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Karmanyeva-adhikaaraste maa phaleshu kadaachana
maa karmaphala-hetur bhoor maa te sango'stwakarmani ll 2.47 ll
Your power is only over your actions, but never over their results. Do not be preoccupied with the results of your actions. May you never be attached to inaction either. 2.47
A story from the Kathasaritsagara, the ocean of stories that is the mother of some of the most brilliant story collections in the world and of which the Tales of Vikramaditya are a part, tells us of a competition in the celestial world to decide who is the best dancer in the universe – something like our Miss Universe competition, but on a much grander level. The participants were the apsaras, the gandharvis, the yakshinis, the kinnaries, the nagins and so on. The celestial world is a place where there is no scarcity of time so the competition went on and on until the competitors were reduced to two apsaras – Urvashi and Rambha. They danced again and again but nobody could decide who the better of the two is.
Eventually they decided to invite King Vikramaditya from the earth to decide the matter. Vikramaditya had the reputation of being the most intelligent person alilve. Vikram went to heaven, watched the two apsaras dancing again and again but was not able to decide who the better of the two is. Pressure was mounting on him to take a decision and he asked for a break. And then one day he announced the final decision would be taken the next day.
The next day the celestial world was agog with excitement and the halls were crowded. It was the day of reckoning. Once and for all it will be decided who is the best dancer in the universe. The devas, devarshis, nagas, yakshas, gandharvas and all other celestials held their breath and waited for the competition to begin. And then the two apsaras entered the hall, as though floating through the air, their movements so smooth and effortless.
Vikaram got up from his assigned seat of the judge and made a request to the apsaras. Would they mind wearing the garlands he had with him as they danced? Of course they had no problem with that. The breathtaking dance began and the celestial audience watched mesmerized. They had seen the two dancers dancing but never like this before. Each of them had given all of themselves to the dance. There was pin drop silence in the hall, the audience forgetting even to breathe, reluctant even to wink their eyes for fear of missing even that split second of the dance. The entire atmosphere was electric.
And then the unheard of happened. Rambha missed one step, totally startling the audience. But experienced and competent dancer that she was, she managed herself and continued dancing. And then it happened again – another step missed. And then another. Her body covered in perspiration, her face red with embarrassment, her whole body shivering, she ran out of the hall, admitting defeat.
Urvashi was declared the winner.
But what the celestial audience wanted to know was how Rambha had lost, how she had missed the steps. And Vikramaditya explained. He had hidden a bumble bee inside each of the garlands. As the two dancers began their dance, the bees were lulled into sleep because of the rhythm of the dance. Urvashi was dancing forgetting herself, she had become one with the dance, now there was no Urvashi different from the dance, she had ceased to exist and since she had ceased to exist, there was no mind and no thoughts in her mind. Rambha never climbed to that level – she hadn’t become one with the dance but was watching herself dancing and there was a thought in her mind – I am dancing beautifully. She was dancing beautifully, but that thought created a tiny gap between her and her dance. And that gap marred the perfection of Rambha’s dance and the bee in the garland woke up and stung her. She managed to get back into the dance but could never go beyond herself and the bee stung again and then a third time. That’s when she admitted defeat and ran away from the dance hall.
When we become self-conscious, our actions become of poor quality. When we do something without self-consciousness, the quality soars. The more of the ego is present in an action, the less the excellence will be. And the less the ego present, the greater the excellence. And when there is no ego present in an action, the highest will be the excellence. The secret of excellence is eliminating the ego from the action.
Step out of your own way to achieve excellence. Eliminate you from your actions.
I have heard a Zen story about a master who painted the first sutra of the Buddha on a paper. His student was standing and watching it and when the master finished the student shook his head, saying it was not good. The master painted the sutra on a fresh paper and the student rejected it again. This went on for eighty-four times and then the student left on some errand. The master quickly picked up another piece of paper and painted the sutra by which time the student came back. He looked at the master’s painting and said, “Brilliant.”
For the first time the student was not watching the master and he was not self-conscious. And the piece came out brilliantly. We have all experienced this: when someone is watching us as we work, our work suffers. In the examination hall, if the supervisor is standing next to you and watching you, your writing suffers. When I take exams of my students, I make it a point to keep away from my students.
