As someone who has had her fair share of suffering from an attachment to achievement and habitual goal-setting, the spiritual perspective on ‘action’ is something that has always intrigued me.
Ours is an ‘action oriented’ society. We understand ‘doing’ and feel comfortable around people who are always planning big things and we sort of feel uncomfortable around laid-back, contented types.
In this context, it seems important to understand how ‘action’ fits into life from the standpoint of spirituality/consciousness. I believe there are two tests to consider here:
- is your action compulsive or conscious?
- is your intention to enhance yourself or dissolve yourself?
Compulsive or conscious?
Spiritual teachings say that ‘right action’ is one which is conscious as opposed to compulsive. What does this mean?
Compulsive action would be action that may not necessarily be ‘right’ for you or for the task at hand but you do it anyway, compelled by tendencies that you feel you can’t or don’t want to control. e.g. smoking, anger, etc.
Conscious action would be one where you do the thing that you know would be best for you and for the objective you wish to achieve even if you don’t like it. e.g. studying all night for an exam the next day.
The above distinction between conscious and compulsive action is easier to understand – we all know well that to achieve certain ends, we need to exercise discipline to do the things that will work for us. The second distinction below is trickier.
Enhance or dissolve?
The spiritual master Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev asks to consider whether you are doing a certain action because you want to enhance yourself or dissolve yourself. What does this mean? Let’s have a go at understanding.
Enhance yourself: you want to be successful, rich, famous because of the thing you choose to do
Dissolve yourself: you don’t care about the outcome but still put in your best effort because you’re doing it for a higher cause than your own personal aggrandisement.
It isn’t easy to use work as a means to dissolve. The desire for success in any endeavour is hard to suppress. Yet, we are reminded again and again by the wise, not to mention, the Bhagavad Gita, to not look for the fruits of action, yet work towards the highest possible ideals.
He who seeth inaction in action and action in inaction, he is wise among men, he is harmonious, even while performing all action.
– Bhagavad Gita (Ch.. III- 16,17)
Karma yoga is that path of yoga where selfless action is used as a means to reach the Ultimate. Even that path though has to be carefully trodden lest our good actions lead us into arrogance and become our bondage. What is required is dis-identifying with the petty mind and an reaching an understanding of oneself as universal consciousness.
I remember a plaque that my grandmother used to keep on her table, engraved with the words of Swami Vivekananda that I always found inspirational. They are quite fitting to quote here and may help in undertanding this concept:
This world is not for cowards. Do not try to fly. Look not for success or failure. Join yourself to the perfectly unselfish will and work on. Know that the mind which is born to succeed joins itself to a determined will and perseveres. You have the right to work, but do not become so degenerate as to look for results. Work incessantly, but see something behind the work. Even good deeds can find a man in great bondage. Therefore be not bound by good deeds or by desire for name and fame. Those who know this secret pass beyond this round of birth and death and become immortal.
– Swami Vivekananda
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