Karma Yoga (Part 2): Action and inaction

This is a subject that is commonly misunderstood and is the cause of much confusion. Some people emphatically state that karma (work) is the cause of bondage; that it is action that prevents spiritual illumination. On the other hand, it is also said that karma or work is absolutely necessary for spiritual progress. Some people advise one to stop work and do nothing, while others say that one should work incessantly. This confusion arises, as is usually the case, by a limited, literal and over-intellectual understanding of the idea and implications of karma and karma yoga. And of course, without deep experience, this misunderstanding is bound to occur; understanding can only come with personal experience.

This particular controversy – work versus no work – has only arisen through misinterpretation of the teachings of the sages. Sages have said that action is the cause of bondage, but they have also said, almost in the same breath, that action is also the means to liberation. In the Bhagavad Gita, the classical text on karma yoga, both statements are made: “.. . do not be attached to inaction.”

“Perform action, 0 Arjuna . . .” (2:47, 48)

Conversely: “I do nothing at all; thus would the harmonized knower of truth think – seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, going, sleeping, breathing.” (5:8)

Another two chapters of the Bhagavad Gita are devoted exclusively to these two seemingly conflicting ideas. Chapter 3 is called the ‘Yoga of Action’ while Chapter 5 is called the ‘Yoga of Renunciation of Action’. Understanding of this apparent riddle really comes through experience and not logical reasoning. The Bhagavad Gita brings activity and non-activity together when it says: “He who sees inaction in action and action in inaction is a wise man: he is a yogi and performer of all actions.”

We must all act or do some form of work. We have no choice. We cannot remain completely inactive. This is tersely explained in the Bhagavad Gita: “None can ever remain, even for a moment, without performing action; for everyone is compelled to act helplessly by the very qualities of nature.” (3:5)

Even if you do no physical work your mind will continue to work. Even refusing to work is action, but here the action occurs through physical restraint; the mind still works. While lying in bed, perhaps with an illness, you are still active, for your mind is still thinking. There is no such thing as total inactivity in normal states of awareness. Even while sleeping, one is acting – through dreams. Each person must always be doing something, whether physical, mental or both. The subconscious realms of the mind are a continuous hive of activity. You think you are doing nothing, perhaps in a state of drowsiness, but these deeper realms of the mind will continue to operate. You must accept that activity is a part of material life, and having accepted this, you should perform your duties to the best of your ability. Better still, you should try to practise karma yoga. In this way, you will at least use the compulsion to act as a means to higher awareness and knowledge.

Don’t renounce work or everyday life. It is not necessary. Try to practise selfless work. This does not only mean welfare or social work, it means doing your work, whether digging a road or administering a multimillion dollar building project, with intensity, detach-ment and awareness. This is not easy at first, but it becomes easier. You can only do your best. But it is well worth putting into practice, for it will bring many benefits that you don’t expect.

If you renounce, it should be renunciation of attachment to the fruits of your endeavours. Try not to think continually of what you will get as reward at the end of your work – your pay, praise, respect, etc. This obsessive dwelling on the fruits of actions intensifies the identification with the individual ego. Don’t renounce work, but do it consciously and with as little T’ness as possible. Don’t worry if you make no headway, because this will only lead to more mental tension.

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