Selflessness is better than meditation: How renunciation can help with the quality of action

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna admonishes: “A karma yogi performs action by body, mind, intellect, and senses, without attachment (or ego), only for self-purification” (2003, 5.11). The Yoga practitioner must care for herself first, before she can care for others. Raja and Hatha Yoga are a two-edged sword of both self-acceptance and self-discipline. The energy and understanding that is manifested from those practices radiates outward, and becomes what we consider to be “action,” but always resides within the journey towards self-realization, which is primarily a self-focused practice.

Next comes Karma Yoga–though it is an outwardly directed, highly social practice, the pursuit of Yoga (as the general term–union, with the self, others and the divine, and the essence of all the types of “Yogas”) is primarily a practice that must be realized by the self, and continuously turned back inward. In order to accept oneself and others “as one,” the yogi must levy a certain degree of discipline to abnegate the ego. The physical aspects of Yoga practice are one side of this practice that builds discipline, while Karma Yoga, ritualistic mantra chanting and devotional deity worship are others that build the qualities of surrender and devotion.

Selflessness does not mean denying one’s own needs to the point of neglect–in fact, raja Yoga’s physical practices are meant to build strength and endurance for the yogi–but it does mean not placing one’s own ego at the forefront of the action. Renunciation relates to the outcome of one’s action in Karma Yoga service. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna states: “Better indeed is knowledge than practice; than knowledge meditation is better; than meditation the renunciation of the fruits of actions; peace immediately follows renunciation” (2003, 12.12). During a retreat for the Yoga Peace Ambassadors at the Yoga Farm, Swami Sitaramananda spoke one night on the subject of “Peace from the Yogi’s Perspective.” She spoke about how renunciation can be achieved through letting go of ego attachment to “who” or “what” is doing the action, thus benefitting the one who is “doing” their Karma Yoga:

“We normally act according to the idea of who I am, a kind of separateness. You should act without agency, without an idea of doership. This means selflessness. Selflessness is better than meditation. Karma Yoga is the thinning out of your idea of separateness. You need to be selfless in your action. Then you can experience oneness. Peace immediately follows renunciation.” (Swami Sita, 2008)

The swami’s comments highlight the importance of renunciation of the work itself, as it is being completed, as a form of self-denial that places a common good above one’s own personal benefit. Letting go of doership in the East is perhaps easier on a theoretical level. Swami Sivananda writes that “he who sees that Prakriti performs all actions and that the Self is actionless, really sees” (185). In the West there is not such a great investment on the doctrine of reincarnation or other realms. So, instead of moving through the manifestations of the world (prakriti), “I am not the doer” becomes a mantra not simply for releasing action to a cosmological trick, but as a way to alleviate the stress of being preoccupied with perfectionism and doubt over particular actions.

Swami Sivananda describes the character of those actions which are “dharmic” as ones that fulfill the best of the three gunas, or are sattvic in nature. The selfish actions are rajasic and tamasic–they have a lot of egoism, are done out of longing, use up too much effort, and are unaware of their potential consequences (Sivananda, Karma Yoga, 187). So in this schema, the quality of the action undertaken is definitely as important as the action itself.

This leads me to ask: How does duty and life purpose map onto expectations? Is this philosophy appealing because of our competitive society and people’s weariness of it? Is Karma Yoga a “cop out”? How can it really be possible, or even favorable, to renounce attachment to the outcome of our actions? The Yoga activists explain that it is possible, because it is part of their activist coping tools, in which suffering is also renounced as a part of the equation both in initiation, execution, and outcome. Suffering and stress come as a result of being “attached,” so the activist must learn how to detach.

This comes through cultivating the other half of selflessness, the renunciation of the outcome of the endeavor, or attachment to what Krishna calls “its fruits.” This is related to the idea of “letting go” of expectations, and is also referred to in the Yoga community as “detachment.” Julia Butterfly explains:

“If we can do service for the sake of service, we are ancestors of the future. What do we want our legacy to be? When our time comes whenever it comes, we have love and joy present. That’s the gift of detachment. We will win some, lose some. I stand for living and being in the world I want to live in. It can only come alive through me. At the end, we get to have the added bonus of peace and joy” (J. Buttefly).

Andrew Harvey is the founder of the Institute for Sacred Activism in Chicago, Illinois. A longtime spiritual teacher with an Oxford education, he studied with Mother Meera, the self-proclaimed successor to Sri Aurobindo’s partner The Mother. In The Hope, A Guide to Sacred Activism, Harvey outlines seven “laws of sacred activism,” one of these being “The Law of Surrendering the Fruits of Action to the Divine.” He distills specific reasons for, and effects of, the surrendering aspect of Karma Yoga. Harvey notes that giving up the idea of personal agency staves off the accrual of more karma. By surrendering the ego, a person can experience other qualities in the execution of her tasks–peace, bliss and strength, instead of grief, doubt, and the “storms of the world” (Harvey, 2009, 168). Krishna in the Gita is an example, because he tells Arjuna that he/God also works without motive; his lila (play) in the world is a work that is “pure” and “out of pure love” (Harvey, 2009, 169). Harvey points out three results that activists will get when they surrender the results of their actions (paraphrased here):

  1. To ascertain divine will. The mind is noisy. Activists need to get quiet to listen and know God. They have to surrender to get that guidance.
  2. To attain “serene inner detachment.” It will build up calmness and humility to protect you from despair. The activist will get fed from divine sources, avoiding stress, anxiety, and anguish.
  3. To cultivate patience–”for real work in a real world that often changes slowly, painfully, and ambiguously, patience is essential” (Harvey, 2009, 170).

