I’ve been working on my house of late – replacing the siding, gutters, soffit & fascia, and so forth. It’s a big enough job that I dedicated a whole week of vacation just to getting it underway. Much still remains for me to do, but I’ve made fairly decent progress so far. And along the way I’ve had plenty of time to reflect upon what I’m doing, and why. Don’t I have enough to keep me busy without taking on such time-consuming and expensive chores?
Of course, there are many ways I could answer that question: I’m increasing the resale value of my home. I’m staving off having to make more costly repairs in the future. I’m making my home as pleasing a place for me to live in as I can. I’m being a good neighbor by making my property as appealing to live next to as I can. I’m keeping my house from becoming one of those that just gets torn down upon resale so that another can be built in its place. Certainly everyone can relate to such motivations. We all understand the concept of being rewarded for our labor – if not with money or prestige, then at least with the knowledge that we’ve built or maintained something that will outlive us and become useful for another. We all want our work to amount to something, don’t we?
“The world is imprisoned in its own activity,” says Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results” (Prabhavananda, 1964, p. 45). Such advice is characteristic of the path of liberation known as karma yoga, one of three such paths outlined in the Gita (the others being the path of devotion and the path of knowledge.) One who devotes himself to the path of karma yoga surrenders himself to the circumstances of his birth, and the duties and constraints that such a birth entails. He neither begrudges his circumstances nor seeks to become enriched by them. He simply gives himself over so completely to whatever action is required of him that it becomes the means of his liberation, rather than the circumstances of his imprisonment.
|The author shows off his new digs|
Applying the teachings of karma yoga to our modern Western lifestyle requires some flexibility of thought. Life was simpler some 2,500 years ago. Humans had fewer choices to make regarding how they would live. We were more like the rest of the animal kingdom. Birds nest. Rodents burrow. Each lives out the karma of its existence. We moderns, on the other hand, are no longer so constrained by natural heritage; neither do we live in such a rigid class system as the one that gave rise to the teachings of the Gita. It’s difficult to say how karmically constrained we really are. But that doesn’t mean that the teachings of the Gita have no meaning for us moderns.
I might think of my home remodeling project, then, in terms of living out my karma as a homeowner. Homeowners have a responsibility to maintain their property, so just do it. Neither begrudge the hard work and expense, nor scheme of future enrichment. Simply focus on the quality of the work. Pay attention to the process and let the product be what it will be. Devote heart and mind and body so completely to the work that it becomes an offering of devotion.
It’s interesting how similar such a focus is to what is now so commonly referred to as mindfulness practice, cultivating awareness, or being present. A mindfulness practitioner refrains from dwelling in the past or living for the future. He refrains from wishing that the present moment would be anything other than what it is. For many, this is the key to liberation. For instance, Shunryu Suzuki is quoted in his biography as saying that “as long as you seek for something, you will get the shadow of reality and not reality itself” (Chadwick, 1999, p. 233). It is this shadow world that ensnares us and results in our suffering.
It’s easy to be pulled into this shadow world. I remember well the beginning of the so-called Great Recession. Of course, that’s what we call it now, but back in 2008 we didn’t know that it was only a recession. For all we knew at the time we were descending into another depression that might have been worse than even the Great Depression. What was worse, for me anyway, was that my marriage was breaking up at exactly the same time, and in the midst of a big home-remodeling project to boot!
Would I requalify for a loan in order to buy out my ex and hang onto the house that I’d lived in for years? If I had to leave, would I at least be able to afford to finish that remodeling project to a point that I might recoup my investment? Would we just end up selling the house as-is for it to be torn down and replaced with one of those McMansions that had begun to pop up like mushrooms here and there in the neighborhood? Would all of my handiwork be for naught? Would all of the little details that I’d pondered and sweated over just end up being smashed into oblivion by one of the backhoes that visited our neighborhood from time to time?
In fact, the backhoes had just finished visiting one such disposable home as soon as old age compelled its owners to take up other quarters. A deep, deep basement was dug for high-ceilinged quarters downstairs, and upstairs a beautiful floorplan began to take shape – with spacious openness, and a dramatic stairway. I know because I snuck in for a peak from time to time as the construction dragged on and on and on.
I happened to meet the builder one day, one rather incongruously matched to the task of building a half million dollar home. We chatted for a while and then I finally asked him why the project was taking so long. As it turned out, “John” was a software engineer by trade who’d jumped into the construction boom that preceded the Great Recession. His investment partner had bailed out on him when the economy began to tank, leaving John to work nights and weekends all by himself whenever his cash flow allowed. And so it was that the project was taking so long. Things took yet another turn for the worse when a huge rain flooded the almost finished basement and added even more work onto the already seemingly endless project.
We moved in different circles, but I could certainly understand what John was going through. Our respective karma had ensnared us. We were each toiling away, and we were each wondering what would become of it. What would become of us? What would be the fruits of our labor?
Sometime later, as I was walking past John’s project one evening, I noticed some new paperwork tacked next to the front door. It was a notice of condemnation. Maybe John had simply walked away from his investment, having decided not to throw any more good money after bad. Maybe the city had finally lost all patience with the slow pace of his progress. Regardless, I never saw John after that. His brand new construction was bulldozed into oblivion. The lot was graded over and seeded with grass. All of his hard work had come to naught.
“The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results.” It’s hard to be free from all attachment to results, isn’t it? It’s hard not to think in terms of what we stand to gain or lose. How else do we decide what to do, where to focus our energy, how to invest our resources? Thinking in terms of gain and loss is largely what guides us as we navigate through time and space. Did I absolutely need to take on the home repairs that I’m presently working on? Well, no. It wasn’t like I was getting rained on, or cited by the city for a dilapidated property. Things were just beginning to look a little bit “tired” – something that any prospective buyer would certainly notice if I were to put it on the market in that state.
“As long as you seek for something, you will get the shadow of reality and not reality itself.” Do I seek return on my investment of time and money? In a word, yes. I can do nothing else but admit to hoping that my home repair handiwork is valued by some future buyer should I ever need to sell it. Most of all, though, I hope that someone enjoys living here after I’m gone, as opposed to it being razed for the sake of some new construction.
All the same, Suzuki’s words do ring true to me. I can watch as my longings tug me out of the daylight and into the shadowed forest. And I know what it’s like to wander there, lost and lonely. For the most part, though, practice allows me to live a little bit more solidly within the grace of the present moment, unperturbed by regrets of the past or worries of the future, unconcerned with gain or loss. I understand that I will one day have to say goodbye to all that I’ve worked for and hold dear. We all say goodbye to everything and everyone, including ourselves. But if we can bring that realization to whatever work we decide to do, we make it holy, we make it a gift, we experience grace as we perform it. And sometimes, when I’m able to lose myself completely in the samadhi of my labor, I’m able to experience it precisely as it is: labor without any laborer in sight, action without an actor, as far as the eye can see.
Chadwick, D. (1999). Crooked Cucumber – The life and Zen teachings of Shunryu Suzuki. Broadway Books.
Prabhavananda (1964). The song of God: Bhagavad-gita. (Prabhavananda, tr.) Published by The New American Library.
Burrowing owl by Mick Thompson via:
Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank