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buddhiyukto jahaateeha ubhe sukrita dushkrite
tasmaad yogaaya yujyaswa yogah karmasu kaushalam
karmajam buddhiyuktaa hi phalam tyaktwaa maneeshinah
janmabandha vinirmuktaah padam gacchanty-anaamayam
yadaa te mohakalilam buddhir vyatitarishyati
tadaa gantaasi nirvedam shrotavyasya shrutasya cha
shruti-vipratipannaa te yadaa sthaasyati nishchalaa
samaadhaav-achalaa buddhistadaa yogam avaapsyasi // 2.50-53 //
Endowed with karma yoga, you go beyond good and evil deeds. Therefore, devote yourself to Yoga. Yoga is excellence in action. The wise, through the attitude born of karma yoga, abandon the fruits of their actions, become freed from the fetters of birth and attain the state that is beyond all evil. When your mind goes beyond the mire of delusion, then you shall achieve dispassion for things already heard and things yet to be heard. When your mind that is perplexed by what you have heard, stands firm and steady in the samadhi, then you attain yoga.
In an earlier verse Krishna had defined yoga as samatvam – equanimity or evenness of mind. Here he gives us another beautiful definition of yoga: yogah karmasu kaushalam, yoga is skill in action or excellence in action.
Excellence in action happens when the mind in the flow state that Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about or the theta state that modern neurobiology talks about. In this state the mind is deeply calm, and the brain reflects that calmness. Brain waves, which in beta could be as high as 14 cycles per second [Hz] to 100 or even more cycles per second, calm down to between 4 and 8 cycles per second in theta. Because of this calmness, we are able to take decisions coolly, think out things thoroughly, and look at all the different possibilities before taking a decision.
Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats is a tool widely used in management that helps us take better decisions by considering all the various sides of an issue under consideration – the facts, the bright side, the dark side, critical issues, the emotional sides of the issue, creative solutions and so on in an orderly, disciplined and systematic manner. This is exactly what a cool and still mind, a brain in theta, helps us do too.
The theta state makes not only our perceptions sharp but also it increases our ability to look at all sides of a problem. It helps us focus exclusively on one thing if that is what is needed and it also widens our perspectives so that we miss no aspect of the problem, and we get the broader picture, the whole picture. It helps us take quick decisions as well as slowly deliberate on things.
A well-known and well-loved story of the Mahabharata is of Arjuna hitting the eye of the artificial bird placed on a tree by Drona to test the skills of his students [in the Sanskrit Mahabharata it is the neck of the bird].Yudhishthira is the first one to be called to the test as he was the eldest of the princes. After Yudhishthira aims the arrow at the bird, Drona asks him if he can see the whole bird and Yudhishthira says yes. Then the acharya asks if he can also see the branch on which the bird is, and Yudhishthira says yes again, an answer that makes the acharya’s face turn dark. Then he asks if Yudhishthira can see the whole tree too and he says yes, he can. The next question is if he can see the other princes too for which Yudhishthira’s answer was again yes, he can see everything at the same time. That is when Drona gets furious and shouts at him asking him to drop the arrow and go away, he can’t do the job. Later Arjuna is called upon to do the same thing and Arjuna answers the acharya he can see only the eye [neck in the Sanskrit version] of the bird and nothing else. A delighted acharya asks him to let go of the arrow and the target is hit.
In this story we are talking of two types of visions – one exclusively focused on a single thing, that of Arjuna, and the other that includes everything in the vision, that of Yudhishthira. To be effective in today’s world, one should have both the abilities. A successful person today in any field should be able to focus his attention on a single thing when needed and he should also be able to have the whole broader perspective when that is needed. What theta helps us do is have both at the same time.
When you work in the spirit of karma yoga without worrying about the results, totally committed to the work you are doing whatever it is, focusing on the now, you easily get into the theta state or the flow state and then you achieve excellence in work.
That is why Krishna here explains that yoga, or karma yoga, as excellence in action: yogah karmasu kaushalam. You just focus on the work without letting other thoughts of any kind enter your mind and your work naturally becomes excellent.
From an executive’s or a leader’s standpoint, the stillness of mind that comes from karma yoga helps us in many other ways too. For instance, our intuitions work only when our mind is still. When our mind is restless, it gets into negative moods and intuitions are blocked out. Daniel Goleman, the celebrated author of Emotional Intelligence, says about intuition that it is an executive’s greatest asset. He says the one single difference between the greatest CEOs in the world and the stars even among them is the ability of the stars to use their intuitions. And Einstein said that man has been given a faithful servant and a sacred gift – the faithful servant is reason, and the sacred gift is intuition. It is this intuition the still mind that karma yoga produces makes available to us.
Intuition has always been important in decision making. The world’s greatest scientific discoveries and technological inventions begin as intuitive hunches into hitherto unknown possibilities. All creative solutions come from intuition.
But today intuition is more important than ever before because everything is far more flexible and unpredictable today. We are today living in what is called the VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, where often intuition is the only path open for arriving at the right solutions.
