When to act, when to step back?

Letting go, it keeps coming up for me. It’s the time of year I suppose, autumn showing us how wise it is to let the dead leaves fall. Summer, the fire and the heat fading -perhaps more from a work perspective than from a climate one, true - but the projects and intensity of the summer shimmer out like residual heat haze on tarmac. It’s tough to step back, when do you let go of your work and say, enough? At what point do we allow ourselves the luxury of completion?

These are universal questions that span many traditions and philosophies; yoga of course, has a lot to say about this. Arguably the central teaching of the Bhagavad Gītā is to take action, but then to let go of the result. A whole branch of yogic philosophy is predicated on this idea; Karma yoga, often cited as the yoga of action. Karma yoga, as typified in the Gītā, concerns itself with one’s actions and one’s ‘dharma’ (sometimes translated as ‘duty’), at the explicit release of the result, the fruit of action. Arjuna, the hero of the Gītā, stands at the centre of a great battlefield encouraged by Lord Krishna who reassures him:

Your work is your responsibility, not its result. Never let the fruits of your actions be your motive. Nor give in to inaction. Set firmly in yourself, do your work, not attached to anything. Remain even minded in success, and in failure. Even mindedness is true yoga.

It runs deeper than this though, far from being a license to act as we choose and disconnect from the consequences, Karma yoga specifies that our actions must be in line with our personal dharma, and be unselfish in their intention. The beauty of this system is that unlike many other forms of yoga, it de-emphasises practicing merely for personal gain or self realisation disconnected from a wider society. This connotes a path which does not concern itself with fame or financial acquisition, but with ethics-based action. Interestingly, the outcome of this is itself the self-realisation and deeper spiritual fulfillment other systems of yoga strive to attain. In many ways there is a great overlap here, with Daoist philosophies from China. For me, Lao Tzu communicates this idea with laconic erudition in the Tao Te Ching, where he writes; "Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity."

For me, I think these teachings offer a macro perspective on what we’re actually seeking in our practice. We often go about things unskillfully, we become tethered to the result, we create expectations, and we set ourselves up for disappointment. The fulfillment and purpose we seek is in the process not the goal, for goals are only fleetingly met and often hollow when achieved. Instead taking action, doing the right thing and stepping back, may nurture the fulfillment and peace we are ultimately looking for.


*Winthrop Sargeant (2010). Christopher Key Chapple, ed. The Bhagavad Gita: Twenty-fifth–Anniversary Edition

**Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 9, translation by Stephen Mitchell


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