Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Karma Yoga

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(Edited from a post to the Alan Watts Egroup Sept. 1996)

Suppose that I encounter someone lying injured by the side of the road. This would fall into the category of a need in front of one - a direct need, in the present, requiring a response.

Hopefully, I would not react to this from personal opinions (e.g. ‘this is someone who has done something of which I disapprove so I am not going to help him’) or from fear (‘I can't stand the sight of blood’) or from desire (‘I have to get to this appointment on time or I will miss a vital opportunity’) or from any other aspect of my personal nature or the thoughts in mind.

Hopefully, all of this would be dropped completely and there would simply be this instrument (body-mind-intellect), through which the Self is operating, here in the present and this need (fellow human, injured and in need of help) in front of me.

There are 'bad' or 'selfish' actions, motivated by egotistic desire; there are 'good' or 'unselfish' actions, helping others regardless of one's own feelings; and there are 'right' actions, simply responding to the need, irrespective of anyone’s feelings or desires, with no consideration of 'good' or 'bad' results and with no reward or recrimination at the outcome - an action which leaves no trace in that artificial essence which surrounds our true nature. This is the only way to 'progress' on a path towards realisation of the truth. (It is effectively the prescription of Karma Yoga, as described in books such as the Bhagavad Gita.)

I am not advocating that we do not act, in this sort of situation, because we believe this or that and want to pursue our spiritual path without being diverted by all of this nasty 'reality' around us - this would be selfish action. Nor am I advocating (as some might suggest we should all do) that we act to try to put right those things in the world which we perceive as being unjust - this would be unselfish action. No, I am simply suggesting that, within the sphere of action of your own particular job, family circumstances etc., you respond in the moment, without premeditation or thought, to whatever is before you - this is right action.

Your own particular nature has been built up through past actions which were selfishly or unselfishly motivated. This is the artificial covering over your true nature and, by continuing to act in this way, you will continue to add to this shell, which will become more and more impenetrable as a result. Only right action does not add to the covering (also known as saMskAra).

Alan Watts talks about it in various places. One amusing reference relates to drinking, a recent topic on this group. He says it is not a good idea to, say, make a new year's resolution to give up drinking. The devil will hear and immediately try to put a stop to this! After a couple of days, he will put into your mind the thought that you still have 364 days to go before you reach your target of a year without drink and how awful this will seem. He says that you should rather do it day by day and say to yourself that you will just give up for 24 hours and that perhaps tomorrow you'll return to normal. Then, tomorrow, you say, well, perhaps just one more day. And so, on. In that way you don't draw the attention of the devil and it might work.

Of course, he goes on to say, the ideal is for intention and action to be simultaneous so that there is no prior thought at all about what you are going to do but that a situation occurs and you just act. This is Karma Yoga.

The point is that the Self does nothing. It is the nature (guNa) which acts; the Self is just the energy source (Consciousness) without which the action could not take place. Our aim should be simply to watch the play unfold. If we pay no attention to what 'we' (the ego) want and just let the intellect choose the right course of action, our part in the play will be optimum.

After all, the problems in the world are all lawful - the result of cause and effect - brought about by people just like us acting in such a way as to try to influence things according to our own desires. Only when we drop all of our limitations can our response be unlimited.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012