Recently a friend and I were talking about one of the great paradoxes of yoga, spirituality and life: How does one balance being present in this moment and unattached, while also planning for the future and taking action to reach future goals? Certainly we are not alone in trying to reconcile the unattachment inherent in a spiritual life with the action required by a life of purpose.
It would be a mistake to assume that a spiritual path requires separation from daily life. While one path to enlightenment is withdrawal from the world and living a life of meditation and isolation it is certainly not the only way. But living in the world, functioning in our society, and seeking spiritual evolution is littered with challenges.
In the Bhagavad Gita much time is spent discussing this dilemma and the accompanying struggle between action vs. inaction. Krishna (an incarnation of the divine) tells Arjuna
"Fullfill all your duties; action is better than inaction. Even to maintain your body Arjuna, you are obliged to act. Selfish action imprisons the world. Act selflessly without any thought of personal profit."
Krishna introduces the active path of selfless service, or karma yoga. It requires the realization that selfish action is driven by the senses and desire. The wise can rise above selfish desire, recognize their urges and choose right action. This right action is devotion, and becomes an offering to the welfare of the world.
When we speak of karma yoga or selfless service it may or may not mean spending ones life in caring for others. Rather it is the full-filling of one's purpose or dharma. A warrior must fight a righteous battle, a singer must sing, a teacher must teach, and all victories, songs, lessons must be offered up to the world and to the divine. This is divine purpose.
While this seems challenging (because it is!) it is also completely liberating. If we can maintain our mindfulness and rest in awareness more and more, we attain knowledge of the interconnected nature of the world. We attain knowledge of our own nature - beyond our ego and senses. We start to understand the oneness of things, rather than the separateness. This is the knowledge Krishna speaks about when he later says:
"They live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life. Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. They are free, without selfish attachments; their minds are fixed in knowledge. They perform all work in the spirit of service, and their karma is dissolved."
Yoga, Krishna tells Arjuna, is skill in action. In no small part it is the skill necessary to recognize your own shadow, ego, and motivation and then rise above attachment and act without it. It is the skill necessary to listen to your heart's deepest longing and go wholeheartedly in the direction of it's calling. It is the skill necessary to succeed without glorying in your own success and to fail without pain and doubt. It is the skill necessary to move beyond attraction to the pleasant and aversion to the unpleasant. It is the skill to transcend, to find harmony in the unavoidable, inevitable action of living.
And, like the mastery of all skills, it just takes practice.