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Karma Yoga: Vedanta’s Secret Weapon For Purifying the Mind

by Rory Mackay: The teaching of Vedanta is actually fairly simple. Its entire essence can be summed up in three words: “tat tvam asi” — you are That…


By identifying as the body and mind alone, you mistake yourself to be a limited entity subject to lack, limitation, birth and death. Vedanta, however, affirms your true identity as the self, which is pure consciousness or awareness.

This awareness isn’t a part or product of the body or mind. It’s an independent principle; of a different order of reality to the body and mind — in the same way that your waking consciousness is of a different order of reality to your dreams or imagination.

Awareness, is not, therefore, contained by the mind-body-sense complex. Rather, the mind-body-sense complex, being an object of perception, is contained by awareness; the eternal subject in which all phenomenal objects arise and subside like clouds in the sky.

When the teaching is properly assimilated — in other words, transformed from abstact knowledge to hard and fast conviction — the mind, no longer limited by the sense of lack and limitation which belong to the finite body and mind, is set free.

This is called moksha, or liberation. Some call it enlightenment. According to the Vedantic scriptures, this is life’s highest goal.

Knowing yourself to be pure awareness, which is actionless and limitless, your sense of doership and ownership, the hallmarks of the ego, are negated. Suffering is neutralised and you are freed from samsara‘s relentless wheel of karma — the need to chase objects in order to gain fleeting moments of happiness.

There is, however, a caveat.

While moksha is attained by Self-knowledge alone and not action as such (after all, how could a limited action yield a limitless result?), the mind has to be prepared to receive this knowledge.

Most of the Vedantic texts start off by assuming that the student has already cultivated a sufficiently pure and qualified mind. These qualifications were outlined in the previous article, and include the ability to discriminate, focus the mind, exercise dispassion and equanimity, control the mind and senses, and last, but certainly not least, a burning desire for freedom.

If you want Vedanta to work for you, it’s essential that these qualifications are in place.

The Path of Renunciation

Traditionally in Vedic society, moksha was seen as the purvey of renunciates or sannyasis; those who leave worldly matters behind to become wandering ascetics, dedicated to the pursuit of enlightenment through Self-knowledge.

While the majority of people in the society engage in an active life of work, activity and family life, the sannyasi actively withdraws from society and all social obligations. These aren’t simply social drop-outs. The purpose of sannyasa is to enable one to devote all their time to purifying the mind and pursuing Self-knowledge.

The path of sannyasa is recognized in Vedic culture as the final ashrama, or stage of life. At a certain age, worldly duties conclude and the individual was expected to retire from work and social life and to devote his or her final years to the pursuit of moksha.

Those with a naturally contemplative disposition, having little desire for worldly attainments, had the option to forgo the householder stage altogether and become a sannyasi at a younger age. In doing so, they relinquish all social and family obligations and devote their entire life to the pursuit of enlightenment. The closest historical parallel to sannyasa in Western society is the path of monasticism.

In actual fact, relatively few people took sannyasa, even in ancient India. Although moksha is held as life’s highest goal, it’s something that has only ever been pursued by a small minority of people.

Why should that be the case?

Vedanta clarifies that all our goals in life are driven by the underlying desire to be free of limitation, and that only moksha provides lasting liberation.

Alas, the allure of worldly life is simply too great for the majority of people. Owing to the natural extroversion of the mind and senses and the concealing/veiling power of maya, we are hard-wired to seek happiness and freedom only in the external world.

The psychological pressure of the vasanas, manifesting as our seemingly intractable desires and aversions, keeps us locked in the cycle of samsara.

A Pure Mind is Essential

Entanglement in samsara is a result of papa karma (negative karma, or demerit). As we’ve seen, this is self-perpetuating in nature and continues as long as one takes oneself to be the doer and enjoyer of one’s actions. For most people, the push and pull of karma is such that they have no interest in spiritual matters at all. 

The desire for spiritual liberation isn’t something that can be manufactured. For most worldly people, it’s the very last thing on their minds.

Even many seekers who believe themselves to be ‘spiritual’ are simply samsaris whose desire for material gratification is wrapped in spiritual clothing.

Such people, often followers of the law of attraction and suchlike, seek to manipulate the universe into giving them what they want. No different to worldly people, their lives are still driven by their likes and dislikes and, as such, their happiness is dependent on the fulfilment of those vasanas.

For such a mind, moksha is unattainable. Samsara is dependence on objects for happiness, and moksha is freedom from such dependence.

