The Art of Selfless Service, Karma Yoga

The Bhagavad Gita, a popular Hindu and yoga scripture, has a lot to say about activities that need to be done – ‘the what’. In addition, it provides guidance on how we should do them – ‘the how’. The teachings describe a practice called karma yoga, which is undertaking activities unselfishly, without being attached to the results.

Another name for karma yoga is ‘selfless service’. This means more than just serving other people. If you’re watering a plant for the sake of the plant without any personal expectation from the results of the action, that’s karma yoga. When you remove an insect from your house with the intention of allowing it to survive, without expecting anything for yourself, that’s karma yoga. Any kind action, regardless of size, where you’re unattached to the results, is karma yoga.

Karma yoga is always aligned with the needs of the cosmos. There’s a clue that points to this, in the name ‘selfless service’. There’s no self! When you’re practicing karma yoga you’re free from selfish desire including the seeking of rewards. The action is free from the self, another name for the ego. Karma yoga can only be performed when you’re present. Free from selfish meddling of the ego. And when you’re free from the ego, your activities are non-competitive. The opposite to karma yoga is taking action that is selfish and completely driven by the ego with no altruistic motivation.

You can have an expectation in relation to an activity without being attached to the outcome. An expectation is a belief that something will happen. Occasionally, when my children were young, I’d offer them helpful advice on various matters, expecting them to do what I said. I know that this was a form of karma yoga on some occasions, because if they didn’t follow the advice, I’d remain peaceful. I had an expectation but was not attached to it. Occasionally, I’d become frustrated if they didn’t follow the advice I was giving them. When this happened, this was not karma yoga as I was personally attached to the result – hence the suffering. When you’re unattached from the results of your activities, you gain freedom from anxiety about how things might turn out. It’s liberating and makes activities far more enjoyable.

I particularly enjoy observing others practising karma yoga, even if they’ve never heard of the practice. You will often see people carrying out random acts of kindness without any selfish desire or expectation involved. Helping somebody less mobile across the road or removing a snail from the sidewalk and placing it somewhere safe. Even relatively small actions like that are a form of karma yoga when undertaken in the right way.

Some Hindu ashrams offer people opportunities for karma yoga practice. This often takes the form of work that contributes towards maintenance and general running of the ashram. It can include activities like cleaning, cooking, working on a reception, or performing administrative duties. In return, the karma yogis might be provided with food and accommodation for their services.

If your main reason for doing this is to tell people how spiritual you are, or to get some free accommodation in a place you find pleasurable, that’s not karma yoga. Even although it’s badged as ‘karma yoga’.

Whether these activities are true karma yoga is dependent upon the mindset of those doing it. True karma yoga is determined by intention, not by the type of activity you do. The reality is that there will often be a mixture of motives. People are operating somewhere on the continuum of the selfishness / altruism scale. Joining karma yoga programmes with selfish motives is still spiritually beneficial.

One of the reasons that karma yoga has the name it does, is that it’s neutralises existing karma, and doesn’t create any new karma. I’m referring here to karma in the negative sense. By practising karma yoga, suffering associated with unskilful actions from the past surfaces, providing the opportunity for you to accept and release it. You’re giving the universe the opportunity to offer corrections for your wrongdoings in the form of suffering. I’ve experienced this a lot myself. I’ll be doing something for somebody without any expectations or wanting anything in return. It might be helping a friend move house or going out to the shop to buy a gift. Occasionally, during the activity, especially if it’s a simple activity, I’ll experience emotional pain from the past and unpleasant thoughts.

People carrying less negative karma find it easier to be truly generous. They aren’t prone to suffer as much during the act of generosity. In fact, they usually enjoy undertaking generous activities. The more karma somebody carries, the larger their ego, making them more likely to act with selfish intentions. Karma yoga by its nature is a form of generosity. Generosity is a component of kindness. So you can see the link between karma yoga and kindness.

The Gita claims that through practising karma yoga you’ll be provided with everything you need. Believing this allays the fear of becoming diminished or losing out through serving others. This type of fear can show itself in the form of scarcity mentality. Or a fear that you’ll get depressed through practising karma yoga as you won’t be experiencing enough pleasure.

The teaching about being provided with everything you need can be validated. In order to serve others effectively, you also need to look after yourself and ensure your own needs are met. The two are inseparable. It doesn’t matter whether what you need is delivered mysteriously by some higher power, or through your own thoughts and actions. You take responsibility for getting your own needs met for the indirect benefit of others.

Over time, your wants reduce as your service to others increases. Wants are optional and egoic. You may want a new coat when you already have a coat that’s sufficient for your needs. The ego says “go on, treat yourself to that new coat, you deserve it”. Needs are different to wants. Needs are required to maintain your health and wellbeing. You need a coat to stay warm. I must say that this example is for illustrative purposes. There may well be times when you do genuinely need to buy a new coat!

True kindness contains no attachment to the fruits of your actions. You simply act with positive intentions and trust that nature takes good care of what happens subsequently.

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