Karma Yoga, Revisited

The Bhagavad Gita argues that one of the paths of Self-realization is karma yoga. Until recently, I had held that karma yoga was not a good path for us moderns due to the prevalance of Total Work. But I was mistaken, not least because I had believed that karma yoga could too easily be conflated with work. It needn’t be.

Here’s a story that illustrates how:

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa [writes Sri Swami Satchidadanda] gives a beautiful parable about this. Once, a few people went to visit a garden, having been told that there were beautiful big fruit trees there. But the garden was completely surrounded by high walls, and they couldn’t even see what was inside. With great effort one person managed to climb the wall and see inside. He saw such luscious fruit that the minute he saw it, he jumped in. Another person climbed up and immediately jumped in the same way. Finally, a third person climbed up, but when she saw it, she said, “My gosh, how can I jump in now? There are so many hungry people below who don’t know what is here or how to climb up.” So, she sat on the wall and said, “Hey, there are a lot of fruits, come on. If you try hard, you can come up like I have.” She lent a hand, pulling people in.

Such people are called teachers. (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Translaton and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda, p. 216)

Of course, this is, as we find in Mahayana Buddhism, a beautiful story about the bodhisattva ideal. Yes, it’s also a story about the existence of wholesome, legitimate spiritual teachers.

But what else is this a story about? Quite simply, it gives us all the motivation we need to see that, right here and now, we can selflessly act and selflessly give. Whenever you selflessly perform an act, however small it may be, on behalf of others so that others may suffer less or may flourish, you are engaged in karma yoga. Period.

The point is, in the very situations we find ourselves right now, to make karma yoga more intentional, more thoroughgoing, and more the default. There are fruits enough down below! Lend a hand: pull some beings–cockroaches, spiders, dogs in rescues, family members–up and over. Let’s begin already!

The 8 Limbs Of Philosophia

In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines what he takes to be the “eight limbs of yoga.” Inspired by his example, I want to ask, “What could be the X limbs of Wisdom?

1. Austerities

Many traditions underscore the need for tapas (or austerities). Christian mystics speak of “silence and solitude.” Buddhists observe Noble Silence during certain periods. Many point to fasting during important calendrical times. Which austerities should be a part of the path of wisdom?

2. Movement Practice

Classical Athenians revered the beautiful male form and saw gymnastics as a crucial part of paideia. Obviously, Patanjali made a point of including various asanas, or ways of making the physical form painful and detoxified so that the practitioner could continue on the yogic path.

In the case of philosophy as a way of life, I submit that beautiful physical practice should be underscored. Weight lifting, therefore, would not do, but physical activities that combine strength, ability, and intelligence (e.g., parkour, rock climbing, perhaps horseback riding, etc.). could count.

The gross physical body is to be cultivated in order that its strength, flexibility, and quietness would be sufficient to support the greater inquiry into Wisdom.

3. Purgation/purification

While Ken Wilber makes it seem as if Cleaning Up is an invention of the twentieth century, the truth is that various spiritual and mystical traditions stressed purgation (Christian mysticism) or purification (e.g., Eleusian mysteries). What would purification look like for one on the Path of Wisdom? My hunch is that a samskaric investigation could be at the heart of purification.

4. Ethical Practice

Here, I imagine an ethical practice consisting of two related parts. Part 1: being vigilant about one’s thoughts, being very careful with one’s words (Spinoza used to wear a ring that said caute (“careful”)), likewise being truthful in one’s speech, and being gentle and deliberate in one’s deeds.
Part 2: cultivation of the salient virtues for one on said path, virtues such as temperance, courage, and empathy.

5. Logic

Here, we start to make the turn toward “disciplines of thought.” An elementary understanding of symbolic logic and, more generally, of philosophical reasoning would be appropriate. The point? To strengthen one’s capacity for reasoning and to more broadly strengthen one’s mind.

6. Metaphysics

Theoria: what is reality? What is human beings’ place in the cosmos? And what is the nature of wisdom?

7. Philosophical practice

One would need to learn two things. First, how to deliberate and take action (Aristotle, NE). Second and more broadly, how to inquire in a philosophical sense. The latter I’ve been doing for the past 11 years.

8. Wu Wei 

My sense is that the highest expression of wisdom comes in the form of total embodiment and effortless, spontaneous action, action that is good and clear and decisive.

Getting Clear About Samskaras: Putting Ramana Maharshi And Swami Satchidanda Together

Let me begin with Ramana Maharshi’s clear statement on samskaras in connection with awakening and then return to the exquisite commentary I cited yesterday.

