Karma Yoga – the Foundation for a
Happy and Healthy Life
This chapter gives the root philosophy for yoga and is one of the most valuable teachings that yoga has to offer us. When you are living you life with the Karma Yoga attitude firmly in place, then everything will start to flow for you. Living like this will help you to neutralise your strong likes and dislikes – your fears and desires – and with this will come great liberation from stress and suffering. In the first three chapters we looked at stress and why it is that pursuing the wrong things gives us stress which then makes us tired and ill. This chapter gives you the antidote for stress. If you apply Karma Yoga to all that you do then you will find that stress disappears from your life and that your energy levels increase very quickly.
So what does Karma Yoga mean? Many people confuse this term and think that it means doing good deeds for others or that it has some kind of past-life connotation. Karma actually means ‘action’ and of course you are taking action all the time in your life. The decision to buy, then read this book, is an action, as was what you ate for your last meal and when you will eat your next. Every action has an outcome. This much is obvious. For example, if you ate food which wasn’t cooked properly the result might be that you have an upset stomach. Or if you ate something like a heavy pudding, you might really enjoy it but find later that it is hard to digest and consequently find that you can’t sleep. Usually we take an action because we want to enjoy the result – we hope for a positive outcome. When we get what we want, we are happy. But if we don’t get what we want, then usually we are sad, agitated or even angry. I often get asked: ‘Have I got chronic fatigue because I did something terrible in a past life and now I am being punished?’ Well no, it isn’t really like that. You probably have profound fatigue (if this is your question), for the same reason that I had it – because you abused your body for years and didn’t listen to your stress response, or you ate poor quality food, drank, maybe over-worked and basically had a life-style which wasn’t supporting you, so that eventually you burned out. You took an action and now you have a result that you don’t like. So the first point in understanding Karma Yoga is that every action has a result and you may perceive this as good or bad.
Understanding the Field of Action
The next part of the teaching requires you to accept some more logic. It is common-sense to acknowledge that you live in a sentient, conscious world and that you are part of all that is. You only have to look around you to see how nature dovetails together so beautifully to understand this – right from the smallest microbe to the largest mammal. In the Bhagavad Gita, this is referred to as the Field, which is an expression I like, as it explains this Field of Existence in which we find ourselves. It is the sum of all the parts – Everything That Is. So this describes Reality as we can understand it right here right now as it unfolds (and then dies) ever micro-second. You can also call this Field of Existence ‘God’ or ‘Life’ if you want, but these are just more words or concepts to describe The Field. In yoga, this Field, in which there is no separation and in which everything is connected, is also sometimes referred to as the macro-causal body. If we can believe that everything is connected, then it means that Life itself is you and you make up part of this Field. If you begin to understand this you may understand that you don’t need to feel like a small, separate or insecure person. In this Field actions take place. You might want to take some time to think about this.
Now, if you can accept this logic, you can also understand that there are certain laws within this Field. Again, these are rational and you know some of them. These laws are called dharmasin Sanskrit. An example of a dharma is that fire is hot so you don’t put your hand in the fire. Another is that it’s a good idea not to harm anything, (including yourself), because if you do, usually you get harmed back. If I punch you on the face then you are probably going to punch me right back! If you can understand dharma and how the Field works with these laws, then you can make it work for you and no longer suffer. So you are part of an intelligent, lawful cosmos. This Field is neutral and it is not out to get you. I say this because many people who don’t understand how karma and dharmawork think that life is giving them a very hard time and that they are somehow the victims of some chaotic malign world as they are tossed hither and neither. This is not how it is.
The last point to understand is that as far as your part of the Field is concerned, the big picture is what counts. In other words, results that you get from any actions that you take will be given to suit the whole of the Field and not necessarily to you as an individual. If I pray for a Rolls-Royce, but someone else needs one more than me, then it might not suit the Field to give me what I want, especially as there might not be many to go round and someone else’s need may be greater than mine. But if no-one else wants one and furthermore this serves the greater good because I want to use it for transporting sick children around, for example, then I might get one. So, I learn to only ask for what will serve everything, and not to be selfish, because then it is more likely that I will get what I want. We can’t see the big picture but we have to trust that it is working for us all as part of what is good for the whole of the Total . This de-bunks some of the modern new-age teachings like The Secret which says that you can manifest whatever you want. The wise Rishis knew that it doesn’t work like that as, in conflict with what some New-Age teaching suggests, the material universe is only interested in the whole, not your individual wants and desires. That’s not to say that you don’t need to think positively because the world is definitely coloured by how you see it. But it does mean that you need to understand how to work this matrix of life and having the Karma Yoga attitude whenever you take any action will make your life much easier.
