Life has been considered by many thoughtful people as a vast field of action. In fact, if anything distinguishes the living from the dead it is activity. No living organism can remain without action even for a single moment. God himself is working constantly. If He should stop, even for an instant, His whole creation would disintegrate and enter into a state of chaos. It is He who holds the universe together. It is His activity in ever atom, the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets; the earth and all it holds are constantly working. So long as life lasts nothing can be inactive.
Then how can we human beings expect to live without working? We cannot. There is something in our nature which is always striving to express itself, always urging us to expand, to attain to the state of absolute perfection. It is this force that drives us forward even in spite of our resistance.
The question is how to convert our activity into productivity, how to attain the highest material success, how to utilize our everyday work for spiritual ends.
According to Hindu philosophy, karma or work, has two aspects – subjective and objective. On the subjective side, man must strive to develop and evolve within himself his spiritual consciousness; on the objective side, he must work in such a way that his inner perfection may be made manifest. No matter what your occupation may be, whether you are a housewife, a street cleaner, a butcher, a banker, or a shoemaker, you can make your work the noblest and best of its kind. You can raise it to the loftiest heights of excellence, beauty and utility.
Let us consider the objective aspect of karma.
To begin with, we must understand that it is through our work that we are going to attain the highest spiritual perfection. We must be convinced that whatever work we do will ultimately lead to self-realization.
Do you have a complaint against your occupation? Do you think you are a misfit, that you have been placed in a field of action where you cannot express yourself, where you find a clashing and crossing of ideas and interests? If so, you are wasting your time.
Any work done under such conditions and circumstances is impotent, both materially and spiritually. It is vastly important that you love your work and that it suit your temperament.
Herein arises the need for a deeper understanding of the importance of choosing wisely one's field of activity. Many people find that their work is not congenial, that they have made a fundamental mistake in choosing it. They did not take into consideration their swadharma – which means one's individual law of development.
According to the Vedantic theory of swadharma, there are several matters to consider in determining one's field of action.
First, there is heredity.
What have you received from your ancestors? Why is it that you were born of certain parents, inheriting certain tendencies? Hindu philosophy says that you cannot deny your past. You did not spring out of nothing. You had a past in which you acquired certain tendencies and impressions which now exist in your subconscious mind as a highly potent force. In choosing your field of expression you cannot ignore this. We know – quite apart from all questions of a past life – that we were born with certain inclinations and aptitudes.
Secondly there is environment
– the social, economic, political, religious, educational, cultural and climatic conditions under which you were reared. All these conditions have a very definite bearing on your whole life and conduct.
Thirdly, there are instincts,
emotions and impulses, all of which you must analyze in order to determine which way your mind flows, and in order to see what it is that arouses your natural enthusiasm.
Fourthly, there are your educational and cultural accomplishments: these too help to determine your swadharma. Nowadays teachers are trying to discover the natural aptitudes of the individual student, especially in the primary schools, and to educate him accordingly. Even so, in later life he is often forced to fit into a monstrous economic and social system wherein his own swadharma finds little space.
If, therefore, you are compelled to work at something contrary to your own swadharma, you will find it extremely difficult to bring your activity to that degree of material and spiritual productivity that you otherwise could attain. the important thing to remember is not to enter any field of activity for the purpose of acquiring easy money, prestige, reputation, or social standing. That is the not the ideal of Karma Yoga. I emphatically denounce the ideal of "keeping up with the Joneses" as harmful and unspiritual. That a person should follow any occupation or profession merely because it is profitable to himself, ignoring all other considerations, is both dangerous and degenerating.
The primary object in choosing one's vocation should be to find a field in which he is able, because of aptitudes due to heredity, environment, previous attainments, natural tendencies and education, to express himself most perfectly. How many people take these things into consideration when they choose their field of activity? Very few. If everybody's swadharma is to get as much money as possible, there will be more and more conflict and unhappiness in life. A friend of mine expressed this modern tendency very well. He say, "Making a living is too often just making a living. It has no deeper significance." We can, however, spiritualize "making a living". We can harmonize our work with our spiritual idealism and thereby raise ourselves and our work to the height of perfection.
The subjective and the objective aspects of work, material success, and the spiritual state attained by working with a high idealism, are interrelated and react upon each other. If you are not accurate, neat, and pure in your ordinary daily activities, you cannot be so in your inner life. It is possible to judge a person's spirituality simply by watching how he sweeps a room. I remember there was a time when I did not pay very much attention to the practical side of life. I thought the more careless I was in my daily life the more spiritual I would become. This attitude lasted for a long time. Even after I had dedicated my life to the cause of religion and philosophy I still had this false idea. I felt that, if I wished to develop spirituality, my main occupation should be study and meditation. What business had I in tilling the land, doing hospital work, and sweeping the rooms of the monastery? Whenever I was required to do these things I was always careless, unsystematic, clumsy and inaccurate. I was interested only in my spiritual disciplines. But later I learned that if one his careless and negligent in one department he is careless and negligent in all departments. If one does not train himself to concentrate on each minute detail, he cannot attain perfection in anything.
