In the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most revered of all the ancient yoga texts, Krishna tells the conflicted warrior Arjuna, "You have the right to work, but for the work's sake only. You have no right to the fruits of the work." With these words, Krishna presents a timeless vision of karma yoga, the path of self-transcendent action. Krishna's teaching allows Arjuna to see that when we act without regard for rewards and because life presents the opportunity and responsibility to act, we can lose our selves and experience atman, the oneness that the discipline of yoga is all about.
This year has seen no abatement of humanity's age-old afflictions--war, poverty,
hatred, greed, and so on. But each day also provides us with the opportunity to take
action, to show compassion, to alleviate suffering. While not everyone takes advantage of that opportunity, some people do. We are pleased to present the most inspiring of them as the winners of the 2003 Karma Yoga Awards.
Leah Green believes in the power of reconciliation. As director of the nonprofit Compassionate Listening Project, she has offered an alternative means of attaining peace in the Middle East by encouraging compassionate communication between Palestinians and Israelis.
This technique starts with posing nonadversarial questions and cultivating the skill of nonjudgmental listening. "We started doing it with the full spectrum, including extremists on both sides," Green says, "and they experienced the power of compassionate listening themselves, as the beneficiaries of it. People on all sides felt safe under our umbrella--they knew they weren’t going to be discounted, that they were going to be heard, that it wasn't going to be a debate." Once Green and her coworkers saw that they could facilitate a real dialogue, they started training the participants to teach others.
The method of communication was developed by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, a Quaker, therapist, peace worker, and writer who was heavily influenced by the teachings of noted Zen Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh. Each year, the Compassionate Listening Project--which is based in Indianola, Washington--offers workshops around the United States to train individuals and groups in the technique, which, Hoffman has written, "seeks to see through any masks of hostility and fear to the sacredness of the individual and to discern the wounds suffered by all parties."
The nonprofit also leads trips of "citizen delegates" to the Middle East and has produced both a guidebook to the technique, Listening with the Heart, and a video documentary, Children of Abraham.
Green's own understanding of the need for empathizing with those whose views and cultural traditions differ radically from her own began in 1979, when, at age 19, she moved to Israel to live on a kibbutz for a year. "I didn't know what the conflict [between the Palestinians and the Israelis] was all about, but I’d inherited a lot of wariness about Palestinians from my culture," Green recalls.
This wariness was brought into sharp relief one evening when she panicked during an encounter with a Palestinian elder on a hillside outside the kibbutz. "He was so peaceful; he was just enjoying the sunset," she says. "He said hello and gave not one sign that I should be worried, but I became so frightened, I ran all the way--about a mile--back to the kibbutz." This experience rattled and shamed her. "What good does it do," she asked herself, "to throw yourself into a conflict and just inflame the hatred further?"
In 1982, she returned to Israel and began doing reconciliation work. After training at the School for Peace at Neve Shalom, an "intentional community" of Israelis and Palestinians living together, Green brought groups of Palestinians and Israelis together to talk--only to learn that real communication was elusive at best. "These dialogues consisted of one group waiting for the other to finish, then shouting back," she remembers. Then, in 1990, Green started the Mid-East Citizen Diplomacy--which sent mostly American delegations to meet with the Israelis and Palestinians to help break down stereotypes and build bridges of understanding. In 1996, the group introduced the technique of compassionate listening--and Green saw the kind of progress she had long strived for.
Green doesn't describe the project's work as a spiritual practice, exactly, but she clearly sees it as a kind of karma yoga. The biggest benefit to the staff and trainees, she says, "is their own transformation." When she's in the ﬁeld leading a workshop, training others in compassionate listening, Green says, she's "able to forget all the obstacles, all the times people say, 'Why do you even try? They've been killing each other for generations.' I'm able to act from a place of vision where we see beyond the limits of here and now, the place where our real power comes from." Best of all, "it's contagious. It attracts that in other people. We create these spaces where they touch their own power too."
