From Underperformance to Beyond performance

We undertake to perform and often underperform. We aim to do a task and have the confidence and ability to do it. However, we have hurdles to tackle. The biggest hurdle is that of lack of clarity. That in turn leads to fear, delusion, and confusion. We get confused about our aims, our confidence wavers, and we think that we would be unable to perform a particular task. We give up before the last lap of the race. Underperformance is seldom about non-performance but more about the lack of will to perform.

Every human being, every living being, and every physical system has an innate capacity of performance. The performance of a human being or a physical system is judged according to its capacity. An ant would be judged by an ant’s measure and an elephant by an elephant’s measure. It would be stupid and nonsensical to judge an ant by the measure of an elephant or vice versa. Hence, underperformance is not failing to exceed average results, but it is the failure to achieve average or below average results.

Underperformance is not about non-performance but about the lack of will to perform.

All obsessions with the results of any performance would typically lead to underperformance. If one wants to bake a pudding, one cannot afford to check every few minutes if it is coming out well. A sportsman tensed over scores and glued to the scoreboard cannot concentrate on the game. Similarly, if a person concentrates only on what would happen after a particular action is done, it would be impossible to do that action. The secret is to concentrate on the action at hand and not focus on the result and also not get attached to any particular action itself.

The adverse effect of concentrating on the results of any action is that if one anticipates an undesirable effect of an action, then one is discouraged from doing the action and the fear of underperformance or adverse performance leads to non-performance. This is exactly what happened to Arjuna on the first day of the Mahabharata War. He had aimed to fight the war and kill Karna. He had no doubt about his ability to fight and win the war. However, he had lack of clarity about his true nature or the true nature of anyone and consequently, he was clueless about the ephemeral nature of the universe. He would have studied about it under his gurus, but had negligible practical experience about it.

With this lack of clarity, when Arjuna went and stood before the opposing army of the Kauravas, he saw his kith and kin arrayed against him. His gurus, cousins, uncles, and grandfathers, were all standing to fight him. His teachers were in arms against him. When he saw this with lack of clarity, Arjuna got afraid, deluded, and confused. Often when we cannot perform, we philosophise, we justify our underperformance. Arjuna did the same. It is at this juncture that Sri Krishna enlightened Arjuna with a long discourse of teaching that started with chastisement, in fact, Sri Krishna calling names.

We need teachers and preceptors when we underperform. These teachers point to us that the cause of our underperformance is our ego. The causes of suffering, attachment, and underper- formance are the ideas of doership and enjoyership. To put it in different terms, the root causes are I-ness, ahamkara and mine-ness, mamakara. These are two kinds of assertions: one of iden- tity and the other of possession. We identify by possessing. That is why it is not enough for us to love but we want to bind. It is the attempt to assert our egos by doing and enjoying that we end up with failure in both doing and enjoyment.

In short, the reason for our underperformance is the ego. Sri Krishna teaches this to Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita and then brings the proverbial twist in the story: in reality, we do not perform. The reason that we underperform is that we consider ourselves not much different from God! We try to play God all the time and do not stop, though we are constantly reminded of our limitations. Sri Krishna, the Lord, shows us that we do not need to play God and understand that everything is God’s play.

All our actions and everything else that happens in the universe are determined by the will of God or by the force of our accumulated tendencies or samskaras. Hence, it is God or our karma that performs. It is our ego manifesting as desires that makes us believe that we are doing the actions. So, the method of working is to transcend desires and thereby transcend mind, and understand that we do not do anything in reality. That is why Sri Krishna advises us to concentrate only on the work, not to think of the results, not be attached to work, and most importantly, not to avoid work. The ideal karma yogi is the person who understands the inevitability of work and also the permanence of one’s true nature that is beyond work.

The goal of jnana yoga or the path of knowledge is to attain the ultimate knowledge, the knowledge of Atman, God, or Brahman. The goal of bhakti yoga or the path of devotion is to attain the highest devotion, devotion to the supreme God. The goal of raja yoga or the path of meditation is to attain complete mastery of the mind. However, the goal of karma yoga or the path of action is not to do more and more work but to attain the state of naishkarmya, transcending action. One transcends action because one understands that one does not do action in any circumstance; it is God or karma.

The realisation that there is nothing to perform and that everything that we do is Sisyphean in nature leads us to be rested in our true self, Atman and understand the reality that matter does not matter. When we realise that at the absolute plane, there is no mind, there is nothing to mind. Our lives do not become futile by not performing or underperforming but by performing with an aim to attain some end. Only when we become indifferent to performance and underperformance do we understand that we need to go beyond performance. We do not need to act, but we need to understand the nature of the actor, that is, ourselves.

All actions become meaningful only when they help us understand our true nature and thereby help us transcend actions. The sword of our true nature need not be used but we need to realise that inside the scabbard of our body-mind existence lies the sharpness of a sword that could cut all delusions. There is no need to perform because there is no one who performs. However, this wisdom would dawn only when we excel the art of performance, the art of non-attachment.

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