A genuine interest in spiritual liberation — a yearning to understand the truth about life, about the self and God, and the burning desire to be free from samsara — is the result of punya karma, or merit. A crack appears in the facade of the ego, and through that crack shines a light that cannot long be ignored.

The more you purify your mind through karma yoga, meditation, and a devotional mindset, the stronger this spiritual impulse becomes until, eventually, it becomes the driving force in your life. The mind shifts from extroversion to introversion. Instead of seeking happiness in what you have, you realize that happiness comes from what you are. It’s only then that spiritual progress is possible and liberation through Self-knowledge becomes attainable.

The vast majority of people, whether seekers or otherwise, are not at that point. They aren’t natural sannyasis, for they still have significant karma in the world, such as jobs and families, obligations and responsibilities. Countless vasanas — deep compulsions, desires, and aversions — bind them to action and its results.

All but the most accomplished yogis, those who have taken considerable time and effort to purify their minds, bodies, and lifestyles, will find themselves bound to the world of karma to a greater or lesser degree.

Maturity Can’t Be Forced

A contemplative temperament must be cultivated. Trying to renounce worldly things and become a sannyasi (spiritual renunciate) by will alone is a recipe for disaster if the mind isn’t first prepared.

Swami Dayananda makes an important distinction between giving up things and growing out of things. When you were a child, there were certain things you loved and couldn’t live without, such as teddy bears, action figures, Barbie dolls, or Saturday morning cartoons. Fast forward a few years, and what once meant the world for you now you have no desire for. It’s not that you gave it up; you simply grew out of it.

When you give something up, an attachment remains. You still have a value for that particular thing, so, therefore, you still have a desire for it.

It’s easy to give up something you have no value for, like last week’s garbage. The moment the garbage is collected, you never think about it again, because it has no value to you. 

It’s much harder to try to give up the things you love and value, such as money, status, relationships, cars, or holidays. As Swami Dayananda says, “as long as there are things without which you cannot live, you cannot call yourself a sannyasi, because there are things that bind you and upon which you depend on for your well-being.”

That’s why you can’t rush headlong into sannyasa. As long as you depend on anything worldly for your happiness, you remain bound by it. While you could take physical sannyasa and go sit in a remote mountain cave, mental sannyasa isn’t nearly as easy to attain. If you are still bound by worldly objects, even as you sit alone in your cave trying to meditate, your mind will naturally gravitate to those worldly objects rather than the Self. 

No matter where you go, your vasanas will be there with you. That’s why, before you can progress on your path, you first have to learn to tame and manage the mind.

What makes the Bhagavad Gita particularly important in Vedantic literature is that it is addressed to a general audience; those who still have karma in the world and who aren’t suited or ready for a lifestyle of renunciation.

The Upanishads generally seem to favour, and indeed, glorify the path of the ascetic. They are aimed at highly mature souls whose minds have been purified and prepared for knowledge.

This led many to assume that moksha was solely the province of sannyasis and that one could only hope to attain liberation by renouncing all action and becoming an ascetic. Krishna says this is not so. He advocates the path of action in the world (karma yogaas the better option for most seekers, including Arjuna.

There Are No Shortcuts

Outer detachment only works if there is a corresponding inner detachment.

The more the mind dwells upon a particular object, the more you want it. Desire and attachment, whether fulfilled or obstructed, create further bondage in the form of anger, depression, greed, or envy. Such qualities lead to moha, delusion, and the mind becomes unfit for Self-inquiry. Meditation is then fruitless and your spiritual life is as good as destroyed.

The great saint Ramakrishna used to say that the biggest obstruction to freedom is attachment to “women and gold”, meaning sex and money. It’s no use, however, to simply suppress your desires and psychological compulsions. Whatever is suppressed will eventually return to the surface, usually in greatly magnified form. The only solution is to sublimate these desires and compulsions; to learn to tame and master the mind.

The path of renunciation only works for someone with a contemplative temperament; someone who has mastered his or her binding attachments and psychological compulsions. This requires a pure mind, and a pure mind doesn’t just happen. It must be cultivated.

The Problem of Likes and Dislikes

According to Swami Dayananda:

“The objective world does not create any problem for you. The problems are caused by a mind dominated by likes and dislikes.”

The psychology of the Gita centres on neutralizing the mind’s entrenched likes and dislikes.

Until this is done, true objectivity is impossible and the contemplative mind necessary for the assimilation of Self-knowledge remains elusive.

