In the West’s never-ending quest for high-speed, user-friendly spiritual growth, an ancient solution to the problem, karma yoga, is usually overlooked. The Bhagavad Gita touts karma yoga—the Hindu path of service to others—as the fast lane to spiritual fulfillment. So comprehensive are its benefits that one of India’s most widely respected gurus, Neem Karoli Baba, gave just one instruction to his devotees: “Love everyone, serve everyone, remember God”—six words that encompass the whole tradition. “Everything he said to us was focused on loving and serving,” says Mirabai Bush, one of his best-known American followers. “He said if you want to meditate or do asanas, fine, but he never really taught us those things.”
These ideas are much on my mind as I sit in a small apartment in Phoenix, Oregon, watching hospice volunteer—and novice karma yogi—Stephanie Harrison with her patient, Dorothy Armstrong. Harrison has seated herself on the carpet at Armstrong’s feet, a calming hand embracing the 73-year-old woman’s ankle. Slumped in a brown recliner, Armstrong suffers from congestive heart failure and advanced diabetes. At her request, her doctors have ended aggressive treatment and are just trying to make her final months more comfortable. But even that is becoming difficult: Liquid morphine no longer does the trick, the stout, white-haired woman says, and the pain rarely quits.
Harrison has stepped into the breach, having been paired with Armstrong by a local hospice agency. A pert brunette, Harrison visits at least weekly. Often, the two women just chat, like girlfriends. But Harrison also helps out by doing light housework, running errands, and tending to Armstrong’s Lhasa Apso, Pokita. In addition, Harrison has insisted that Armstrong phone her at any hour if she feels the need. Recently, Armstrong was jarred awake in the middle of the night by intense pain that overwhelmed and terrified her. Harrison rushed over from nearby Ashland to stay with Armstrong and hold her hand. “There’s no feeling like knowing that someone cares about you like that,” Armstrong says, her voice breaking. “She’s a very special person.”
All major religious traditions stress the importance of service to others: being a companion to the sick and dying, cooking hot meals for the hungry, collecting warm clothes for the poor, and so on. But that doesn’t make karma yoga a universal spiritual practice. In yoga, service is not just a spiritual obligation or the righteous thing to do, as it’s promoted in many churches and synagogues. It is also a path to self-realization, making it a supercharged version of the adage that when you give, you also receive.
So does that mean you’re guaranteed enlightenment for doing some volunteer work? Can anyone sign up for this amazing program? How else will your life change if you do? You won’t find pat answers to these questions—because, as described in the Gita, karma yoga is a mysterious process that reveals its true nature only to those who pursue it.
The first mystery comes wrapped in the definition of karma yoga, which doesn’t, strictly speaking, mean “service” (often referred to in yogic circles by its Sanskrit name, seva). Instead, the desire to do service is part of what’s revealed on the karma yoga path. Karma yoga is usually translated as “the yoga of action”—that is, using the ordinary actions of your life as a means of “waking up.” Essentially, everything you do—from household chores, like washing the dishes, to “important” duties, like your job—becomes a way of nourishing the universe that nourishes you.
At some point, however, the distinction between ordinary actions and service, or actions to relieve the suffering of others, disappears. Yoga teaches that as we develop spiritually, our awareness and compassion grow, making us more alert to suffering around us and less able to turn away from it. In essence, the pain of others becomes our own, and we feel driven to relieve it, much as we’d instinctively act to end pain in our own body or heart.
But karma yoga doesn’t always begin so deliberately—in fact, another of its mysteries is that it’s as likely to choose you as vice versa. Meredith Gould, former director of marketing at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, and author of Deliberate Acts of Kindness: Service as a Spiritual Practice, believes that for many, karma yoga starts as a sort of inner tug. For Ram Dass, whom many consider America’s preeminent karma yogi—he has written and lectured widely on the subject and helped launch several key dharma-related service nonprofits—the call came person-to-person. In 1967, while searching the Himalayan foothills for holy men, the former Harvard psychology professor, then called Richard Alpert, was introduced to a small bearded man wrapped in a blanket, who turned out to be Neem Karoli Baba. Just one day later, Maharajji, as his followers called Baba, “assigned” Ram Dass the task that has dominated his life ever since.
“[He] said to me, ‘Do you know Gandhi?’” Ram Dass says. “I said, ‘I don’t know him, I know of him.’ He said, ‘You—be like Gandhi.’ I got the little glasses first. That didn’t do it. And then I found a quote that said, ‘My life is my message.’ If I can be like Gandhi with that message, that makes my whole incarnation a service.” Which, of course, it has been, especially to the millions who first took an interest in Eastern spirituality thanks to Ram Dass’s books and lectures in the ’60s and ’70s; the countless folks who’ve benefited from his work with the Prison-Ashram Project, the Dying Project, the Seva Foundation, and other such efforts; and the graying legions inspired by his work on conscious aging.
