How is karma yoga a form of meditation?
Swami Niranjanananda: People believe that meditation is a practice in which one closes the eyes, focuses the mind, isolates oneself from what is happening, and finds peace. That is the general belief. However, there are various systems of meditation, which work on different dimensions and levels of one’s nature. Meditation is attaining equipoise or balance in these various expressions. Meditation is not isolating but harmonizing oneself. It is not closing the eyes and forgetting the world, but making oneself part of the world in a much more dynamic and vibrant way. Absorption, or samadhi, is the final stage of meditation.
Karma yoga is the first yoga described in the Upanishads as being necessary in order to understand the state of perfection. Karma yoga is one of the main branches or angas of yogic discipline, as described in the vedic tradition. Karma is literally translated as ‘action’, which is something everyone in this world performs, whether consciously or unconsciously. When the word yoga is added to the word karma, it means any action is performed with meditative awareness. Karma yoga is actually the yoga of dynamic meditation. When there is awareness of the actions being performed at different levels, internally as well as externally, that awareness becomes a meditative process.
Karma yoga can be classified as the true psychological aspect of yoga, as in this process of dynamic meditation one has to become aware of the subtle areas of the personality. This dynamic aspect of meditation involves the awakening of latent mental faculties as well as new dimensions of awareness. A caterpillar lives at ground level and cannot fly, but it leaves the ground and begins to fly when it becomes a butterfly. The body of a caterpillar represents bondage, but when the time comes for it to undergo transformation, it builds a cocoon around itself. It goes through a period of trauma and transformation and emerges as a beautiful butterfly. That is the principle of karma yoga.
This caterpillar represents the individual identity, known as jiva, which is subject to the limitation and bondage of karma. Human beings are like caterpillars, living at ground level all the time. In order to become free from karma, to exhaust karma, to become a butterfly, one has to withdraw into oneself, into one’s own personality. This withdrawal can be compared to the state in which the caterpillar builds a cocoon around itself. Within that cocoon, it changes itself, its body and abilities, so that when it leaves the cocoon, instead of crawling, it begins to fly. The state in which one finds oneself right now is the state of bondage, represented by the caterpillar. By the practice of karma yoga one goes through a state of transformation, and with persistence and understanding of the present state, one eventually breaks down the old body and adopts a new one, which becomes the means of attaining light and freedom.
The aim of karma yoga is harmonizing the actions of the individual self and attaining union with the higher self. When karma yoga is looked upon as meditation, it becomes a process of awareness, concentrated action and mental one-pointedness. Dissipation of energies and consciousness is controlled by karma yoga, and this eventually brings about a state of purity and transcendence. Karma yoga and meditation are processes of rediscovering oneself, and the meditative experience is applied externally in behaviour and actions. Karma yoga is a way of developing immunity from the influences of life.
Meditative awareness completely changes and transforms the whole nature of life when applied to an external action. Karma yoga means performing action with meditative awareness from moment to moment. The actions must not only be performed consciously, the attitude towards the actions must also be observed. Actions are performed by everyone and are motivated by a desire for self-satisfaction or gain. The motto of karma yoga is ‘give, give, give’, not ‘take, take, take’. This attitude and awareness related to an external action changes the outlook and the vision broadens.
While performing an action on the physical level, there has to be total meditative awareness. By being aware at the time of performing action or karma, one is initially trying to see how the action is performed. Once awareness has been developed, one can see which reactions can be experienced from a particular type of karma. It is here that karma yoga stops being a physical process and becomes a meditative process. By adding the component of awareness and the will to act with the proper attitude, intention and mentality, karma yoga becomes a process of natural and spontaneous meditation.