What is My (Sacred) Work?

image from Paramahansa Yogananda’s The Bhagavad Gita

by Jeff Martens

Long ago there was a village in a high mountain valley led by a holy man, a Master.  Each day the people would consult with the holy man to see if there was anything they needed to do for that day.  One morning they were all gathered and meditating in the stillness of the town center when the Master spoke.

“We need to get rid of all the roosters and chickens.”

The village people looked at each other concerned.  “But Master,” they said, “the hens give us eggs and the roosters protect the hens, provide us with food and wake us early in the morning to start our day’s work.”  The Master just smiled and said nothing in reply.  In the end it would be up to the people whether to act or not.  After a brief discussion and prayer the people decided to follow the suggestion even though it seemed counterproductive.  For the next several days they traded off the chickens, gave them away or ate them until soon all the coops were empty.

The very next day the Master spoke again.

“We need to release all of the dogs and send them clear of our village.”

This time the people were even more concerned.  “But why the dogs,” they moaned, “The dogs give us companionship and protection.  They warn us of thieves or dangerous animals and are companions to our children.  What possible good can come from having the dogs gone?”  But the Master would only smile and shrug, not saying a word.  With his message delivered, it was now up to the people to decide what to do.  So after consulting with each other and checking out whether it felt right, they decided to follow the advice and clear the village of all the dogs by setting them free or giving them away to families and friends outside the village.  In one week’s time there was not a dog to be found.  The next day the Master spoke a final time.

“We need to douse all the cooking fires completely by this evening.”

A great moan followed this suggestion.  “But Master,” the people said.  Our fires keep us warm and cook our meals.  We start future fires from the coals and embers of yesterday’s blaze and without these fires we will have to work much harder to try and start our fires every day.  What reason is there for putting out such a valuable resource?  Is it not enough that we have already given up our chickens and our dogs?  Who will feed us?  Who will protect us?”

“Who has protected and fed you up to now?” the Master replied.  So the people gathered a final time and after a great debate and inner consultation they decided to follow the suggestion to douse the fires, even though it seemed only to be creating even more hardship.  By the time the sun had set completely all the fires were extinguished and everyone went to bed.

Early the next morning a marauding army of brigands and thieves crested the nearby hills and carefully studied the village from horseback.  All the huts stood dark and silent beneath the sun’s rising.  Not a chicken was stirring and there was no sound of barking.  Smoke from the perpetual cooking fires was absent.  Everything was still.  The leader spat on the ground in frustration.  “This place is deserted,” he growled.  “Let’s move on to the next town.”

Do you know what your work is?  Can you tell the difference between sacred action and busy work?  Do you know what it is that you are supposed to do?

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells the warrior Arjuna about holy work which he describes as sacred action.  Unlike normal actions we take hundreds of times each day, sacred action in not binding and exists to set us free of karma and old reactionary patterns.

So what is sacred action?

Sacred action – the work that stands before you – does not always make much sense, at least initially.  One of the most valuable things you can do in this life is to know the difference between sacred action and busy work.  When our work is not sacred, when our actions come from habit or addiction or unconscious reaction, then we become bound by the fruits of our works.  We look to these works to give us meaning from the outer world.  Motivations like these lead us into karmic work that binds us to the fruits of our actions because the attraction of karmic work is to experience habitual or even addictive patterns of consciousness.  We cling to the familiar routines tending to our chickens, dogs and fires even if something needs to change, repeating past action (re-action) to define ourselves – to tell us who we are.

Sacred work, by contrast, is liberating.  Getting rid of dogs and chickens and putting out fires requires a faith in something other than the external appearance of things to help us venture into the unknown.  Consecrated action is unique in this way, an individual experience for each one of us because it is inspired.  It always takes place in the present moment.  When a person does the work that the present moment has given them, Krishna tells Arjuna, no evil blame can touch such a one.

“Greater is thine own work, even if this be humble, than the work of another, even if this be great.  When a man does the work God gives him, no sin can touch this man.”   – Bhagavad Gita 18.47 (translation by Juan Mascaro)

“Sin”, “evil”, “blame”, all are another word for karma.  Karma is the identification with form or past or future action.  Sacred work is the work that is before you right now, in this second.  Washing the dishes, doing the laundry, writing a thank-you.  Maybe you are working in your home office on a strict deadline when your daughter comes in and asks for help with her hair.  Or you are getting your holiday shopping late done at night when your love asks you to come to bed.  Or maybe you are talking on the phone and hear your three kids in the next room getting into a ferocious argument.  Limbs are flying, objects are breaking, walls are being torn down.  Sacred action is the work that God has given you in this moment.  Nobody else has your work.  Your work in that moment is not to shut the door.  It is also not to go into the next room and become as angry as your children.  Then there will be four kids in the room and not just three.

Here is something the reactionary mind does not understand.  The work that has a deadline, the shopping that must get done, the conversation that must be finished on the phone… All may be important, yet is this really the work that is before you in this second?  Or is it a way to avoid your real work?  How is consciously bringing peace to an argument or helping your daughter with her hair going to help with these other things that need finishing, your mind will say.  Because you were using your work to define you or to bring you some future reward, you will see everything else as interruptions keeping you from getting ‘done’.  There may be an almost overwhelming feeling of frustration and urgency inflating the importance of what you are doing that also makes you blind to the opportunity to live your life more fully where you are.  So the dear friend flies in and almost immediately the mind is thinking that they will have to leave soon.  Or you are out holding hands with your partner and start to complain how you never connect anymore.  The emphasis will be on unfulfilled work or the planning of future work at the expense of the present moment.  Since you are your actions when the work is binding, you must stay busy, if only in your head.  In light of this, aren’t all things that don’t go as planned mere distractions keeping you from what really needs to be done?

