The word yoga has been thoroughly squished under rubber mats and spandex pants. Nowadays, (at least here in the West) the word yoga almost always conjures up images of people doing stretching exercises. The other image it might bring up is that of a fierce eyed Indian hermit–a yogi. The second image is more uncommon, but not unknown, thanks to photographer Steve McCurry.
I grew up in India surrounded by Indian culture and philosophy, obviously, so yoga means something else to me. Without going into a full discourse about its philosophical underpinnings, let me just say yoga, the word, has several meanings but it’s strongest usage is to signify discipline of the mind. Discipline so that it does not go on uncontrolled freak rides on the rollercoaster of emotions. Discipline so that we are in control of our minds and not the other way around. This discipline can be brought about in various ways, through work–yes everyday mundane work, but done with mindfulness–through philosophy, through meditation and what not. The method of disciplining this mind through work has a special name for it: karma yoga. Yoga, I already explained. Karma–yes the same word that is also used in a different sense all the time–means work, or action. Karma Yoga is prescribed in Indian philosophy as a method to calm, direct and finally discipline one’s mind.
What has all this got to do with Art? Well, what has zen got to do with motorcycle maintenance?
You see, I had this discussion with my wife, Beth, a few days back. She is engaged in a pursuit of her own. It is different from photography and not visual. It is tedious, long, hard work and the final product isn’t available quickly and can’t be consumed (for lack of a better word) quickly either. In photography, the longest part is developing a film and then scanning or printing it. The shutter is quick (assuming it is not an ultra long exposure at night). The consumption is quick. You look at it and at a glance you’ve seen it and formed a judgement. If you liked it in that first glance, you linger and relish. You seek out details, perhaps come back to it later again. But still, all of this is very very quick. It’s a matter of minutes, if not seconds. But some things take longer, both to produce and to consume. The question was, what should the motivation be? Do you seek wealth? Recognition, fame? Are you trying to impress people? As you can imagine, it spilled over from one subject to the broad category of art and any kind of work in general.
The central tenet of karma yoga is that you must not focus on the results of your work, but on the work itself. This is not to imply that you do a shoddy job and end up with a poor result. Quite the contrary. The principle is that you focus on your work, only your work and nothing else. May the world come to an end, but do not let your focus, your concentration waver from the task you are involved in. Give it your very utmost best effort. Give it everything you’ve got. Lose yourself in your work. But do not wonder what you’ll get out of it. It could very well be so that at the end, everything is destroyed and all your labor was for naught. But that phrase right there is the wrong way to look at it. You shouldn’t labor for aught, then your labor will never be for naught.