The Meaning of Karma Yoga & The Experience of Karma Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga of Action
A Meditation on Karma Yoga:
The Yoga of Action/Karma as Self-Forgetting
There is only appearing, and this basic appearing is not subject to my personal will. This basic appearing—the fact of appearing—is un-conditioned in that it requires nothing from my personal will; it gives itself unconditionally. There is always already appearing.
What appears as (my) determinate reality is also not subject to my will. I do not produce what appears. In fact, what appears as (my) determinate reality precedes and circumscribes my will; this includes the thought and thinking, sense and sensing, choice and options for action, capacities, commitments, etc.—the very foundation of which is the body itself. What appears as (my) determinate reality contains histories—old maps buried in the flesh and breath—that are not immediately available to me. These are the histories of the self-moving body and the expression of its own most basic habits, intelligence, and/or commitments. These are also expressions of the histories constructed upon these most basic commitments (or compulsions) of the body itself, such as cultural histories, social, and familial histories, among others. But these histories are not positivist ones—indeed, these expressions are interpretations. They are, in short, memories—ancient and ancestral—that dwell deeper than any single memory.
Our intervention reveals these otherwise invisible/implicit habits/commitments, often as disparate (and desperate, proliferating and relentless) wills that provoke each other. Our practice invokes them. Our stillness, our stopping, reveals this unreflective activity of the self-expressing body (the old maps inscribed in the flesh and breath).
What is karma yoga? Karma yoga is a kind of remembering: what had become implicit and buried reveals itself—it becomes explicit and not further suppressed/impressed. And remembering is always a forgetting: in revealing themselves, these habits are no longer available to the habitual self, for their effectiveness as habit rested precisely on their invisibility. The yogin does not intervene in order to remember, but must remember in order to forget. And our practice—whichever practice, whatever our incantations, however the ocean is churned—is never complete; it will always provide excess—it always gives and gives relentlessly. There is only ocean (and the ocean has no floor). For this reason, forgetting must ultimately be a perpetual forgetting—intervention that forgets itself.
The Experience of Karma Yoga: Beyond the Multiple Lives of Body/Mind
The practices of yoga all demand intervening in habitual modes of attending (in ways that do not themselves become ritual). The practices of yoga are intended to create the conditions for yoga to arise. Whether yoga arises is not up to us; no technique/method will necessarily ‘produce’ yoga.
And so the sense that the yogin has in and of their practice is that the practice itself is the end, and is not intended to produce anything beyond itself, beyond the simple attending that exceeds/precedes the spontaneous overflow of appearings/activity—thoughts, sensations, compulsions, anxieties, etc.—as which the ritual self exists and by which it feels itself drawn and quartered, drawn away from itself, divided. The yogin is not on the way to anything, not even to the traumatic event of enlightenment; yoga does not arrive from the future. The yogin gathers up and spends their attention in the performance of the practice—whichever practice—and saves none of it for a(ny) future. Yoga will arise or it will not, and if it does, it may very well pass away; the yogin continues their practice either way. This is karma yoga.
In this—the emergence of yoga—there is simply too much for a ‘self’, too much even for a(ny) foundation upon which the ‘self’ could stand, including—perhaps especially—the sovereignty and supremacy of “consciousness” itself. No longer bearing the weight of a ‘self’, awareness is freed of expectations, freed even of the sense of what “freedom” looks/feels/is like, and freed of the concerns motivated by this sense, concerns that seek to resurrect the ‘self’, to entice attention to repossess appearances, and then to repossess appearing itself.
This is the meaning/experience of karma yoga.
It isn’t unusual to describe the experience of karma yoga as containing something like desirelessness or even detachment or dispassion. We explore the process of detachment/dispassion in our article on Vairāgya. This article is a phenomenological discussion about the meaning of karma yoga (and the experience of karma yoga) is part of our series of articles on a “spiritual” approach to understanding the teachings of yoga philosophy. This is not an article on the history of the concept of karma yoga or even a philosophical discussion of karma yoga. (This article also does not offer a metaphysical discussion of karma yoga.)