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Karma Yoga - Meditation in Action by Lisa Feder

Photo © Lisa Feder: Karma Yoga at Clear Sky Center

As I am getting ready to leave Clear Sky Retreat Center after being part of the Karma Yoga team, Cata and Sensei discuss with me some of the biggest challenges to maintaining an ongoing practice of Karma Yoga, or meditation in action through service. Their teaching addresses: Why Do Karma Yoga; Why Do Virtual Karma Yoga; Some Wrong Views people have about Karma Yoga; and What Impediments there are to not do Karma Yoga.

A Little History

Back in the days when the sangha was centered in Japan, the emphasis was on studying, meditating and listening to the teachings. It was more of a yogi tradition. Now that we are located at Clear Sky, it is more of a monastery tradition, or through Planet Dharma, a virtual monastery. For us, the shift from a yogi to a monastic path is also a shift from meditation to Karma Yoga as the primary vehicle for awakening quickly.
The teachers emphasize that The More Advanced Path to Awakening is through Karma Yoga. This isn’t an easy transition for some students to make. Sensei says, “the [traditional discourse style] teachings are easier to take than the Karma Yoga because it is obvious if you didn’t do your dishes.”

Doug Sensei uses the teachings of the Dalai Lama as an example. Most people go to listen to the Dalai Lama talk; maybe they read his books. Mostly, people are receiving his wisdom more passively, giving him their attention and perhaps some Dana. Most people cannot unfold tangibly that way. People need to become aware through active teaching in order to make sustainable changes in their being.

How Karma Yoga Works

Just a minor description of how Karma Yoga works, from my perspective through my recent experience: When you are working for the teachers and trainers, mental models, blocks and attitudes arise that get in the way of working effectively for the greater good. While these blocks may arise in meditation, we don’t meditate long enough in our day-to-day lives to necessarily see them. Meanwhile, we can use our work as a source of meditation. In Karma Yoga, the concentration is on working for the greater good. Each work session is dedicated to the unfolding of all beings, and for the benefit of all beings. There is no ownership of the work. It is produced and offered up.

When doing karma yoga, the dull states, bad attitudes, ideas of grandeur, lack of methodical planning, taking on too much, taking on too little, procrastination, etc., become teaching points. It is an opportunity for us to use this uncomfortable spot as a place for liberation. The blocks may be more easily recognizable than when sitting on the cushion because the sangha (spiritual community), trainers, or teachers witness what is happening in your being as well.

Impediments to Karma Yoga

Sensei explains, that the path of Karma Yoga is particularly challenging for Westerners because they tend to be more individually minded. “When they do the work they think of themselves as the owner of the work, rather than realizing that the organization is giving them the opportunity for spiritual development through work.”

This brings us to one of the major incorrect views about Karma Yoga. People make the mistake of thinking that their work is doing the teachers, or the retreat center a favor and that they should be grateful. The student may think of it like volunteering. “While we appreciate what people do, our gratitude,” says Catherine Sensei, “is more like gratitude that the universe functions. Rather, you must see that Karma Yoga is a vehicle for Dharma training”.

The Need for Recognition

Another hindrance to doing Karma Yoga is the need for recognition. If you are on the fast path to awakening, then the teaching changes from seducing and wooing the student to focus on the work you do on yourself. Sensei says, “my teacher ignored me for two years. Do you need to be entertained to do the work? Most people want the feel good vibe, the hit.” Sensei’s teacher ignored him as a way to illustrate just how much his ego wanted ‘recognition’, helping him transcend that form of suffering.

This is not to say that Catherine and Doug Sensei do not appreciate or give recognition for work done. Catherine says it is a regular point of gratitude and acknowledgement, congeniality in recognizing the work that people do. However, she cautions, “it seems to hit a point where that’s not enough for people, like as if we’re just saying it (the gratitude).” It is important, Catherine cautions, to see this as a phase. It is important to know that this can occur and to recognize it as merely a phase, rather than getting discouraged by it and feeling the KY isn’t helping anymore. ‘Forewarned it forearmed, ” she says.

Doug Sensei adds to this, “Any relationship should give you praise or recognition. But in a way, the teacher’s job is to remove you from the need for praise. The spiritual unfolding of the student isn’t dependent on getting what she wants but getting over what she thinks she needs.”

Cata also suggests a self-reflection. “Different people have different paths. Some can keep a connection with the triple gem through their meditation practice. For others, that doesn’t work, and a better way is through karma yoga. They need a person on the other end. Look for that. See which, meditation or karma yoga, gives you what quality of juice.”

The Need to Do Something Big

Cata says, “We see some people like to dig in deep and tackle a project and do something big. That’s part of the reason why we do it different from how you want to do it, so [your ego and conditioned preferences] are not in charge. Helping people be okay with not being in charge, is important, especially for the Alpha Female who says ‘Give it to me! I can handle it!’ (Is she speaking to me?) Instead, asking “What would you like me to do to help the team” is important for expanding the spectrum of how you can show up. “

For Americans particularly, we can be “junkies to stimulation.” If you need that, it gets in the way of spiritual unfolding. It’s common that we all want to do something grand. Cata reminds us, grand things are made up of a lot of banal details. Then she adds, “Our entire organization was built on Karma Yoga!”

Doing Virtual Karma Yoga

Sensei says it is important to do Karma Yoga in the vicinity of the teachers (ie at the retreat center) “because you are in the auric field of the environment. All sorts of things aren’t happening here because you are here. So time here (with the teachers) is like 20 hours in one.”

But when you go back home, Doug Sensei adds, “the habitual patterns of our day to day lives pull us back into our old patterns. They creep back in without you even noticing.” Continuing Karma Yoga from afar is an excellent way to keep your connection to the teachers and to continue spiritually unfolding.

Catherine Sensei notices that while, “people are at Clear Sky they are into it and do a good job because they are signed on. When they leave, their world is focused and centered on themselves, and KY becomes more of an imposition or duty or onerous thing they have to do. “

The Loopholes we Invent

On that note, she says, “we understand how life happens,” that there are many engagements in life. But don’t let the rest of the world get in the way of your commitment to Karma Yoga. The world is full of good reasons to not do Karma Yoga. “They are the death of a KY practice. There are an infinite amount of loopholes in the practice. Commit to yourself to not take loopholes,” says Cata.

That said, the teachers caution us to think well about our time commitment to virtual Karma Yoga. “Knowing how much you have time for is one of the great wisdoms of life.”

To create a sustainable Karma Yoga practice, the teachers recommend:

  • Schedule how many hours a week you will dedicate to Karma Yoga.
  • Start small and simple, and re-assess your availability as needed.
  • Make Karma Yoga a habit, like exercise and proper eating. You have to build the muscle, sometimes gradually, and if you don’t, it will disappear.

Lisa Feder is Professor of Anthropology from the USA. She completed a three month karma yoga retreat with Doug and Catherine Sensei at Clear Sky Center in April 2015.

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