How to Make Progress in the Practice of Karma Yoga

We tend to be carried away by the external focus in the work we are doing, and thus, the presence of mind needed to remember and offer is set in the background of our awareness. If we reflect on the state of consciousness we experience when focused on some external work, we soon find that we can be almost totally absorbed, and in fact, that work is generally best accomplished through what may be called a “one-pointed” concentration. So how do we convert this work into karma yoga when we are not paying attention at the time of the work to the spiritual focus?

Patience and perseverance and time. The vital nature, particularly in the mode of Rajas, wants and expects instant results and visible progress. The type of changes that are envisioned in the practice of karma yoga, however, are not easily and completely implemented. They tend to develop over time with persistent, quiet effort. Sri Aurobindo describes several ways to phase in the required standpoint for the individual practicing karma yoga.

After some time, with repeated practice, the resulting status may appear to be almost effortless, as it simply occurs. To reach that stage, however, the sadhak needs to be prepared to keep trying, without any sense of discouragement..

Sri Aurobindo writes: “It is easy for one, comparatively, to remember and be conscious when one sits quiet in meditation; it is difficult when one has to be busy with work. The remembrance and consciousness in work have to come by degrees, you must not expect to have it all at once; nobody can get it all at once. It comes in two ways, — first, if one practices remembering the Mother and offering the work to her each time one does something (not all the time one is doing, but at the beginning or whenever one can remember,) then that slowly becomes easy and habitual to the nature. Secondly, by the meditation an inner consciousness begins to develop which, after a time, not at once or suddenly, becomes more and more automatically permanent. One feels this as a separate consciousness from that outer which works. At first this separate consciousness is not felt when one is working, but as soon as the work stops one feels it was there all the time watching from behind; afterwards it begins to be felt during the work itself, as if there were two parts of oneself — one watching and supporting from behind and remembering the Mother and offering to her and the other doing the work. When this happens, then to work with the true consciousness becomes more and more easy.”

“A time comes for the sadhak in the end when the consciousness and the deeper experience go on happening even in full work or in sleep, while speaking or in any kind of activity.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg. 100


Two Methods for Practicing the Yoga of Works

There is no clear line of demarcation between the 3 major paths of yoga that are based in the primary aspects of development, the yoga of knowledge, the yoga of devotion and the yoga of works. As they proceed down their somewhat different paths, they must necessarily gain aspects of and bring the results of the other two. As one gains in knowledge, one recognises the inherent necessity of love and devotion, and works take on a new meaning. Similarly, as one focuses intensely on the yoga of devotion, it brings a state of oneness between the devotee and the object of devotion, which brings with it a deep knowledge. As the yoga of works develops, and it becomes necessary to observe and remove the vestiges of the ego and desire from the action, the practitioner must necessarily adopt methods that harken back to the yoga of knowledge or the yoga of devotion. Sri Aurobindo makes this clear when he describes two primary methods for developing the yoga of works, one of which relies on the power of knowledge, the other on the power of devotion coupled with the vital and physical action of work in the external world.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “…one of the two ways towards yoga by works is the separation of the Purusha from the Prakriti, the inner silent being from the outer active one, so that one has two consciousnesses or a double consciousness, one behind watching and observing and finally controlling and changing the other which is active in front. But this also means living in an inner peace and silence and dealing with the activities as if they were a thing of the surface. The other way of beginning the yoga of works is by doing them for the Divine, for the Mother, and not for oneself, consecrating and dedicating them till one concretely feels the Divine Force taking up the activities and doing them for one.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg. 99

Overcoming Vital Reactions of Attraction and Repulsion in Action

There are numerous activities we undertake in our lives that engage us with more, or less, interest. Some we treat as purely mechanical, some we detest but do them because we ‘have’ to. Some elicit very positive and focused interest from us and we tend to like those activities. Our vital nature creates, in its normal action, a response of liking or disliking and we then tend to be attracted to those things we like, and repulsed by those we do not.

