Is there such a thing as an altruistic act? Or do all our actions contain an element of self-interest? This is a big question and if we scratch under the surface it tells us a lot about our worldview. Plug altruism into a thesaurus and you will learn what you already knew, that at its heart altruism contains selflessness, self-sacrifice and nobility. What’s missing from this and what, from yoga’s perspective, lies at the heart of this orientation is, well, the heart. Although many of us assume people are either born with a giving heart or not, yoga says these qualities are inherent to us all and can be cultivated, deeply, through the practice of karma yoga.
‘Karma’ comes from the Sanskrit root kri, which means ‘to do’. Because of this, karma yoga is often described as ‘the yoga of action’; a very dry description for something that’s actually very beautiful.
We lead busy lives. In the course of that life we make thousands of decisions each day about what to do, and not do. To exist is to act. What we take for granted in this equation is that I am the one doing.
I choose to act. I choose to not act. Through these choices, I am the master of my destiny.
Yoga says differently. It says we’re mistaken to think that we’re the ones acting. Universal consciousness (or whatever name we give the awareness in our life that feels is bigger than us) moves, and acts, through us. We’re simply the vehicles through which that awareness can pass.
If we think we are in control, we’ll have the desire for our actions to be a source of external recognition. We’ll act to get praise, or a pay rise, or to be loved, which is a bummer because if we act from this place our actions will never be anything other than selfish; whether they satisfy us or not will depend on what we get in return.
When the ego stops meddling, our actions can become an expression of – and offering to – that force in our life that’s bigger. But first, our worldview need to change.
We all have the tendency to compartmentalise our experience (now I’m at work, now I’m at home, now I’m doing my spiritual practice, now I’m not). Yoga says, actually, everything is sacred at its core (and therefore everything is spiritual). Our task is to spiritualise our whole life so everything inside it becomes a portal to something bigger.
Life is the practice.
Karma yoga then, is less about what we do and more about the attitude we adopt toward what we’re doing. When we let go of the need for recognition, praise or reward and see that everything in our life is an expression of something sacred, we’re free to act without need for gain because we see that our actions are an expression of something sacred too.
In yoga the core belief is that every email, every animal, every trigger, every moment of beauty comes from a single source (consciousness). If we choose to, we can see – and serve – the divine spark in it all. It’s all what Ram Dass so beautifully described as ‘God in drag’.
You’re God in drag too.
If we hold this to be true, devotional moments don’t have to be limited to moments on our mat or flowers on our alter. Life becomes the alter. Devotion to life, the practice. That devotion compels us to pour ourselves so fully into each moment that the moment has the capacity to transform us. This is what karma yoga is.
When we act in service of the greater good and see that we’re plugged into an interconnected reality, we realise that our own storyline – while absolutely necessary – plays only a very small part.