Unit XI. Karma
1. The Law of causation
2. Taking action in the world
3. Selfless service

Materials needed: Journal

Books and articles:

A Path with Heart*
To Love is to Know Me
Tao Te Ching. *
Myth of Freedom*
Emergence of the Divine Child or Windows to the soul*
Return to Shiva*

Exercises and Practices:

Karma as Cause
The Forces of Evolution
Right Livelihood
Business Ethics
Work and Sexual Karma
Selfless Service

* You will already have these books.

Every thought that we think, every deed that we do, after a certain time becomes fine, goes into seed form, so to speak, and lives in the subtle body in a potential form, and after a time it emerges again and bears its results. These results condition the life of man. Thus the human being molds his own life. Man is not bound by any other laws excepting those which he makes for himself. - Vivekananda

Karma in Yoga has three important meanings: the law of causation, taking action in the world and selfless service.

The first is the law of causation. That simply means that whatever action is taken by a person has consequences or outcomes. It is cause and effect or stimulus and response on a simpler level. Usually cause and effect works in a chainlike sequence with the effect acting as another cause for another effect and so on. For example: The coach sends in a new player to the game with specific instructions. However, when the player arrives on the scene, things have changed so he does something different which causes the game to change which effect causes the team to lose the game. The action of the player also serves as a cause for the coach's anger which serves as a cause of the player's irritation, etc. Everything we do or think is a cause for an effect.

The second meaning of karma is taking action in the world, or doing something. This is similar to the law of causation but is a more specific case. The implication here is that there is some intention on the part of the person taking action. This throws back to the need to take responsibility for our actions.

The third meaning of karma is selfless service. Yoga teaches that we should take action in the world without giving any thought to the outcome. That means we do not expect rewards or punishments for what we do, nor praise, nor recognition, etc. We simply do what is in front of us that needs to be done. When we take action in that spirit, all work has equal value.

The Law of Causation

This idea is pretty straightforward. Whatever we do has consequences however minute. We may not always take note of the results of what we do, nor do the consequences always come back to us immediately. However, there will be a return and, if we are aware of such things, we will always recognize them when they do.

Most people are familiar with the idea of karma being transferred from one life to another, and that is probably true. Still, what is more important for us to deal with in the here-and-now is the karma we are creating for ourselves right now and that which we have produced during the past in this lifetime. Once we deal with these sources, there is plenty of time to work on past life karma or on group karma. For as well as individual karma, we are also subject to karma produced by groups of which we have been or are members such as a citizen of the United States or the Nazis in World War II. Those responsible for the Holocaust have generated intense karma for the whole population of Germany at that time even for those who did not actually kill anyone. And that group will need to undo that karma in subsequent times and lives.

In this present lifetime, we create karma every day so it mounts up over all the years we survive. Now, karma can be either good or bad to put it simplistically. Those things we do that harm others send out vibrations that will return to revisit us on the causal end of the equation. For instance, if I gossip maliciously about someone in the community, it is bound to find the target person who will then become angry and may do something mean to me in return though it may not be a direct hit. Usually such things are not. I may find my reputation being maligned instead. On the other hand, if I do something nice for someone, the vibrations will be beneficial and will also return to me. Sending flowers to someone who is shut-in as a friendly gesture may result in the receiver saying nice things about the giver or using their influence to help the other person in some way.

However, we do not do such things in hope of a return. We just know that it will return in some manner with the valence intact, so we focus attention on generally creating good karma rather than bad.

Once we have made ahimsa or non-violence a habit in order to minimize the karma we are creating in the present, then we can look to our past to see if there is anything we can do to neutralize the harm we have done to others in our earlier years. Certainly we can apologize, forgive or otherwise try to make amends. There may be something tangible we can do in addition to a verbal contrition. It helps to keep in mind that some people need to be told while others may need to be shown. And it is probably a good idea, say every New Year's or on our birthdays, to review the past year and see if there is any unfinished business we need to correct before continuing on into the fresh year ahead. If we only deal with the major issues of the past, it can still have a beneficial impact on our karma. Should you need to deal with someone who is now dead, you can write out what you need to say and commit it to the ethers in ritual or prayer. The important thing is that you repent. Confessions in various religious traditions serve this function as well if you think about what you are saying at the time. This is the reason we need to confess our so-called sins.

Exercise: Karma as Cause:

1. Read chapter 19 in A Path with Heart and do the forgiveness meditation at the end of the chapter. Forgiveness is part of karma work because carrying a grudge in itself creates karma; it generates negative vibrations.