As we’ve established, the samsaric mind is driven by a sense of lack and inadequacy. Owing to self-ignorance, you take yourself to be a limited body-mind entity. This causes a deep sense of existential limitation. Unable to experience wholeness in yourself, you seek wholeness in the world of objects. You figure that if you could just get the external world to measure up to how you want it to be, you’d finally experience lasting happiness. This is the fundamental delusion of the human mind.

From this basic sense of lack, desire arises. You can only ever desire what you believe you lack, otherwise the desire would be pointless.

As you grow up, the mind acquires a vast array of likes and dislikes. These come in two varieties: non-binding and binding.

A non-binding like or dislike is more of a preference than a compulsion. You might prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla, or tea to coffee. You might favour one pair of shoes over another. But generally, non-binding likes and dislikes don’t cause psychological suffering. You won’t end up crippled with grief if there’s no chocolate ice cream in the freezer.

When the Gita addresses the problem of likes and dislikes, it isn’t referring to the non-binding variety. Binding likes and dislikes are the real enemy. These deep-rooted compulsions drive a person’s entire psychology. Your whole life — including your actions and reactions, behavior, goals, beliefs and prejudices — is governed by them. Life becomes little more than an exercise in trying to get the external world to match up to your sense of ‘want’ and ‘don’t want’.

Such a mind is incapable of objective vision. Accordingly, we each inhabit what Swami Dayananda calls a “private world of fantasy and fancy.”

The World Wasn’t Put Here To Make You Happy

When life is governed by desire and aversion, happiness is always precarious because it depends on the successful fulfilment of those desires.

The belief that the world is here to make you happy is perhaps the greatest of all human delusions. By ‘make you happy’, you mean that it should conform to your desires.

A lot of modern spirituality focuses on manifesting the perfect life. This ‘perfect life’ is determined entirely by your likes and dislikes. What you want is to try to force the objective world to conform to your subjective ideal. Such deluded seekers, caught in the grip of spiritual materialism, find no end to the ravages of samsara.

Dissatisfaction with oneself and the need to acquire and accomplish is the very core of the samsaric mind. Vedanta shows us that happiness is not the attainment of desire. Happiness is the absence of desire.

Addressing the problematic nature of desire, Swami Dayananda says:

“Desire produces other desires. Its nature is to continually perpetuate itself. Like a fire that leaves a black trail of charred earth never says, ‘Enough! Don’t give me any more fuel! I have burned up so many houses already,’ desire too will never complain.”

Whether obtained or obstructed, desire begets further desire.

The nature of life is such that your desires cannot be fulfilled all the time. As the saying goes, you win some, you lose some.

Failing to get what you want leads to anger and depression, which result in delusion and a compromised mind and intellect. Unable to discriminate and under the sway of your desires and aversions, you may find yourself compelled to perform actions that are not always in line with dharma.

The Gita makes it clear that action should always be driven by dharma rather than our likes and dislikes. As well as being subjective and particular to the individual, our likes and dislikes are fickle. Much of the time we don’t even know what we want — or what we want changes from moment to moment depending on our mood.

As well as prompting us to contravene dharma, a mind driven by binding desires is incapable of assimilating Self-knowledge.

The teachings have little appeal to those whose sole purpose in life is pursuing their own wants and whims. Moksha is impossible for such a person and so a lifetime is wasted chasing shadows.

The Solution is Karma Yoga

In the Gita, Krishna dissuades Arjuna from the path of renunciation for a simple reason.

To be a renunciate requires a dispassionate and contemplative disposition. As long as our likes and dislikes are driving the psyche, our mind will be a whirlpool of agitation.

Therefore, we need a way of managing the mind, lest we forever be its slave.

That’s where karma yoga comes in.

The steady application of karma yoga neutralizes the mind’s binding likes and dislikes. It cultivates a tranquil, abiding mind necessary for the assimilation of Self-knowledge.

Karma yoga is, therefore, an essential preparatory step leading to jnana yoga, the yoga of Self-knowledge (Vedanta), which alone liberates the mind.

Unless one is a sannyasi by temperament, karma yoga is an unavoidable part of the curriculum. That’s why Krishna prescribes karma yoga for Arjuna.

Krishna states that:

“A person does not attain liberation by simply refusing to perform action.  Indeed, such a thing is impossible. No one rests for even a second without performing some kind of action.”

Every being has an innate nature, governed by the three gunas, or three qualities of matter. Abstaining from action is impossible. A person’s own nature, determined by the interplay of the gunas will compel them to act, whether they like it or not.

recent psychological experiment found that participants would rather administer electric shocks to themselves than sit in a room alone with their thoughts. The pressure of their psychological compulsions made it impossible for them to sit and do nothing.

