How, then, should we act?

Your right is to work only, but never to the fruit thereof. Never consider yourself to be bringing about the results of your actions, nor be attached to inaction. (Bhagavad Gita 2.47)

This is one of the most famous verses of the Bhagavad Gita and captures the essence of karma yoga, or the path of action. The Bhagavad Gita teaches three main paths to happiness and freedom — karma yoga, bhakti yoga (the path of devotion) and jnana yoga (the path of wisdom). For most of us, living in the world with families, jobs and other responsibilities, the first path is probably the most applicable. It is also very attractive, with its promise of attaining peace and joy through and within our daily activities.

However, this allure can be deceptive; karma yoga is a radically different approach from all that we have been taught and even from what motivates us to act. In a nutshell, we are reminded that while we can work hard and do our best to bring about a particular outcome, whether that actually happens is dependent upon many factors other than just us. This is true of the simplest thing like wanting a glass of water, to “bigger” things like wanting to stay in good health. By sticking to the results, we are focusing exclusively on our role and forgetting the truth of how things really work. This then causes suffering as we are trying to control something we actually have little or no control over. In the words of T.S. Eliot,

For us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business.

At the same time, the teaching also says that this scheme of things does not mean we should just sit back and do nothing. In fact, it tells us to give the best we can. This is what makes it hard to follow the path of karma yoga. It is a 180° change from how we ordinarily think and act. It can be quite difficult to even accept that this may be the path to happiness, let alone explore how to implement it. And yet, once we understand it, this way of working frees us from reactivity and suffering, making even the most ordinary tasks the route to a peaceful and grounded life.

Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling the potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.
Alan Watts

The Gita also explains how and why we are cocooned by our mindset, and find our beliefs so hard to give up. We mistakenly think that these beliefs are essential to our success and progress, when in fact they stand in our way. This is one of the things that makes it such a great text — it understands our psychology and habit patterns and is able to not only reflect them back to us but also to give us the tools to change them to serve our higher interests.

Come join us as we explore this deeper over the next few weekends. In our classes, we will try to understand what it means to do our best without hankering after results; why this is so crucial to our well being; and how we can develop this mindset through consistent practice. Details here.