Find your path towards leading a purpose-filled life, by Anna Greer. [In Australian Yoga Journal, April 2014].
Carl Jung once said, ‘Man cannot stand a meaningless life.’ That seems to be the case for Pam Ahern, who gave up the security of a successful equestrian career to start a farm sanctuary in the rolling pastoral foothills of the Great Dividing Range, Victoria.
As my companion and I pull up to the gate of Edgar’s Mission, an hour out of Melbourne, five curious sheep and an exceedingly friendly kelpie named Ruby run over to greet us. As soon as Ruby saunters over and jumps up on my arm offering her head for a scratch, I fall in love. Ruby was a sheep dog who didn’t really want to chase sheep. Her frustrated owner used to beat her and eventually sent her to his friend to be put down. The man who was tasked with shooting her was won over by her sweetness and instead of ending her life he brought her here. Ruby is one of over 200 animals who now call Edgar’s Mission home.
I’ve come here to meet Pam because I want to find out what drives people to leave stability, comfort and safety to live a purpose-filled life. A decade ago, Pam plunged herself into creating this sanctuary for farm animals after taking in and falling in love with a pig named Edgar. Pam’s goal is to use the sanctuary to spark the kindness and compassion she believes is in everyone’s nature.
“I believe in the goodness of the human heart. I really believe people don’t want to cause violence in this world,” she tells me at Edgar’s Mission HQ, a small office with papers strewn over desks and a few computers where volunteers work. The sanctuary’s newest resident, Cisco the kid goat, is curled up under a blanket in a cot next to us as we talk. Outside there are paddocks full of sheep and cows, goats and pigs. There are deer, turkeys, chickens, ducks and even a couple of peacocks. All of these animals will now live out their natural lives in the sun, mud and pasture of this peaceable kingdom.
If humans can begin to open their hearts to farm animals, Pam says, we would be contributing to the collective good karma of the planet. “Our empathy would expand. If you can get people to care about what is considered a lowly chicken, they’re going to care about so many other things as well.”
WHAT IS KARMA YOGA
The Sanskrit word karma means action. In the Bhagavad Gita, the deity Krishna instructs the wavering warrior Arjuna in a number of Yogic paths, including Karma Yoga, the path of selfless service. According to the Bhagavad Gita, we can use our karma, our actions, to become liberated. Karma yogis offer their actions up – not acting for personal reward but rather for the benefit of others.
Modern Yoga practitioners are increasingly taking their practice ‘off the mat’. Seane Corn, Los Angeles-based yoga teacher and founder of Off the Mat, Into the World, says she has seen the yoga community begin to participate in social activism in unprecedented ways. Off the Mat, Into the World trains community leaders in how to be effective agents for change. The organisation has campaigns running on environmental, health and social justice issues locally and globally and has raised over $4 million for charitable works.
Seane says service for her was a natural extension of her practice as she had a background in activism and advocacy. “It just made sense,” she says. “I realised I had to be of service.”
THE SACRED IN THE SACRIFICE
“The very cycle of life emanates from sacrifice. All living creatures are nourished and sustained by food; food is nourished and sustained by rain; rain emanates from nature, freely given.”
~ Bhagavad Gita III.15
Back at Edgar’s Mission, Pam tells me of the sacrifices she has made to bring this vibrant animal sanctuary to life. She was at the top of her game with her equestrian career when she started Edgar’s Mission and her partner gave her an ultimatum, him or Edgar. She chose Edgar and took a brave leap into the unknown.
“People ask, how can you give all this up? Because every night when I go to bed, and no-one else is around, it’s me and my conscience. Now I go to bed and my conscience is clear.”
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna in their conversation on the battlefield that all of life springs from Yajña, sacrifice. The sun gives its energy and light to the plants and animals, the sky doesn’t hoard the water it pulls from the earth but rains it back down across the planet so that the plants can grow. The plants give of their food, and those who eat the food ensure the plants continue to spread over the earth. This spirit of sacrifice is the very underpinning of life on Earth.
Jules Febre, a Jivamukti yoga teacher from New York City, says at its simplest, Karma Yoga is using the resources you have to benefit others. “It’s really simple. When I take the resources I have and use them for the upliftment and betterment of somebody else, that is a selfless act.”
Key to the practice of Karma Yoga, however, is renouncing the fruits of our actions. Jules says it isn’t about going out there and doing something ‘good’ to become a good person, but doing what needs to be done while not becoming caught up in the results of those actions. Attachment to outcomes can hold a number of pitfalls in the path of action. It can cripple our will when problems seem too big for our actions to have an impact, or we can end up with an inflated ego if our projects are a success.
