“Worldly people are happy when they get what they want and unhappy when they don’t but karma yogis are happy when they get what they want and when they don’t, because their goal is peace of mind, not the short-lived joys that come from objects.” James Swartz
Karma is like an arrow shot from a bow, once released it can’t be taken back or redirected. While the results of our actions are beyond our control, we do have a choice in how we respond to the results. The attitude we bring to daily experience has great impact on the quality of our lives and whether or not we neutralize negative (papa) karma or create more of it.
Karma and yoga defined: Karma means action but the word also implies the law of cause and effect. For every action we take, there is an immediate result, and a latent one. Yoga means to yoke or bring together, like to oxen pulling a cart but it also refers to spiritual practices that have the potential to neutralize vasanas (seeds of past action).
Karma yogis have an attitude of gratitude. How can we not be grateful for everything we have been given by the creation (the dharmic field)? This body, mind and heart, the people in our lives, nature,… it’s all been given to us. How can we not want to give back and make a contribution to the whole?
Before taking action, a karma yogi inquires into their personal dharma (svadharma) and the greater dharmic field (samanya dharma). Action is then offered with a devotional mindset, while releasing all attachment to outcome. Finally, results both good and bad, are received as prasad, a gift from Isvara the creator.
Svadharma pertains to the jiva (embodied soul). It results from past actions (karmas) over many lifetimes and includes our likes, dislikes, desires, fears, conditioning, gifts, and astrology to name a few. The second meaning of svadharma is letting go of ideals and coming to love and accept ourselves as we are, not as we wish to be. Isvara, the creator, made us for a reason and we will be most happy if we come to know that reason and live it.
Samanya dharma is the collection of physical, psychological, and moral laws which provide structure to the jagat, or field of creation. An example of physical dharma is gravity, which controls the speed at which objects fall. A psychological dharma is how thoughts affect emotions. Moral dharmas include do no harm and treat others as you wish to be treated.
One of the most important aspects of karma yoga is letting go of outcome. This is tough love for the ego, which is hell-bent on getting what it wants, when it wants them. Why should we let go of the result of our actions? Because results are not up to us. Think of how many factors affect every result: the weather, how much sleep we’ve had, what we ate yesterday, our emotional state, whether or not Mercury is in retrograde, our cell phone’s battery power, world events, the time of the day,…
In Vedanta, there’s a saying, “Get on the bus, put your bags down, and let Isvara drive.” Isvara is the creator of the field and the dharma (laws) of the field. Even though it appears you are driving the bus and in control of your actions and outcomes, this is not true. What will you be thinking or feeling in two minutes? All of your thoughts and feelings are based upon your vasanas (conditioning), which result from your past actions and their relationship to the greater dharmic field. If the fruits of your actions were up to you, you’d already have everything you ever wanted but you don’t.
Along with understanding dharma and taking action as a means of service, while releasing attachment to outcome, the final spoonful of medicine for a karma yogi is receiving the results of our actions, good and bad, as a gift from Isvara. Simply stated, we are here to enjoy the good that arises from dharmic action and learn from the friction created by adhamric (against dharma) action, nothing is wasted.
Much of the suffering we experience comes from taking adharmic (against dharma) action. When we chase desire and run from fear, we strengthen our conditioning which leads to more desire and fear. By acting from dharma (truth, values, ethics and scripture), we neutralize negative karma and experience greater alignment, balance and contentment.
When strong conditioning arises, it can be helpful to ask ourselves: Is this fear real? What would I have to believe about myself in order to take an action based on this desire? Will this action truly complete or fulfill me? Who is the one aware of this fear or desire? If I am aware of this emotion, then it is an object which is separate from me as awareness, and has no power over me.
Final considerations: for those wanting to purify the mind and prepare it for the more the more subtle practice of Jnana (knowledge) Yoga, then Karma Yoga is your go-to spiritual tool. If you wish to take purposeful action in the world and want meaningful results, you need to know who you are, why you are taking action, the nature of the field you are taking action within, and who controls the results.
There is no problem with desire and no problem with action, as long as you realize that dharmic action leads to joy and adharmic (against dharma) action leads to suffering. So take your bow, notch your arrow, and fire away.
A Karma Yoga Prayer: I release my fears and desires, knowing they are but shadows of past action and respond to life appropriately, understanding my dharma and that of the greater field of creation. I offer these actions in service to all creation with the intention of gaining knowledge of my essential nature as being, truth and love.