Skill in Action

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

Yoga sadhana is not just one or two hours of physical exercise in the morning. This is not enough to transform the mind. The effect of yoga must be felt in every moment of our lives if we are to rise out of tension and anxiety, into a new realm of health and harmony.

We practise asanas and pranayama so as to be able to sit for meditation. We practise meditative techniques to be able to develop the witness. When the mind changes, we develop a totally new way of viewing the world, a higher philosophy, a more spontaneous mode of action, and an experience of the flow of life. Meditation is at the core and essence of each moment of time and each point in space, and is the fundamental basis of our perception and experience of the world. Meditation in action is called karma yoga; meditation on the heart is bhakti yoga; meditation on the intellect is gyana yoga.

In order to speed up the experience of meditation, we use karma and bhakti yoga in our daily lives. Though the ultimate experience comes through gyana yoga, knowledge of the self, this is very difficult to achieve. When we know who we really are, from where we have come, and to where we are going, then we are unaffected by the pains, anxieties, fears, passions, and joys of the mind. We can face the mind with its agonies and ecstasies. However, this is very difficult for most of us, and when we are in the grip of tension and anxiety, it is almost impossible.

We must start with karma yoga and after some time bhakti yoga can be practised. These two aspects of yoga help to purify the mind and lead to concentration. After this, raja yoga can be commenced, which leads to gyana and true knowledge. For most of us this is the path. We cannot start with gyana until the mind is matured and ripened by the other practices. The real gyani, however, is automatically a karma, bhakti and raja yogi, for these arise spontaneously in this heightened state of being.

Action versus inaction

The essence of karma yoga is skill in action and balance of mind. It is work performed without selfish motive or attachment to the results of action. We just work for work's sake because there is nothing else in life that can remove the pain and lead to the supreme, blissful state.

"Your right is only to work, but never to the fruit thereof. Let not the fruit of action be your object, nor let your attachment be to inaction. O Arjuna, perform your duties dwelling in yoga, relinquishing attachment and indifferent to success and failure; equanimity is called yoga." (B.G. II 47-8)

The science of karma yoga is based on the fact that man cannot remain inactive; he cannot renounce action. The bowels move, the heart beats, the brain, senses and mind think and desire, all without our conscious effort. Things just happen and we are caught up in the flow. We cannot stop the senses from functioning nor can we stop the mind. It is their nature to move unceasingly. However, we can extricate ourselves from attachment and involvement with life's processes simply by understanding that we are not the doer and offering all our actions to the higher self, the community or to whatever concept we hold. We can then relax and follow our nature, while remaining a witness.

If we do not follow this path, the mind becomes obsessed by desires and ambitions, and craves pleasure and prosperity. This dissipates and fragments the mind and is a cause of tension and anxiety, because the internal energies become confused, disordered and chaotic. Therefore, we perform karma yoga and meditation to see clearly the causes of our suffering and the method to extricate ourselves. We focus the mind on a higher plane, and thereby pull ourselves out of the pairs of opposites and more closely approximate the transcendental and eternal.

Impersonal problems

It does not matter what we do in life. We can use every opportunity to expand our awareness and improve our mind... but, only if we work without selfish motive. If we desire personal gain, then like and dislike enter the picture. We want to do one thing and not another, or we may allow our pride and ego to interfere, thinking, 'I am too good to do this or that.' This attitude extends into even the most trivial of matters, and we start to feel the whole gamut of negative emotions and passions arise in an uncontrolled and self-perpetuating surge.

To reverse this situation, we cannot just drop our anxieties and neuroses, rather, we have to give them some creative outlet. This is done by first re-channelling our energy from personal problems to impersonal problems, because impersonal problems are less painful and damaging to the personality and offer us a chance to better ourselves and to break our attachment. We have to lose the neuroses about our self and become neurotic about the impersonal problems. We have to worry about how I am going to write this book, get all this work finished, feed the family, and so on, rather than thinking about personal problems.

Then we have to learn to enjoy whatever we are doing and cultivate awareness.