2. Read the Introduction and Chapter 13 in To Love is to Know Me. This book is the last six chapters of the Bhagavad Gita those which give the Yogic teachings about Karma Yoga. Think about what the field of karma is and how it affects your life.

Taking Action in the World

As living, breathing animals, we have the capacity to move around and do things. Everything we do, therefore, consists of taking action in the world. This includes thinking, fantasizing and dreaming. We are going to focus on the action of work in this unit because it is closest in kind to the yang energy of this chakra. And it is the action most likely to cause problems in our lives.


". . the world of work is the world of karma. Harmonious work with other people is a vital part of spiritual living. It is indispensable" (Easwaran, 1984, p. 81)

When we have to do something someone else tells us to do, we call that "work." When we get paid for it, we call it a "job." When we do something because we want to, we call that "play." There are all sorts of negative connotations attached to the label "work" probably because we had to do it as children when we wanted to do something else, like play. "You can't go outside and play until you do your chores," mother said over and over again. "Work comes before play."

You have most likely already guessed what I will say about these ideas. "Work," "job," and "play" are all just labels each of which carries its own load of our personal associations to it that have been generated throughout our lives. These can be positive, negative or neutral depending upon our experiences. This underscores the role of the mind which is the agent that applies the nuances to the labels. We have already seen how the mind can be induced to change its interpretations. Beyond that, the mind assigns a valence or value to the label, then we respond to that as we would to an independent stimulus

The response we call up is conditioned by self-will. Remember we defined work as something someone else tells us to do or that we have to do when we do not want to. The wanting-not-to comes from self-will. I'd rather do something else, like play or rest or daydream or call a friend. Since self-will comes from the ego, we must confront the ego in order to change the wanting.

When I was en route to the ashram where I took my Yoga training, I remember worrying about the work situation. At an ashram, everyone does selfless service as a way of retraining the ego and giving back to the Divine One. The newest residents get the "grunt" work as one person called it. That means cooking, cleaning and yardwork, all the jobs no one else wants to do. Since I had always hated housework, I was afraid I would be very unhappy cleaning bathrooms and washing dishes again. However, I was very pleasantly surprised. At the beginning of each week, the work coordinator posted a list of jobs along with the names of those who were assigned to them, so we knew exactly what we would be doing all week. Well, first of all, I was never in any one job all week, so there was variety. Secondly, we almost always worked in teams, so I usually had someone to talk to. Under those conditions, the work turned out to be pleasant, and I enjoyed not having any responsibility for getting it all done. Maybe you have to have been a housewife to appreciate all this, but I liked to work at the ashram. Good thing as we had to work eight hours a day six days a week. The permanent residents worked all the time, at least it seemed so to me, so it was not a matter of slave labor mentality but collaboration in its truest sense.

What I learned from the ashram experience is that all work has equal value in terms of selfless service. And that all work can be dedicated to the Divine One which then changes it into selfless service. This has very important implications. It does not matter how you earn your living, you can take your job as an opportunity to serve others and to learn more about your ego and its agendas. For whatever you resist in your job, is your ego wanting it some other way. If you think about it, it makes sense to try to transform your attitude toward your world as it is and to start with just where you are right now especially since all the resistance to it the way it is, is coming from your mind and ego. Change those and your situation will change because action has consequences. When you work with joy, joy is what will be reflected back to you. Try it and see.

Exercise: The Forces of Evolution

1. Read chapter 14 in To Love is to Know Me. This chapter deals with the gunas that we have met before. You'll remember that gunas are the characteristics or qualities of things. Evolution is the Return to Spirit in which we are all engaged, consciously or unconsciously. So Krishna is attempting to show us how our preoccupation with the things of this world impact our journeys. As you read, see if you can make a list of the forces of evolution that impact your life and think about how you might use them to facilitate instead of delaying your progress. Krishna says, "The wise see clearly that all action is a product of the gunas." This means your work as action. Into which category would you place your attitudes toward work and which qualities do you bring to it?

2. Read Tao Te Ching verse 43.

3. Read pages 83-92 in The Myth of Freedom.

Compare these three different views of work and notice what they have in common and how they differ. Which do you find most compatible? Is there some ego input into your choice?

If you would like to explore the topic of work further, I recommend a little book by Lewis Richmond (1998) called Work as a Spiritual Practice. He is a Buddhist and this book offers practical advice on how to handle all the various emotions that come up at work from anger to discouragement, forgiveness to relaxation. Richmond says that, ". . the true intent of a spiritual practice is. . about. . developing an awareness of the sacred" (p. 14). That means sacralizing our work or making it sacred.


