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.

Notable Replies

  1. Honestly speaking, who can say they are living up to the requirements that Karma Yoga is asking us to do? Does anyone in the integral community really believe they will reach some kind of enlightenment in their lifetime with Karma Yoga or any other meditative practice? It’s hard as it is just dealing with ones own unresolved inner conflicts. It makes it even harder when you struggle financially, you have two jobs, and live in a society that often does not give a rat’s ass about all things Integral. We take on this misguided idea that the onus is solely on us to resolve our inner conflicts unaware of the degree in which our socio-political and economic system is complicit in our misery and far more than we realize.
    To make matter worse, we blame ourselves way too much for our problems, we internalize them unknowingly, then wonder why we get depressed and angry. We live in a very sick society, folks, and it’s disappointing that no one on IL or this community talks about it with the attention it deserves. We should all be enraged by it. Would it be true to say that it’s because this community is just another echo chamber talking ad-nauseum about Integral ideas as end in themselves?

    A movie came out on Ken Wilber’s life at having lost his beloved wife,Treya. The director, Sebastian Seigel, says that it’s an epic love story -a story about eternal love. Ok, but there are a lot of stories about eternal love. Is it really that exceptional that it would have some redeeming value? Be that as it may, why not make another film, a multi part documentary on Integral Theory -the most important one ever created. You would think that we would have had one long ago. Why not make one before Wilber gets too old to help create it?

    Why not make this multipart documentary so that the 74 million who voted for Trump can understand they are being used as useful idiots without telling them they are idiots? I ask because it is these individuals who are dragging us all down. It’s making all our lives far more difficult than it should be and often a fucking living nightmare as we see the shit show unfolding on the Capitol. Bill Malher was right. The American people are utterly stupid and it’s only now I see it as a depressing reality.

    So what does IT have to say in addressing this problem? How can you get 74 million up to speed, at least to some reasonable degree, so that we can all live a better life? Preach the gospel of Integral Theory or asking them to take on Karma Yoga would be pointless because they are too deeply entrenched in their way of being. But what does Trump have that IT does not? How did Trump dupe them so thoroughly yet IT is mostly confined within its own echo chamber talking about it? Trump is a master storyteller but with malignant motives. Dr. Susanne Cook Greuter said stories gives meaning to our lives. And so, where is IT on this? What film or documentary can IT create to tell a story that can make a real transformative difference in this often fucked up society we are living in, in the midst of so many stupid people? It’s no wonder they do stupid shit and commit suicide. It’s not easy trying to be sane in an insane world and no amount of IT preaching or meditation is going to change it for the better. Call me a pessimist if you want, but I’m fucking sick of it all.

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    This is so lovely. Thank you Roger.
    One of the best things I’ve listened to in a while.

    I have a small consciousness center in Cairo, Egypt, where i teach a small group of seekers.
    I will definitely be presenting these 10 points to them in Arabic, and i will duly reference you.
    I hope you don’t mind

    Best regards

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      I love this. I’m thinking I must have read, heard or seen something about Karma Yoga many years ago and forgotten where the idea came from because this is what I’ve been doing for the past 25(ish) years as a self-employed housekeeper. I’ve always tended to try things as “experiments” that sound “right” to me and just keep doing them when the results are positive. So happy to be (re?) introduced to this basic/simple framework which will help me to share it with my son.

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