Life as Practice: Karma Yoga and Awakening Service

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Karma Yoga and Awakening Service: Modern Approaches to an Ancient Practice

by Roger Walsh

Continuous unbroken practice is widely regarded across the world’s contemplative traditions as essential for rapid progress and advanced development. The challenge is therefore how to use daily activities as part of one’s practice. The answer is given systematically in Hinduism’s discipline of karma yoga: the yoga of work and action in the world. However, traditional instructions are somewhat vague and are not specifically oriented towards service. This article (and video) therefore offers a more detailed and precise ten step program by which all activities can be used for both contemplative practice and service, and thereby become a practice that can be called “awakening service”.

Our contemporary global crises are also global symptoms of, in part, our individual and collective psychological immaturities and pathologies. Addressing these crises effectively will therefore require addressing both the external problems—such as nuclear weapons and ecological destruction—as well as their psychological and cultural roots. Karma yoga and awakening service may therefore be valuable practices for working with social and global issues.

The Context and Crises of Our Times

We live and work and serve in a unique time: a time of global crisis that is unprecedented in scope and complexity and that threatens both our planet and our species.

We are all aware of the major elements of this crisis: elements such as population explosion, ecological degradation, species extinction, and weapons of mass destruction. What is crucial to recognize about these challenges is that for the first time in history, the major threats to human survival and wellbeing are all human caused. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, humankind now possess enormous power but little wisdom, and it is no exaggeration to say that humankind is now in a race between consciousness and catastrophe (Elgin, 2013).

So great is our power that the state of the world now reflects the state of our minds and the problems around us now reflect the problems within us and between us. What we call our global problems are actually global symptoms.

Therefore, if we are going to preserve our planet and our species we certainly need to feed the hungry, stop pollution, and reduce weapons of war. But if we only do this, we are only treating symptoms. We also need to address their underlying developmental, psychological, spiritual, social and cultural causes. In short, we need an integral approach (Wilber, 2000).

For this we need to do both inner and outer work. We need periods when we withdraw within ourselves to do inner work and to tap the wellsprings of insight and creativity that lie within us. Then we need periods of going out into the world to act in service. This is what Arnold Toynbee called “the cycle of withdrawal and return” and for this there are many metaphors.

In the West, the classic metaphor is Plato’s cave. Here the person escapes from the cave into the light and sees the Good, but then feels impelled to return to the collective darkness of the cave in order to help, heal, and teach others. In Christianity, this final stage is called “fruitfulness of the soul.” The soul that experiences the divine marriage then separates once again in order to help those who have not yet tasted this marriage. Zen portrays this sequence graphically and beautifully in the Ten Ox Herding Pictures, while Joseph Campbell described this process as the hero’s return.

In summary, we go into ourselves to go more effectively out into the world, and we go out into the world in order to go deeper into ourselves through the practice of karma yoga and awakening service. And we keep repeating this cycle until we realize that we and the world are one.