“The hard part is that people try to make karma yoga an intellectual endeavour or they do it out of pity for the other person. The latter sets up a hierarchy and within a hierarchy there are always the people who need help and the people who can provide or withhold.”
Jules grew up in New York’s Lower East Side in the ’80s amid poverty and violence. When Jules was 13, one of his friends killed himself playing Russian Roulette and another friend was stabbed around the same time. Fortunately Jules was also exposed to Yoga from a young age. Jules is the nephew of Sharon Gannon and David Life, founders of the Jivamukti Yoga method. Jules asked David if he could go to India with him to escape the malaise of his life in New York. After the trip to India, where he studied Ashtanga Yoga with Pattabhi Jois and met many yogis, gurus and devotees, he realised he “hated yoga” and cut off contact with Sharon and David.
When he was 16 Jules committed an armed robbery in broad daylight. He faced three to six years for three felonies. As he was sitting in the holding cell contemplating his fate, a prayer Sharon teaches began to run through his mind.
Make me an instrument for Thy will / Not mine but Thine be done / Free me from anger jealousy and fear / Fill my heart with joy and compassion
It was as this prayer was cycling over in his mind that Jules’ life began to shift in a different direction. Fortunately he was given five years probation instead of jail time and he came back to yoga.
Jules now teaches yoga to disadvantaged youth. During his teacher training he had a realisation – his actions were just as important in creating his world as the circumstances he was born into.
“Yoga has given me the space to see that I was a co-creator of the environment I was experiencing,” he says. “During teacher training I decided I wanted to go back and teach yoga to the people who live in the same places, go to the same schools, the same probation program, homeless shelters and drug programs that I had to go to.”
His goal is to provide the same space he was given, to see that our actions determine our fate just as much as the circumstances we were born into.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
“Karma Yoga is, to me, fulfilling a need, something that needs to be done,” Jules says. Many people project the responsibility for taking action onto someone else. However, Karma Yogis, realise they are perfectly placed to contribute to a more harmonious world.
Those searching for their higher calling should start close to home, says Jules. Everyone has a specific set of skills need they can offer to benefit others. An accountant could do administrative work for a non-profit, someone who likes to go for a walk of an afternoon could walk dogs from the local shelter or someone who lives near the beach could do regular rubbish clean-ups.
Or a business owner can direct part of their profit to charity. David Laity decided to do just that after losing all of his belongings in the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. He started an online wine business called Goodwill Wines, and passes on 50 per cent of the profit from each case of wine sold to a charity of the buyer’s choice.
After the fires roared through his town of Chum Creek and his world was shaken, he received $15,000 in assistance from the Red Cross. He poured that money into his new venture and has since raised $70,000 across 130 different charities.
I meet David at his warehouse in Daylesford. He pulls out a number of wines for us to taste. David says his perspective fundamentally shifted after being on the receiving end of good will after the fires.
“This was the first time I ever needed help,” David says as we sip on an amazing Mornington Peninsula viognier. “It was humbling.”
The warm fuzzies he gets from paying it forward are enough for David and he has grand plans of making $1 million for charity over the course of his life.
“I get such wonderful messages from people. I love it. Every couple of days I get an email from someone and they say such wonderful things. That’s better than earning anything.”
That’s the thing about service. We might go into it with a selfless intent, but the nourishment we receive back is priceless. For Seane, service has been an incredible ride. She sees abundance as a flow – if it comes in you have to express it out or it stagnates.
“My experience is it hasn’t been selfless for me,” she says. “It’s changed my life, my perspective, my relationships. I get fed in deep spiritual and emotional ways.”
BEING THE CHANGE
To be effective agents of change the process must happen from the inside out. According to Seane, we will be most effective if we come from a grounded, healed and centred place rather than looking to fix something externally because we don’t want to fix what is disconnected in ourselves. The introspective practices of Yoga can be a good friend on the path of service so that we can more effectively be the change we wish to see in the world.
In Seane’s youth, she was an activist who struggled with rage. Her activism became an outlet for her to shed pent-up anger. After seeing a photograph of herself at a rally, screaming through a megaphone at the group of people in front of her, she realised she was “the worst example of an activist.”
“I was an example of what you should never do. I was not doing any processing work. I was not taking responsibility for my rage,” Seane says.
“All the conflict that exists is a manifestation of our collective thoughts as a global society. If we want to heal the planet we first have to look within ourselves to see where we’re enacting fear or oppression in our own personal lives. It is a process and it’s deep and personal, intimate and challenging but I believe that’s the only way to be really effective.”