You disappear when you become fully focused on what you are doing. Children routinely disappear into their play – during play the child is not self-conscious. A singer disappears into the singing and a painter into the painting. A writer can disappear into his writing, as Mario Puzo disappeared into the writing of Godfather as he admitted when he said he did not write the book but the book came out of him on its own. Numerous poets have said this too – that their poems came out of them on their own, they did not write them. It can happen to a scientist trying to solve a problem, a mathematician, a sportsman, a teacher, a driver, a woodcutter, a grass mower, just anyone if he can focus fully on what he is doing at the moment.
And that is what Krishna means when he says karmanyueva-adhikaras te – your control, your mastery, your power is only over your work not over their results and therefore focus on the work totally without worrying about the results. What is said is not not to work for results but not to worry about results.
As my teacher Swami Chinmayanandaji explains during his commentary on this verse of the Gita, if you are able to focus entirely on the work without dissipating your energy in worrying about the future results, the work is going to be of excellent quality and excellent work will produce excellent results.
So what the Gita verse teaches is not not to have results in mind, but not to worry about results because in any case the results are not in our hands.
What Krishna is asking us to do in this verse is to focus on the now so that your work becomes outstanding and produces outstanding results.
At the same time, Krishna says, don’t be attached to inaction either. Krishna throughout the Glita stresses the need for an active life in the service of the world, a life lived for lokasangraha. Even if you have nothing to achieve, work for the good of the world, says he again and again. And when you work, whatever work it is and for whatever purpose it is done, focus on the now.
When you are able to focus on the now in work, miracles start happening. When you focus entirely on the now, says Dr Mihaly Chikszentmihalyi, a leading psychologist of the day, you enter the flow state. The flow state is a miracle state in which energy and excellence flow out of you effortlessly, you are bathed in a state of bliss and the impossible becomes possible.
This is how you feel in the flow state according to Dr Chikszentmihalyi:
- Completely involved in what you are doing. Totally focused, entirely concentrated.
- Your mind experiences no distractions, even when highly distracting events happen right next to you.
- Distanced from external reality – as though you are outside them, in a world of your own.
- A sense of ecstasy
- Great inner clarity. There are no confusions, no doubts. In flow we know exactly what needs to be done. Ours perceptions attain absolute clarity.
- Sense of confidence. You feel you are adequate for the activity – there are no self-doubts, no questions, no worries. There are no gripping anxieties, no crippling apprehensions, nothing that holds you back from doing what you are doing, and your steps are sure.
- You feel absolutely challenged in the flow state. You are filled with a moment to moment thrill, thus making boredom impossible. Every activity becomes an adventure.
- A sense of serenity. There are no worries of any kind in your mind.
- A sense of timelessness. Time does not exist for you. You are entirely focused on the present and neither the past nor the future exists for you. You may be so engrossed in what you have been doing for hours, but it feels like it has only been minutes.
- Intrinsically motivating. Being in flow is its own reward. In this sense, the flow is addictive too. What you are addicted to is a state of super awakening, super performance, super excellence.
All great masters have the ability to focus on one thing at a time and for a long time. It has been said that once Dr Ram Manohar Lohia went to visit Einstein and his wife told Lohiaji Einstein had just gone to lab and there was no saying when he would come out. Lohia ji said he would wait but Einstein’s wife told him there is absolutely no idea how long he would have to wait, he better come another time. But Lohiaji decided to wait since he had gone from India and did not want to miss the opportunity to meet Einstein. It is said that Einstein came out of the lab after three days!
The story of Arjuna as a student focusing on the neck of the artificial bird in the Mahabharata and its popular version of his focusing on the eye of the bird are legendary. The ability to pay exclusive attention to one thing leads to excellence.
Karma yoga has several dimensions and it is this dimension of karma yoga that made India a great achiever in numerous fields in the past. When you have the ability to focus on one thing at a time, whether you are an individual or a society, you climb to great heights.
In our fast paced life, attention spans are coming down steadily. Both children and adults today have much less attention than they had earlier. But the ability to focus exclusively on one thing has not become any less important today.
Let’s look at the personal experiences of some people to find out what results from exclusive focus on what you are doing at the moment, as the Gita asks us to do. Some of the experiences are gathered from different sources which I have unfortunately forgotten and the other’s are of my own students in business schools where in my courses I have been teaching them the importance of focusing on what they are doing at the moment.
