How To Practice Karma Yoga & Still Perform In A Tough Corporate Culture

Jérôme Chouchan, MD Godiva Chocolatier for Japan, South Korea, South East Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand. Chouchan is the author of Target - Business wisdom from the ancient Japanese martial art of Kyudo; and Board Director of the International Kyudo Federation.

By Jérôme Chouchan

Practicing spirituality and performing in a company seem to be worlds apart, with an impenetrable barrier between them. Global business is conventionally known for the pursuit of sales and profit, and often tainted by stories of greed and ego, while the practice of spirituality aims for the purification of the soul. Global business is changing faster with the times, while spirituality flows from the ancient source of authentic tradition and sacred scriptures.

In this article, we will try to find answers to this seemingly irreconcilable dichotomy through the perspective of ancient wisdom, with examples from India and Japan.

This dilemma between the spiritual and temporal needs is a vital question that many employees who have some spiritual aspirations in their life may have encountered. But this is not a question that is usually discussed in the work place with colleagues or with the HR department. The world of corporate is about performance, and everyone is expected to perform and deliver exceptional results.

A company is not the place for spiritual development and spirituality is relegated to the private inner garden of the business person. The danger in this approach is that the inner person who has spiritual needs, and the outer person who perform their tasks in the organization, will be in disharmony. It is similar, to if there were two souls, each one being in conflict with the other: the inner being is aspiring for peace and non-attachment to the world, the outer being is aspiring for tangible results and recognition in the world.

This dual nature in us is portrayed in the famous sacred verse of the Rig Veda, 1-164.20: “Two birds associated together, and mutual friends, take refuge in the same tree; one of them eats the sweet fig; the other abstaining from food, merely looks on “The dual nature of the human being and the aspiration to unity is a universal truth that we found in many traditions: “May the outward and inward man be at one”, said Platon (Phaedrus, 279 c). In our modern world, where business is the driving force of society and makes increasing demands on our time and energy, the reconciliation within our dual nature is needed now more than ever.

Also Read: Management as Karma Yoga

Peter Drucker in his book “Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices alluded 45 years ago to the criticality to view the employee in its totality when he wrote – “one cannot hire a hand; the whole man come always with it.” HR modern practices have recognized the importance of the person and their character and put in places process to hire people who share values and behaviors traits that fit with the company culture.

This approach is fostering a better fit between the individual and the corporation with a stronger sense of belonging and purpose. It favors employee engagement and contributes to build happiness in the workplace. However, this approach does not answer the need of spirituality. Spirituality is a deeper yearning than our psychological needs and involves a search for a connection of our living soul (jivatma) with the ultimate principle, God. How do such extremes such as the expectations of results and the longing for the Eternal be reconciled?

To re-connect its spiritual longing with its action and duties in the world, the business person needs a ‘metanoia,’ a change of mind or intellectual metamorphosis, as A.K Coomaraswamy describes in his essay, “On Being in One’s Right Mind.” This change of mind requires a paradigm shift in our thinking: from striving to the achievement of our business targets and experiencing endless feelings of pleasure or worry depending on the results, to striving to do our duty to do the right things for the consumer and society without attachment to the business targets. This ‘change of mind,’ is not a sudden event, but a spiritual practice, a path (marga) that should be treaded during our whole career.

Performing our business actions with this intent is practicing Karma Yoga under the inspiration of the sacred teachings of the Gita: “To action alone you have a right and never at all to its fruits (2, 47). “Therefore, without attachment, do your work which ought to be done. For, a man who works without attachment attains to the Supreme (3, 19).” When things do not go, as we wish in our career and there will be numerable occasions, this will be an opportunity to reflect on our mind, and practice the virtue of equanimity: “Satisfied with what comes to him by chance, rising above the pairs of opposites, free from envy, equanimeous in success and failure, though acting he is not bound (4, 22).”

It is precisely because the business world is a world of performance and quantified results, with strong pressure from our bosses and competition in the market place, that it gives us the perfect ground to practice Karma Yoga. Let me give you a personal example, from a different field to illustrate this point. I have practiced the ancient Japanese martial art of Kyudo – The Way of the Bow, for the last 25 years. As I had explained in a prior article (Management as Karma Yoga) for India CSR, the core purpose of this art is self-development.

Along this journey, to evaluate your shooting progress, there are regular shooting tests, from the 1st grade (dan) to the 8th grade, where archers perform in front of a jury masters. After my 3th dan, I tried to pass the 4th dan. But I repeatedly failed: I had applied 15 times and failed 15 times. This was a totally new experience for me. My self-esteem and confidence were seriously hurt. Observing how I kept failing, my teacher said to me, “Take the Kyudo examination, not in order to pass it, but in order to learn about yourself.” These words greatly changed my values and it was a beginning of a ‘metanoia’, where I started to look inward rather than being stuck in the thought of outside results.

However, there are some people studying Kyudo, who are against attempting the tests, as they believe that the purity of the practice should not be mixed with the pursuit of external signs of success. On the contrary, it is precisely because there is an obstacle and a desire to pass the test, that the archer can recognize within themselves, how their heart is still full of desires and wishes of recognition.

The archer must perform to hit their targets, but as long as their purpose is higher, than to learn how to hit a target with an arrow, they have embarked as a spiritual discipline, a Way (Do). It is also remarkable to see that when the archer performs their art with such a noble purpose, their attachment to the target vanishes and as a result of this “right-minded shooting,” their performance and accuracy in hitting dramatically improves.

My experience in the Way of the Bow, taught me that business could be pursued also as a Way. From this perspective, it become an integral part of Karma Yoga (Yoga of Action), where active and contemplative lives can be reconciled in a synthesis that fits our spiritual needs in this modern age.

About the Author: Jérôme Chouchan, MD Godiva Chocolatier for Japan, South Korea, South East Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand. Chouchan is the author of Target – Business wisdom from the ancient Japanese martial art of Kyudo; and Board Director of the International Kyudo Federation.

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