Karma Yoga: Awakening in Action

In this talk, Doug and Catherine discuss Awakening Through Action, traditionally known as the practice of karma yoga. Karma yoga is a practice that transforms even mundane activities into paths of spiritual growth and awakening. In this practice, every moment is turned into an active meditation. It is an ideal spiritual path for action-oriented modern people, that takes us beyond ourselves. In the talk, you will hear them refer to ‘Buddhas in Action’. This is their 2-week intensive program on karma yoga that they are currently offering every second year.

If you find the teachings of Planet Dharma resonate and are wondering how to explore them further, we recommend our free online course called Wake Up: 4 Paths to Spiritual Awakening. This self-study course introduces the main approaches that Doug and Catherine employ with students to help them find their speediest path to spiritual awakening. It includes a module on the path of Awakening Through Action discussed in today’s episode. You can learn more and register for free by visiting planetdharma.com/wakeup.


Podcast Transcription:

Welcome to Dharma if you Dare. Today’s recording comes from Doug Duncan and Catherine’s Facebook Livestream series Enlighten Up.  In this talk Doug and Catherine discuss Awakening through Action. Traditionally known as the practice of karma yoga. Karma yoga is a practice that transforms even mundane activities into paths of spiritual growth and Awakening.  In this practice every moment is turned into an active meditation. It is an ideal spiritual path for action-oriented modern people that takes us beyond ourselves.  In the talk, you will also hear them make reference to Buddhas in Action. This is their two-week intensive program on karma yoga that they are currently offering in alternate years. This coming spring  Planet Dharma will be running an insight retreat at clear Sky center entitled ‘Mastering the 16 Stages of Insight’. The program will be led by Doug Duncan. Don’t miss the chance to undertake this training with a true master of this practice. You can learn more about this retreat at www.planetdharma.com/insight and now here’s today’s recording.


Catherine Sensei: Today the theme is Buddhas in action, transforming every moment into meditation and this is something we’ve had a lot of practice with. We run a retreat center and live and work and play together in community, and so we’ve had a lot of practice about bringing our meditation practice to all those different scenarios and vice versa.

Qapel: Buddhas in action, which basically means karma yoga. Traditionally in the past, hunter-gatherers didn’t actually have temples or monasteries they practiced in the wild, and only after they had moved into agricultural kind of conditions did they start building monasteries. So practice in the old days was out in nature. It was a meditation and hunting and gathering was their occupation while they practiced and that’s called a yogic tradition.

Then with the development of cities and towns and markets, monasteries developed and people moved inside. So now with the separation of the church from the agricultural community, the spiritual life, and the practical life, the material life separated although the churches certainly ran businesses. But nevertheless, if you wanted to be spiritual you went to the monastery, you didn’t stay in private life, generally speaking. 

CS: Yes, that’s right. So let’s take a look at karma yoga. When we think of the spiritual life, we think of prayer and meditation a lot of the time and there are actually very different kinds of disciplines of which meditation is one.  I guess prayer would fall under meditation?

Qapel: Uh-huh, contemplation, prayer.

QS: So devotion is another path.  Scholarship is another path and these are – dhyana yoga is meditation, bhakti yoga is devotion.  Scholarship is jnana yoga and karma yoga is the path of action or service.  And we’ve found that most of us living in the contemporary world are so busy and want to do so many things, including really good things, with our spiritual life and our spiritual practice.  Graced On bakery comes to mind: in New York started by Roshi Bernie Glassman. That’s like a social enterprise or social venture where they hire homeless people to work in a bakery and give them job skills and life skills. So we found that karma yoga seems to be a really fantastic fit for this day and age because we are so active and we can turn that into our spiritual practice.

Qapel: Right, and returning for a minute to the monastery idea – that if the spiritual life and practical life separated, then you had this separation between church and state, between the practical or active life and the meditative or contemplative life. So the word yoke is exactly that, the word yoke is to join or to join together like oxen.

So we’re trying to join the action part of our lives with the spiritual part of our lives which is more contemplative. 

CS: That’s the route, that’s how these six yogas developed for different aspects of that. So when we talk about the East, they have a long tradition of being pastoral people or herder people. So they spend a lot of time sitting in nature observing and witnessing without having to do too much. So they became meditators. Whereas in the West, colder climate, a more difficult environment, we had to carve ourselves out of the wilderness as it were. We became agriculturalists and that made us more settled, which produced churches. So now the idea with karma yoga is because we’re Westerners and because we do so much action, our easiest access to spiritual yoga, union, is through what we’re good at which is action, whereas in the East they have been historically better at contemplation. So they use meditation work. But you need all of them to integrate. 