Part of the eight-fold path in Buddhism is right livelihood. Trungpa (1976, p. 97) points out that we do not need to reject materialism altogether because we must adjust to the culture in which we live. And that means, for most of us, that we must work for money in order to take care of our basic needs. However, there are ways and ways to do that.

Yogis would point to the necessity of doing our work without doing any harm. The principle of ahimsa applies here too. The Bhagavad Gita is very concise about the evils of doing violence to others through wrong livelihood. So we are put in the position of trying to find work that not only supports us but also does no harm to others.

Exercise: Right Livelihood

1. Read chapter 16 in To Love is to Know Me and pages 92-99 in The Myth of Freedom. As you go along, make notes in your journal about what is said that relates to your work and that of others close to you. Over the course of a week or so, think about your work and how it impacts others. Does it hurt others either directly or indirectly? What do you need to change about it? Should you now feel that you cannot continue in your job, what other directions might you take? It is important to make your choices deliberately and with as much information as you can find. The old saying is that we must run toward something instead of away from something. So, if you feel you need to make a change, first make sure that the change will result in an improvement. If you put your dilemma out into the world with the conviction that the universe will support you in doing the right thing, you may find that Spirit can manage the situation better than you can. Give It an opportunity to provide you with some new options.

Business ethics and right leadership

If you are a leader or the boss in your work environment, consider the influence you have on others whose work you direct. If you make policy decisions, there is even more responsibility involved. So here we become engaged with right intention, right speech, right discipline and right effort as well as right livelihood and skillful means. You will have noticed that Trungpa puts emphasis on being in the present and focused on what is happening in the moment. Easwaran (1984, p. 101) says that "We have choices everywhere; one by one, we need to open them up. . . Choices are opened by a change in consciousness, in which we gradually learn to see the Lord in all and to act and live accordingly." "Without the will we have no freedom, and without freedom of choice we become machines (p. 161). Leaders must plan ahead, of course, but not at the expense of those who are working for them now. This is another slant on ahimsa. The decisions we make about the direction of the company must not harm the workers who produce the product or convey the services, nor may they harm the consumer or client.

Those in positions of power hold a sacred trust to see that no one is injured by what the business does for its profits. That includes also those consumers living overseas who do not enjoy the protection of our laws and whose needs we may not see directly nor even understand.

Easwaran lays out some chilling facts about business practices in our country, and because of group karma we are all implicated whether we pay attention to it or not. You may feel that you are helpless to do anything about the problems, that they are too big for your small sense of power. But there are small things each of us can do to help: write letters to the management of offending companies, vote for candidates who are not being bribed by large corporations who want immunity for their transgressions, and refuse to buy the products or services. TIAA-CREF, the company that handles my annuity, has an option for investors called "Social Choice." This is a branch of the company that invests only in companies that are friendly to the environment and to people in other countries. I might add that this choice is also very profitable, a message that might be heeded by other businesses that are not so inclined.

Social Responsibility

"Here we stand now on our tragically shrunken globe with our ruined economy, with these terrific weapons in our hands and fear and distrust in our hearts" (Szent-Gyorgyi quoted in Easwaran, 1984, p. 371).

One of my most devastating awarenesses is the clear cutting of forests whether it is in this country or elsewhere. It causes me a great deal of pain to witness the death of our life-giving trees, not only because they provide our oxygen; but because they are sentient beings they are such potent symbols of life. All over the world trees are symbols of life from the "Tree of Life" in the Bible to the axis mundi (axis of the world). As such they are also symbols of the destruction of life we are engaged in all over the planet.

Yet, in spite of my pain, I use paper. I live in a wooden house. Most of the time I do not think about it. Yet it is periodically brought to my attention, perhaps by a logging truck laden with its day's haul. So my suffering is heightened by my guilt because I do so little to stop it. I plant trees in my yard. I write letters to the Forest Service and bait its officers when they come to speak at local gatherings. I contribute to the Sierra Foundation and the Arbor Foundation. But I do not do all I could. I do not go out and gather together a group of people to protest. Nor do I boycott paper. Where then, I ask myself, is my social responsibility? How can I impact the group karma? What will assuage my guilt or overthrow my participation in the destruction of the planet? These are questions that plague all of us who are conscious and awake. Where does my obligation leave off and that of others' begin? Is there a way I can make a sustained effort even though my body is aging?

Spirit in Work

There is some light on the horizon. A movement is afoot to rescue the planet, and it gathers more and more people as time goes by and we are witnesses to the widespread devastation we have created. Marilyn Ferguson back in 1980 called attention to the transpersonal paradigm shift that was occurring even then in all the major institutions of our society. A paradigm shift means that when a critical mass of thinkers has accepted a new idea a shift will occur in the cultural mind, and transformation will follow. It is my belief that the seeds of our current cultural revolution were sowed by the young people who ushered in the New Age in the late sixties and early seventies with their protests against the Vietnam war. Many of them now feel betrayed and disenchanted, but I can see the new growth they have produced. Some examples follow.

