Fondly reminiscing about my departed father yesterday brought back images of how he was with his five boys. Dad was warm and expressive in his affection and loved to just to spend time with the mob. He was also a product of his generation in his values with a strong work ethic and sense of personal worth derived from the level of success he achieved in the world. Expressions like “genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration” and “when the going gets tough the tough get going” extolled the virtues of hard work and continuous application for overcoming life’s obstacles.
Well, in a certain way, he was right. Without some serious ongoing effort things don’t get done and progress eludes us. Or so the old narrative goes. But great wisdom books like the Bhagavad Gita have a radical take on what constitutes right effort and attainment. Yes, the Gita says in one of its descriptions of yoga that “Yoga is skill in action.” That would have had Dad onside. But how to go about doing what we do is deeply considered and discussed at length. And the Gita’s recommendations are unconventional. In light of today’s highly driven aspirational approach to getting ahead, the clear and unwavering guidelines given seem illogical and certainly impractical:
“The ideal is to be intensely active (so far so good)
And at the same time have no selfish motives,
no thoughts of personal gain or loss.
Action free of desire leads to inner peacefulness
and increased effectiveness.
This is the secret of living a life
of real achievement.”
In other words a life fraught with anxiety about “achieving” (the Gita’s choice of word) performance benchmarks and incessantly worrying about getting the best deal out of every situation produces the very result we seek to escape- the internal strife and suffering that is the only possible outcome from misplaced effort. Here the secret for success is to do the very thing that would seem to undermine attaining the desired result. The Gita also says that “peace follows renunciation” which doesn’t mean stop trying or not having things, rather give up the psychological noose of desire itself. The formula is simple: do the best you possibly can in every situation but don’t be attached to the outcome of the effort. Instead offer the results of the action performed to the welfare of all, the common good the Higher Self. Action conducted with attachment reinforces our sense of separation and ego. “ But, but if I don’t look after me, who will? It’s a cold hard dog eat dog world out there” is the mindset that has become so deeply entrenched. Again, the Gita answers:
“The small self sense is the major stumbling
block to real attainment and happiness.
Ego derives its power from the many
likes and dislikes imprinted in the mind.
This deeply embedded, largely unconscious
system of likes and dislikes is what gives rise
to one’s thoughts, desires and tendencies.”
Where there is the deep feeling of separation there is fear and desire which leads to greed. To be governed by these tendencies is to live a life that is unfulfilling and doomed to a pervasive sense of ultimate failure. Desire or attachment clouds our inner light, as a flame covered in smoke or a mirror covered with dust. The right effort or the skill in action then becomes “how can I do what needs to be done” with passion, dignity and a sense of joyfulness. I think Dad would have been content with these achievements.