CS: We started out as meditators and have, with the founding of our retreat center, grown into our karma yoga practice in addition to meditating. And so this is really something that we’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on and developing as a practice and mapping as to how it works, what works well and what doesn’t work well. 

Q: So you have this linking between the body which is action, doing stuff. You have the mind which is contemplation or reflection and then the communication between these two objects, or these two spheres.  And that communication between those two spheres is the land of emotions and relationships. So you can see that when people get into a lot of conflict or difficulty in relationships or in their careers with their employers and so on, it’s a communication problem.  And the communication problem is because, in that sense, the body and the mind have split off.  They either want to be meditating all the time and have nothing to do with the world or they want to be making a fortune and getting rich and successful and not having anything to do with contemplation.

CS: Or switching back and forth between those two, like a binary system, and we’re talking more about  integration.

Q: So that yoke again, that union again, and that linking and the path of karma yoga is to take meditators and get them acting and take actors and get them moving towards meditation.

CS: Right, awakening for busy people basically. Or meditation for busy people or action for meditators, we can look at it from all these different ways. So this is Buddhas in action, how we turn every moment into a meditation.

Q: So with karma yoga, you’re accomplishing a number of things, you’re taking your action into an observation place rather than just a production place.  So when we go to work we work to get things done and to make sure we get paid and to make sure that we get the results and how we get it is often irrelevant and companies and corporations are finding that their biggest cost now is employee dissatisfaction and part of the reason the employees are dissatisfied, I think, is because their spiritual life and the material life are too far apart.  That their working life is too far from their spiritual life.

CS: Yes. We need to live according to our… or we thrive when we live according to our values, and this is why the path of karma yoga is so helpful. Can I just go back, you were talking about the body, the action in the body and then the mind, the reflecting on the action and then the speech which is the communication between those things, or the expression of what’s happening – and that’s the traditional ‘body, body speech and mind’ that meditators may be familiar with – those are three lenses through which we approach our meditation practice. And our karma yoga practice.

Qapel: So from the spiritual part of the equation, what you’re really trying to do is get towards spaciousness, emptiness, and openness in the field of the mind,  which gives you peace, bliss, and clarity.  So that’s kind of the spiritual statement.  And then from the action statement, what we’re trying to do is work together, get things done, produce, create, develop, grow, imagine: science fiction at its best.

CS: So this is very much what we’re sharing with you about karma yoga, and what Buddhas in Action, the retreat, is all about – is very much from our own personal experience, because as meditators we struggled. We had a retreat center to run and retreats to offer to people and we would get really focused on success or the results we wanted or the particular project we were working on and we had to say, hey, how is your state? Are you still managing to have some awareness while you’re focusing on getting these goals? And in the beginning, the answer was No!  We were like “Ah no, I’m just trying to get this done.”  And so we’ve had a lot of practice bringing these two together. And then the reverse was also true. We kind of wanted to escape from the responsibilities of running a retreat center or hopefully somebody else can put on that retreat, so I can just go meditate.  And meditation can be a sort of excuse to escape from the world. And so we have really… it’s been very much a part of our path and required for what we do to bring these two together in ways that are mutually supportive.

Q: Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a big buzzword in the community these days. Everybody’s talking about mindfulness, mindfulness training, and mindfulness is fantastic because it makes you mindful, and when you’re mindful you are usually a little calmer, a little clearer, a little bit more relaxed, a little bit more with what you’re doing.  However when we talk about meditation and mindfulness or karma yoga and mindfulness, we’re kind of upping the volume a little bit because we’re now talking about mindfulness about mindfulness.

So with karma yoga, you’re doing work, mindfully. But more importantly with the karma yoga practice, you’re learning to be mindful about how you’re doing the work, the state you’re in doing the work, the processes that are going on while you’re doing the work, and because you’re in a retreat situation in this case, you don’t have to worry so much about getting it done or being right or whether you’re gonna get into trouble or so on. Although we want you to do the best possible job you can, our goal is fundamentally to help you see how to be in a clear, blissful, radiant state while you’re up to your neck in alligators, trying to drain this one.