When Krishna says no sin or blame can touch the one following their sacred path, the word sin is more related to the ancient Greek meaning of “to miss the mark” then it is related to its current connotation of hellfire and damnation.  Originally the word sin meant just that – that you missed the mark, that you forgot what was important and vital and true.  When you miss the mark it is painful because we have traded stars for tinsel and gold for sand.  We are taking our friend back to the airport in our head before their visit can properly begin.  We are focusing on a lack of connection with our partner in the past rather than feeling the connection we are seeking right now where we are.  We have forgotten what is important in our life and forgotten who we are.  Once you are aware of this you can pick up your bow and re-aim and pull the string anew.

So you can braid your daughter’s hair or type out another email.  You can talk on the phone or face the very worst in yourself that is currently being expressed through your children in the other room.  You can shop online for one more bargain or you can spend a little extra time before bed looking into the eyes of the one you love.  Maybe the work we are doing is helping to reveal something uncomfortable about ourselves, something so uncomfortable that we unconsciously look for any distraction in order to avoid seeing the work that is before us, the work that truly needs to be done.  Perhaps you are realizing this about your day, you are following an inspired thread and really getting somewhere, feeling like things are being revealed.  Then you get a text message on your cell phone.  Or you remember that there was some great deal on Amazon.  Or someone is trying to start a chat on your computer.  Maybe you’ll just take care of that online deal or that chat right now… you can always pick up that inspired thread later, right?  And off we will go, never realizing that our indulgence in distraction is a reaction against the ‘threat’ of sacred action.

The mind may take this information and try to help by making sacred work a routine.  So we may take whatever new distraction that comes up as sacred work, for example.  Yet there is nothing predictable about sacred action; no hard and fast rules you can always follow to guarantee that you will never suffer again.  You are not meant to always drop your current focus in favor of whatever just happens to come along.  Sometimes planning the trip back to the airport or reviewing something in the past with your partner is necessary.  But is this moment right now the right moment?  Is the focus you are choosing helping you to find a path of joy, wholeness, love or healing?  Or is it a habitual reinforcement of old habits that ultimately keeps you from discovering what you truly want?

The truth is that sacred action is incredibly efficient and powerful and helps us to accomplish things with an efficiency beyond habitual understanding.  In ways that the mind may not understand, sacred action makes all of our work easier and leads us on the inspired path of discovering who it is inside of us that acts, finding out who is really home.  Sacred action may feel glorious, humbling or even terrifying, but in the end it just feels right in a way that our habits or addictions can never approach.  The trick is that we have to know the difference.  You want to know what sacred action feels like for you and know if your current action is taking you to who (not where) you truly want to be.

“The world is in the bondage of action unless action is sacred.”   – Bhagavad Gita 3.9

The impulse to react – whether it is to a person, idea or event – comes from some kind of perceived threat (rational or irrational) that throws us into the limbic system or reptilian brain and severely limits our intelligence and ability to make conscious choices.  Identifying with a karmic, irrational state such as fear or anger limits our options to the repetition of past behaviors, further locking us into our old patterns.  When we are lost in such a state, sacred action will seem like an intrusion or worse yet counterproductive or even painful.  Instead of seeing the present disruption as an opportunity, the mind will see it as an affliction caused by someone or something outside of yourself. Responding, on the other hand, is quite different than unconscious reaction.  When we respond we have a choice.

Let’s say that something happened today that was painful or deeply disturbing.  Let’s say someone plugged their ears and refused to listen to you.  Let’s say your button was pushed.  You can look at your strong feelings or emotional reactions to the event and see that there is a ripe fruit there just waiting, ready to fall into your hand.  Or you can blame the other person’s ignorance, go get a snack and look at the newspaper.  To pick this ordinarily hard-to-reach fruit now when it is ready and ripe could save you unending suffering and countless hours of confusion and blame.  To realize that this fruit has been ripening since childhood and is merely echoing the times you had repeated experiences of not being heard in what felt like absolutely helpless situations, for example, can bring you great illumination.  Your consciousness will take you out of reaction, out of the primitive brain and up into the higher evolutions of neocortex and frontal lobe.  You can then journal about this fruit or meditate or talk it through calmly and watch it fall easily right into your hand.  Or you can just leave that fruit hanging there to rot on the tree of life, then walk around complaining about the stench, blaming everyone around you for the waste.

Sacred action is incredibly efficient and remarkably powerful.  By finding the root cause of your disturbances or recognizing the source of all support and inspiration within yourself, you begin to let go of the blame/victim game and have more energy and focus to direct toward what you really want.  Sacred action is powerful because it links you to unlimited support and guidance that comes to you beyond your habitual state of being.  So instead of having just your own limited resources derived from past actions that caused your problems to begin with, you are suddenly inspired (in-Spirit) and moving with enthusiasm (from the Greek enthusiasmos, en-theos, to be in or possessed by God) into a whole new realm of understanding and action unknown to who you were before.

So how do you know what sacred action is?  Sacred action will feel like an inspiration throughout your whole body or at the very least make you feel more alive.  Karmic work will be like a storm inside your head causing unpleasant reactions in the body that will trigger feelings of struggle, protection or dread.  Sacred action will bring you the energy and meaning as you move into it.  Binding work will want everything planned beforehand.  Sacred work is to feel truly alive.  Karmic work is to indulge in struggle and survival.  Busy work points to the action.  Sacred work points back to the one experiencing the action.  And this One is also free to experience a different action.  This One can sense the marauding army’s approach or discover Grace in confusion or despair.  In this way sacred action solves or prevents problems; karmic work creates or invites them.

Ultimately Karmic work defines us.  Sacred action reveals us.