I’d always struggled with the concept of work in my life. In the quest to find fulfilling work, I’d never stayed in a job for long. I was trapped by the need to satisfy my muse—my passion to help the world—while still making enough money to survive. Working for non-profits or the government didn’t seem to do it for me. Neither did self-employment. All traditional work arrangements seemed to present trade-offs that I wasn’t prepared to make. So I tried doing my own thing by starting a volunteer non-profit, but since it generated no income I also had to take on jobs that didn’t contribute to my spiritual development.
Unable to find good work that would allow me to make a living, I felt I was about to burn out. Then, while attending a meditation retreat, I stumbled upon a selfless service opportunity. A few other work-trade arrangements at various spiritual communities followed over the next three years where I did basic manual labour work such as maintenance and gardening. Eventually I had an opportunity to study and practice selfless service in the ancient tradition of karma yoga—union through action—which Mahatma Gandhi regarded as his main path to liberation.
I spent almost a year in the Karma Yoga Service and Study program at the Salt Spring Centre of Yoga in British Columbia, Canada. The Centre hosts yoga and other spiritual retreats, fulfilling its mission to provide a peaceful environment in which people can do their spiritual practice. My job was to support the Centre and its visitors in any way necessary. One day I’d be cleaning toilets, another I’d be chopping wood in the morning and carrots in the afternoon, and so on. Mundane tasks that I’d previously looked down upon I now saw from a totally new perspective. Suddenly, wiping toilet bowls became joyous, sweeping the floor became a dance and the vacuum cleaner became a musical instrument to play. Almost all the tasks were pleasurable; the few times they weren’t, I reflected on the reason why, and in all cases it lay within me.
Shortly after I began the karma yoga program, the concept of selfless service crystallized for me. I was not being paid, but I was doing good work while chipping away at my many attachments—the two things I most wanted from my work life. Work is often seen as a mundane task, undertaken with a focus on future rewards. The karma yogi flips this perception around to see work simply as a part of life, to be cherished in the present moment. The key to karma yoga is to accept the beauty of life at this very moment—without desiring something “better.”
I see karma yoga as a kind of test; if people like a job I’ve done and compliment me, I take in the compliment with gratitude, then spit it out. The ego has to stay non-attached from any sort of reward, including intangible benefits like praise, because it would otherwise lead to inflation of the ego, causing a separation between people and a reduced awareness of Oneness.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of karma yoga, for me, is to make sure I’m doing a great job even though I’m not working for any gain. There were times at the Centre when I worked hard, pouring my love into a project for the betterment of the community, only to see less-than-ideal results. But I learned that I could still be fine with it, because the important thing was not the outcome but the attitude with which I approached the work.
The normal pattern of work is to visualize a goal and then do whatever is necessary to accomplish that goal, which may not even turn out to be what is truly desired. Karma yoga is about seeing the right way to do something and doing it well, without being fixated on the end result. The right way to do things is to work in the present moment, in a spirit of peace. With a peaceful spirit, things become easy to accept. With mindfulness, all is perfection. And when we work this way, everything tends to turn out well; if it doesn’t, we can either accept it or easily deal with it. In our extremely goal-oriented culture, karma yoga may appear to be a backwards approach to work, but it is the right way to work.
Practicing karma yoga at the Centre, I felt more comfortable giving myself to God, letting the flow of life take me in whatever direction it would. My ego’s grip over my plans for a “secure” future weakened enough to let me be secure in insecurity and to know the truth—that as long as I devoted myself to selfless service, I be taken care of, one way or another.
I cherished my time in the karma yoga program and I know the benefits will stay with me for life. I feel better able to see the positive in any work I do, and I’m more spiritually connected to my work. While I can no longer focus on karma yoga full-time, I’m integrating it into my life as best I can with a part-time volunteer job.
More important than the amount of time we can devote to volunteer work is the consistency with which we bring a spirit of selfless service to everyday life. As friends, as members of a community, as world citizens, and in every aspect of life we can find opportunities to practice karma yoga. Seeking these opportunities can be seen as the “art of living.” Like any art, there is no quick and easy way to interpret it; in time, as we absorb its the true meaning, we can learn from it and we can grow.
For more information about the Salt Spring Centre of Yoga’s Karma Yoga program and other retreats, visit www.saltspringcentre.com