So, here you are in the Field of Existence. You do something and you want to enjoy the results. But now you understand the Field, you can maybe see that the results are not up to you! They are up to theField of Existence, and the results you get may not be the results you want as an individual, as they are there to serve everything that is.
What Karma Yoga says is that you have the right to any action. If it is timely and appropriate you are more likely to manifest the desired result. But because the results are not up to you, you shouldn’t worry about the outcome. Whatever the outcome is, accept it with grace and gratitude. Whenever you undertake any action, don’t be attached to the results as there is no point. Accept whatever life delivers you. You understand logically that the fruits of any action are not up to you as an individual but are up to the Field. If the outcome is good or bad, you take it as a blessing because you understand that it is teaching you something. Furthermore, in anything that you do, you always offer it to the Field in gratitude for life. It is a sign of great spiritual maturity when you can truly accept whatever life delivers to you without fighting it. Why fight Life and what it gives you? This is why you suffer. That’s not to say that you don’t take further action to change something if there is still room to do so. But if an outcome can’t be changed then accept how it is. If you are ill, for example, you might take action to make changes to improve your health. But whatever the results, you understand that is just how it is.
Usually we get emotional or disappointed when our lives don’t appear to be running as we want and we don’t get what we would like. But you can see that this is a complete waste of time and effort, especially if something clearly can’t be changed. Equally, we shouldn’t blame ourselves. We should just be happy to serve the total and surrender to the Field. So while you may acknowledge that you are doing actions for results, you should also understand that anything less than an a graceful attitude of gratitude (such as a worrying or complaining attitude) is unhelpful because you are not the giver of the results. In fact if you have a result that you don’t want, often you will find that turns out to be your biggest lesson and something that is very positive. But it usually takes time for you to see this, when you have a better view of the big picture.
This attitude of surrender quickly burns up any stress as it neutralises strong likes and dislikes. I’ll give you an example. A few years ago I was on a yoga course in an ashram near Bangalore. We were taught the Karma Yoga attitude. Then we were told that we had a three-hour exam. Some people were very stressed by this as they wanted to compete with the rest of the group and do well – maybe come first – and they also wanted the qualification as many had travelled thousands of miles to study there. But those of us that understood the Karma Yoga teaching just did our best – and did very well, but without being stressed about whether we passed or not. This neutralised my fear of exams or of being tested. More recently I had another test for the KHYF – the yoga tradition in which I teach. Again, I just did my best, being grateful that I was on the course and was healthy enough to be able to participate. Like everyone else on the course, I passed. But unlike some, I had minimal anxiety. I had dropped the identification of being a person who was stressed by exams, so I no longer feared this situation. If I had failed then I would have known that God or Life had other plans for me. And this is how it always is for me now. If I get a result that initially doesn’t seem to be something I would want, I trust the Field knows better and that there will be a good reason for it, even if I can’t see what that is at the time. My job on the individual level is just to deal with what Reality puts in front of me. I surrender and trust and life just flows through me.
The Value of Surrender
I can honestly say that the quickest way to health, happiness and peace is to practice non-resistance to life and what reality delivers to you. Why try to fight it? When you resist what is, then you suffer. I only fully recovered from a long and chronic illness when I totally embraced and accepted that this was how I was – although I also stopped identifying myself as a sick person. So there was a kind of surrender to the Field plus a feeling of being my authentic self beyond any labels or identifications. An intense connection with your true, authentic self is a good definition of health, even if it doesn’t describe ‘health’ on a physical level. Health is very much about the attitudethat we have – being calm and happy in all circumstances. I have a friend who is a yoga teacher and has Multiple Sclerosis. On one level, she is extremely disabled and has to use a stick if she is walking. For longer distances, she uses a wheel-chair. She is often very exhausted. She has a very restricted diet. She is also the happiest, funniest person I know and if you were to describe her as ill or disabled she would be puzzled! She is connected to her authentic self; she doesn’t argue about her physical problems but accepts them and gets on with life as best she can. She radiates bliss and peace. How she is on a physical level simply doesn’t bother her.
