Nishkamakarma- the process of discovering your vocation, and doing it, without attachment
Sometimes, you’ve just gotta stop the traffic.
I had a semi-interesting experience in Port Elgin, a “beach town” on Lake Huron, in Ontario—I had an office there for almost a decade.
The place is a zoo, traffic wise, during the summer.
My office was across the four lanes of the main drag from my favourite restaurant. Many were the times that I (im)patiently stood on the sidewalk, waiting for the traffic let up enough so I could dodge through and (like the chicken) get to the other side. In the Summer there were always cars, and they were always moving.
Imagine my surprise, then, this particular afternoon.
Lunch in hand, I approached the the street, and there, in the right hand traffic lane, was a car, parked. In a traffic lane. Inside the dormant vehicle was an elderly couple, talking and gesturing. Behind them, lined up in a neat row, were 10 or 20 cars.
All were stopped. And all was silent.
The little old man stepped out of his parked car, map in hand. He ambled back to the car behind him. The driver of the second car rolled down his window, and the two began to look at the map, talking and gesturing.
I took the opportunity to cross the street.
I looked back. The old man returned to his car, got in, buckled up and resumed driving. The rest of the cars filed along. Now, during this whole thing, which took maybe 2 minutes, not one horn was blown, and none of the people in the line pulled out around the parked car. (We could assume this was because this is Canada as opposed to the Kingdom to the South of us, but I have heard the occasional horn here in similar situations, and hey, Vancouver Hockey Riot, right?)
- either this guy needed information really badly, and got it from extremely polite folk, or
- that he was the leader of a parade of cars, and the rest were his obedient followers, or
- all of this was planned for me to see, and was yet another celestial joke.
I’m going with option 3.
This reminds me of another story from Stories From the Sea of Life, my first (out of print) book. It goes like this:
In 1992, we bought our first dog. We called her Nishka, which is short for Nishkamakarma, (see below.)
Nishka spent the Winter of ’92 doing what dogs in wintery Canada do. She pooped on the snow. It melted in and got covered over with more snow.
Come Spring, I went out to our backyard in my duck boots, with shovel in hand. I wandered around, and was amazed at the twigs, branches, paper, wrappers and poop that seemed to be everywhere. In fact, I calculated that our four month winters are composed of 120 days. That means between 120 and 240 piles of poop. What a concept.
But while thinking of this, I was looking around.
As I looked closer, poking out of the grass was a riot of little, purple violets. I was transfixed, even as I picked up the poop.
Life may provide us with poop to shovel, but if we choose to look around, there is also beauty, order and wonder all around. As any farmer will tell you, what’s poop to one person is fertilizer to another.
What both of the above stories indicate, for me, is the incredible amount of “data” that’s available for us, all the time. If we notice. Some of it is external, and vast stores of experience and data is internal.
Now, we do notice the stuff we judge to be negative. The looks, the words, the gestures, the games we choose to set ourselves off over–we notice the “shit” in spades. But what about the positive messages, the messages that seem to be designed to help us figure ourselves out?
As I think about the little old guy climbing out of his car in traffic, I was drawn to a message about my life. Many are the times when I need to stop, to slow down, to go to the people I trust, to ask for direction, for clarity. I tend to put that off until I’m so tired or tied up in knots that I have no choice but to force myself to do something.
This is inelegant
Too often, the lure of “the world” is to go faster, to do more, to rise to the top quickly. Yet, after 30 years of counselling all kinds of people, I’ve never met anyone who says,
“And all of that dashing and pushing and rushing and racing, all that ignoring my inner passions, got me a meaningful life. ”
No, instead I hear tales of a vague disquiet; I hear expressions of meaninglessness or purposelessness.
When our meaning comes from what we do or
what we have, instead of who we are,
we are bound to hit a wall.
Better, I think, to find a mentor or therapist and reach out (and to your partner, or to a really good friend) and take the time (say, the rest of your life…) to begin to plumb the heights and depths of whom you are. We are given an unknown “length of days” in which to find ourselves. Being endlessly lost in “your wounded inner child” or what you think your parents did to you, or your partner did, or how hard done by you are, simply leads to more of the same.
Beyond all of the “stuff” that happened to each of us (our “back story”—and there’s nothing… nothing! we can do about that!) is the truth of our self. The point for our existence. But we can’t get there if we’re constantly looking outside for who we are inside.
Here’s a little free verse poem I wrote to a 16 year old client
There Will be Days
There will be days
When the sun seems so bright that it hurts.