A friend of mine recently accepted the directorship of Heifer International, a company established by her father to help deal with famine in poverty-stricken areas of the world. Calves and other young livestock are given to the women of a family to raise. The first offspring of that gift must be given to another woman before subsequent ones can be used for food or breeding. This starts a chain reaction of love and service that ultimately helps the whole group, and it feeds the children so they do not grow up emaciated nor suffer from mental deficiencies.

Everywhere we look we can find people who are doing what they can in all the small corners of the world. The Institute of Noetic Sciences gives an award every year for altruism in ordinary citizens. The Arbor Foundation recognizes cities who value and attend to the city forest. Judi Neal (Spiritwrk@aol.com) publishes a newsletter entitled Spirit at Work. A young woman in Australia is writing a dissertation on the transformation of work and gathers people together to brainstorm ways to combine work and spirituality. One of my students at The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology is doing a master's thesis on how to bring Yoga into the MBA program in which she teaches. So the spirit is alive in us. We can all seek out such groups and lend our efforts to the project of transformation.

Exercise: Business Ethics

1. Read chapter 15 in To Love is to Know Me. Here Krishna speaks of the Tree of Life which has its roots in heaven. "The taproot of this tree is the Lord, the eternal, changeless Self," says Easwaran (1984, p. 174). Think about what this means in terms of the destruction of the planet. What are samskaras and which ones do you recognize in yourself? What is the role of self-will in the problems you see surrounding us? Just who is the Supreme Self? Is there any connection to you?

Work and Sex

We saw in the first chakra that survival and sex go together for the benefit of the species. In this chakra, we have looked at the link between power and aggression and sexual drive. And there is also a link between power and work. Many people base their identities on their work, what they do for a living. I am a teacher, I am a corporate executive, I am a janitor, I am a nurse. And, by the same token, such people may limit their prospects by these roles. Here is where power comes in. If a person is at the top of the hierarchy, s/he feels powerful. This can be a sexual turn-on as well. And there can be a very strong temptation to use the power as a means to sexual ends. Our televison and newspapers are full of such stories.

Now this problem has been recognized, and legislation against sexual harassment is on the books. It is more or less enforced. I bring this up because the problem has a darker underside of which we may not be aware. That is the karmic consequence of abusing a co-worker or employee who may not feel like s/he can refuse to engage without losing the job. The following reading documents this conclusion more dramatically than I can.

Exercise: Work and Sexual Karma

Read chapter 6 in Emergence of the Divine Child. Then have some conversations with your co-workers about this issue and see if you can get a feel for the incidence of sexual harassment in your workplace. What do you think about the idea that sexual harassment is so prevalent because we spend so much time at work and therefore tend to develop close relationships with our co-workers that can easily lead to romantic entanglements and sexual arousal if we are not careful? What do you think could be done about such problems, and how would you avoid stepping over the line?

Selfless Service

Make every act an offering to Me; regard Me as your only protector. Make every thought an offering to Me; meditate on Me always. - Sri Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 18:57.

The third meaning of karma is service. In this day and age of selfish materialism, the idea of selfless service may seem a bit quaint. But that is only because we have been taught to think of ourselves first and that self-sacrifice is stupid behavior. I might tend to agree with the latter in some respects, but there is a huge difference between selfless service and self-sacrifice. According to Swami Sivananda, "selfless service will make you divine." On the other hand, self-sacrifice will make you neurotic because it is based on low self-esteem and fear. Mothers a generation ago were still saying, "I sacrificed everything for you" in a tone of voice that betrayed a victim mentality and feelings of lack of choice.

Selfless service, on the other hand, is freely chosen from a position of self-confidence and strength. It is an offering to life and Spirit. It is a form of giving back to a Spirit that has given us life and happiness. It comes from a full heart without blame or judgment and is offered in kindness without concern for praise or any other form of recognition or reward. That makes it a move toward good karma. But, you may say, isn't good karma a reward? Yes, perhaps, but in a sattvic sense at the very least.

It is better still to serve others or put others first as a habit developed out of kindness and good will. Such actions come directly from the Higher Self that is allowed to express Itself through our bodies and minds. We may remind ourselves of the good karma created by such actions and that of giving back while we are still on our way to the completely selfless purity of channeled Light and Love. Such reflections may help us to sustain our direction and motivation.

