Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Karma Yoga and the Art of Giving Back

What do you give back?

Karma Yoga is the practice of giving back to the communities of which you are a part. In its purest form - seva, or selfless service - it is an act of kindness and generosity that neither demands, nor expects, reciprocation. During this time of great social, economic and environmental need, what do you give back?

In thinking about an acquaintance of mine the other day, I was struck by the thought that she is a pure consumer. She is a woman of means who has neither earned her money for herself, nor inherited it. She does not work, she does not volunteer, and she participates in the groups and communities of which she is a part only to draw from them, never giving back. She doesn't even recycle. This little realization led me to consider this very notion of giving back, which then brought to mind the memory of my father.

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My father was a great, if unwitting, Karma Yogi. His motto, inscribed on the plaque he received upon his retirement as a university professor, was "Service before self." He imparted that lesson, and many others, to his students, his colleagues, as well as various charges throughout his life.

Several of his lessons made a lasting impression - there was the "dignity speech", the "put it back where you found it" rule, the notion of "respect authority, but don't be afraid to question it" and the idea of "buy quality once", just to name a few. None, however, was as salient, or as lasting, as "service before self". This was because he didn't just talk about it, he lived it. Now, before you think I am going to wander off into some sentimental rumination about my father, read on, as his ethic is only a foil.

The Law of Karma, in its simplest interpretation, suggests that "you get what you give" (see also 1, 2). One of the great vulnerabilities of humanity has always been the failure to recognize that we live in a reciprocal environment. But we don't give and take; often, we just take.

The consequences of this tactic have become roundly evident in recent years, both environmentally and economically. We have created a series of imbalances through globally imbalanced action, and now we are experiencing a correction; again, both environmental and economic.
Now, we might interject ourselves into that correction, and maybe even impose ourselves upon it. But we can't conquer it, control it or bend it to our will because we are part of the whole system. The eye cannot see itself.

Acknowledging the reciprocity of our world and, indeed, our very existence, leads us directly to this idea of giving back. No, we may not get what we give, but, in giving, we keep the whole system running.

So, make the effort. Throw your loose change into the can for homeless pets the next time that you buy dog food; stay an extra 10 minutes with that student struggling with quadratic equations; buy your shoes at Tom's (who gives away one pair of shoes to a needy kid every time they sell a pair); get your produce from local farmers; be a Girl Scout Cookie Mom; eat vegan; recycle; volunteer one Saturday a month to Habitat for Humanity; wash dishes in a soup kitchen once a week...

Do you feel that breeze on your face?...it's a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world. So, give yourself - your love, your talents, your light - to your community, and make the world a better place for all of us.

© 2009 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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