Karma Yoga: learning how to act

In the spirit of thinking less, I’ve been doing more. I’m not randomly filling my time with busy-ness rather I’ve begun a campaign of consciously and mindfully doing and acting.

Doing more may seem to run counter to many spiritual philosophies – doesn’t yoga advocate retreating to the Himalayas and meditating in a cave? Yes. And, no. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the great spiritual texts of India, recognises that the path of a hermit is not for everyone. In fact it has always only been for a select few.

For most of us Karma Yoga, the yoga of action, is the path by which we can learn most about ourselves and the world around us. And if we perfect this practice we too can achieve lasting happiness. Karma Yoga says that as humans we are bound to act: it is impossible for us to sit and do absolutely nothing. Have you ever tried it? Even if you’re very good at sitting still can you stop your mind from thinking? And even if your mind manages to take a temporary holiday can you stop yourself breathing?

So, in life, we are compelled to act. How then should we go about acting and doing? Over six poetic chapters the Bhagavad Gita guides us in this lifelong experiment to achieve eternal happiness. To help my quest I’ve distilled the teachings into three bite-sized chunks to get me started:

1. Accept your work

Make peace with what you are doing. Sometimes you may love what you’re doing, other times you may dislike it intensely. Either way approach it with the same calm mind. In both cases there is always something you can learn about yourself.

2. Be conscious and mindful

Be completely present in the task that you are doing. Don’t try to accomplish three things at once whilst also planning your attack on another five. Take one step at a time. I’ve noticed if I stay focused on one task at a time my body remains free from tension and my mind stays light and calm. The funny thing is, not only do I stay relaxed I’ve noticed that my productivity is actually higher.

3. This is not about your ego.

Karma Yoga is not about you, how well you did something, or whether people notice what you’ve achieved. It’s is about quietly and simply getting on with what you know you must do and dedicating the outcome to others. It’s about recognising that your actions affect those around you so whatever it is you’re doing try to make that affect a positive one.

Image by Pink Sherbet Photography


  1. Charles

    September 28, 2011 at 6:49 am

    I have just been revisiting the Bhagavad Gita as the prospect of work looms over me. I wanted to revise the idea of taking the action and letting go of the results.

    Something jumped out at me that I’d missed on previous readings. Krishna says that he has no reason to act (being self realized and all) but also that he no reason to refrain from acting.

    Wow! I suddently saw that I’d been kidding myself that I had no reason to act (being self realized and all-not!) but I’d forgotten the equally valid counter proposition: why not do it?

    It’s been a sublime kick in the pants as I am coming to relaize I have no good reason not to do all the dumb stuff I have to do when I’d rather be sitting around doing nothing (which as you say is impossible).

    Thanks for your site!

  2. Charles

    September 28, 2011 at 6:56 am

    Not terribly clear that last post, so here’s the book:

    “He has nothing to gain in this world by action, and nothing to lose by refraining from action.”

    (Karma Yoga 111) Prabhavanada and Isherwood

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