Harvey says that detachment is a skill that sacred activists can use in facing two demons–”the narcissism of the mystic and the narcissism of the activist.”

He describes some of the ways that narcissism manifests in the activist:

  • a messiah complex
  • a delight in humiliating and destroying opponents
  • a depreciation of ordinary life in favor of heroic sacrifice
  • as an addiction to doing for its own sake
  • using exhaustion, body neglect and burnout as signs of authenticity and courage

And as it emerges for the mystic:

  • an addiction to transcendence
  • escapism from responsibility from the real
  • a passive and childish belief that the Divine will take care of everything
  • a subtle, but devastating denial of the reality of evil and misery of the world

Harvey also explains that it is only when deep Shadow Work is approached by both activists and healers that they can be truly effective. He offers the idea that the “essential divine nature” of both the activist and the mystic can help balance and mitigate their mutual downfalls:

If you accompany your descent into the shadows of the seeker and activist with a commitment to fuse their two sacred fires, you discover a marvelous alchemical secret: the shadow of the mystic’s addiction to transcendence can be illumined and transformed by the sacred fire of the activist’s passion for justice, whereas the shadow of the addiction to immanence, to radical action for its own sake born out of sacred outrage but unillumined by sacred wisdom, can be illumined and transformed by the mystic’s sacred fire of joy and surrender to divine guidance. (Harvey, 2009, 189)

Ram Dass calls the challenges and contradictions faced by selfless service “a helping prison.” As with many stories in this project, his begins in the 1960s. After going to India in 1967, he was former Harvard professor Dr. Richard Alpert and had become a spiritual seeker. In the 1970s, he began to travel and teach and was invited to lend his unique perspective on selfless service to a new organization called the SEVA Foundation. It was founded by Dr. Larry Brilliant, after spiritual travels in Asia during which he and his wife ended up helping the World Health Organization eradicate smallpox. They realized how much impact they could have on social health ills, and wrote a letter asking their friends what they should do as a group. A pre-famous Steve Jobs was the first donor, and gave $5,000 to give them a start; the organization went to heal over 3 million people of blindness worldwide, pioneer the first medical clinic on a Native American reservation, and build many other programs (

Ram Dass subsequently wrote a book explicating the idea of selfless service (with Paul Gorman) that asked simply–How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service. “The foundation, which was created as a vehicle for compassionate service, saw as one of its functions that of helping others find ways to serve, ways which would also be beneficial to the servers themselves” (1985, v), and the book was part of this effort to encourage a volunteering public and share relevant information.

The book explains, documents, and outlines a lot of the “how to’s” of selfless service, alongside collected stories from volunteers around the country (not just in the SEVA organization), such as:

developing compassion,

who is to help,

how suffering manifests,


limitations of helping,

social action, and

“burnout” (a term that had multiple meanings in the 60s).

Dass and Gorman invite activists to acknowledge their own helplessness, to move to help where they can, and be active participants until, ultimately, “helper and helped dissolve” (146-7).

It was the attitude of service that intrigued Ram Dass and his cohorts who established the SEVA Foundation, the type of service such as that exemplified by the Hindu monkey god Hanuman who, as King Rama’s ideal servant, mythically embodies the concept of seva. In the end they were left with more questions than answers. Near the end of the book, they conclude that “service is ‘an endless series of questions,’ puzzling and insistent. It not only raises questions, it helps to answer them. Service is a curriculum” (222). The book’s salient point is when Ram Dass and Paul Gorman identify a premise called “the listening mind,” which advocates for receptivity and awareness about what is needed and asked for, over the idea of giving what the volunteer feels should be given. This seems to me to indicate the beginnings of a feminist way of organizing, or at the least, a more open model of service which is different than top-down bureaucratic models claiming to determine what the needs of communities are.

Of course, this is a hefty request of those who are comforted by industrialization, and especially U.S. Yoga practitioners—those for whom life in developed society, despite its complexity, leans heavily towards the individual. In the United States we have been urged against communalism in many ways, through the growth of the nuclear family, suburbs, and commuting. Regardless of whether you call it the undoing of the ego, or the softening of competitiveness, the technology of Karma Yoga certainly offers and promises tangible outcomes on the personal level. Within the frame of compassion, the privileged find out not only the necessity of “helping,” but also a way to dismantle their personal limitations, or in yogic language, their own karma. As always, truth lives in the work and in the work alone.

c. Amy Champ 2015


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