Why do you do what you do? Is it because you expect to be rewarded? Are you seeking acknowledgement and recognition? How would it feel if your goal was simply to be of service?
Karma is a loaded concept in todays world, but understanding it can help us navigate our ego. The ego, as I understand it, has a very specific job. It is a useful and necessary part of the multi-faceted human animal. It grants us the experience of individuality. It is the ego that tells me I have a name, that gets me to feed and clothe myself, that inspires me to celebrate my uniqueness and creativity.
But the shadow of the ego contains selfishness and greed. If we let ego run the show, we tend to only do things that will benefit us in some obvious way, especially actions designed to maintain the status quo. The ego thinks its job is to keep everything exactly as it is now. To perpetuate the illusions of safety and separation. Most people (myself included, at times) have let the ego take over and run amuck, telling everybody what to do, and creating a lot of clinging and suffering.
In Comes Karma Yoga
Karma literally translates as action, and it often means both an action and the effects of that action. The underlying concept of Karma is that all of our actions have consequences, whether we recognize the relationship between the result and the cause or not. It is not about what a person likes or dislikes, or hopes for and desires, but purely our actions and the intentions behind those actions. The best way to purify our Karma, to both clean up the mess from past deeds and lay a foundation for future happiness, is aligning with our Dharma. Thats a whole other post, but basically Dharma is ones true purpose, performing deeds that are aligned with the intentions of the soul.
Yoga means to yoke, or to bring together. To create union. Physical Yoga is uniting body, breath, and mind. It is the pursuit of integration.
Karma Yoga is uniting action with purpose and service.
Karma Yoga is the path of service-in-action. A commitment to practicing selfless actions that are in service to something greater. People working at soup kitchens are performing Karma Yoga, as are doctors volunteering in communities devastated by hurricanes. Moms are practicing Karma Yoga most of the time. You are practicing Karma Yoga when you do something as an act of service, because you believe it to be the right thing to do, whether you enjoy it or not.
Ultimately what we do does not matter as much as how we do it. And why. Any action can open the path of selfless service for us, if we are aligned with our purpose and performing it for the good of all. Then it doesnt matter how obnoxious, attached, or self-righteous the ego is, because it no longer has the control.
When my ego wants to claim credit, for good or bad things in my life, I remember the principles of Karma Yoga. When I get caught in a mental loop about my awfulness or amazingness, about my success or failure, I come back to service. I offer up my actions to my higher self, to that aspect of the divine that resonates with me.
Anyone can participate in the action of Karma Yoga, just as a way of being. You can offer the fruits of your labor for the good of your children, or nature, or all life in the Universe. Whatever you do, let it be an act of service, and see how that gets you out of your head and into greater participation with all of life.