I recently summarized and commented on Swami Vivekananda’s book Karma-Yoga. Although the book is based on lectures given by Vivekananda over a century ago, it feels incredibly relevant and important to me today, and I wanted to comment on what touched me so much about this book and what seemed so important about Vivekananda’s words on work and duty.
First, I identify as a Karma yogini (which is why I chose this book to read rather than Vivekananda’s books on Jnana yoga or Bhakti yoga). I feel that the ideals of karma yoga that are outlined in the Bhagavad Gita are really beautifully explicated in this book; the Gita tells us to be unattached and to work without regard for the results of our actions, but Vivekananda begins to explain how we’re supposed to manage that. He sets the case for Karma yoga as the yogic path that is most accessible to anyone – a Jnana yogi has to study and use logic and intelligence, a Bhakti yogi relies on love and devotion, but a Karma yogi mostly just has to show up, and keep showing up. I have always had a high regard for the virtue of showing up, whether it’s for work, for appointments and events, for classes and study, or, on a larger level, showing up for your life. If you think about it, a lot of people don’t put in the effort to show up for life, not truly. Many people coast along, just getting by, then wake up when they’re 50 and wonder what the heck happened. A Karma yogi makes a commitment to show up every day and be truly present in the work they do.
This book gave me a way of looking at my own life that really meant a lot to me. I’ve received a lot of blessings in my life, I’ve worked really hard, and I’ve also been incredibly lucky. My life is pretty fantastic, but just like anyone, I have parts of my life that are less than ideal. This book gave me a window into how to negotiate my way through those things. For the past five years, I’ve worked in a job that I don’t particularly like. Sometimes I get angry about that, or frustrated, or all worked up; I’ve tried to combat that by reminding myself how lucky I am to have a job at all, let alone a job that pays well, with good health insurance, with colleagues that I like and respect. Reading this book has given me another way to manage my day-to-day frustrations. I’ve started trying to treat my job as my Karma-yoga duty, at least for right now. I have a family to support and a home to maintain, and it’s my duty to go to work and to do my very best while I’m there. By getting worked up and frustrated about my job, feeling trapped by my job, I’m just getting more and more attached to it. If I practice non-attachment, the work goes more quickly and it affects me less. I’m able to leave my work at the office more readily, which allows me to more fully enjoy my home life, which is what really feeds my spirit. This doesn’t mean that I give up on the dream of finding something that suits me better, but it does mean that I feel more peaceful in my day-to-day life. Feeling more peaceful means that I have more of myself to give to my family (and I whine a lot less), and I’m better able to do my work when I’m at the office.
When I read the Bhagavad Gita, I understood the concept of Karma Yoga, but it never really clicked to me how to make that an everyday part of my life. I thought of the larger scale implications of Karma Yoga, but not the small scale ones. Reading Swami Vivekananda’s book has really helped me to understand this better and to apply it to my own life. I’m only at the start of this practice, but just reading the book gave me a great sense of relief, and the lessons that Vivekananda teaches are ones that I want to cultivate.