Karma Yoga 2.0
by Mark Stavish
As many of you are aware, there are four forms of traditional yoga: Jhana, Bhakti, Raja, and Karma, that form the foundation for the various yogic practices. These four areas of practice the means of practice that we can use to achieve union with our ideal, and thereby, spiritual awakening. Jhana Yoga is realization through study that reveals to us wisdom. Bhakti Yoga is realization through devotion to an ideal, be it in the form of the teacher (hence the practice of Guru Yoga) as well as an ideal, giving rise to many of the missionary forms of religious and spiritual practice. Raja Yoga is a methodical study of the mind as well as karma, or “cause and effect”. It is directly experiential and aimed at the very essence of being like a laser beam. While Jhana Yoga uses our intellect as the tool for awakening, Bhakti yoga uses our emotions, with Raja Yoga using the nature of mind itself, Karma Yoga uses the body and its effects as the tool and the path.
Karma Yoga is described as the “yoga of work”. This means that the person undertaking Karma Yoga consciously undertakes a task as a means of furthering their illumination, and that of others, even though the fruits from that labor will be very material in their expression. For example, it is very common for attendees at a Buddhist retreat center to pay their daily fees for room, board, and teachings, and still undertake a variety of chores to maintain the facility. Cutting grass, helping prepare meals, building maintenance, and cleaning the temple are all aspects of Karma Yoga. Some will even list it on their retreat schedules as such.
However, for those who cannot attend these kinds of events, but still wish to support their teacher, lodge, or school in some fashion, what can they do? Technology has made volunteering easier, particularly in the area of creating publications, videos, and educational tools. Reliable international shipping is also a powerful tool for the creation, transportation, and utilization of various ritual tools, works of art, and highly rare and valuable specialty items connected to the Work. Thus, it is very easy for someone in Thailand to send me, in the eastern United States of America, several pounds of antimony for alchemical work, or someone in Europe to send rare esoteric texts. Modern technology has freed us from the need to be physically present, or within a few hours distance, to be of assistance to the spiritual teachers, groups, and movements that are of assistance to us on our Path of Return.
This ease is not without its own problems however, the principle one being that 'ease of contact' is also 'superficiality of contact'. Or as the saying goes, “Easy come, easy go”. It is not uncommon for esoteric relationships to be more like serial dating than courtships. Everything is hot and heavy in the beginning, and then as reality sets in, the need to keep the emotional and sexual intensity at an all-time high kicks in, and off the student goes, to a new lover, a new teacher, school, or path.
For those who do stay and develop a meaningful, healthy, and mature relationship with their teachers and fellow students, the path becomes very much like marriage with its ups and downs, but for the most part, both parties are in it until the end. This means that both parties are demonstrating respect for what each others roles are in the relationship. While clearly not one of equals – at least not for a while – each knows that the other brings something meaningful and needed to other party.
Yet the needs must be proportional the roles and responsibilities.
If the teacher needs to teach, more than the student needs to learn, then the relationship is doomed from the start. Then, the student does not have a mature individual as a spiritual friend, guide, and drill instructor, but instead, an individual who so desperately needs the approval of others that the only way they can find it is through the highly subjective world of appearing knowledgeable about 'spirituality'. I know this sounds harsh, but that is the way it is. For the first few years, the student must desire the company of the teacher, a company that can be at times very demanding and even torturous, more than the teacher needs whatever it is the student brings to them. For in the beginning, all the student can bring is their body, their wealth, and the promise or potential of it being forged into a tool of awakening.
In one of her writings on Tibetan Buddhism, Janet Gyatso stated, “Lamas need adoring students.”
I think this is very true, and it can also be said for many involved in Western esoteric movements as well. It provides a fresh impetus to the teachings and motivation to the teacher. Students who are too enamored with their teacher are really unable to understand this, as they cannot see through their own projections long enough to gimps the truth. At some point, too many teachers are unwilling to remove the glamor, to pull back the curtain so reality can be glimpsed as it has a proven track record of negatively impacting the year end financial statements. Instead, students find their attention and energies being overtly and excessively directed towards building and construction projects, outreach, and of course the proselytizing and fund raising activities that accompany them.