Tibetan psychology is much older than western psychology and studies the healthy human mind rather than the sick human mind and goes back to still older Indian psychology. This ancient psychology gives us many insights into the human mind that modern psychology is yet to develop. One of the most important understandings it gives us is that the mind has no intelligence of its own, its intelligence is borrowed intelligence, reflected intelligence. Tibetan psychology tells us that just as the moon has no light of its own but only reflects the light of the sun, the ordinary mind, which Tibet calls sem, has no intelligence but only reflects the intelligence of a higher mind, which it calls rig. Rig is what India calls chit or prajna, the source of all intelligence.
As we know, the quality of any reflection depends on the quality of the reflecting medium. When a mirror is distorted, reflections in it will be distorted too, as we find in mirrors in a village fair in some of which you are reflected thin and tall, in some others you are spread out horizontally. When a mirror has gathered dust or dirt, the reflection will be of poor quality. Similarly, when steam gathers on a mirror, as on a bathroom mirror, the reflection is poor. Whereas when the mirror is perfect, the reflection is also perfect.
Still water reflects the sky perfectly, but when the water is disturbed, the reflection too is disturbed, as when you drop a big stone into a still pond. When the disturbance calms down and water becomes still again, the reflection too becomes perfect again. In the same way, whenever the mind is quiet and still, it reflects intelligence perfectly and our intelligence is at its highest.
Modern neurobiology too agrees with this, though it talks of the brain rather than of the mind. Neurobiology says that when our brain is in the beta wave state and the brain is restless with high frequency beta waves running through it, our intelligence is minimum. When the brain calms down to the alpha state, with slower alpha waves running through it, we have better intelligence. And when we enter the theta state, in which the brain waves are still slower and the brain is still more restful, we are in the state of the highest intelligence. [That is, for all practical purposes. In the delta state mind is even more still, but in that state, we are not in touch with the outside world, as in samadhi.]
So, what Tibetan psychology says and what modern neurobiology says are the same, the only difference being that one talks of the mind and the other talks of the brain.
What karma yoga does is help us work with a still mind – which means with high intelligence. Work done with high intelligence will be outstanding and we achieve excellence in action.
I once had a beautiful experience in one of my Management Development Programme sessions for corporate executives in XLRI School of Business. The MDP was for senior executives and as part of the programme I had taken the executives through a guided meditation session. When the group came out of the meditation, I saw a participant, an elderly man on the verge of retirement, looking at me with shining eyes. On enquiry, he told me he had a wonderful experience of meditation and something miraculous happened. Before coming for the MDP, for weeks he has been struggling to find solutions to some tough problems related to his job without any luck. But during the meditation, solutions to three of these problems appeared on their own before his mind with crystal clarity, with sketches and diagrams, as on a screen.
Neurobiology confirms that the deeply relaxed state of theta offers sudden insights and creative solutions to problems. They tap the possibilities lying in areas of the brain that are not frequently used. In that sense too karma yoga which helps people to work in a deeply relaxed state is a path to excellence.
To India, excellence has never meant outer excellence alone. For a culture that excelled in every field it went into, whether it is wealth production, medicine, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, literature, philosophy, you name it, India always insisted on inner excellence – life excellence – going hand in hand with outer excellence, something the west has largely forgotten in its rush for material prosperity. It is as though life has come to mean work. So, we have excellence in work but no excellence in life.
According to figures released by the British government, the average working parent today spends twice as long dealing with email as playing with her children. And besides, the e-mail time is on the increase. Children tend to spend much more time in childcare centers than with their parents. According to Is the American Dream Killing You? by Paul Stiles, 72% of childhood in the US is spent in childcare centers. The values and culture they are exposed to in their most impressionable years are not the values and culture of the family, but of the childcare centers where paid workers look after the children. Children are taught to play at fixed hours, eat at fixed hours, sleep at fixed hours, live their life according to the clock and not according to their individual needs and inclinations. Children differ in their needs – some children love solitude and solitary games, others love group games and constantly interacting with other children. In the paid day care system where things are run by the clock and by rules, such individual considerations are ignored – whether you like to play or not, at play time you have to play, whether you like to sleep or not, at sleep time you have to sleep. This destroys the uniqueness in children.
All over the industrial world, children come home from school to empty houses where there is no one to listen to their stories, problems, triumphs or fears. The result is depression, ulcers, heart diseases, suicides and so on.
Karoshi is a new Japanese word which can be translated literally as "death from overwork" means occupational sudden death.
India is fast moving on the same path. It is as though the most important principle that the Vedic culture taught, the principle of ritam, of life in harmony with outer nature and with man’s inner nature, has been completely forgotten.
Yogah karmasu kaushalam – yoga is skill in action or excellence in action – means making our life more excellent too while achieving outer excellence. Work should help us achieve our outer needs, but it should also help us grow inwardly. Since we spend so much of our time at work, it is high time we asked questions like:
- Are we becoming more restless or calmer through our work?
- Are we growing duller or is our intelligence awakening?
- Are we becoming more imaginative or is our imagination dying inside?
