99 tips for a better world (25 of 99): practice karma yoga
I spent two weeks in an ashram in India earlier this year. While I was there I wrote a few tips.
Today as my karma yoga I cleaned a fridge.
Karma Yoga, or selfless service, refers to the duties each person in the Ashram must carry out each day.
When I arrived here last week, the new arrivals were sat down together and given an introduction to the concept of karma yoga. We were told:
- Karma Yoga is selfless service. You work without any recognition or reward as devotional practice to God.
- No Karma Yoga duty is better or worse than any other.
- If you experience any resistance to your duties, contemplate the resistance. It might be your ego trying to maintain control.
Some of the tasks around the ashram include serving food, cleaning bathrooms, and working in the boutique.
‘Please let me work in the boutique. Please let me work in the boutique,’ cried my ego, silently in my head. They say no Karma Yoga duty is better than any other but working in the boutique is, to my mind, the obvious exception to that rule.
Sitting cross-legged on rattan mats, one by one we were assigned our duties. Those in the front row were serving food; a couple of others were assigned to empty the bins. There were only a few of us left waiting on the mats. ‘Who is here for longer than a week?’ My hand shot up. ‘Okay, you will work in the boutique.’
‘Yessssss.’ My ego was off and running.
The boutique is a small shop in the middle of the ashram. It sells ashram-appropriate clothing, toiletries, yoga mats, mala beads, CDs and various other spiritual commodities.
The next day I prepared for Karma Yoga – a one hour shift in the boutique. I observed my thoughts:
‘What if I am no good at working in the boutique? Can I be fired from Karma Yoga?’
‘What if I get really bored?’
‘An hour a day is longer than other Karma Yoga tasks. Is that fair?’
‘I hope I don’t make a mistake calculating prices.’
‘What if I am too scruffy to work in the boutique?’
‘What if no one wants to be served by someone with a pimple on her chin?’
‘Is it okay to work in the boutique if my hair is still a bit wet from my shower?’
I was surprised by these thoughts but also realised they are the thoughts that run through my head – with situation-appropriate variations – pretty much all the time.
I went to the boutique and was greeted by the staff member who runs the boutique. Anandi, a young Italian woman, showed me the ropes quickly (here is the broom, here is the duster) and I was ready to roll.
My first task was to clean a refrigerator that had recently been commandeered from the ashram kitchen. This would become the home for a new range of snacks being sold in the boutique, including nuts and fruit and sesame balls…once it had 20 years of grunge cleaned off it.
I found some cleaning spray and a cloth and I began to rub at the black grime lining the inside of the refrigerator. Sitting in the middle of the shop floor I received a few comments from passersby and queries about what the fridge would eventually hold (‘Will there be ice cream?’ Sadly, no).
Before long I looked up and noticed that an hour had passed. To finish the job I kept working for another hour until it was time to close the boutique.
I went back to my room when I was done and looked at the list of thoughts that had run through my head beforehand. They looked ridiculous before, but now they looked unrecognisable. I had written that list but I couldn’t imagine why I worried about any of it. I was particularly struck by my worries about boredom. When else in my life was I avoiding something I thought would make me bored? Was this my ego playing a clever game of bait and switch? Doing whatever it takes to reign supreme?
Well, it was beaten by a dirty fridge.
A brief moment of peace through total commitment to something outside of myself – that’s the power of Karma Yoga.