Serve the Soul
Not being a membership organization, karma yoga also taps the shoulders of those outside the fold, like Stephanie Harrison. Having grown up watching her parents assist needy families who patronized their grocery store in Houston, Harrison began volunteering when her children were young. At first, she assisted at her firstborn’s day-care center. Later, she led tours for children and adults with disabilities at a local museum. “Starting when I was young, I had a sense that we needed one another, that we couldn’t make it by ourselves,” she recalls.
In her mid-40s, Harrison began exploring contemplative spirituality, and her volunteering changed in kind. A Methodist by birth, she started practicing Thomas Keating’s “centering prayer,” which resembles Eastern-style meditation, after hearing the noted monk and author speak in Houston. She also simplified her life, minimized her creature comforts, and began attending retreats at convents and monasteries. Eventually, she adopted the church’s Rule of Benedict, a comprehensive approach to spiritual living in which service plays a key role. After moving to Ashland, her involvement with the hospice exposed her to the Buddhist perspective on living and dying. The teachings rang in her like a bell, and she soon integrated them into her daily practice.
Harrison’s volunteering now drives her spiritual development as much as formal doctrines do. In the cozy front room of her home, Harrison talks about how observing people die has altered her view of the living. Her voice is hushed with wonder as she describes one patient’s passing. A Hispanic man separated from his wife, the patient was just “skin and bones,” Harrison says. He never had visitors and rarely spoke.
“One day, he opened his arms and began to pray in Spanish,” she recalls. “His whole face changed—there was a light in it that came from inside out. His body heated up. And there was such joy and peace and glory that he radiated. It was probably less than 24 hours later that he died. But there was some connection he made that really pulled him out of this world into the next, gave him courage and almost took him by the hand.
“I’m so clear after seeing people dying that we are all the same,” she continues. “There’s a part that sheds and a part that’s there after the shedding. In my interactions with others now, I’m able to see beyond their superficiality and respond to that deeper part of a person, which often transforms the whole communication.”
To Ram Dass, the same change that Harrison describes in herself captures the difference between karma yoga and what might be called ordinary volunteering. He notes that most of us are dominated by our egos, which is the shallowest level of our being. That is, we base our identities and sense of worth on our physical bodies, personalities, jobs, reputations, and possessions, and see others through the same lens.
Ordinary volunteering is often performed, despite the volunteer’s altruistic cover story, to fulfill the ego’s needs: to alleviate guilt, seek praise or respect, prove our power to “save” people, and so on. Inherently, it centers on unequal relationships—pulling someone up from the depths or fixing them in some way. It also involves a negative judgment, because a helper’s ego can only conclude, based on the evidence that egos understand, that the ego is superior to those who receive its help (they’re dirty, I’m not; they’re addicts, I have self-control). If those being helped sense that they’re being judged, it only increases their pain.
Volunteering looks much different, Ram Dass says, when it’s performed from a higher level: soul to soul. In fact, it looks like Stephanie Harrison’s involvement with Dorothy Armstrong—one person sharing her wholeness with another, with no other agenda. When he does his own hospice work, Ram Dass says, “I wait until my soul takes over—my spiritual self, my witness to my incarnation. And then I walk in. I don’t find an AIDS patient; I find a soul. I say something like, ‘How’s your incarnation?’”
When one soul serves another, there’s no need to give advice or lift up or heal. But along with that comes a certain acceptance of the status quo. “I think we all want to fix, because it gives us a sense of control over something we have no control over,” says Gail Straub, author of The Rhythm of Compassion: Caring for Self, Connecting With Society. “I think it’s healthier and more sustainable to serve with the idea that I can’t eliminate that suffering. It’s a Hindu and Buddhist idea that there will always be immense suffering in the world around me. What I can do is offer my kindness, knowing that I’m not going to solve anything.”
Although karma yoga is associated with selfless service, it can also be thought of as “should-less” service. In the Gita, Krishna describes the karma yogi as one who “feels pure contentment and finds perfect peace in the Self—for him, there is no need to act.” This, with classic yoga logic, creates the perfect foundation for acting: “Surrendering all attachments, accomplish life’s highest good.”