Since it’s impossible for us to refrain from acting, our actions should at least be dharmic and done in the correct spirit.

That’s why, in the words of Swami Paramarthananda, Arjuna is recommended to:

“Take to the way of active service, contributing to the society, and in the process refining the mind and removing the sharp edges of the personality. Just as a knife is sharpened on a rough surface, only in the rough and tumble of life does the mind get mellowed, matured and prepared.”

Karma yoga is the means of doing that.

A Contributory Mindset

Two factors come into play with karma yoga. The first is action and the second is one’s mindset with regard to that action.

Action should always be determined by dharma. Your primary aim is not doing what you want, but doing what is right.

Sadly, we live in a desire-based culture rather than a dharma-based culture. Placing personal gain ahead of all else throws the social and environmental eco-system into jeopardy. The human race is currently living like it’s the last generation on the planet. By pursuing personal greed and vanity above all else, we’re endangering the very planet upon which we, and future generations, depend.

All of creation is interconnected. This entire world is a single ecosystem in which all constituent parts exist as part of a natural balance. That balance must be honoured and protected. Otherwise, we become like cancer cells, putting our own interests above the welfare of the whole organism. The consequences of such an imbalance can be dire, resulting in certain sickness and possible death.

Instead of living with an extractive mindset — in which we constantly seek to ‘get more out of life’ — karma yoga impels us to adopt a contributive, ecological mindset.

Life owes you nothing. It’s already given you everything: everything that you have and everything you could ever need. When you’re given a gift, it’s natural to reciprocate by offering something in return.

That’s why it’s appropriate to live with an attitude of appreciation and a desire to contribute more to the world than you take from it. In this way, your life becomes a devotional offering; an expression of praise and gratitude. The focus of your life shifts from getting to giving.

Action motivated by personal desire is rife with anxiety and stress. Action undertaken with a mindset of devotion, however, is free from bondage. Every act becomes an end in itself and anxiety over the results and the need to ‘get something back’ is removed. This creates what Vedanta calls samatvam, meaning evenness of mind.

A Pragmatic Approach

One of the great problems in life is that while you have choice with regard to the actions you undertake, you have no say over the results of those actions.

It’s true that to a certain extent you can predict what the results are likely to be. If you go to the gym regularly and heavy lift weights, it’s safe to assume you’ll build muscle.

However, cause and effect isn’t always as simple as A+B=C. An almost infinite number of factors, both seen and unseen, come into play when determining the result of an action.

You might have your eye on an attractive man or woman from the office and hope to woo them into a relationship. But perhaps they have their attention on somebody else. They’re also subject to their own personal likes and dislikes; another salient factor over which you have no control.

When you don’t get what you want, you may berate yourself and think of yourself as a failure. However, the result was never in your hands, so any notion of failure is illegitimate. The results were determined and delivered by an inviolable set of universal laws governed by what Vedanta calls Ishvara.

On one level, Karma yoga is simply a pragmatic approach to dealing with life. While you still undertake action with the desire for a certain result (after all, if there was no desire for a result, you’d have no need to take the action), you recognize that you have no control over that result.

Your job is to release the arrow using all your skills of precision. Whether or not it hits the target is then determined by factors outside your control.

At this point, you might start stressing. But worrying over the results is a waste of energy and produces nothing but mental and emotional agitation. The results are always up to Ishvara, as governor of the field of existence.

As a karma yogi, you accept whatever result comes, irrespective of your personal preferences. The fruit of all action is taken as prasada, which means a divine gift.

The karma yogi‘s response is always one of graceful acceptance. If the arrow didn’t hit its target, you can assume it wasn’t meant to hit its target. If it was, it would have. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that you don’t try again. The karma yogi is not fatalistic. You still do your duty and follow your dharma, but you accept whatever results come without undue stress and resistance.

This is a difficult concept for those who are deeply entrenched in their desires and aversions. But, by accepting whatever result comes as appropriate, even if it wasn’t what you wanted, you neutralize the mind’s likes and dislikes and begin to cultivate a peaceful, even mind.

Worldly Goals Are Not an End in Themselves

As a karma yogi, you aren’t called upon to renounce all worldly and materialistic pursuits. Indeed, such pursuits will likely be necessary and appropriate to your stage of life.

What changes is your attitude with regard to them. Worldly goals are no longer an end in themselves. You no longer seek wealth for the sake of wealth, pleasure for the sake of pleasure, or virtue for the sake of virtue.

