The wisdom of Karma Yoga

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Giggling about life. There are a couple of scooters outside as decoration we take in at the end of the day.

 “Selfless service will make you Divine
          ~Swami Sivananda

When it gets really busy at work—and it’s almost always really busy—one of my bosses says everything twice. “Cutlery to table 60. Cutlery to table 60,” he says as he rushes past with two arms full of dishes he’s just cleared. “Cabinet service only, now. We’re doing cabinet service only.” “Someone follow me with the steak sandwich, please. Someone follow me with the steak sandwich.”

It’s helpful, actually, since I’m not yet fluent in Kiwi—a quick and mumbled language—and don’t often hear something the first time. Or the second time.

I repeat the phrases under my breath, slowing them down and attempting a translation. I’m working on it.

Speed isn’t just in his manner of speaking, Rhys and Leanne are a quick-moving power couple who’ve created a business to match. Lambretta’s is busy, and there are few better settings in which to learn about attachment to finishing a task than in a bustling café.

Whenever I get far enough along in a conversation with someone new to mention I spent three years living in an ashram doing karma yoga, I’m always quick to define exactly what that is. Karma yoga: doing the work that needs to be done without attachment to the various outcomes and watching the mind in the process.

In popular culture, karma, the Sanskrit word meaning action, means something akin to you reap what you sow, but that definition feels incomplete to me. It turns life into something linear rather than something cyclical, or better yet, the spiral it truly is.

Karma isn’t just about our actions being mirrored back to us; I see karma as the interaction of our mental/emotional, physical and spiritual selves. These interactions are not necessarily a conscious choice, nor are they limited by a linear understanding of time. They emanate outward, vibrating with the world around us as we create it. What will we encounter in the world? Well, depends what we’ve created in our own.

Turns out I’ve created working in the front of house in a café in Nelson, New Zealand for a few months. It’s there I keep catching myself hoping for a task to be completed. Okay, I think to myself, I’ll roll this last batch of cutlery into napkins and then be done. But it’s never done. There’s a line of 15 people at the counter who will use those forks and knives, requiring another dishload to be wrapped.

The same mindless tasks repeated throughout a shift clear my mind of wanting to receive praise or congratulations for having done them. For starters, that’s what I’m paid to do, but deeper than that is part of my mind that wants to finish something.

I pull a stack of empty plates from various tables, walking them to the dish-pit to be cleaned. Later, I’ll take those same dishes full of food to new people to eat off of and continue the cycle. The part of me that wants a task to end forgets there is no end.

It’s not what I do that is important in life, but how I do it. If I am doing a task with attachment to the end in mind, then I will carry that expectant energy into other areas of my life and into other lives. Instead, I want each moment to be created with its own fullness. I want to be free of karma—both good and bad.

I’m grateful for these lessons, glaring at me in the churn of a busy café. Grateful I know I have a choice in where my mental energy is directed, that I can let go and be free.

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Wall art

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Forget about work, this is where I spend most of my time 🙂

 

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Pastry

Christmas Quiche

I’ve been making pastries lately. It started in Wellington; crashing at a friend’s place for the weekend on my way to the South Island, I spied a glass pie plate in the kitchen’s humble offerings. With energy to spare and a sudden insatiable desire for pie, I looked up a few recipes and headed to the grocery store. I was going to bake.

Since I’d never before baked pie I did what most people would do, I phoned my mother. She gave me all the tips I needed on how to create a perfectly crusty pastry. She didn’t need to repeat one of her standby secrets when it comes to pie-making, one that I’d both witnessed and been a beneficiary of many times before—always bake two so you can eat as much as you want of one and still have a whole one to share. When you’re as good of a cook and baker as my mother Peggy is, you rely on those unique tips and tricks.

Yesterday, though, yesterday was quiche. With over half a dozen pies and pastries under my belt since the first apple creations in Wellington, I had wanted to try something new. A Christmas potluck my friends and I had organized with anyone staying at the hostel seemed like the perfect time to try it.