In the practice of karma yoga, these vital reactions need to be resolved so that we can undertake any action called for with at least a measure of equanimity and without the attraction/repulsion force operative. There are several methods to achieve this. One is to actively cultivate the equanimity throughout the being and train ourselves to keep our minds quiet and our vital energy focused on carrying out whatever the task may be. Another is to work on the separation of the witness-consciousness from the active outer nature and thus, not let the desires and the avoidances of the vital affect our deeper consciousness. Yet another is to find a way to accept whatever action as a means of gaining deeper knowledge about the nature and how to manage it, in other words, make even the most mundane acts part of the psychological evaluation and yogic development process. And there is a method of focusing on each action as a sort of mindfulness or awareness exercise and finding out how to enjoy each thing without impatience, or disturbance.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is not that you have to do what you dislike, but that you have to cease to dislike. To do only what you like is to indulge the vital and maintain its domination over the nature — for that is the very principle of the untransformed nature, to be governed by its likes and dislikes. To be able to do anything with equanimity is the principle of Karmayoga….”

“It depends on a certain extension and intensifying of the consciousness by which all activity becomes interesting not for itself but because of the consciousness put into it and, through the intensity of the energy, there is a pleasure in the exercise of the energy, and in the perfect doing of the work, whatever the work may be.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg. 99

Work That Aids the Aspiration and Work That Dulls the Aspiration of the Seeker

It is a constant complaint that we have to take on boring, distasteful, mechanical or otherwise unpleasant jobs in order to survive. Then we create a bifurcation in our minds between “work time” and “personal time” or “sadhana” (if we happen to be practicing any form of yoga). We thus spend a large portion of our lives having separated our lives into the duality of what we “have to do” to survive, versus what our real aspiration or calling is.

The Gita lets us know that any work, no matter its outer form, can become a field of sadhana and it is a matter of our inner alignment with our spiritual purpose that makes even the most mundane work into a spiritual practice. This is of course, an excellent practice, but particularly for someone beginning the process, it is difficult and in some cases a depressing situation.

There is another viewpoint that can sometimes aid the process. To the extent possible, the seeker should try to align his outer work with his inner aspiration. Works that further the sense of devotion, that increase the concentration, that create a wider viewpoint are those that uplift and enliven the seeker’s energy and thus, if they can be undertaken, whether wholly or partially as part of the individual’s work or service, they can actively contribute to the inner texture of consciousness and support the aspiration. Particularly in earlier stages, before the seeker attains the stage of being able to see every effort in every field as part of the sadhana on an active and real basis, this can provide encouragement and support. Even if part of the time is spent in ‘earning a living’, the rest of the day can be balanced with activities that awaken the spiritual ardour.

Sri Aurobindo states: “If a division of works has to be made, it is between those that are nearest to the heart of the sacred flame and those that are least touched or illumined by it because they are more at a distance, or between the fuel that burns strongly or brightly and the logs that if too thickly heaped on the altar may impede the ardour of the fire by their damp, heavy and diffused abundance.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga)

A disciple asks about this statement: “Psychologically, to what does this division correspond in our life?”

The Mother responds: “I suppose it is different for each one. So each one must find those activities which increase his aspiration, his consciousness, his deeper knowledge of things, and those which, on the contrary, mechanise him and bring him back more thoroughly into a purely material relation with things. … It is difficult to make a general rule.”

The disciple follows up: “That means that everything ought to be done exactly, as an offering?”

The Mother continues: “Truly speaking, it depends more on the way of doing a thing than on the thing itself. … You take up some work which is quite material, like cleaning the floor or dusting a room; well, it seems to me that this work can lead to a very deep consciousness if it is done with a certain feeling for perfection and progress; while other work considered of a higher kind as, for example, studies or literary and artistic work, if done with the idea of seeking fame or for the satisfaction of one’s vanity or for some material gain, will not help you to progress. So this is already a kind of classification which depends more on the inner attitude than on the outer fact. But this classification can be applied to everything.”

