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KARMA YOGA – Enlightenment on the Installment Plan
By Paul Hourihan, edited by Anna Hourihan from lecture transcripts
In spiritual life we are looking for ways to remember the Divine Being and reduce the ego-sense, the self-centered tendencies that are so hard to displace. Normally the Divine Self is forgotten when we do an action. A yoga or practice that can neutralize that tendency is going to be a great power and is going to develop strength and momentum in us.
When we work in the normal way we are helpless—the action absolutely overpowers us. Whether we are working for money, or fame, applause, attention, or whatever it is, we never act or speak in a spiritual manner. This is a tremendous problem that we have to undo in some way; karma yoga is the best way to undo it.
Karma yoga is a discipline that teaches us to work for the sake of the work only. If we can offer it up to God, or our conception of God, it will be all the better. The ego is conquered with this approach.
With the other yogas―raja, jnana and bhakti―the grace, or the uplift, the strength, and the truth are usually not felt right away. But according to Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, with karma yoga we immediately feel the spiritual uplift. Why is that? Because the moment we work this way we feel strong doing the action, a sense of strength is present: we are feeling the benefits right away, as Krishna promised. He said even a little bit of this yoga is effective, is self-authenticating. We can see that if we could work a whole day in this manner, it would be very powerful.
Karma yoga is particularly suited for active people. This was Mahatma Gandhi's yoga. He said, “I am a stranger to revelation [mysticism].” He had some devotion, but wasn’t drawn to the devotional path. He wasn't a deep philosopher or a great monk; he was a perfected karma yogi. He was a perfect example of a man who accomplished great things. He made Truth his God and offered up all his work to Truth. Gandhi's version of karma yoga was very interesting; he recommended we make the means and the end the same, as one, with no distinction, which implies that the actions we do, have no end beyond the action itself. The end is the action itself. Well, how can that be? It's because it's a spiritual discipline like meditation, so there's no reason to think of getting anything more out of it. As Krishna said to Arjuna, “You have the right to work, Arjuna, but not the right to the fruits of work.” Here Krishna is not talking to an ordinary man, but to a spiritual man. The former would never understand that statement; he feels he has the right to the fruits of the action. But the spiritual man wants spirituality. Emotionally we must not attach ourselves to the fruits of the action or to anything beyond the action—that's the spiritual approach. We have to work in any case, so we find that if we follow this practice, lo and behold, at the end of the week someone gives us a paycheck, and we take it home and cash it; we don't refuse it.
Ramakrishna, the great mystic and God-man of 19th century India, said that karma yoga, particularly combined with bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, is the ideal combination for the modern world. We can cultivate the other two yogas—raja yoga, the yoga of meditation and jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, of discriminating between the real and the unreal—at other times when we are alone, or in a more contemplative mood, then we have all the yogas.
Karma yoga will bring us to the doorstep of liberation, and may even bring us directly to liberation itself. But in general it belongs to the phase of our purification because it teaches us to neutralize the ego when we act or speak, when we eat, or whatever action we do. This practice of keeping the ego out of the action is a tremendous achievement.
Krishna said it’s mysterious to know the nature of action because when we act we are one thing and when we pray we are another. Karma yoga removes the mystery and overcomes that part in us that causes the shadow to fall over our actions—that's the glory of this yoga in the active years. We can see that as householders, we are given a chance through our activities, if performed well, to go very far, with a personality growing stronger and steadier, and more stable along the way. This is practically all we will need as a means for liberation. It's a kind of piecemeal enlightenment—on the installment plan—which gives us a feeling of having unlocked the secrets in life.
See also What is Vedanta?, Words of Wisdom: Karma Yoga
WORK AND Resistance - A PATH TO Freedom
By Paul Hourihan/ed. Anna Hourihan
Our theme is the conversion of resistance into spiritual energy... inertia into active energy... one kind of power into another, as water is converted into electric power.
Resistance is everywhere in the universe and in the nature of things—within, and without. It exists for our liberation, our enlightenment. By wrestling with it as a desired challenge in the spirit of nonattachment and service, we give a succession of powerful blows to the sluggish, ego-powered mentality that all these years has made us forget our true nature and destiny. By the practice of concentration on the work alone, we can stop identifying with time, with fear, with limitation, with mortality, with all of the intimations of our ignorance—taking these for reality and taking work to be a burden instead of a passport to liberation and self-knowledge.
All resistance—every problem to be solved, every negative force to be overcome, every low desire to be checked—is good. Anger checked produces tolerance and kindliness. Greed checked produces generosity. Hatred checked produces compassion. Selfishness checked produces unselfishness. Attachment to work checked—produces nonattachment, power, and freedom.
Work without attachment or thought of self, and the resistance involved in all of work, all things to be done, is transformed into higher energy. Furthermore, if the work is offered to the Lord—or done with complete concentration and absence of self-consciousness in the doing of it—the energy will become truly spiritual.
Thus work offers us an opportunity to gain spirituality if we understand how it is to be done properly. Remember, in all things, man is a hidden spiritual dynamo, a saint in embryo, a divine personality, though he knows it not. When he works he should use the work as a wedge into the thick density of his ignorance—the fire of work then becomes like a torch burning away the heavy layers of his delusion that make him forget his True Nature.
Let us work, then—not reluctantly, not out of a sense of duty alone, but rather with the knowledge that work can free us and make us what we truly are. It can rouse up the sleeping spiritual giant in the depths of our psyches ... if performed in the right spirit, and that is the spirit of karma yoga—working not with the thought of reward, but for the sake of the work itself.
See also Words of Wisdom: Karma Yoga and Spiritual Life and the article: KARMA YOGA – Enlightenment on the Installment Plan.