Swami Padmananda once said, "I'm just doing what is in front of me." That says it very well because it reflects an absence of self-will or any need to program the outcome. We give the service because it needs doing, it is right there and we see it needs doing, and we can do it. Selfless service can be anything from volunteering at the local Hospice to changing a diaper. It does not need to be a formal volunteer arrangement. We change an old lady's tire. We get out of the car and direct traffic at the site of an accident. We rescue kitty from a tree. We help mother with the groceries or dad with raking leaves. We fetch grandpa's slippers. We look for things we can do for those people who surround us. No need to go to Ghana or Ethiopia though that could be selfless service too.

If we thought of all our work as forms of selfless service, we could transform our lives into shimmering models of hope and love. Suppose you drive a bus in New York city. You can give each traveler a cheery good day with a smile. Of course you do not get to see the outcomes, but those people may have a happier day from the evidence of your good humor. Or maybe you work on a computer all day. Even if you have no interactions with others, you can frame your work with the intention of good vibrations, and it will carry out into the universe. So you might want to begin your day with an offering of your work to the Divine One in whatever form you conceive of It. If you have no deity, you may give the work to humanity or to the world or universe for its healing and betterment.

I am not the doer.

This simple expression pasted onto your bathroom mirror could serve to remind you that there is a higher power that is acting through you if you but give It passage. The ego thinks it is the doer and wants to take credit for all good consequences while avoiding the bad ones. You know the drill: basking in praise or serving up justification. But, in the long run, in whichever life you determine to reverse the odds the ego must surrender to the Higher Self. This is a legitimate form of self-sacrifice that is taken from a position of spiritual confidence. It means a sacrifice of self-will and selfishness. That commitment might just as well happen now before more bad karma is generated.

Exercise: Selfless Service

1. Read chapter 17 in To Love is to Know Me. Think about how your beliefs, values and deep, driving desires have been creating karma in your lifetime. As you read, keep a list of examples of shraddha. How is shraddha connected to selfless service? What is sadhana and how can you make your work into sadhana? According to Krishna, how should we offer help to others? What are the three kinds of yagna? What does self-sacrifice mean in this context, and why is this form of sacrifice not stupid or neurotic? What determines the difference?

2. Read chapter 13 in Return to Shiva. This will give you a deeper sense of perspective from which to view karma. A kalpa which is 4,320,000,000 years long is a day in the life of Brahma (the Creator). Yugas are ages. Four of them equals 12,000 divine years, a divine year equals 360 human years. Asuras are demons or evil tendencies in humans. Munis are sages. A manvantara is 71 yugas. So, you see, there is plenty of time. While you are reading about the Witness, consider the statement, "I am That I Am." According to the Katha Upanishad, "The one Self takes the shape of every creature in whom it is present." How will you lead your life as that "I Am?" How would you spend your power in that identification? Please note that you will not ascend to that power until you are able to use it correctly.

3. Now read chapter 18 in To Love is to Know Me. In this chapter Krishna teaches us how to live a life of love in action. Why do you think love in action takes the form of selfless service? How can you learn to see karma as a teacher? How does it teach us? What does it teach? What do feelings of alienation during sadhana portend? At the very end, what must we do? What is the ultimate renunciation?

4. Take the passage "Be Aware of Me Always" at the end of To Love is to Know Me as a passage for meditation. To do this, read it over several times before you sit and select a short phrase to memorize. When you have it memorized, sit with it and repeat it to yourself over and over allowing its meaning to sink into your consciousness. Then release it and continue to sit for a while longer in quietness. This meditation may be repeated with other segments of the passage or in other sittings with the same passage allowing it to deepen your understanding into wisdom.


Easwaran, E. (1984). To love is to know Me. Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press.

Feng, G. & English, J. (Eds.) (1972). Tao te ching. New York: Vintage Books.

Ferguson, M. (1980). The aquarian conspiracy: Personal and social transformation in the 1980's. Los Angeles: Tarcher.

Iyer, R. (Ed.) (1983). Return to Shiva: From the Yoga Vasishtha Maharamayana. New York: Concord Grove Press.

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart: A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. New York: Bantam Books.

Phillips, R. (1990). Emergence of the divine child: Healing the emotional body. Santa Fe: Bear & Co. Now republished as Windows to the soul.

Richmond, L. (1998). Work as a spiritual practice. New York: Broadway Books.

Trungpa, C. (1976). The myth of freedom and the way of meditation. Boulder: Shambhala.

In Unit XI. Karma we have seen how the law of cause and effect dictates that every action has consequences. One good way of dealing with this is to offer all work as selfless service. In Unit XII. Healing we will conclude this guidebook with suggestions for healing practices.

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