“Of course, there is a kind of work which is done only for purely pecuniary and personal reasons, like the one — whatever it may be — which is done to earn a living. That attitude is exactly the one Sri Aurobindo compares with the damp logs of wood which are heaped so thick the flame cannot leap up. it has something dark and heavily dull about it.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 97-98

The Essence of Karma Yoga — the Yoga of Works

Humanity has relied on social action, technology, and education as pillars of advancement and the development of humanity. Yet if we examine things closely we find that we are still driven primarily by the forces of ego and desire, even when they cloak themselves in a veneer of altruism or philanthropy. All of our science, all of our religious ideals, all of our moral rules, all of our technological advancement, all of our education may improve the surface of life, but they have done very little, if anything, to solve the problems caused by greed, self-dealing, possessiveness and a narrow approach that only seeks the short-term benefit of the individual (and his close group of associates, whether family, friends, community, religious following, ideological brethren, etc.) without attending to the wider needs of the rest of humanity, the environment, the other beings who share the planet with us or, indeed, the universal creation and its ultimate intent and purposes.

What is required is something that has never been fully understood or implemented widely in humanity, and that is a conscious effort to change consciousness, to widen, to embrace the divine purpose, and to act from that standpoint rather than from the ego-personality’s own narrow vision.

When we recognise that all of these outer attempts for progress do not address the underlying core issues, we begin to understand the message of the Gita and its view of karma yoga, with the inner standpoint and view the essential determining factor not the outer work. Such a view recognises that the ‘illusion of importance’ is another ego-screen that we raise up to continue the old patterns. We exercise a sense of vanity that we are doing something important or valuable when we tackle the ‘big issues’ and fail to recognise much of the time that we still have not succeeded in addressing the needed change in human nature. In reality, simple tasks undertaken from the divine standpoint are essential to the needed transformation far more than major projects undertaken in the spirit and under the impulsion of the ego.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The only work that spiritually purifies is that which is done without personal motives, without desire for fame or public recognition or worldly greatness, without insistence on one’s own mental motives or vital lusts and demands or physical preferences, without vanity or crude self-assertion or claim for position or prestige, done for the sake of the Divine alone…. All work done in an egoistic spirit, however good for people in the world of the Ignorance, is of no avail to the seeker of the yoga.”

“All should be done quietly from within — working, speaking, reading, writing as part of the real consciousness — not with the dispersed and unquiet movement of the ordinary consciousness.”

“Of course the idea of bigness and smallness is quite foreign to the spiritual truth…. Spiritually there is nothing big or small. Such ideas are like those of the literary people who think writing a poem is a high work and making shoes or cooking the dinner is a small and low one. But all is equal in the eyes of the Spirit — and it is only the spirit within with which it is done that matters. It is the same with a particular kind of work, there is nothing big or small.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 96-97

Distinguishing the Ordinary Motives of the Vital Being from Spiritual Motivation

The vital nature has an innate drive towards fulfillment and satisfaction of desire. Since most individuals are oriented towards the outer life, the fulfillment comes through attaining desirable objects of the vital focus. This can be accumulation of wealth, it can be family, fame or achievement of certain goals one sets for oneself. For some people this can shift into the arena of charitable work, volunteer efforts to help create a better environment or improve other people’s lives. The motivation behind this, however, remains for the most part the satisfaction of the vital nature’s push for fulfillment in some arena or another. The standpoint is that of the ego-personality and the ambition is fueled by the quality of rajas for the most part, even if, as is usually the case, there is an intermixture of sattwa or tamas to change the nature of the desire or the action into a lighter, or darker, mode.

For those who are called to the spiritual path, the element of fulfillment of desire remains so long as the standpoint is based in the ego-personality and one references “i, mine, me” as the actor and recipient of the fruits of the action.

As we see in the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita the issue is not the outer form of work done, but the inner motivation and focus. What the Gita teaches is that the entire standpoint should shift away from the ego-personality and its wants, and its fulfillment, to that of the spiritual standpoint where the individual is a nexus of certain forces and actions, but the work is actually directed, inspired, guided and carried out by the Divine. The issue then becomes how effectively the individual can carry out that higher guidance, without reference to individual benefit, fame or glory, wealth or success. An interim phase, as long as one is still tied to the ego-personality, is to carry out the action with a dedicated mind and heart, and not be concerned about the fruits or results of the action, which is left up to the Divine and dedicated to the Divine.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Men usually work and carry on their affairs from the ordinary motives of the vital being, need, desire of wealth or success or position or power or fame or the push to activity and the pleasure of manifesting their capacities, and they succeed or fail according to their capability, power of work and the good or bad fortune which is the result of their nature and their Karma. When one takes up the yoga and wishes to consecrate one’s life to the Divine, these ordinary motives of the vital being have no longer their full and free play; they have to be replaced by another, a mainly psychic and spiritual motive, which will enable the sadhak to work with the same force as before, no longer for himself, but for the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg. 96