In other words, you are no longer a samsari; someone who seeks happiness in worldly objects or objectives.

Your goal is now the same as that of the renunciate: freedom through Self-knowledge. When your goal is moksha, you become a mumukshu, a seeker of liberation.

As a karma yogi, it’s not so much your actions that change as your attitude toward action, and this is where the spiritual journey really begins.

The primary aim of karma yoga is a pure mind.

Again, according to the Gita, the impurities of mind all boil down to raga-dvesas; your binding likes and dislikes.

These binding likes and dislikes appear in the form of vasanas, the strings by which the jiva is made to dance. This conditioning dictates every aspect of a person’s life, and, until it is neutralized, the mind remains in bondage.

You might think of the vasanas as the cogs that keep the wheel of samsara in motion. They bind the jiva to action and its results, keeping the mind extroverted and dependent on objects as a source of happiness. A mind thus agitated is unfit for inquiry, so until the vasanas have been managed, the pursuit of Self-knowledge is a largely wasted endeavour.

Even from a pragmatic point of view, it makes sense to learn to master your desires and aversions rather than be controlled by them. If you had the power of omniscience, it wouldn’t be a problem. You’d have the ability to ensure that all your likes were attained and all your dislikes were avoided. As a jiva, however, you lack this ability, so, unfortunately, a lot of the time your likes and dislikes will not be met. Whenever this happens, you suffer.

A life driven by one’s likes and dislikes alone is a life of constant ups and downs, frustration, anger, and sorrow. The problem of desire-based living is that, behind every desire is an expectation and an attachment to gaining a certain result. 

The Gita states that unfulfilled expectation leads to anger. Anger is a mental disturbance that distorts and deludes the mind. Lost in a realm of projection and subjectivity, it becomes impossible to think and act objectively, much less practice self-inquiry. Such a conflict-ridden mind becomes ever more enmeshed in the net of samsara.

That’s why your likes and dislikes are seen as the root of all psychological disturbances. 

Karma yoga is the great purifier of the mind. Its practice helps you manage your likes and dislikes until, bit by bit, the mind becomes steady, stable, and fit for inquiry. 

As object-dependency diminishes, you find that grief over the past and anxiety about the future falls away.

A situation may or may not bring the result you hoped for, but because your action is no longer motivated by your likes and dislikes, you can accept it because your primary intent as a mumukshu is cultivating a peaceful, pure mind.

Your view of life moves from complete subjectivity to objectivity, and your mind becomes more discriminating and dispassionate, two of the key qualifications necessary for an inquiry-fit mind.

There’s No Skipping Ahead

Modern spiritual teachers tend to skip the part on preparatory work. There’s little talk of dharma or karma yoga because it’s not really an enticing notion to the average spiritual seeker.

Accordingly, wily spiritual entrepreneurs package only the juiciest elements of the teaching in order to sell their books and workshops. People generally don’t want to hear that qualifications are necessary and that they have to put in some hard graft in order for the teaching to work. In today’s society, we all want and expect instant gratification.

Unfortunately, skipping to the end doesn’t work with Vedanta. It might if one’s mind is extremely pure to begin with, but such a soul is uncommon. Almost anyone living in today’s confused and confusing world, with its endless distractions, iPhones, gadgets, social media, Netflix and porn, can safely assume that they don’t yet have the tranquil, refined mind of a yogi. 

That’s why everyone should start at the beginning, by adopting the karma yoga mindset and following dharma in order to neutralize the mind’s extroverting vasanas. 

As with everything in life, the proof is in the pudding.

You’ll know when karma yoga is working because you’ll see the results for yourself.

Swami Chinmayananda says:

“When the mind is swept clean of its desire-waves, it must, necessarily, become more and more quiet and peaceful. When the intellect is purified, meaning rendered immune to desire-disturbances, the mind, which reflects the condition of the intellect, cannot have any disturbances. The sentimental and emotional life of one who has controlled the floodgates of desires automatically becomes tame and equanimous.”

With karma yoga, the impurities of desire and aversion melt away when you commit to a life of self-mastery and devotion.

All your actions are consecrated to the divine and performed for dharma — for the good of the total — rather than for strictly personal gain. You accept whatever comes with equanimity because your true goal is the cultivation of a peaceful and pure mind. 

Such a mind, when illumined by the alchemy of Self-knowledge, shifts from dependence on the world to true independence (dependence on the Self alone), as you come to know your self as one with the entire creation.

Source: Unbroken Self


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