The first stage of karma yoga, then, is to keep busy doing whatever comes our way to the best of our ability, without thought for whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. All activity is viewed with equanimity, whether we are cleaning the toilets, eating food, writing, gardening, washing dishes or whatever. All are opportunities to use our energy creatively. We do not have any time to think useless or anxiety-producing thoughts. Rather, we realise that all - action is equal in terms of purifying the mind, and we aim to concentrate on what we are doing, enjoy the present moment, and not worry for the future. Everything turns out for the best in this way.

By involving ourselves in work and activity, we withdraw our awareness from our problems and at the same time we prevent new problems from entering. We do not have time to think, feel boredom or worry about the future, because we are becoming more and more immersed in the present, creative, spontaneous moment. If we want to keep our room clean, we keep such animals as cows and pigs out, and we close the windows when a dust storm comes. Karma yoga is the method to keep the animal tendencies and the storms of anxiety outside the room of the mind. We do not suppress anything or become obsessed by any thought or feeling, because we do not give them our attention. They go their way and we go ours, with attention focused on the work at hand.

Let the thoughts, visions, fantasies and anxieties come up, be aware of them, but do not get involved. The mind must be centred on activity, which acts as an anchor or stabiliser and prevents recurring negative states. The moment we identify with our thoughts, they have the power to affect us. The cyclones of the mind come and go, but if we get caught up in them, this creates more cyclones and karma. It is better to say, 'Oh yes! Let the thoughts come and go, like a passing train. They cannot affect me.' Developing the attitude of the witness, while we work with enjoyment, is a means to channel our energy and allow the cleansing of the mind to proceed during the whole day.

Likes and dislikes, created by attachment, constantly drag us back into the anxieties of the mind. But as we practise antar mouna and karma yoga, we become more adept at reversing personal problems and ensuing negative emotions such as anger, fear, jealousy, lust, desire or passion, into the impersonal problems of the work at hand. Karma yoga thus becomes our greatest friend in times of need.

Work as play

When we act with the intention of cultivating awareness, we become totally immersed and a feeling of flow emerges, an ecstatic state in which all sense of self and time is lost. Karma yoga, then, becomes the yoga of spontaneity and real fun, not the drudgery of work done with lack of awareness and zest. Mark Twain once said that: "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do,, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do." When we work as karma yogis, nothing is imposed on us against our will. Work becomes play, a creative and enjoyable experience.

Dr Mihaly Czekszentmihalyi, a psychologist at the University of Chicago (USA), has studied this phenomenon. He found that it was possible to induce the creative state of flow when people enjoyed what they were doing and there was no pressure of extrinsic reward, such as prestige and glamour, to interfere with the process.

First he investigated the experience of a surgeon who was so intently concentrating on his work, that he did not notice part of the operating theatre's ceiling had collapsed until after the surgery was over. Next he spoke with a dancer who told him that while dancing he felt as though he was radiating energy and becoming one with the atmosphere. The last case mentioned was a mountaineer, who told him that he became so involved in climbing that he did not think of himself as separate from the immediate activity.

From these various types of experience, which mirror the karma yoga experience precisely, the common denominator was found to be an altered state of consciousness in which the people concerned felt:

  1. An intense centring of attention and automatic concentration of mind in which the body is 'awake all over' and 'you feel relaxed, comfortable and energetic'.
  2. An altered sense of time in which time speeds up and resembles the dream state.
  3. Spatial alteration in which the objects focused upon seem larger than normal.
  4. Absence of the sense of self and such thoughts as 'Am I doing well?' The moment such thoughts come the experience switches off.
  5. An internal sense of correctness and certitude, so that the individual does not have to stop and evaluate what is going on.
  6. An almost godlike sense of control in which all life's conflicts seem resolved.

Dr Czekszentmihalyi has found that any kind of tension in the form of worry or insecurity, for example, breaks the flow. The activity must be neither too simple and boring nor too hard and beyond the limits of one's capabilities. More than this the individual must want to do the activity and must enjoy it. Then creativity and concentration result and the experience of karma yoga dawns spontaneously: skill in action and balance of mind.

The attitude of a karma yogi is summed up by the epitaph Benjamin Franklin, the great American president and scientist, wrote for himself:

"The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and gilding, lies here food for worms. But the work shall not be lost, for it will as he believes appear once more in a new and more elegant edition revised and corrected by the author."