This is not to condemn planning, growth, and maintenance programs, but to point out that these are but one-quarter of the work, and devotion to the ideal, the teacher, and teachings represented is but one-quarter of the work. The remaining half of our work is personal study and practice. It is this half that is really most critical as it is in theory the reason we are attracted to spiritual work to begin with. Only when combined, do these four qualities or means of practice, give a balance and harmony to one's individual growth while simultaneously supporting the teacher, group, or lodge.
How Much Is Enough?
Two hours a week in volunteer work is about 2 ½ weeks of volunteer time a year. One hour a week would be half of that. So, if you are leading a study group, preparing for one or two events a year, or assisting in on-going maintenance, this would easily absorb that time. Thus, one can say their karma yoga duties are fulfilled. If one is contributing a sum of money equal to one or two weeks of earnings (after taxes is fine) that would also be a fulfillment of one's sense of karma yoga. At an income of $50,000 per year, that would be a donation of approximately $600 and $1,200 per year, or $50 to $100 per month over and above whatever one's annual dues or affiliation costs. Of course, one is free to figure out whatever percentage for donating they like, this was used to illustrate the point.
This then leads us to the important point of how do we know if we are overextending ourselves?
Is your involvement effecting your ability to pay your bills?
Is your involvement encouraging you to do more so that you can express and become more in your personal life, or is it all aimed at the teacher or group?
Is the group encouraging involvement to the detriment of your personal practice?
Is the ideal of self-sacrifice held out over self-expression of our talents and deepest potential?
Do you enjoy what you are doing for the group?
Do you volunteer because you want to help and support, or out of a sense of pressure or the desire to be recognized as being special?
What you would do with your time and resources if you were not supporting the teacher, group, or lodge?
While not exhaustive, the above questions are meant to focus our attention on the “why” of our group involvement and support rather than the “how”. In the end, the 'how' is about the sustainability of the organization. This sustainability is either through direct cash donations, money raised through recruitment or fund raising, and savings on cash expenditures from members donating their services.
So, while we are not asking you to put a price tag on everything you do, we are asking you to recognize the cost of your involvement so that you can make healthy and positive choices that move your spiritual practice forward and not side-track or even derail it.
This also means you need to know what you get in return for your efforts.
Does this get you some sense of importance?
Easier access to the Lama or Guru?
Promotion in the ranks?
What is the actual benefit or lessons learned, that you receive from volunteering for your organization or movement of choice?
Be careful about false promises, such as special initiations, wealth rituals or practices, audiences with dignitaries, a new funny hat, or a better seat at the table. The worst of lies however, is when we are told that our work and sacrifice will be witnessed by the Unseen Masters, the Unknown Superiors, and we will be rewarded by them at some future date and time. Such are bribes aimed at increasing one's sense of self-importance rather than genuine signs of spiritual awakening. The two can go together, but it is rare and difficult to find them paired. In short, we must work and volunteer because we want to, and not because we feel we must or need to participate in such a manner.
This also means we need to take a good hard look at our relationship to the teacher, the teachings, and community to which we are a member. It does not exist for us alone, and if we treat it as a commodity, that is fine, but then do not be surprised if in return you are not allowed entrance without having bought your ticket.
So, look at your involvement with your teachers, teachings, and community of practitioners and ask yourself if you have a healthy or unhealthy relationship with them? Are you pulling your own weight and ensuring the health and continuity of the movement for future generations? Is your idealism and altruism being abused under the guise of self-sacrifice and service to the greater good? Or as one fellow likes to remind me, is the phrase and idealism of karma yoga being used as a euphemism for “indentured servitude”?
As was stated in Light on the Path - A Study Guide for Qabala, Alchemy & Astrology, no one ever tells a volunteer when to stop, so remember that it is alright to say “No” when asked to do something. Volunteering of one's time, talent, and treasure must be done freely, otherwise it is coercion and conscription and whatever good that can be achieved by it is already limited. Encourage, but do not force, or pressure others to help in whatever way they can. This way, each will find their right place at “the Table of the Lord”.