If it looks like a chore, feels like a chore, and it is on a chart, it is a chore. Research shows the importance of chores and how they build character. What if, however, it looks like service to others, and feels like an offering? A chore then becomes a meaningful contribution, overflowing with intrinsic rewards.
When we first arrived at the Ananda Kurjana Ashram and Children’s Home, I saw what looked like a “chore chart” posted in the common area. I immediately implied my Western cultural experiences to what I was seeing and pictured kids checking things off, doing the bare minimum, and then winning screen time as a reward. What I didn’t know was that the next day, I would witness the single most transformational experience of my life as parent.
A Different Perspective on Chores
Upon waking before the sun and completing our morning mediation and yoga led by the kids, I sleepily watched them go about their work. The girls responsible for getting purified water dispensers from storage, were doubled over laughing, as the wheelbarrow threw them about under the weight of the bottles, gaining speed as they flew down the hill.
Some of the older boys were in the kitchen stoking the fire, readying it for the pot of rice big enough to feed 30 people. While dampening the embers as they chatted about their day, gritty rice slipped between their fingers.
Older kids were tidying their younger charges’ uniforms, and somehow they emerged with crisp white shirts. They left for school on time and together with their donated bicycles. As they chattered like the morning sparrows, down the dusty path gangling limbs fought for balance as they took off. Riding handlebars and rear wheels, they disappeared joyfully into the Balinese morning. All this happened before 6:30 a.m.
After they returned from school and had lunch, it was time for Karma Yoga. Although their responsibilities trickled throughout the day, 3-5 p.m. was the time dedicated to meaningful work, or what we formerly knew as chores. Girls swept the paths with a rhythmic precision as their willow brooms made a Zen like pattern in the dirt. Boys took sickles to lop grain for the goats and harvest various fruit. Dishes were washed and put away, laundry hung in the moist heat, on twine draped between palm trees.
Our kids darted from job to job, mesmerized by tasks they did begrudgingly when asked by us in the past. We watched in awe as we busily prepared for our daily contribution which was teaching English every afternoon.
What is Karma Yoga?
Dada, the monk in charge, explained to us that if you can joyfully involve yourself in any activity, that is karma yoga. It is the combination of the selfless service and the act. If you do just the act with great effort, only karma will come and no yoga (or union with God or spirit). If the activity is done as an offering and feels like a process of liberation instead of entanglement, it is karma yoga! Whether it is manual labor, listening to a friend, or working in the garden, the nature of the activity is not important. When you fully throw yourself into something needed but remain detached from the outcome, it is transformational.
The result of understanding Karma Yoga is that work takes on a new deeper meaning. Deepak Chopra lists it as one of four traditional types of yoga. I never once heard extrinsic rewards or praise flying around the orphanage. The rewards were in the food we ate, the paths we walked on, the smell of clean clothes, and the sound of kids practicing their new English words. There was no need for “good job,” or “nice work,” and definitely no gold stars. The rewards were spiritual in nature and had nothing to do with pleasing others, but everything to do with meaningful contributions to the world. It seems strange to write about washing dishes as if it is a meaningful offering, but I am certain if you try it, you will feel the difference.
Here’s The Secret
It is not about how much activity we are capable of doing but how we are performing the activity that makes the difference. If we trudge through work, that is karma. If we dance through work, that is karma yoga. It is a choice that we make every day. What do you choose?
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