For more information, contact the Compassionate Listening Project, P.O. Box 17, Indianola, WA 98342; (360) 297-2280; www.compassionatelistening.org.
James Winkler's day job affords him abundant opportunities to serve others, but he doesn't feel that they are enough. "Although I help people at the clinic all day, I can still have a lousy day if I'm really focused on myself," says Winkler, a 48-year-old physician who owns and runs Hale Lea Medicine, a family-practice clinic on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. So Winkler does seva (service)--which, in his case, means directing the Amicus Foundation, a six-year-old nonprofit he founded.
Amicus, which has no paid staff and which Winkler and a few others have funded so far, sponsors a series of projects in several countries. Some of these projects help preserve the cultural traditions of the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan; the group also works to improve the educational prospects of some of the country's disadvantaged youth. Its projects include building schools, community centers, and libraries and providing scholarships to young students who are "too poor to afford an education," Winkler says.
The foundation also sponsors the Bhutan Women's Project, which is rebuilding a former retreat center for a group of women who have devoted themselves to selfless service in the form of conflict resolution, grief counseling, hospice work, and even tilling the fields for pregnant women who are unable to work them. Rebuilding the retreat center, Winkler says, not only will re-create a long-lost sanctuary but will encourage hundreds of other Bhutanese women to take up this work and practice. Another Amicus project is the Simtokha School and Orphanage, where students wear robes but are not ordained monks. "Simtokha combines traditional spiritual education with the three Rs," Winkler explains. "When the children graduate, they bring the riches of both elements into their communities."
Winkler didn't start out looking to distant lands--or even to the needs of others--for inspiration. A New York native, he lived in Los Angeles in his 20s and made his living as a pianist in the combos of some well-known jazz artists. To many, that would seem to be a dream career, but Winkler felt that something was missing. "In retrospect," he says, "I see that the life I was living was all about myself." Seeking new horizons, he obtained degrees in clinical nutrition and Chinese medicine before enrolling at the University of Southern California medical school. After completing his training, he had a private practice in the L.A. area for a few years before moving to Hawaii 14 years ago.
At the same time as he was studying these wellness disciplines, he was becoming an avid dharma practitioner. In Los Angeles, he encountered a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher who introduced him to Buddha dharma. Winkler later met his "root teacher," the high Tibetan Buddhist lama Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche, whom he describes as "one of the last of the authentic Dzogchen masters fully trained in Tibet." Rinpoche was living in Bhutan, where Winkler visited him many times. The teacher eventually gave the student the name Ugin Timle Dorje. "He never told me to start a foundation," Winkler says, "but in bestowing the name, he simply said, 'There's a lot of activity to do.'" (Timle means "enlightened activity.") In 1986, Winkler founded the Cloudless Sky Vajrayana Foundation in honor of his teacher. It operated quietly, supporting a few monks and nuns, until about six years ago, when it spawned the Amicus Foundation to work more proactively. "Spiritual practice requires the blending of one's insight with action," Winkler says.
For Winkler, service is an essential aspect of life: "Genuine service is really who we are. It's part of our human DNA. No matter how self-involved or bizarre someone can appear on the outside, if they stop for a moment and help someone, they transform."
For more information, contact the Amicus Foundation, 4217 Waipua St., Kilauea, HI 96754; (808) 828-2828; www
Each week, Matt Sanford leads disabled students--many of whom can't walk and don't have any sensation below their midtorso—through a series of seated yoga poses, teaching them how to bring awareness into parts of their bodies they had thought were lost to them. He is especially qualified to teach these students, as he himself is a paraplegic—he was critically injured at age 13 in an automobile accident that claimed the lives of his father and older sister. His own experience of being paralyzed from the chest down has fueled his desire to help others, whatever their abilities or conditions, connect with their bodies.
As president of Mind Body Solutions, a nonprofit corporation and yoga studio he founded in 2001 in Minnetonka, Minnesota, Sanford aims to "infuse a more holistic approach into the rehabilitation model itself." To that end, the company organizes seminars and workshops for health care professionals and hospitals. It also has a "Bringing Your Body to Work" on-site program that fosters body awareness and mind-body integration in the workplace through a series of lectures, yoga classes, and the demonstration of recommended exercises that can be done at a desk.