- Are we growing more positive or negative towards people?
- Kind and compassionate or hostile and ruthless?
- Generous or more possessive?
- Fearless or fearful?
- Pure in mind or corrupt?
- Self-master, or a slave to your senses?
- Serene or agitated?
- Straight forward or crooked?
These are questions every one of us should ask ourselves.
The stress and strain of today’s work culture tend to destroy the positive virtues in us, what the Gita calls our daivi sampada like love, forbearance, forgiving, flexibility, humility, love, acceptance and kindness, cultivating in their place what the Gita calls asuri sampada like hypocrisy, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness, cunning and so on. Modern workplaces are filled with stress and strain and under stress our mind gets into the beta state. The beta state is something evolved by nature to handle life’s dangers, as when the caveman suddenly found himself in front of a tiger. For that reason, when we are in the beta state we tend to feel as though we are surrounded by dangers and we see people and situations as threatening and get into negative modes. Rather than helping us grow as better human beings, modern workplaces with their constant deadlines, competitiveness and rush tend to retard our growth as human beings and become just tools for the industry or business.
The Gita way of work, karma yoga, by contrast, helps us grow more serene and centered, happier and more contented. Since during karma yoga we are either in the alpha or in the theta state, our mind is positive. A positive mind does not feel threatened by the people or situations we are facing. Such a mind is filled with love, warmth, friendship, generosity, flexibility, forgiveness and so on, which are natural to us but are destroyed by the beta state. Since with the karma yoga mindset we are either in alpha or theta, we live not just for ourselves but for others too. This too excellence in action – a different kind of excellence.
Continuing his praise of karma yoga, Krishna says it can take us to the highest of achievements, going beyond the bondage of karma, of life scripts, that keeps us bound to the world of samsara. When the wise abandon the fruits of their actions, they are freed from the fetters of birth, says Krishna. What Krishna means here is that whatever job is given to you, you accept it as a gift from God and perform it with equanimity, dedication and passion, and when the results come you accept them as grace from God, in what is known in the Indian tradition as prasada buddhi. You do not allow your ego to come into action at any stage. It is the ego that creates bondages for us and when you work without ego, you are freed from that bondage. This way, Krishna says, you shall reach that state which is beyond all evil - the state of awakening. Awakening is the state of complete stillness of mind, the mind we experience in samadhi, the mind that Patanjali declares as the goal of yoga when he defines yoga as chitta-vritti-nirodha, yoga is the cessation of all activities in the mind.
Once you reach the state of samadhi, once you reach the stage of enlightenment, once your mind becomes completely still, once you reach the stage that Zen calls no-mind, you no more long for the objects of the world – objects of the world you have heard of and objects of the world you have not yet heard of.
We run after the objects of the world, whether they are possessions, fame, position, power or whatever else, because of the temptation that achieving them we shall be happy. Someone believes that if he has the latest model of Rolls Royce, he shall be happy. Another believes if he becomes the MD of his company, he will be happy. Someone believes if he marries the beautiful woman, he recently saw he will be happy. And then we start running after the woman, or the MD’s position, or the Rolls Royce.
Indian wisdom from the time of the Upanishads has said that happiness is our nature and all we need to be happy is for our mind to be still, there is no greater happiness than the stillness of the mind, it is the only real happiness, everything else is only an illusion of happiness. That is the reason why Krishna says when you go beyond the mire of delusion, you no more run after those things you have heard of and those you have not yet heard of the things you have known and the things you still do not know.
Explaining what he means further, Krishna adds: You shall attain yoga when your mind that is now confused becomes still in samadhi. At the moment your mind is what Krishna calls avyavasayatmika – running in numerous directions all at the same time. Karma yoga makes your mind still, you attain the state of samadhi and that is the state of yoga. Samadhi is the state in which your mind is still. For Krishna, exactly as for Patanjali, the state of complete inner stillness is yoga.
The colophon at the end of each chapter of the Gita calls it a yoga shastra. The Gita talks of many types of yoga like jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, dhyana yoga and so on, all of which aim at the same goal: inner stillness and awakening. To become qualified to be called yoga, a path has to lead to this inner stillness and yoga. Since many of the practices we call yoga today fall short of taking us to this goal, they are steps in the right direction, but they are not yoga proper. A yogi as Krishna speaks of him is an enlightened person, whose mind has become still, who has reached the state of samadhi – samadhau achala buddhih yadaa sthaasyati nishchala, when the mind stays still in samadhi, in Krishna’s words. Then you experience yourself as you truly are and all your chasing after the world comes to an end. You still live in the world, but as someone who has comes to rest in his own nature, as someone contented with himself, as someone who sees himself in everything and everything in himself. There is nothing more for him to achieve and he lives for serving others and for showing them the path to reach where he has reached. This is the highest good you can do to the world, the true lokasangraha. For, it is a man with eyes that should show the path to others and not a blind man. Such guidance is desperately needed in today’s world where we live a life of worries, tensions and unhappiness in the middle of the abundance of the modern world.
The Gita is more relevant today than at any other time in the past.
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