CS: That’s right. So Buddhas in Action, you’re talking about – the retreat is the dojo so that you can practice here and then take that, take what you’ve learned back to your own life wherever and however that may be.

Q: And for instance, in meditation, you get to see your interior processes a lot. You get to recall through memory how your emotional meetings with people or with your parents or your family or with your partners or your work function. But it’s in isolation. That’s fine, that’s perfectly good because that quiet space gives you the room to make a connection you might not have had before. But the advantage of karma yoga and it’s not an ‘or’, it’s an ‘and’ – the advantage of karma yoga is you get to practice it in situ. So you’re  actually working with somebody else who’s different than you and you’re trying to accomplish a task of some kind and you have to learn to cooperate and communicate perhaps better than you ever have to do at work, which hopefully through learning it, you can take back to the marketplace, you can take back to your careers and your relationships with newfound insight and understanding.

CS: So I ask you where else are you going to get the opportunity to be going about a project or a task and have somebody check in with you and say, hey, how’s your state? And of course, that is probably quite an irritating question.  And then how often do you have the support from other people and from the environment to say, okay, so let’s look at this irritation? Why is this irritation coming up? Where is it in the body? And how would you like to communicate that or how would you like to work through that? So that’s the the ‘body, speech and mind’ components and why that’s such a powerful approach and why we think this retreat or this path is so powerful, of karma yoga, because it’s a very rare and precious opportunity to be able to examine those states as they’re happening while still carrying on with the project and reaching the desired goals.

Q: We talked earlier about yoga, joining the spirit to the mind and in meditation of course you can meditate anywhere you know, out in the woods by yourself. And so with that observation of the interior functioning of the body, because it’s meditation, you’re not moving much, you can watch the energy flows and energy shifts within your body while you’re meditating and because you’re not talking and you’re not interacting with people, you can watch the interior processing of your mind in it and how that’s unfolding as we said before. So when you transfer over or you shift over to the karma yoga side of the practice you learn to do the same thing, but more exteriorly.  So now you’re watching how things move with others. So for instance, you can learn that it is actually easier with others, which is more about the container of the community than it is about the individual practice.

So, with karma yoga, you’re moving over more to community, and with individual practice, it’s more about the individual so it’s easier with others and what else, and both are so important. 

CS: We need to have our own shit together but we also need to be able to interact with other people and more and more important all the time. 

Q: You learn that in the union, the yoga of spirit and mind or body and mind, is that there are some really important cornerstones of your practice and one of them is honoring your space –  is being able to be at one with your environment. You think of a Chinese painting where the Chinese guy walks through the forest with the clouds. You feel that sense of unity because he’s in harmony with the space. That’s one.

CS: That’s right –  ‘It’s easier with others’, we mentioned.  Structure and routine are your friends.

Q: Another aspect that we are going to go to work and you’re going to see: structure and routine in your office or your workplaces, and rather than think of them as limitations or interferences you can learn how to work with them as energy dynamics. 

CS: That’s right. 

Q: Another aspect of that dynamic is: clearing up big areas of your life liberates huge amounts of energy and joy. So this touches on another aspect that we do called ‘ Working with the Shadow’. So in terms of how we go to work and how we involve ourselves and our interpersonal relationships, there are often hidden forces at work that are kind of polluting or corrupting how things work out. You often find things don’t work out so well in certain situations.  So this is another aspect of karma yoga, that in that karma yogic engagement with your activity, you see these big areas of your life and you do have the opportunity and the room to work on them.

CS: We provide the support to go where we have not gone before and to the Shadow areas where we may feel some trepidation about leaning into it. So we have support from other people and we have other people around us who have been through that process themselves or ourselves. And I know what it’s like to be scared of what we might find there and know also that it’s going to be okay. 

Q: So again, this is all by way of introducing perhaps you to, or maybe adding a few ideas to your understanding of karma yoga.

CS: Qapel  was teaching in Berkeley California and someone in the audience, someone about Qapel’s age asked very poignantly, what was the question he asked?  If meditation is so great, why aren’t more of us awakened? 

Q: I’m not sure he put it that way. I think I recall the question as: we’ve all been in this teaching of Awakening for 20/30 years and why aren’t more of us Awakened?