Ramana Maharshi on Samskaras

The following is an astonishingly illuminating satsang with the radiant Sri Ramana Maharshi:

Ramana Maharshi: Awareness is jnana. Jnana is eternal and natural, ajnana is unnatural and unreal.

Questioner: Having heard this truth, why does one not remain content?

RM: Because samskaras [innate mental tendencies] have not been destroyed. Unless the samskaras cease to exist, there will always be doubt and confusion. All efforts are directed to destroying doubt and confusion. To do so their roots must be cut. Their roots are the samskaras. (Be as You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, ed. David Godman, p. 29)

Notice the supreme importance that Ramana is placing on samskaras. They are, he implies, tremendous obscurations. “Why can’t I get what you just said? Why am I not realized right now?” Because these samskaras have not only not been seen and understand but also because they have not yet been destroyed. Ramana is arguing, then, that samskaras are precisely what prevent sudden awakening. If he is correct, then an investigation of our samskaras will be crucial for actually seeing directly who we are.

Sri Swami Satchidanda on Samskaras

Importantly, Satchidanda helps to clarify our thinking. Recall what he stated in his commentary I included in this blog yesterday.

1.) “When you meditate on these impressions [samskaras], you bring them to the surface. You can’t destroy them by this means, but you can see and understand them well….” (pp. 88-9).

2.) “When you let go of the ego, all the impressions [samskaras] in it will be lost also. But [again–see 1 immediately above] until that occurs, the impressions will not go away” (p. 89).

Putting Ramana and Satchidanda Together

Here is how I would tie everything said together:

–First, certain delusions do very naturally fall away as a result of constant and complete seated practice. They cease to show up.

–Second, one is then left with basic ego patterns or personality types called samskaras.

–Third, those samskaras are of two types: wholesome (is this what Jung called archetypes?) and unwholesome ones.

–Fourth, seated meditation on its own will not, as Satchidanda says, destroy unwholesome samskaras. Rather, it will simply allow one to see, understand, and (I would add) see certain unwholesome samskaras fade out (but not completely). Meditation allows one to see such unwholesome samskaras more and more as (a) asat (not really real) and (b) not me (i.e., not what I truly am).

–Fifth, only, as Ramana and Satchidanda suggest, by getting to the root will unwholesome samskaras finally be destroyed. That root is the ego or I-thought. To cut out the root is to destroy unwholesome samskaras.

–And, sixth, since there must be wholesome samskaras in order for the Formless to manifest itself in appropriate form and, from there, into speech, action, and the like, wholesome samskaras, or archetypes, must remain even for the jnani. In other words, wholesome personality structures remain without being in any way identified with since the jnani is, of course, beyond all that…

Samskaras Will Persist Until The Pot Is Broken

The following is an amazing excerpt from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidadanda (1978/2012), pp. 88-9.

What is in bold is a translation of a Patanjai sutra; what is unbolded after the bolded statement is Swami Satchidadanda’s illuminating commentary.

* * *

11. Dhyanaheyastadvrttayah.

In the active state, they [these obstacles or klesas–AT] can be destroyed by meditation.

The hindering thoughts come in two stages: the potential form, before they come to the surface and get converted to action, and the manifesting ones which are being put into action. It is easier to control manifested things first; then from the more gross, we can slowly get into the more subtle. Thought forms in the potential state (samskaras) cannot be removed by meditation. When you meditate on these impressions, you bring them to the surface. You can’t destroy them by this means, but you can see and understand them well and gain control over whether or not they should manifest in action. You can trace them back into their subtle form and see directly that the ego is the basis of the obstructing thoughts. Then, when you transcend the mind in the higher samadhi, even the ego is lost. When you let go of the ego, all the impressions [samskaras–AT] in it will be lost also. But until that occurs, the impressions will not go away.

It is something like using the herb asafoetida. Asafoetida is a product that aids digestion and helps control gas. In India it is used in curries and kept in a mud pot. But it smells so much that even if you clean the pot hundreds of times, the smell will stay. How can you get rid of the smell? The only way is to break the pot. The ego has the “smell” of your thoughts in a subtle form. But you can only understand the smell and see that the thoughts are there when they are manifest. To get rid of the impressions completely, you have to break the ego. So, first you clean the superficial things, and ultimately you break the pot. By meditation you understand the thought forms and clean them up. Then you have gotten a glimpse of where and how they are, you can slowly trace them to their root and finally cut it [namely, the ego–AT] out. When you want to uproot a tree, you cut the branches first and then dig to the very root. (My italics)