The Bhagavad Gita and the Path of Karma Yoga

When we delve into the yoga of works, the Bhagavad Gita immediately comes to mind as a primary text. The Gita explores the questions of what constitutes a yogic attitude in action and compares it to the normal standpoint about work. The major difference lies in the inner standpoint and attitude taken by the person undertaking the action. Many people try to judge things by the type of work undertaken. Charity, philanthropy, altruistic work appear to be ‘yogic’ in their minds. Feed the hungry, care for the sick, these are examples of things that ordinarily fall under the rubric ‘karma yoga’. Yet the Gita makes it clear this is not the true distinguishing characteristic. Such works may be undertaken with a sense of pride or ego, they may be done for motives of fame, acclaim, or to curry favor with others. This makes them works of the ego and self-aggrandising in their intent and effect. The Gita clarifies that the inner attitude of self-surrender, removal of the ego and its motives from the action, and alignment of the action with the divine purpose represent the true basis of karma yoga. In such cases, even actions that outwardly appear to be negative are yogic in their essence. That is how Sri Krishna could counsel Arjuna to fight and win victory in the battle he was facing.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The ordinary life consists in work for personal aim and satisfaction of desire under some mental or moral control, touched sometimes by a mental ideal. The Gita’s yoga consists in the offering of one’s work as a sacrifice to the Divine, the conquest of desire, egoless and desireless action….”

“…the Gita is the great guide on this path. Purification from egoistic movements and from personal desire and the faithful following of the best light one has are a preliminary training for this path….”

“The first step in Karmayoga of this kind is to diminish and finally get rid of the ego-centric position in works, the lower vital reactions and the principle of desire.”

“Any work can be done as a field for the practice of the spirit of the Gita.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 95-96

The Nature of Karma Yoga

It is a common conception, and a tempting one, to expect that by taking up a certain type of charitable work, or even service to support a particular religion or spiritual path, one is practicing a form of karma yoga. All of these things may have enormous benefit in the outer world, and may certainly be encouraged generally. As a stage away from purely self-aggrandising action that has no real benefits to others, it may also find a place in the maturing of the individual consciousness. As long as these things are conducted as an external activity, and particularly as they contain the seeds of ego, desire, and subtle pressures for self-satisfaction, approval of others, or some secondary motives, they do not automatically become vehicles for the yoga of works.

It is not the outer form of work that determines the yogic value, but the inner motivation, the dedication, the ego-less state of the inner being in the action. Once that inner state is set, the form of the outer work does not really matter. Simple acts, small deeds, can be a complete expression of the yogic dedication. Undertaking those actions that are directed by the Divine through a state of Oneness, the seeker finds liberation from the bondage of works and acts in a free, selfless and devoted manner to carry out the work to be done. The Bhagavad Gita expounds in detail on the path of karma yoga and the need for inner dedication rather than some outer standard of action by which to measure the yogic method.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “I do not mean by work action done in the ego and the ignorance, for the satisfaction of the ego and in the drive of rajasic desire. There can be no Karmayoga without the will to get rid of ego, rajas and desire, which are the seals of ignorance.”

“I do not mean philanthropy or the service of humanity or all the rest of the things — moral or idealistic — which the mind of man substitutes for the deeper truth of works.”

“I mean by work action done for the Divine and more and more in union with the Divine — for the Divine alone and nothing else. Naturally that is not easy at the beginning, any more than deep meditation and luminous knowledge are easy or even true love and bhakti are easy. But like the others it has to be begun in the right spirit and attitude, with the right will in you, then all the rest will come.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 94-95

The Need to Balance Meditation and Work in the Practice of the Integral Yoga

In an ancient Upanishadic tale, a youth approached a sage requesting to become a disciple and wanting to achieve spiritual realisation. The sage indicated that he should take two cattle into the forest, and when they numbered 1000 he should return and he would undertake to teach the youth. The young man made sincere efforts and learned all there was to know about raising and breeding cattle, protecting them from predators, and surviving in the forest for himself and his charges. He learned to be observant, patient, protective of those for whom he had taken on the responsibility while at the same time learning about the seasons, powers and timings of nature, and how to live in harmony with the beings who resided in the forest. Eventually he attained the goal and returned to the teacher. The teacher saw the glow of realisation and bowed down to the student, saying that the student was now the teacher, and he was the student, as the youth had attained spiritual realisation. This Upanishadic tale illustrates the potential of attaining liberation through works for a spiritual aspirant.