Enter quiche. I love dishes I can create partially with all of the veggies I happen to have in my fridge at the time. It was a kumara (type of Kiwi sweet-potato), in-season-asparagus (remember, it’s the burgeoning summer here) and capsicum (that’s pepper for you non-kiwis) quiche. It nestled snuggling amongst some other amazing dishes that were offered.

Since it’s still technically the Christmas season—a time to be Merry—and since I like to stay positive in general, I won’t get into some of the other details of what it’s like to stay in a hostel with a bunch of 18-year-old Germans over Christmas. We’ll just say I took a picture of them all lined up at the sinks doing the dishes afterwards when it was time for everyone to clean up. A beautiful sight. Some day I’ll laugh about the rest of it.

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A dip in the ocean

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On a bike ride after work along Nelson’s coast

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Went to the new Star Wars…but not without a marathon of the originals. I almost thought I couldn’t watch another, but it was a great night out.

Peach, baked in a loaf pan

Just how did I end up in a hostel? Well, they certainly aren’t my favourite places to stay, but I answered an ad for working in exchange for accommodation in exactly the town I was planning on going to next.

Since arriving three weeks ago, I got a job at a café, found a room to rent and bought a bike. I feel like I’m coming into a stride in my travels and the world is organizing around me. Tomorrow is moving day where I’ll pack together all this stuff I seem to be accumulating and head to my own room up on the hill. I’m very excited.

Sharing space with my fellow hostel-cleaners has been a blast, we’ve even been making pie together, but I will be happy to have my own room again and share a kitchen and bathroom with only two other people.

In taking the “two pie” rule to heart, I made a large apple to share and a small peach for myself. Because here’s the thing—sometimes I don’t want to share. Sometimes I want to make my own pie and eat every last bite myself. I’m grateful I have excess energy to share pies with others and I’m also grateful I know where to draw the line.

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At one of my favourite parks in Nelson

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On the ferry leaving Wellington

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Crazy windy crossing the Cook Straight. My glasses almost blew off my face when I stepped outside and the whole boat was rocking.

Lattice-topped Apple

Arguably the first pie I made was the prettiest. Out of choice and necessity (I was running out of pastry) I wove a lattice top for an apple pie. Despite being weeks ago I still remember how the whole pie-making made me feel—it gave me purpose and direction. I’d just shifted out of work in Napier and didn’t really know where I going next. I knew I wanted to head south but had no idea what would await me once I got there. The hostel job popped up on a website and I texted the owner a few times between pies.

“It’s hard work,” he said.

Changing sheets and cleaning bathrooms? I’m sure my work ethic would fit in, especially with my fresh experience running a guesthouse in Montreal last summer.

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

The team that I’ve been working with has given me much in the way of familiarity and friendship. I enjoy the easy laughter of my German “twin sister” Natalie, the straight thinking of Anne from Myanmar and the enthusiastic encouragement from Alek, the Latvian who endearingly only pronounces the first two syllables of my name.

 

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Alek and Anne, the lovely couple enjoying Christmas treats that Santa brought.

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With Natalie on Christmas

Perhaps pies have been an important symbol of connection for me. The truth is, I wouldn’t want to sit down and eat an entire larege pie all on my own. I am glad to have people to share my “Guen Pies” as my Wellington friend called them with the lovely souls I meet in my travels. Of course, only when I choose to share.

Attaining freedom from my possessions

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“Serene I stand Amidst the flowers”

My time in New Zealand has been teaching me about things.

Isn’t that a succinct, direct opening line? No, let’s start over because I don’t mean that in some vague, every-moment-is-a-lesson kind of way, which is also true. I mean things. Objects and articles. All these items that I’ve decided are somehow worth being carried around on my back. Here we go:

My youth is characterized with a subtle fear of material objects.

Growing up in a household of lack, I would hold tightly onto objects as ends in themselves. A new pair of shoes, a variety pack of nail polish I saved up for for ages, heck even socks and underwear all became these conquests I managed to procure through either the benevolence of my parents or my scrounging of quarters and dimes. I didn’t appreciate the objects as tools I used for a particular purpose; I appreciated the objects themselves as glorified idols. In our capitalist society where objects are touted as the end all, be all, it isn’t hard to see how a small child growing up in poverty came to this conclusion.