“Long distance runner Michael Spino was training one rainy day along dirt and asphalt. After the first mile, he realized something extraordinary was happening; he had run the mile in four and a half minutes with no sense of pain or exertion whatever. He ran on, carried by a huge momentum.
It was as if the wet roads, the oncoming cars, the honking horns did not exist. Gradually, his body lost all weight and resistance. He became the wind itself. Daydreams and fantasies disappeared. All that remained to remind him of his own existence was “a feeling of guilt for being able to do this.”
When the run ended, Spino sat down at the side of the road and wept. He had run the entire six miles on wet and muddy roads at a four-and-a-half-minute pace, close to the national record, had felt no strain and now he could not decide who he was.”
Describing the moments of his work when he is at his best, a composer says: “You yourself are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I’ve experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching in a state of awe and wonderment. And it just flows out by itself.”
This is what I mean when I say you become one with what you are doing. And this is what Krishna asks Arjuna to become when he says nimitta-matram bhava savya-sachin: “Be just an instrument for things to happen through, Arjuna”. When you focus entirely on what you are doing at the moment, you transcend yourself, you cease to be someone separate from what you are doing, you become a tool, a passage, for things to happen through, like a flute for music. And that is when the highest excellence happens. So Krishna’s mantra karmanyeva adhikaraste not only asks us to focus entirely on the now, on what we are doing now, it is also a path for self-transcendence and the highest possible performance excellence.
Here are a few more experiences of people who have focused on what they are doing at the moment and what they experienced when they did that. Let’s begin with the experience of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. He said: “It was as though you lose your soul and body to the action you are performing. Everything becomes synchronous and you are in eternal flow.”
A student of mine at XLRI School of Business wrote about a game of badminton she played when she was fully focused: “I felt like a torrent of energy and ceased to be anything else.”
Here’s another XLRI student recalling one of his memories: “An incident I clearly remember was during my class VIII examination. As I was solving the paper I realized that it was a really tough paper and I got deeply immersed in it. I soon forgot about the time, the difficulty of the problem or the fact that it was an exam. I only concentrated on enjoying the solving of the problems and came out of the exam hall strongly refreshed and happy. Even though I was sure I had not done well, I was happy simply for solving the problems and I was really surprised that I topped my class.”
Here’s yet another student of mine sharing his experience on the same lines: “When I was working on a project, I got so involved in resolving a particular issue that I lost track of everything around me. I started the work at around 3 in the afternoon and when I finished resolving the issue, I realized that I it was already 11 pm. During that stage my mind was only focused on the problem at hand and neither I was disturbed by my mobile phone nor by hunger. I hadn’t even looked outside the window and when I did, I was surprised that so many hours had passed….”
I have taught students from all over the world in different business schools. Here is just one more experience from one of my French students. “This state of mind also happens sometimes when I am practicing for sports in France, I am used to running. Sometimes I start running and what I am thinking is a few minutes run is really a more than one hour run. During all this time my mind is empty, I am not thinking of anything. I am also not feeling any kind of pain. In contrast, in this state of mind I am actually running better. I can run faster and longer.”
One of the many definitions of yoga given by the Gita is “yogah karmasu kaushalam”, yoga is excellence in action. More than anything else, it is this ability to focus on what you are doing that creates excellence. When no distractions interfere with what you are doing, what you do becomes excellent. We have all seen a painter painting on the roadside lost in what he is doing, unaware of the crowd and the noise of the traffic – his work becomes outstanding. When a sportsman is distracted by the crowd, his play suffers. Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest star of Indian cricket, has said that when he is in the zone, in his best moments, the crowd disappears, their noise disappears, the rival players disappear, the umpire disappears, all he sees is the ball and then his bat rises and connects with the ball. We all know of the magic that happens when Sachin’s bat connects with the ball. Similarly many singers have confessed that when they are at their best the audience disappears for them and just the singing exists for them.
When you remember that what is in your hands is just what you are doing at the moment and not their results – karmany eva adhikaras te maa phaleshhu kadaachana – and focus fully on what you are doing at the moment this excellence in action that the Gita speaks about happens.