But helping disabled students uncover a connection with their bodies is clearly Sanford's passion. After his accident, Sanford says, he developed a "willful approach" that enabled him to adapt to life in a wheelchair, relying on highly developed upper-body strength. He learned to maneuver around his disabilities, even engaging in wheelchair athletics, but something was amiss--something that bothered him more than his physical limitations. He found that he had abandoned the inner experience of his body. "Seeing your body as an object is an unhappy place to be," he says.
When a rotator cuff injury of his required rehabilitation, a friend suggested he try yoga, and he attended a class in Santa Barbara, California, with Jo Zukovich, an experienced Iyengar Yoga teacher. She worked with Sanford empathically, approaching poses from the perspective of his disability and focusing on what he could do, not on what he couldn’t do.
Under Zukovich's direction, he began to experience the energetic dynamics of the body in different positions and to elongate his spine and limbs. He also learned to bring awareness even into those places in his body where he was unable to perceive physical sensation.
While Sanford still cannot lift his legs against gravity, he can take an astounding array of poses these days, including variations of Navasana (Boat Pose) and Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend). And his renewed sense of awareness in some of the paralyzed portions of his body allows him to know when he is cold or has a full bladder.
Sanford funded Mind Body Solutions with the proceeds from a lawsuit settlement, and he donates all of his teaching and public--speaking fees to the studio. But his work, he says, is not about altruism. It's about helping others feel alive and in their bodies, whatever their abilities and limitations.
"I've never seen anyone become more conscious in his or her body and not become more compassionate," he notes. "I love being alive. I really do. And I think the way the world is going to transform is by us getting back in touch with the joy of being alive for its own sake."
For more information, contact Mind Body Solutions, 17516 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka, MN 55345; (952) 473-3700; www.mindbodysolutions-mn.org.
As founder and president of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, Arun Gandhi is carrying on a family legacy that goes back more than a century: His grandfather was Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Mahatma (Great Soul), fearless promoter of the yogic precept of ahimsa (nonharming) and champion of nonviolent action. Continuing this tradition, Arun and his wife, Sunanda, founded the institute in 1991 "to promote and teach the philosophy and practice of nonviolence to help reduce the violence that consumes our hearts, our homes, and our societies."
The institute provides education in peaceful conflict resolution, anger management, relationship building, and the theory and practice of nonviolence throughout the United States. It offers workshops for schools, prisons, and community groups. Located in Memphis, Tennessee, the institute maintains a library on Gandhian thought and offers a two-week "Gandhi Legacy Tour," which studies projects led by Gandhian activists engaged in socioeconomic change.
Arun conducts some of the workshops and gives public talks; he is also a prolific writer who got his start as a reporter for the Times of India decades ago. He has written eight books, including the recent Legacy of Love: My Education in the Path of Nonviolence (North Bay Books, 2003), and has authored dozens of articles on the value of using nonviolence in conflict resolution.
Arun's involvement in nonviolent social change began in India, when he and Sunanda were starting a family. Despite their new responsibilities as parents, they felt drawn to do something for the poor. With colleagues, they started the Center for Social Unity, to alleviate poverty and caste discrimination. The center has introduced a model of economic self-help to more than 300 villages and, by Arun's estimation, positively affected the lives of more than 500,000 people in India. In 1987, Arun accepted a fellowship at the University of Mississippi to study prejudice around the world, and four years later, he and Sunanda moved to Memphis to found the institute.
His commitment to promoting nonviolence arose from his own experience of the healing power of peaceful conflict resolution. Born to Indian parents in Durban, South Africa, in 1934, he was the object of racist hatred—taunted by white youths for not being white and by black youths for not being black. At the age of 12, Arun was sent to Sevagram, Gandhi's ashram in India, where he lived during the last 18 months of the spiritual leader's life and where he learned anger management and nonviolent discipline. Thus began a lifelong "pursuit of the truth" and commitment to nonviolence as a means of achieving spiritual growth, familial and community harmony, and social change.