At one time, when I living in the monastery, some of the monks and I were weeding the garden. While we were busily engaged our spiritual teacher came out to see how we were doing. As he watched, he noticed that one of the boys was not pulling the weeds by the roots. He said: "My boy, you must pull the weeds out by the roots; otherwise you are simply fooling yourself, and wasting your time. If you do not realize the necessity of rooting out the weeds in the garden, how can you understand the meaning of spiritual life? Weed them out, boys!" he exclaimed significantly. "Weed them out, root and all!"
You must be very particular and accurate in every detail of your work. Not matter what it is, see that you put yourself heart and soul into it. Throw overboard your hopes of praise and your fear of blame, and work with the sole idea of expressing, through your actions, the perfection which is within you.
Reward is not what you are striving for, but the unfoldment of your inner nature.
Now, with this high spiritual motive in mind, wisely study yourself and find out your particular swadharma, your own field of activity. Then it will be a joy to work. Your main occupation will become the dominant note in your life, and you will be able to harmonize with it the various other notes. No longer will your life be a heterogeneous assortment of odd occupations.
Next you will cultivate shraddha, or confidence and faith in yourself. Believe that you have the power within you to accomplish any work you undertake. Instead of doubting yourself, feel that you can surmount every obstacle. It is the heroic, the self-confident, the skillful and the faithful who can do great deeds. Cowards never achieve anything great. Yet, even so, faith alone is not enough. One must have control over the means also. Supposing you want to become a great musician, do you think you can succeed simply by faith, or by repeating some mantras or affirmations? You cannot! Alongwith shraddha there must go intense study and the application of the methods required to accomplish your end.
Pentagon of Success
For success in any endeavor there are five points which should be appreciated and understood. These points I call the pentagon of success. The first to be considered regarding any scheme is the field of action. We must examine the field thoroughly from every possible angle before we take up any work. With a clear understanding of the field, there will be fewer obstructions and surprises for us to cope with as we go along.
The second is the fitness of the agent, which concerns the natural abilities and other qualifications of the agent for a particular work. For example, one should have the proper physical, emotional and intellectual requirements necessary for a particular occupation. The capacity for the work, the willingness of the agent (neither a slave-like attitude nor an overenthusiastic spirit of competition, but a pure and simple willingness), and also the absence of obstructing conditions, such as family opposition and so forth – these are all factors that must be analyzed and adjusted before entering upon any project.
Next comes the equipment. Proper consideration should be given to the necessary implements and instruments for the work undertaken. The agent's ability and skill in handling his instruments and tools should also be considered.
Perfection and economy of effort comes next. The energy expended in every action must be regulated and balanced by proper judgement.
Three things should be avoid: excessive expenditure of energy, misapplication of energy, and laziness. There are some people who are too extravagant with their energy; in their enthusiasm they are inclined to want to get ahead of others. But after awhile they lose their speed and often fall behind. If you wish your work to attain the highest degree of excellence every detail must be perfect. To do the right thing at the right time to the right person must be your constant endeavor. If you want to live a harmonious and successful life you must be able to adapt yourself to the demands of the time, the pace, and the needs of the people whom you contact.
The fifth and also the most important element yet remains. Without it, even though the field may be right, the agent perfect, the equipment excellent, and effort wisely expended, one still cannot be certain of the results. The Sanskrit name for this fifth element is daiva, which Emerson translated as the "unscheduled ingredient." Literally it means the intervention of destiny or the influence of an "unseen hand" in our affairs. Some may call it fate or luck, but whatever we call it, it is an element over which we have no control. We have to recognize it and make allowances for it in all our plans.
This recognition will help us to keep selfishness and self-importance out of our actions. It will help us to free our mind from attachment to the fruits of action, and create in us calmness and spiritual poise.
We learn to surrender our will and all our actions to a higher power, realizing that, in spite of all our effort, of ourselves we can do nothing. The attainment of so-called success brings vanity and conceit; it creates obstacles to our spiritual growth. But if we understand and recognize that there is an unseen and unknown influence working in our life and guiding our destiny, we shall learn to curb our pride and arrogance, we shall learn to give up all desire for the results of our work. In other words, by making our work a means to an end, by the practice of karma yoga, we shall learn to appreciate the spiritual value of work, and so move steadily forward toward the goal of perfection and Self-realization.