Karma is a Sanskrit word that means action. Karma Yoga is a practical method to ensure that our actions cause good effects. Most of our actions are preceded by a thought or intention. The intention behind any action is always more important than the action itself, as the intention contains the seed of the action’s results. We can undertake an action with a selfish or selfless intention, and each will produce different results, even if it is the same action. As we learn to pay attention to our thoughts and actions, we can begin to shift them from being about ourself to being about others. In this way, we not only end our own suffering, but we profoundly reduce the suffering of the world as we turn naturally toward selfless service.
When an action, and the thought behind it, is selfless, the action leads to the type of future karma that can eventually result in liberation. As yogis seeking liberation, we strive to perfect our actions by first perfecting our thoughts, freeing them from selfishness, anger, greed, hate, and jealousy. This is the practice of Karma Yoga.
When our thoughts move from being selfish to being selfless, we reap far greater benefits. For example, if you are alone at dinner time, you might reach into the refrigerator, pull out a container, and eat while standing in the kitchen. But if you invite a good friend for dinner, you go out of your way to serve the best food. You acquire the best ingredients. You clean the house. You spend hours preparing and cooking the meal. Finally, you serve your guest on your special china, making sure that he or she savors each bite. You might even find that you are no longer hungry. You have been satiated at the fountain of love and service.
The practice of Karma Yoga also allows us to rejoice in the happiness of others for the sheer sake of happiness. This is easy when you approve of the reasons for someone’s happiness, but what if you don’t?
For example, your daughter brings her new boyfriend home to meet you, but you don’t think this boy deserves your daughter. You have made a list of his unsuitable qualities and you don’t share your daughter’s happiness. You may even express your negative opinion with anger and frustration because you want her to know how unhappy you are. But your angry action will not contribute to a better relationship between you and your daughter.
Consider, instead, setting aside your opinion about the cause of your daughter’s happiness. Can you detach from the reason she is happy and simply rejoice in her happiness? Whenever you do a selfless action like this, good karma is not far behind.
This doesn’t mean you don’t have opinions about your daughter’s boyfriend. Your opinions may be valid and could, if requested, help your daughter make decisions concerning her future karma with him. If you come into a state of happiness first, and then act, your daughter will be more likely to hear your opinions if they are presented without anger and insult, and you will be less likely to cause her suffering.
Taking this approach to life—harnessing our thoughts and then our actions—helps us develop equanimity of mind in all situations, which leads, in turn, to the understanding that fighting against or running away from unpleasant situations will not lead to lasting happiness. Perhaps you are unhappy with your job and wish to quit. Each day you go to work grudgingly, and throughout the day you tally up the reasons for your dissatisfaction. One day your frustration and anger reaches a breaking point and you hand in your resignation. What are the possible karmic repercussions?
When you find a new job, you may initially be elated, but it is probably only a matter of time before frustration and anger take over again. You will eventually find yourself upset and on the brink of quitting. The way of karma is such that you will continue to find yourself in “bad” situations until you discover how to transcend them.
If you wish to be permanently free of an unpleasant situation like this so you don’t have to repeat it, you must find a way to change your thoughts about it. Find a way to leave the job while in a state of happiness or gratitude. Don’t wait to be happy until after you quit your job. Your job is not what is standing in the way of your happiness; your state of mind is—and the practice of Karma Yoga can help you change your mind.
When you start paying attention to your own thoughts and their resulting actions, you begin to realize that you are the agent of your fate. What you did before matters, what you thought before matters, and what you are thinking and doing now matters—not just for you, but for everyone around you, now and in the future. So choose your thoughts wisely and plant the kind of seeds you want to reap—and create the kind of world you want to live in.
Adapted from Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul by Sharon Gannon and David Life. Copyright ©2002 by Ballantine Books.