CS: Right. It was a very poignant question. I suppose this was the first time we’ve met this person, so we don’t know his story, but it seemed like he’d probably been meditating for 20 or 30 years and was wondering, you know, why it wasn’t working. And I think that is really one of the things that karma yoga addresses, although it is totally possible to awaken through meditation or through devotion or through scholarship or through a combination. It’s also totally possible to awaken through the path of karma yoga, the path of action. And as we mentioned, we found that it really helps contemporary people combine our spiritual practice with what we’re doing for the rest of our waking hours which it’s challenging to have a daily meditation practice let alone a significant one, where we’re able to meditate for –  you meditated for two hours a day at one point in your life. And our teacher said, oh, maintenance. 

Q: Maintenance.  If you want to awaken through the path of meditation, you should consider that you’re probably going to need to meditate 19-21 hours a day, probably three or four months a year, two or three times a year for a number of years. So like anything, to be good at it, it’s a profession and you need to work at it.  So most people’s meditation practice in the West is not enough to really create the breakthrough through the path of meditation. 

CS: If we think of that aphorism of needing 10,000 hours, I think, that’s to be good at something. And so to actually spiritually Awaken, one would need more. 

Q: And if you do go by the path of karma yoga or one of the other paths, meditation is still required, you still need to do it.

CS: An important part of it. 

Q: But you don’t have to do quite as much and you don’t have to be quite as professional about it to get there.  Because, to answer the question from the guy from Berkeley, why aren’t more of us Awakened? Fundamentally, the reason Westerners have a hard time Awakening is that they’re over-identified with their ego structures, they’re over-identified with their self, their sense of a separate independent self. And meditation helps you to see through that illusion, and drastically and dynamically, karma yoga helps you see that very clearly, very quickly.

CS: Especially when you’re doing it with other people who are on the karma yoga path. That’s what we find is very powerful, the power of sangha. It’s one of the triple gems, the buddha or the teacher, the dharma or the teachings, and the sangha, the community of practitioners.  When we have those three working together, it’s very powerful. 

Q: And what’s even better in a way is that meditation is go nowhere fast, which means you have to have a fair bit of time to go nowhere very slowly, right, and we live in a busy fast world.

So the point of view is: no matter how fast karma yoga happens, no matter how quick the changes are, you can still be practicing mindfulness of mindfulness in a meditative way through the action. So that’s a big plus for modern life.

Cara: Okay. We have a question from Michelle, she said you shared that often. We get into trouble around communication as we split from mind and body. What would be an example of integrated communication? 

CS: Yes, that’s a great question, Michelle. I think integrity. Actually sharing what is coming up for us and doing it in such a way that is –  ‘this is what’s coming up for me’, not necessarily you know, ‘it’s because you’re making me feel this way’, right, owning our own feelings. And I think the most challenging thing  about that is we may not be aware of our own feelings, we may be aware that we’re uncomfortable, but often we’re so busy we don’t take the time to check in and see what’s happening, so then it’s hard to share it skillfully.

Q: Can I just maybe add a dimension to it a little bit. You know, one of the big issues in the spiritual life for modern people, especially since they maybe don’t have teachers or they don’t have a close enough relationship with the teacher to keep them honest, is a thing called spiritual bypassing. With  spiritual bypassing  it’s basically what Catherine just said –  is that what we think we should be presenting and how we think we should show up is different than how we’re actually feeling or what is going on with us. And so a huge element of that isn’t that you’re gonna dump your negatives on anybody but that you acknowledge them and recognize them as present and you communicate the fact that they’re present to whomever you’re talking to.

So you can go: “Look, I’m in a terrible mood today, everything’s going wrong. I’m really kind of a grump, It’s not your fault.  I don’t know what it is, but it’s not you, it’s just me and now let’s talk about that loan you wanted to make.”  Right then everybody knows where it’s at, more than thinking, oh you’ve got to behave in a certain way.

CS:  And that relieves the tension that everybody is feeling anyway.


We hope you enjoyed this episode. Please rate and review Dharma If You Dare on Apple podcasts to help more people find and benefit from these teachings, and don’t forget to subscribe to get episodes and bonus content sent directly to your device. If you find the teachings of Planet Dharma resonate and are wondering how to explore them further we recommend our free online course called Wake Up: Four Paths to Spiritual Awakening. This Self-study course gives an introduction to the main approaches that Doug and Catherine employ with students to help them find their speediest path to spiritual Awakening. It includes a module on the path of Awakening through Action discussed in today’s episode. You can learn more and register for free by visiting www.planetdharma.com/wake up

 See you next time, and may all our efforts benefit all beings.