But that’s the ideal. Along the way, most of us will butt up against what Straub calls “the shadow side of service.” This takes several forms besides the above-mentioned need to “fix” people or situations. For instance, we may become service workaholics, neglecting our families or our own needs. The suffering we see may make us so cynical about the world’s condition that our service grows literally dispirited. Conversely, we may approach volunteering so arrogantly that we think we can save the world. “The shadow is based on an illusion: that we’re either better than the people we’re serving or not good enough,” Straub says. “Either way, our shadow is bound to make us feel impotent, and that will dry up our compassion.”
While the shadow can tear the heart out of ordinary volunteering, it plays a far different role in karma yoga. It’s engineered, brilliantly, into the process. “The same stuff that comes up in meditation—monkey mind—comes up in karma yoga,” Meredith Gould says. “‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’ ‘I hate this job.’ ‘I’m looking at the clock—that means I’m not a good person.’ That’s all grist for the mill.” Of course, that also means that because we aren’t perfect, we’re going to screw up sometimes and do harm instead of good. But again, in karma yoga, that’s by design. “The question is, when we mess things up, what do we do with that? Because there’s always growth in screwing up. How else does anyone grow?” Gould adds, laughing.
Inevitable as the shadow is, though, we can still make things easier on ourselves, and be better volunteers, by using common sense—for instance, tailoring our commitments to the contours of our lives. Straub notes that our capacity to serve changes at different stages of our lives. Someone with a demanding job or raising small kids can’t spare as much time as a retiree or a college student on break, and the wise volunteer will honor that.
Most places overflow with opportunities to make a difference, especially if, like a good karma yogi, you let go of the need to save humanity. For ideas, just flip through the volunteering pages in your local newspaper or type volunteering into your web browser. Scale doesn’t matter, Gould says; whether you work for world peace or find homes for abandoned cats, “I don’t think one gets more angel points than the other.” Nor does karma yoga have to be done through a formal commitment, she notes. It can even be an extension of your normal job—as with a dedicated science teacher who creates exciting projects for her students in her garage at night.
Keep in mind that lovingkindness—acting with heartfelt concern toward others—is part of karma yoga too. When your service undermines other parts of your life, you’re bound to feel resentment and anger, and to spill some of it on those around you. “The spiritual aspect of service is doing what your heart calls you toward,” Straub says. “The pragmatic aspect is what you have time for without jeopardizing your family, your work, and your own inner balance. If one afternoon a month is all you can manage, that’s just fine.”
Following her guru’s lead, Mirabai Bush, coauthor (with Ram Dass) of Compassion in Action, puts it even more simply. She offers this boiled-down guideline for would-be karma yogis: Be brave, start small, use what you’ve got, do something you enjoy, and don’t overcommit.
While it’s true that karma yoga is a mysterious process that you can’t direct, that doesn’t mean you can’t help it along. The Gita advises us to bring balance and equanimity to every situation. Apply that to volunteering and you’ll always bring your best self to the job. You’ll also make your service more personally sustainable, Bush says. To her, this means combining karma yoga with contemplative practices such as asana and meditation. When you do this, she says, “you begin to see that not acting is a very important complement to acting, and that being still shows us the right way to act when the time is right to act.”
Both Bush and Straub work with social activists who’ve never developed their spiritual sides, leaving them vulnerable to what Straub calls “compassion fatigue.” One of the darkest parts of service’s shadow, the term refers to those who work so hard at caring that they empty their tank and the caring stops. Straub is convinced that daily spiritual practice is crucial to anyone who volunteers, not just karma yogis. “If there’s no inner life,” Straub says, “there’s a despair that says, ‘Nothing ever makes a difference.’ I think the spiritual life helps us hold the paradox of hope and despair, joy and sorrow, making a difference and feeling there’s not enough time—all those contradictory feelings that are part of deep service. It’s really hard to grapple with them with just the intellect.”
But while spirituality helps prevent compassion fatigue, it’s no panacea. “I feel I have a pretty good balance most of the time,” Straub says, “but I definitely have my periods of feeling fried. It’s almost inevitable for a really engaged human being. Balance is a messy business. The key is to listen to the rhythm inside us, which of course spirituality helps us do. I might need to be enormously engaged at one point in life, and I might need to go inside and just take care of myself in another cycle, and there might be cycles where I can balance both.”
Fortunately, in karma yoga, the volunteering furthers the inner work, as well as vice versa. Stephanie Harrison discovered years ago, when she first began hospice volunteering, that service was the key to her satisfaction and growth. “Dealing with death and people in a ravaged state scares me sometimes,” she says thoughtfully. “But it hasn’t stopped me. Something inside me says, ‘This is part of life and who we are.’ I believe that in everything we rub up against in this life, there’s a teaching and a possibility. A lot of times it’s uncomfortable, but that’s what being human is to me. I don’t know if I’d want to be around if I couldn’t be in this world in this way.”