When you see a smile and you lift your spirit, and your spirit soars.
When the path is ablaze with flowers and scents, and you remember to touch your soul.
When a word sends you deeply into yourself, and you like what you find.
When a song explodes in colours only you can see.
When a touch tells you that you are loved, held, valued, befriended.
There will be days
When the sun seems hidden and there is a cold chill to everything.
When smiles seem hollow and even breath seems foreign.
When the path is littered with boulders, brambles, pot-holes.
When a word seems to cut, to burrow, to hurt.
When a song leads to sadness and despair.
When a touch alienates, divides, seeks its own end.
There will be days.
How, then, do we live?
Whether the sun is brilliant or hidden, there is the light of your heart.
Whether the world smiles or cries, there is profound peace in your soul.
Whether the path is clear or a mine-field, there is the joy of the walk.
Whether a word is meant to heal or hurt, you may choose to simply understand.
Whether the song is sweet or sad, the song enlivens your mind.
Whether the touch be loving or not, nothing can embrace your soul without your permission.
You are a bright, white light.
You are confused and scared.
You bring gifts of joy and insight.
You feel powerless.
You occasionally remember who you are.
You find it hard to trust.
You choose to live in the moment.
Life seems too complicated to go on living.
You are whole, alive and gifted.
Walk a little further.
Walk with those you trust.
Be kind to yourself.
Ask for what you need.
Be open to change.
Be open to tears, to laughter, to life, to breath.
Remind yourself to trust yourself.
Remember, the world changes when you do.
Be loving and walk gently.
See with the eyes of your soul.
Make music with your life.
Look for yourself, inside.
There will be days.
Many, many days.
Make a difference.
Be at peace.
There will be days.
About Nishkamakarma, which means—Do your duty, with faith in “God,” without attachment to the fruit of your action.
I don’t exactly remember where I first heard that term, but I liked it enough to write it down and turn it into posters (one of many) that used to hang in my counselling office. When Dar and I were thinking about names for the dog, we were sitting in my “home” office, I noticed the poster and said, “How about Nishka?” We both loved the name.
She was a wonderful dog.
There is a certain rhythm and elegance to things that come in threes. Like the three clauses in Nishkamakarma.
The first clause, “Do your duty,” is a clear reminder that life is vocational. It may seem that we get involved in the things that we do in a random way. Yet, there is a “pull” toward a specific way of being. Thus, it’s not important what we do; what is important is how we do what we do, for what reason.
Vocational thinking and acting often seems to be about “service,” about being a part of a helping profession, or so it appears at first blush. I remember, though, how many business executives I’ve worked with, who caught on to the duty-vocation “thing,” and who worked within corporations as enablers and empower-ers.
The second clause, “With faith in “God” … ”
I’m not convinced that everyone needs to “get” the God thing. I have many friends who would classify themselves as atheists, but who are relentless in their search for meaning and self-hood. On the other hand, I’ve also met a ton of people who have lots of beliefs, and very little peace of mind, whose rigidity is inexhaustible.
As a Simple Zen Guy, I believe we are all Buddhas, and just don’t know it. Thus, faith is all about admitting that I don’t know very much at all, but that something profound is going in, all the time. It seems to me that there’s some kind of system in place that keeps providing me with the lessons and experiences I need. I could call that system or experience “God,” but I prefer “the cosmos,” or the celestial classroom.
As you’ve gathered from my stories, I really do believe that the communicates by sending events and people into my life. I need only notice and listen.
The third clause, “Without attachment to the fruit of your action.” This is actually the hard part, at least for me. This part is about being willing to do what you do because that’s what you do, without needing to be rewarded, singled out, noticed.
The walk is walked for the walk’s sake, not for the adoration of the crowds. Not easy.
Attachments are easy to find. We simply think about what we are not willing to give up. Titles. Relationships. Money. Being declared “right.” Whatever. If you have one (we all do …) then your life is determined for you, not by your vocation, not by much of anything but by what you won’t give up.
Non-attachment is what Ram Dass once called “nobody special training.”
So, for me, Nishkamakarma is a total package calling. It calls me into self-knowledge, self-awareness, and into a place of seeing who I am, which is demonstrated, among other ways, by what I do. It calls me into continually letting go of those things I am still attached to, because they keep my focus on my self created drama, and I pull my attention away from “service.” And it calls me deeper into my Self– into my authenticity, my energy, my dance, and my exploration.
What is your duty? What is your “faith?” And what are you attached to?