After impressing upon Arjuna about the wisdom concerning the Self-realization and the analytical study of the nature of the self, Sri Krishna now goes on to speak about the Yoga of unattached action (Karma Yoga).
So far, the wisdom of Self-realization has been declared to you. Now listen to the wisdom of Yoga, endowed with which, O Arjuna, you shall break through the bonds of Karma. (Bhagavad Gita 2.39)
We have seen so much about the unreality of pleasure and pain. Actions motivated by pleasure and pain only lead us to bondage. Unattached action is the only way out of this bondage.
What is pleasure and what is pain?
Let us try to understand this more deeply. What is pleasure? What is pain? Why does the mind run after pleasure and run away from pain? What is unattached action? Let me try to explain as much as I have understood based on my limited experience and study. You don’t have to agree with this explanation, but try to understand, experiment and validate it for yourself. Feel free to disagree, add up, clarify.
Have you ever observed your mind and your thoughts when you are happy? Have you observed that when you are truly happy, the mind is undisturbed and peaceful, there are no thoughts, you are totally aware in the present moment?
And have you observed your mind when you are in pain? When you are in pain, the mind is disturbed and uncontrollable. It is very difficult to focus the mind when it is in pain, it is very difficult to be in the present moment.
So, happiness is when your mind is undisturbed and in a state of awareness in the present moment. Pain is distraction of the mind. When you are in pain, you step out of the present moment. Conversely, when you step out of the present moment, you experience pain.
But does the state of your mind and your ability to be aware in the present moment depend upon some external object you think to be pleasurable (or painful)? This belief that ‘pleasure comes from external object’ just a habitual response we have built up over time, right? It’s just a habitual response, just a conception of mind. It cannot be real because the notions of pleasure and pain vary from person to person, from time to time. When you realize that pleasure and pain are not real, they are just notions of the mind, you break away from your dependence on the external object in order to be happy, you get back to the wisdom that happiness is the true nature of your Self.
Craving is pain
Eckhart Tolle says, “Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there.”’ When the mind is caught up in the ignorance that pleasure (and pain) depends on the object outside, it is ever distracted. An ignorant mind cannot stay in the present moment. It always craves after more pleasure, it always runs after something that it thinks will bring more pleasure. It is here, but wanting to be ‘there’. When there is craving, the mind has stepped out of the present moment and naturally it is painful. All you need to do to be happy again is to get back to your Self, accept the present as it is, get back to the undisturbed state of awareness and presence. But the ignorant mind erroneously thinks that the pain will go away only when the object of craving is attained.
Eventually, the object of craving comes into your life sooner or later. When this happens, you are momentarily happy because having got the object of pleasure, the craving stops, the disturbance of the mind is gone, the mind gets back to the present moment. But the mind is still ignorant and it still attaches pleasure with the object outside. So the happiness lasts only for a limited period of time. All things pass, this too shall pass. When the object of pleasure is gone, the mind due to its ignorance gets disturbed again, feels the pain again, and thinks the pain is because it has lost the object while the reality is that pain has come because the mind has stepped out of the present moment. The craving starts once again. The cycle of pleasure and pain continues.
Lost in the cycle of pleasure and pain and ignorance…
The mind is caught up in this cycle of pleasure and pain as long as there is ignorance of attaching pleasure with an external object. As the cycle repeats itself again and again, the ignorance gets strengthened, it becomes extremely difficult to get out of this vicious cycle. When we are caught up in it for too long, the ignorance permeates so deep, almost to the core of our being that it becomes an addiction, we are at the mercy of the object that we have attached pleasure with.
When we are caught up in this cycle of pleasure and pain and ignorance, all our actions are governed and dictated by the pleasure principle. We have lost control. Actually, what we have been talking so far is very simplistic, in reality it is much more complex. There are many many external objects we depend upon for our happiness in various degrees. So the mind is always distracted, it runs after one object and suddenly it runs after another. It is tossed up and down by hundreds and thousands of different motives. Very miserable state.
In order to get out of this misery, we simply need to shed the ignorance, we need to understand that pleasure does not come from the object outside, happiness is the true nature of the Self. But it’s not that easy for many of us. It’s easy for the mind to understand conceptually, but when the ignorance has penetrated much deeper into the layers of habits, emotions, beliefs, reality and even coded into the DNA of the physical body, it is very very difficult to root out the ignorance.
Karma Yoga, the yoga of unattached action
Fortunately for us, the Bhagavad Gita proposes a method that can help us break out of this bondage. It’s called Karma Yoga, the Yoga of unattached action. Counter attack… simply stated, you don’t allow your actions to be dictated by the pleasure principle. You just do what needs to be done for the good of the world irrespective of whether the action brings pain or pleasure. Pleasure should never be the motive of your work. The motive should always be do good for the world. You should never care about the rewards you may get, perform good actions just for the sake of doing it. Never let the conceptions of pleasure and pain control your actions. As you go on this way you get more and more control over your actions and your life, your mind becomes more and more focused, you become less and less controlled by the pleasure principle.
The task may seem enormous, but we just need to give it a start. Start small, just start helping people without any expectations. You don’t have to go too far, just start by unselfishly helping your friends and people in your family. Just do things that needs to be done and does good to the world, refuse to be controlled by pleasure, but always know that such unattached action will ultimately do good to you by helping you take complete control of your life. When you taste even a little bit of the superior pleasure of breaking away from ignorance and wrong beliefs, no getting back. The momentum builds up slowly and steadily. It’s the beginning of the end of your ignorance. Even a little bit of this Karma Yoga does not go waste. As Lord Krishna says,
In this, there is no loss of effort, nor is there production of contrary results. Even a little of this practice protects one from great fear. (2.40)
Okay, but does this mean we should not enjoy life, should we always remain stone faced? Not at all. Appreciate the beauty of life, smile, laugh, enjoy. Enjoy things as they come along, but gracefully let go when they go away. Accept the present moment for what it is. Enjoy life, but don’t lose yourself. The trick is to be aware all the time and catch the mind when it’s about to fall into the trap of ignorance.