Here is one more brilliant example from one of students in a top business school. “I was taking part in a corporate hackathon for which I was building a home automation system. I had been developing the code for the same for more than a week and was stuck at the GSM deployment phase. This was quite a challenge. I had decided to sit for an hour to figure it out and this was around 9.30 am. After I was done, I was really excited and pumped up. I jumped out of my room to tell my team mates only to realize that they had left home since it was 11.00 pm in the night. I hadn’t realized I had worked for more than 13 hours straight. I did not feel hungry or tired or irritated. In fact I was energetic and refreshed… The difficulty and challenging nature of the problem coupled with my vigour to solve it made me one with the task I was performing. It was no more work for me but more of a blissful action that calmed me and energized me at the same.”
These descriptions are remarkably similar to those of numerous other men and women from different fields – rock climbers, chess champions, surgeons, basketball players, engineers, racing car drivers, orators, cross country runners, white water rafters, managers, even filing clerks – when they tell of a time they outdid themselves in some favored activity.
It is a state in which people become utterly absorbed in what they are doing, paying undivided attention to the tasks, their awareness merged with their actions. Indeed, it interrupts flow to think of what is happening – the very thought “I’m doing this wonderfully” can break the feeling of flow, as it happened in the story of the apsara Rambha we just discussed. She was on the verge of merging with the dance, becoming one with it, but this single thought prevented her from doing so.
The merger with the action should be complete and total. Any worry in the mind, any thought in mind, positive or negative, will prevent that merger and mar the excellence. That is why Krishna says forget about the results, forget about the future, just focus on the now, on what you are doing now. Karmani eva – only on the work you are doing at the moment.
The secret of this state of super efficiency is what is known in neurobiology as the theta state.
When our brain is active, which it is all the time, each active cell in the brain produces a tiny bit of electricity and the electricity produced cumulatively by all the brain cells is a fairly large quantity. This electricity moves in wave forms and these electric waves are broadly classified into four types: alpha, beta, theta and delta waves.
Delta is the brain state in which we are with ourselves without contact with the outside world, as in a samadhi, so we will not discuss it.
When electric waves in our brain are moving in the beta frequency, we are restless, our intelligence is at its lowest, we have either no imagination or our imagination is crazy, we have no creativity, and our learning ability is practically nil. Unfortunately the modern urban man spends most of his time in beta state which is useful for routine every day things but no higher efficiency or excellence is possible in this state, apart from the fact that beta is a state of stress and huge amounts of energy is consumed.
In alpha our brain and mind are calmer, we are more focused, our learning ability and performance ability are higher, we have more intelligence and imagination, our creativity and problem solving ability are higher too.
It is in theta that our intelligence reaches its highest, along with our imagination and creativity. Theta is officially named the state of performance excellence. Whatever we do in theta will have the stamp of excellence. We spend minimum energy here, our mind is calm and serene and there is a sense of euphoria when we are in theta.
We enter theta when we are able to focus on one thing with an undistracted mind for a length of time. This is what happens when we focus on whatever we are doing at the moment as Gita advises us to do. That is why Gita’s sutra of karma yoga which asks us to focus on our karma without worrying about the future is also a sutra of performance excellence with applications in every walk of life.
Krishna’s statement karmanyeva-adhikaaraste maa phaleshu kadaachana which says our power is only over our work and not over its result is not a statement of helplessness. It is a sutra of excellence.
It is also the sutra for transforming work into meditation because focusing on the now is the highest meditation there is. When you practice anapanasati, the Buddhist meditation, you are focusing on the now – you focus on the breath as it goes in and out. In zazen meditation again what you do is focusing on the now. What Thich Nhat Hanh’s classic on mediation teaches too is focusing on the now – washing vessels, focus on the now; chopping wood, focus on the now; pulling up water from the well, focus on the now; drinking a cup of coffee, focus on the now. What Hahn teaches is focusing on the now while doing everyday things. Perhaps the greatest compendium of meditations in the world is the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra which talks of 112 meditation techniques – and one of the meditations stressed there is focusing on the now.
So the shloka karmani eva adhikaras te is both a sutra of excellence and a sutra for transforming work into yoga, work into meditation.
Karma yoga is transforming work into meditation.
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