Shoes were more than a thick layer protecting my feet from cold and callous, nail polish more than a colourful way to express myself and give my physical body care and attention. Objects became security, and with security placed in their existence, came insecurity and fear they be removed.

I held on so tightly and did not want to let go. Thinning threads on socks became a menace—I was losing something! I was losing an object I so desperately needed. I didn’t see the miles I’d walked wearing those socks and the experiences I’d gained. I didn’t see the warmth those fraying threads had provided. Instead, I focused solely (pun intended) on my perceived sockless future. I was living in a world of lack.

Logically, I know now that when I run out of socks I can simply go to the store and buy new ones, but can I expect a small child to understand that? Especially one who is raised in an environment of scarcity? I didn’t know how much money there was. I just knew I pretended my brothers’ action figures were dolls until I finally got my own, I knew I wanted those snap-on, rip-off Adidas pants but didn’t get them, I knew pancakes for dinner because there was nothing in the house but eggs, flour and powered milk. I knew “we couldn’t afford that.”

It’s been years since I lived in that level of economic scarcity—decades almost—yet I feel like it’s only now, in the spacious and nature-abundant country of New Zealand that I’m understanding the purpose of material things.

I lost my mala in Wellington.

In a world that worships objects, my amethyst beads used for counting mantra are one of the most important physical objects I own. I don’t need a yoga mat for asana; any random paper and pen provide materials for reflection; my breath and the light carry me wherever I go, but my mala? Now that’s important. It’s a physical object I’ve imbued with vibration and is meaningful on my path. It was made at the ashram and I’ve had it for almost five years. I hold it as I dream and I always know where it is. Then, suddenly, one day I didn’t.

I searched everywhere, adrenaline coursing through my veins. What does this mean? I couldn’t help but wonder, What is the symbolism behind this? I mentally retraced my steps that day as I pilfered through my bag for the fourth time. This is what parents must feel like when they lose their child, my internal dialogue raced with hyperbolic intensity.

The library—I’d been to the library that day, slouched in a chair with these gaping-open pockets. I phoned the front desk.

“No, we haven’t had a purple beaded necklace turned in, sorry.”

“When do you close?”

“In about an hour. Good luck in your search.”

I raced out the door with my feet barely touching the ground, covering the 15-minute walk in less than 10.

I went in this door. I walked through this corridor. My eyes darted back and forth, searching, seeking, hoping. I turned here. The chair I sat on must be right around that corner. I curved around the rack of books. The modern, black pleather chair was ominously empty, sitting on the dark berber carpet. My eyes didn’t see the chair though. My eyes saw dark purple beads, coiled like a snake under the crack between the cushion and frame. The image is burned in my mind.

I scooped them up, eyes burning with the beginnings of tears, and quickly left the library.

My feet instinctively took me through the town square to the wharf overlooking the sea. It was sunset. Through my moistened eyes I saw soft, pink light gently brushing the clouds high in the sky. The sea itself was doused in otherworldly grey-blues.

I sat as my pulse returned to normal, gratitude flowing on every breath.

I almost lost one of my most precious material objects—made so because it is a tool of worship. But the truth is, it’s only an object. It has meaning because I give it meaning, and the meaning is the important part.

I’ve lost other things since then: a water bottle, tank top and disinfectant balm to name a few. My pants got in a rip in the bum so I replaced them, and my shoes are showing signs of their daily use.

These objects are not meaningful to me—it’s their use that gives them meaning. I need a vessel to carry water in so I bought a new one. The sentimentality I had for its predecessor has dissolved. My shirts wear out; I know their time is limited. I am not attached to them. I trust there will be other shirts when I need more because I am capable of procuring the objects I need for myself.

I am no longer worshipping items. Instead, I let them pass through my life with gratitude for the use they provide. I am in a place of trust and abundance. I am free.