Swami Vivekananda on the Secret of Work: Intelligent Consolation for the Pressures of Productivity from 1896by Maria Popova
“Every work that we do… every thought that we think, leaves such an impression on the mind-stuff…”
In December of 1895, the renowned Indian Hindu monk and philosopher Swami Vivekananda, then in his early thirties, traveled to New York, rented a couple of rooms at 228 West 39th Street, where he spent a month holding a series of public lectures on the notion of karma — translated as work — and various other aspects of mental discipline. They attracted a number of famous followers, including groundbreaking inventor Nikola Tesla and pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James, and were eventually transcribed and published as Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action (public library) in 1896. Among the most timeless of them is one titled “The Secret of Work,” in which Vivekananda examines with ever-timely poignancy the ways in which we mistake the doing for the being and worship the perspirations of our productivity over the aspirations of our soul.
Vivekananda begins by noting that a great deal of our existential confusion about work has to do with our chronic judgment — and, most cripplingly, self-judgment — regarding “good” and “bad.” (Those of us with Type A tendencies know all too painfully how easy it is to feel “bad” for not being productive at all times.) He writes:
Good and bad are both bondages of the soul… If we do not attach ourselves to the work we do, it will not have any binding effect on our soul… This is the one central idea in the Gita: work incessantly, but be not attached to it.
In a sentiment that Western psychology godfather William James would come to echo two years later in his influential treatise on habit — quite possibly influenced by the Indian monk’s lectures, which James attended — Vivekananda observes how our choices and actions shape who we become:
Every work that we do, every movement of the body, every thought that we think, leaves such an impression on the mind-stuff, and even when such impressions are not obvious on the surface, they are sufficiently strong to work beneath the surface, subconsciously. What we are every moment is determined by the sum total of these impressions on the mind… This is really what is meant by character; each man’s character is determined by the sum total of these impressions.
(Cue in Joan Didion on character.)
Writing shortly before Gandhi popularized this idea, Vivekananda returns to the notions of “good” and “bad” as they relate to the architecture of our character through these “impressions on the mind-stuff”:
If good impressions prevail, the character becomes good; if bad, it becomes bad. If a man continuously hears bad words, thinks bad thoughts, does bad actions, his mind will be full of bad impressions; and they will influence his thought and work without his being conscious of the fact. In fact, these bad impressions are always working, and their resultant must be evil, and that man will be a bad man; he cannot help it. The sum total of these impressions in him will create the strong motive power for doing bad actions. He will be like a machine in the hands of his impressions, and they will force him to do evil. Similarly, if a man thinks good thoughts and does good works, the sum total of these impressions will be good; and they, in a similar manner, will force him to do good even in spite of himself. When a man has done so much good work and thought so many good thoughts that there is an irresistible tendency in him to do good in spite of himself and even if he wishes to do evil, his mind, as the sum total of his tendencies, will not allow him to do so; the tendencies will turn him back; he is completely under the influence of the good tendencies. When such is the case, a man’s good character is said to be established.
As the tortoise tucks its feet and head inside the shell, and you may kill it and break it in pieces, and yet it will not come out, even so the character of that man who has control over his motives and organs is unchangeably established. He controls his own inner forces, and nothing can draw them out against his will. By this continuous reflex of good thoughts, good impressions moving over the surface of the mind, the tendency for doing good becomes strong, and as the result we feel able to control … the sense-organs, the nerve-centers. Thus alone will character be established, then alone a man gets to truth. Such a man is safe for ever; he cannot do any evil.
And yet, Vivekananda notes, there is an even more important requirement for character than the acquisition of “good tendencies” — the desire for liberation from attachment, freedom from clinging to the very notions of good and bad, in work and in life. He writes:
Liberation means entire freedom — freedom from the bondage of good, as well as from the bondage of evil. A golden chain is as much a chain as an iron one. There is a thorn in my finger, and I use another to take the first one out; and when I have taken it out, I throw both of them aside; I have no necessity for keeping the second thorn, because both are thorns after all. So the bad tendencies are to be counteracted by the good ones, and the bad impressions on the mind should be removed by the fresh waves of good ones, until all that is evil almost disappears, or is subdued and held in control in a corner of the mind; but after that, the good tendencies have also to be conquered. Thus the “attached” becomes the “unattached”. Work, but let not the action or the thought produce a deep impression on the mind. Let the ripples come and go, let huge actions proceed from the muscles and the brain, but let them not make any deep impression on the soul.