Having the Karma Yoga attitude helps with this idea of non-resistance, or surrendering to life. If you can appreciate what you have, rather than being angry about what you don’t have and make it a practice to notice everyday what your blessings are, then this will help you to see your glass half-full rather than half-empty. Stress takes up an enormous amount of energy in the mind and the body. Practice accepting whatever happens to you in life and you will find that this releases tension and is consequently very energising and liberating.
When you start to practice Karma Yoga you begin to get an instinct for what is happening and your place in the matrix of life. It helps if you can let things come to you rather than chasing things, as the right things will manifest if you let them. What does manifest is sometimes what you need rather than what you want so you need to give Life time to let it all unfold. You need to trust that Life will deliver things to you at the right time. Just work with what the Field puts in front of you. Don’t fight Life! I said at the beginning of this book that what you really want is peace of mind as this will bring you energy and happiness. Radiant peace comes from accepting rather than resisting what life delivers. I see this is in India. Friends often ask me how I deal with all the suffering and poverty there. But the truth is, most Indians understand the Karma Yoga attitude and are very accepting of how things are, which means that most people have a certain grace and serenity in all circumstances. In fact they seem to handle their poverty better than we do our prosperity because of this acceptance, strange though this sounds. But it is the struggling against the results we are given in life that makes us suffer. Give up the struggle and you no longer will be agitated. When I was ill, if I had a relapse, I would lie in bed, frustrated and angry. My head would whirl with all the things that I would have to re-arrange around my ill-health and all the things I had to cancel. When I learned to completely accept and embrace my physical and mental fatigue, then the paradox was that I began to have more and more energy.
If you can also accept that you are divine and part of a greater whole then you will no longer need to struggle against what life delivers to you. You seek freedom from the notion that there is’ something wrong with me’ by taking lots of actions. But you need to love and not judge yourself. Karma Yoga is a big step forward in understanding self-love and self-care as it means that it gets rid of your negative patterns; of your strong likes and dislikes – or at least the ones that are unhelpful to you. Through inquiry, when you look into who you really are behind the identifications and labels, you find that there is nothing wrong with you at all. This attitude is so helpful. For example, relationships often fail either because we don’t love ourselves enough in the first place and are looking for the other person to fix our lack, or because we have unrealistic expectations of the other person. We project how they should be and are disappointed when they don’t match up to our ideal – instead of accepting them with the Karma Yoga attitude – good points and bad points. Likewise, if you have a chronic health problem try loving and accepting yourself just as you are – physically healthy or not – rather than looking for happiness in some external action. Take an action by all means but don’t be attached to the outcome.
To summarise: Surrendering doesn’t mean that you don’t take action to improve a situation if you are able to. But if something has happened and you can’t change it accept it. If you have equanimity of mind then suddenly the world becomes a friendly place and you are not doing battle with everything – which is so depleting. This also stops anxiety about the future which is only imagined anyway – only a projection of what-might-be. You need to consider the whole of the Field and how anything you do as an individual impacts on the Total. Since the results of action are not up to you, it is useless and stressful to try to control any outcome. Just do the best you can, make all action as an offering and leave it at that.
“If you practice Karma Yoga then slowly it will correct the imbalances in your energy system and you will radiate peace and calm. Your mind will become pure and expansive and you will be happy. You can’t really be happy until you have a pure mind .But you have to work at it and keep practising .” James Swartz
- Karma means action. Every action has a result
- The world in which you are in, or Life is also called the Field. Within this Field actions take place. The Field is logical – this is a conscious and sentient universe.
- When you take an action, you might not always get the result that you desire.
- The result of your action is up to the Field and how it will benefit the Total.
- You have the right to take an action and your part is to make the action timely and appropriate.
- Because the result is not up to you, you need to develop the Karma Yoga attitude. This is to not be attached to the outcome and to make your action an offering to the Field.
- Any result you get you accept with equanimity and as a blessing. If you feel agitated by the result then look for what it is teaching you.