Those who believe that internal meditation is the only way may begrudge the time and external focus of works in the outer world. In some cases they become extremely withdrawn and uncomfortable acting in the world. In other cases, when they do undertake to act in the world, they may be brusque, angry or unable to handle the feelings, emotions and thoughts that arise in the external circumstances. One way or the other, there are dangers of becoming too entrenched in a narrow focus, which leads away from life and the world.

The integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother aims not solely for liberation from the life of the world, but for the active transformation of that life. This implies that the seeker must not only achieve a liberated state, but must be able to do so while interacting with the world and updating the way he relates to that world. He is to become an instrument of the divine manifestation in evolution, not an escapee from the task set by the Divine in creating this universal manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “To keep up work helps to keep up the balance between the internal experience and the external development; otherwise one-sidedness and want of measure and balance may develop. Moreover, it is necessary to keep the sadhana of work for the Divine because in the end that enables the sadhak to bring out the inner progress into the external nature and life and helps the integrality of the sadhana.”

“It may be necessary for an individual here and there to plunge into meditation for a time and suspend work for that time or make it subordinate; but that can only be an individual case and a temporary retirement. Moreover, a complete cessation of work and entire withdrawal into oneself is seldom advisable; it may encourage a too one-sided and visionary condition in which one lives in a sort of mid-world of purely subjective experiences without a firm hold on either external reality or on the highest Reality and without the right use of the subjective experience to create a firm link and then a unification between the highest Reality and the external realisation in life.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg.94

The Value and Rationale for the Yoga of Works — Karma Yoga

The vital nature of man is a core existential element of our existence. In the past, those who took up serious spiritual practice frequently recognised both the power of the vital and the difficulty of bringing it under some kind of managed and focused control, and thus, they attempted to abandon it to whatever extent possible and focus on meditation to the exclusion of an outer life.

This limited approach helped individuals succeed in their attempt to achieve liberation from the illusory status of action in the world. It did nothing to bring about any kind of change or transformation in the outer existence, and it left a large and essential portion of human nature essentially untouched.

There are frequent apocryphal tales of yogis who spent long periods of time in meditation, but when they came out and had to interact with the circumstances of the outer life, were unprepared and who then reacted with anger, lust, jealousy, greed, envy, and other forms of desire. Clearly they had achieved some serious advancement in the mental realm and could achieve states of concentrated, one-pointed focus on the spiritual goal they set before themselves, but this was done at the expense of any transforming focus on the outer life.

Changing the vital nature is hard. Some liken it to trying to straighten out a dog’s tail, which will simply go back to its former state once the controlling pressure is removed. It is understandable why those who are deeply involved in meditation will generally resist taking up the outer nature and its endless difficulties and snares. Yet, eventually, the outer nature needs to be dealt with if humanity is to progress and if we are to finally solve the riddle of our existence.

The integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother specifically acknowledges this task and works to take up and transform the vital nature and its relationship to the wider divine manifestation and they recognise that not everyone can achieve spiritual fulfillment through meditation. Thus, they embrace not only the path of knowledge, but also that of devotion, bhakti yoga, and that of works, karma yoga.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “There are some people who are not cut out for meditation and it is only by work that they can prepare themselves; there are also those who are the opposite.”

“The including of the outer consciousness in the transformation is of supreme importance in this yoga — meditation cannot do it. Meditation can deal only with the inner being. So work is of primary importance — only it must be done with the right attitude and in the right consciousness, then it is as fruitful as any meditation can be.”

“… that is one great utility of work that it tests the nature and puts the sadhak in front of the defects of his outer being which might otherwise escape him.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg.93