What is Karma Yoga?
Spiritual Awakening through Action: Karma Yoga
Many of us feel challenged to meditate every day, and even more so to meditate for the hours needed to make true spiritual progress. What our modern lives really call for is a spiritual practice that goes beyond the meditation cushion to bring awareness and meditation to every action and interaction we have, 24/7/365. We propose Karma Yoga, a.k.a. Awakening in Action, as a spiritual path for the 21st century and beyond.
Clear Sky Mind, Cloud Mind
“Karma” literally means “action” or “decision.” Since every action or choice (whether by individuals or communities) has a result, it also refers to the law of cause and effect.
Our moment-to-moment decisions are often based on conflicting emotions and self-limiting views, resulting from the familial and societal conditioning that each of us naturally has. However, there is always another state of mind available to us: we call this the “clear sky mind,” as it’s spacious, calm, luminescent and blissful.
This is in contrast to the “cloud mind” of our conditioning, which obscures the clear sky mind. If we make decisions from our cloud mind, the result tends to be more clouds. Sometimes the clouds interact harmoniously, and sometimes they don’t. The clear sky mind is harmonious by nature, so everything that arises from it is harmonious too.
Uniting Body and Mind
Back to the meaning of Karma Yoga: “yoga” means to join, unite, or to be yoked together. Principally it’s about the dialogue between the body and the mind. If these two are working together, like a pair of oxen pulling together in the same direction, things tend to go well. But if they are at odds with each other, chaos ensues.
In meditation, also called Dhyana Yoga, we observe patterns that arise from our body and mind (aches and pains, emotions, stories, attitudes, etc.) on our own, on the meditation cushion. We learn to recognize that conflicting emotions and self-limiting views are like two oxen pulling in opposite directions. More importantly, we learn to discern the clear sky mind behind these phenomena.
When we move and decide on what actions to take from the clear sky mind, conflicting emotions and self-limiting views dissipate. We’re then able to accomplish, explore and share in far more effective and joyous ways.
Relationship and Work: Pillars of Karma Yoga
In Karma Yoga, we watch the patterns that arise as we interact with others. We use the same principles that we’ve learned in meditation and apply it to our work, our relationships and our communities. When we use activity and work as objects of meditation, we’re able to see to the spacious clear sky mind state … even amidst the distractions of interpersonal conflicts, goals or obligations at work, family emergencies, stock market dips and dirty dishes.
As you may have gathered from your own experience, it’s far more challenging to practice with others and while being active, than by oneself on a meditation cushion. This is because interactions bring as many sets of potentially conflicting emotions and self-limiting views as there are people involved. Since they all arise, each must be identified and worked through.
However, the good news is that the path of Karma Yoga empowers people to move past their limiting views together and simultaneously. This means we become better at communicating with each other, with our communities, and ultimately become more effective as positive forces in the world. This is something to celebrate! Read and hear about other’s experiences here:
Spiritual Practice for the 21st Century
Although it may be more challenging in some ways, in other ways Karma Yoga may be easier: this type of “active meditation” fits in better with our 21st century lifestyle, in which work takes up the majority of our day and our headspace. Very few of us are going to live a life of solitary meditation, so it’s fundamental that we learn how to be mindful in our interactions with others.
By establishing the clear sky mind first in our being, we act from the spaciousness and clarity that is our true nature. This allows us to orient our best awareness and effort to the work or the activity that we are trying to accomplish together.
When we have a job to do, the objective is more important than the challenges experienced by us, the individual. Karma Yoga helps us train ourselves to step beyond our ego and work harmoniously together, like two oxen pulling in the same direction.
Sitting Meditation vs. Active Meditation
How does Karma Yoga compare to meditation? In meditation, we reach bliss and clarity by applying concentration and calm to an object (such as the breath), thereby dropping hindrances (such as pins and needles in our leg, or repetitive stories about how somebody has done us wrong). We reach wisdom when that bliss and clarity are combined with investigation and discovery: for example when we perceive the layers of experience and feeling that lie behind our story of “someone did me wrong.” These revelations free us from being stuck in these patterns.
In Karma Yoga we contact calm and concentration by establishing attention on the activity in front of us, rather than on our personal issues and difficulties. This allows us to work with others unhindered by our own conflicting states or those of others.
Beyond Habit and Ego: Spiritual Awakening
Most of our lives are lived in habit, and habits are built in our early childhood. They enter our subconscious and from there may drive our actions without us knowing it. Our individual and social conditioning are constructed to help us become functioning adults in the world we are to inherit. Habits are formed to make life easier, and to lubricate our social interactions, but often they bury our unexpressed or unfulfilled desires.
Our largest and most central unfulfilled desire is for unity and wholeness. We feel this only when we access the clear sky mind. One of the fundamental challenges of our human nature is the conflict between our desire for wholeness and our conditioning.
In order to reach unity and wholeness, we must get past habit. Habits bury and obscure underlying struggles, and thus only by disturbing them will we be able to clearly see what lies underneath. This is why Karma Yoga is so effective: it disrupts habit while bringing attentive awareness to what this stirs up in the psyche, which can create a powerful shift in our perspective.
The seeds for these shifts can be found in our work and the activities we are involved in. Karma Yoga uses these as the meditation object and teaches us to reach calm and concentration, even in the midst of activity, that lead to bliss and insight.
In this way we can use all of our daily actions to contact the clear sky mind, that lies behind, within, and around every activity, thought, sensation, and feeling. Making everything in our daily lives a potential source of bliss, wisdom, and awakening.
Some of our students have shared their experiences as Karma Yogis, and you can hear what they have to say here: Why be a Karma Yogi.
Want to experience the path of karma yoga first hand?
One of the many benefits our having our own base at Clear Sky Retreat Center in the BC Rockies is the opportunity for people to experience karma yoga in a supportive and focused setting. Led by senior students, Clear Sky offers a 3 month karma yoga immersion program that we have found to be incredibly transformative for participants. You can find out more about our three month karma yoga intensive.
Karma yoga can also be done online. If you are already a student of Doug & Catherine Sensei, you might consider applying to do Karma Yoga with a Dharma Trainer. Talk with the Teachers about whether this is a good fit for you.
Read about our overall approach to the the spiritual path, and the four approaches to spiritual awakening here:
Interested in this Path? Some next steps:
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