It’s worth pausing here to note how challenging it is for a Western, individualistic mind to not mistake Vivekananda’s central point for advocacy of laziness or resignation. Quite the contrary, he suggests — subtly, unselfrighteously — that our best work comes when we stop being so preoccupied with the end result and instead surrender ourselves to the experience itself, nonjudgmentally. Vivekananda puts it beautifully, bridging the poetic with the practical:
Be “unattached”; let things work; let brain centers work; work incessantly, but let not a ripple conquer the mind. Work as if you were a stranger in this land, a sojourner; work incessantly, but do not bind yourselves; bondage is terrible.
But what keeps us from relating to work in this way is a kind of self-enslavement — something all the more pertinent today, more than a hundred years later, as we’ve plunged into the era of productivity and operate largely out of a sense of obligation, even if self-elected, rather than a sense of true purpose and passion. (A century before Karma Yoga, the French author and historian Chateaubriand wrote that “a master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure.”) Vivekananda considers the role of inner freedom in work:
Do you not see how everybody works? Nobody can be altogether at rest; ninety-nine per cent of mankind work like slaves, and the result is misery; it is all selfish work. Work through freedom! Work through love! The word “love” is very difficult to understand; love never comes until there is freedom… If you buy a slave and tie him down in chains and make him work for you, he will work like a drudge, but there will be no love in him. So when we ourselves work for the things of the world as slaves, there can be no love in us, and our work is not true work.
He offers a litmus test for whether you’re working out of love or out of self-enslavement:
Every act of love brings happiness; there is no act of love which does not bring peace and blessedness as its reaction. Real existence, real knowledge, and real love are eternally connected with one another, the three in one: where one of them is, the others also must be; they are the three aspects of the One without a second — the Existence — Knowledge — Bliss. When that existence becomes relative, we see it as the world; that knowledge becomes in its turn modified into the knowledge of the things of the world; and that bliss forms the foundation of all true love known to the heart of man. Therefore true love can never react so as to cause pain either to the lover or to the beloved… With love there is no painful reaction; love only brings a reaction of bliss; if it does not, it is not love; it is mistaking something else for love.
Noting that attaining this non-attachment is “almost a life’s work,” Vivekananda argues that it’s nonetheless the only true gateway to freedom. He offers a poignant analogy to better illuminate this freedom from preoccupation with results and returns:
Do you ask anything from your children in return for what you have given them? It is your duty to work for them, and there the matter ends. In whatever you do for a particular person, a city, or a state, assume the same attitude towards it as you have towards your children — expect nothing in return. If you can invariably take the position of a giver, in which everything given by you is a free offering to the world, without any thought of return, then will your work bring you no attachment. Attachment comes only where we expect a return.
Ultimately, he argues, our compulsion for productivity and our attachment to specific results are an act of selfishness. Doing meaningful work, on the other hand, is an act of mercy:
If working like slaves results in selfishness and attachment, working as master of our own mind gives rise to the bliss of non-attachment. We often talk of right and justice, but we find that in the world right and justice are mere baby’s talk. There are two things which guide the conduct of men: might and mercy. The exercise of might is invariably the exercise of selfishness. All men and women try to make the most of whatever power or advantage they have. Mercy is heaven itself; to be good, we have all to be merciful. Even justice and right should stand on mercy. All thought of obtaining return for the work we do hinders our spiritual progress; nay, in the end it brings misery.
Swami Vivekananda concludes with sentiment that embodies the prevalent Western ideal of finding your purpose and doing what you love, quoting an old Indian sage’s wisdom on the secret of work:
Let the end and the means be joined into one.
Karma Yoga is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Buddhist Economics and Jack Kerouac’s Eastern-influenced meditation on selflessness and “the Golden Eternity,” then revisit some Western ideas on finding fulfilling work and working with love.