of our upbringing and circumstance.  This realization in turn helps us “soften” our attachment to our views as well as our tendency to judge or challenge those who see things differently, which of course is one of the tools of the cognitive branch.

 Similarly, in serving others, we naturally realize it is easier to serve well when our bodies are healthy and our minds calm.  As a result, through Karma Yoga, we may gradually find ourselves practicing asana or making better choices in diet or being more dedicated in meditation than when thinking solely of ourselves.  In fact, turning again to the example of Gandhi, it’s worth noting, in spite of his passionate commitment to service, he was also very dedicated to daily meditation.  At first glance, this might seem strange as the hour or two he spent meditating each morning clearly could have been spent teaching or seeking political and social change.  And yet, Gandhi himself pointed out that, with practice he gradually realized that by taking the time for meditation each day, he was actually able to think more clearly and act more effectively, accomplishing more actual service than when he skipped this valuable process.

An analogy that captures this quite well is the simple image of an old-fashioned barber and the straight-edge razor he uses.  If the barber is always shaving, eventually his blade becomes dull and the quality of his service diminishes.  On the other hand, if he makes a point now and then of pausing to sharpen his razor, he will be able to serve more clients … and give them better shaves, as well.  Of course, a great thing about the analogy is it works the other way, too – that is, if we are always “sharpening” and never “shaving,” our efforts likewise are wasted.  The key in Karma Yoga is to find the right balance between serving others while also taking sufficient care of ourselves so we can continue to serve in the best way possible….

  Concluding Thoughts & Finding Our Own Balance 

 Again, taken together, these varied aspects of Karma Yoga – just like the tools of Hatha and the other branches – allow us to deepen our awareness of our tendency to misidentify with the transient aspects of ourselves and others while also building awareness of the true Self that unites us all.  Thus, through mindful service, we can move beyond the misunderstandings through which we generate our own distress and return to our natural state of joy and ease – all the while supporting those around us in doing the same.  So those are the basics of Karma Yoga.  Next article, we’ll look in more detail at the final branch, Bhakti Yoga or the Branch of Devotion.  Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”


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