Arun believes that the commitment to serve others "has to come from within—-if it's forced upon you, it becomes a burden." One might think that carrying on a legacy as illustrious as his grandfather's would itself be a burden, and Arun recalls that he once confessed to his mother, Sushila Gandhi, his fear that living up to the Mahatma's brilliant moral vision and titanic reputation would prove too much for him. "If you see it as a burden, it'll only get heavier," Sushila wisely replied, "but you can also see it as a light, and if you do, it will illuminate your path."
For more information, contact the M.K. Gandhi Institute
for Nonviolence, c/o Christian Brothers University, 650
E. Parkway South, Memphis, TN 38104; (901) 452-2824; www.gandhiinstitute.org.
David Hartsough got the idea of a shanti sena, or "peace army," from Mohandas Gandhi, whose philosophy he was introduced to at an early age. A San Francisco resident and longtime peace activist, Hartsough has made his vision a reality by cofounding the Nonviolent Peaceforce, a "trained international civilian peaceforce committed to third-party nonviolent intervention." He is the group's strategic relations coordinator, orchestrating a complex network of 80 member organizations; United Nations, regional, and governmental agencies; and like-minded nonprofits around the world.
After years of planning, this year the peaceforce launched its first project, training and sending a team to Sri Lanka, where a civil war between the Hindu minority Tamils and the Buddhist majority Sinhalese has raged for 20 years. Team members—-the peaceforce plans to have 50 in place by early 2004—-will spend two years in Sri Lanka, where they'll act as unarmed bodyguards, monitor public events (such as elections) for rights violations, and place themselves between opposing sides of conflicts to avert violence. But they won't be making peace by themselves, as Hartsough himself points out: "We're making it safe for local people to create the peace."
Hartsough says it will cost $1.6 million annually—-less than the amount the U.S. military spends every two minutes, he notes—to operate the shanti sena in Sri Lanka. His organization raised nearly $700,000 last year (more than half from individuals, about a third from religious institutions and small foundations) but aims to raise much more than that, for Hartsough hopes there will be 2,000 trained members of the peace army by the end of the decade. "With one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. military budget," he says, "we could have a full-scale nonviolent peaceforce able to intervene in conflict areas in many parts of the world." Hartsough believes governments will eventually see the practicality of the shanti sena, which is cheaper than an armed military to maintain in terms of both money and lives. "We have people at the United Nations watching with interest," he says. "They tell us, 'You show us this can work for four or five years, and then we'll do it.'"
Hartsough's passion for peace work goes back decades, to his teenage years, when his family became practicing Quakers. In 1960, at age 20, Hartsough participated in the Arlington, Virginia, sit-ins—-in which black activists pressured merchants to desegregate restaurant lunch counters—-and had his pacifism tested. An angry white man threatened him with a switchblade, saying, "You've got two seconds to leave." Hartsough replied coolly, "I'll still try to love you, but do what you think is right." The man's jaw dropped, and he left. "Seeing the power of nonviolence," Hartsough recalls, "convinced me that that was what I wanted to do with my life."
Now in his early 60s and a grandfather, Hartsough has been committed to promoting peace for so long that he scarcely stops to reflect on the karmic importance of his work. But the work is a way for him to put his faith into practice. "It's a way to stay sane. It nourishes you and empowers you to give more to others," he says. "We all have choices to make. Most people would like everyone to have a good life. If there's something positive we can do—-even for one hour a week-—toward making that happen, we'll be much happier people."
For more information, contact Nonviolent Peaceforce, 801 Front Ave., St. Paul, MN 55103; (651) 487-0800; www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org.
Phil Catalfo, who writes our annual Karma Yoga Awards story, is a senior editor at Yoga Journal. He often performs karma yoga in his hometown of Berkeley, California.