Once upon a time I lived in northern Maine and picked potatoes. I was not alone. My older brother and younger sister picked potatoes. All the school-age kids I knew and didn’t know in Aroostook County picked potatoes too. Picking potatoes was in our DNA. We’d arrive in early-morning darkness at the frost covered field to the sound of the tractor firing up. We were paid 15 to 25 cents a barrel. On a good day I picked 25 barrels. It was hard work but it's what we did in the season’s swing into early autumn. We were young and in our optimism we looked south to a life unfolding in whatever better ways we imagined as the tractor pulled the digger back and forth across the field uncovering more potatoes to pick. With earnings we bought winter clothes to buttress ourselves against the winter's blowing snow at subzero temperatures.
One day I stood up from stoop labor and looked across a small pond bordering the field. On the far side a Great Blue Heron fed among tall reeds. A crystal clear brilliance backlit the sky, the pond, the Heron, the unpicked potatoes ... everything. In the instant I saw the Heron I knew everything. I stood outside the passage of time. I was familiar with all that had ever been and ever will be. Complete, I felt at peace with the world and at home. You can argue about whether I actually knew everything. But I knew one thing for certain. I didn’t see a career in picking potatoes.
I joined the Army and had three experiences so completely contrary to expected they launched me onto a 50 year quest to solve, what turned out to be, my life’s koan.
First, taking orders had an overall liberating, rather than incarcerating, effect. Serving others detached me from petty personal concerns about beer money, The Girls, training cycles ... fear of failure. There were flavors of the Great Blue Heron. Of course, I fought it. How was it that in following orders liberation trumped incarceration? Wasn't it supposed to be the other way around?
Second, I volunteered for Airborne and Special Forces training, and in Viet Nam I served on the best-ever Special Forces A-Team. The soul of an A-Team is trust. Trust engenders sacrifice. Sacrifice is service on steroids. In Viet Nam I lived on two levels. On the surface level death-defying actions born of sacrifice went on by themselves while deep within a timeless feeling of contentment dominated. Outer leaned on inner; inner found definition in outer. There were flavors of the Great Blue Heron. How did such extreme opposites of inner peace and focused outer activity live in consort and support each other? How to reconcile simultaneous experiences of contentment and motivation in the midst of firefights and dropping straight into Hell?
I observed the third experience after getting out. My life had turned around. I felt stronger in all ways. Uplifted. An invisible hand helped me navigate life. I flowed along more than stumbled. Flavors of the Great Blue Heron. True enough, life wasn’t a bed of roses and being a combat veteran I had ground-in issues to deal with. But yet, undeniably there it was: movement in the right direction, in my direction. What silently pushed me forward and steered me in the right direction? How was it I felt at home in the world more than not — when everyone told me I should feel like a stranger in a strange land?
So many questions. Such a complicated koan! I boiled it down to this, ‘How had I been uplifted and strengthened through acts of service?’ Over the years this question frequently popped into consciousness. Like all good koans the question itself felt spot-on, appropriate and entertaining. It was something that needed asking more than answering. I felt no urgency. In my koan's timeless quality of completeness there were flavors of the Great Blue Heron. I found considering my koan delightful and self-sufficient, as if consideration was good enough and the goal. It was too good to last.
When I got perfectly comfortable with never an answer forthcoming it dawned on me. Out of the blue, as it were. Being privy to a law of Nature instantly lifted me to a higher plane. It was my ‘aha!’ moment. Understanding the answer and simultaneously experiencing it joined in a rhythm that was simultaneously part of me and universal too. Flavors of the Great Blue Heron.
The moment the scales fell from my eyes I was thinking about the concept of bondage to action as expounded by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. A short primer on bondage: We desire to experience the happiness we see in attractive qualities found in objects of the senses, say a spiffy new sports car. We imagine shifting gears on sharp turns, one-hand waving to envious friends, top down, wearing sunglasses, the ultimate cool.... Given that our desire for the object is strong enough, we take action to acquire it, in this example buy the spiffy new sports car. And sure enough the object delivers measures of happiness — in the beginning. But in time the newness wears off and we’re left with an impression of dissatisfaction. So we again desire happiness promised by some new object, say a wonderful new set of deep-tread Pirelli snow tires. We get stuck in the cycle of impression-desire-action forever seeking happiness outside ourselves. Bound to actions, our attention points ever outward seeking happiness outside ourselves, even though we know full well that lasting happiness lies within.
My ‘aha!’ moment: When we serve others’ desires we break the cycle of impression-desire-action at the level of our desire to find happiness in objects of the senses. In serving others’ desires we innocently and instantly renounce our own. No desire, no action, no impression of dissatisfaction, no cycle of impression-desire-action. Liberated from bondage to action through acts of selfless service, our outward flow of attention stops dead in its tracks, our mind turns within in its relentless search for happiness and we find it where it has always been, deep within ourselves.
My second thought: This is the practice of karma yoga! Innocently renouncing desire by selflessly serving others’ desires and in so doing, achieving liberation from bondage to action! So far, so good.
My third thought: So if I'm right, Krishna’s discourse on understanding and experiencing the practice of karma yoga in 2nd and 3rd chapters of the Bhagavad Gita should support my thinking. I turned to my well-thumbed Gita. There it was, plain as the nose on your face: we achieve liberation from desire and bondage to action by selflessly serving others’ desires. Renunciation of desire and liberation from bondage are just that simple and instantly rewarding, as is the practice of karma yoga! No effort is lost and no obstacle exists. It's natural. See for yourself: Contents