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Focusing on the task at hand - what I learnt from the Gita

Modernity comes with anxiety.

While modern technological advancements may have eased our survival struggles, it certainly has raised the stakes in other areas of life. Contrary to the popular ‘snowflake’ thesis that paints millennials as spoilt brats of rich parents, millennials may actually have it going tougher for them, if sociologist Lisa Strohschein is to be believed. Add on top of this the constant pull of smartphones and social media, and you get a taste of the millennial anxiety recipe.

While anxiety may come in different colours and flavours, one peculiar kind comes with 'overthinking'. Every once in a while, I come across anxious people who proclaim themselves as overthinkers. For the uninitiated, this ‘overthinking’ isn’t to be equated with ‘deep thinking’ – when they say they are ‘overthinkers’, what they mean is they are anxious, clueless, and worried. 'Overthinking', at least the way this word is used in popular culture, is to be understood as lack of clarity in thought and perception - a highly diverged cognition.

Why this anxiety, by the way? Shouldn't 'thinking' be a noble pursuit? Shouldn't 'thinking' be a job we all should be doing relentlessly?



The verse

41st verse (second chapter) of the Bhagavad Gita may shed some light:

व्यवसायात्मिका बुद्धिरेकेह कुरुनन्दन |
बहुशाखा ह्यनन्ताश्च बुद्धयोऽव्यवसायिनाम् || 

vyavasāyātmikā buddhir ekeha kuru-nandana
bahu-śhākhā hyanantāśh cha buddhayo ’vyavasāyinām

-          Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 41

The verse describes the difference between a result-oriented approach, an approach that focuses too much on the results instead of the task at hand, and a task-oriented approach - an approach which focuses only on the task at hand and doesn’t worry much about the outcomes.

A result-oriented approach, which the scripture terms as ‘sakAma karma’, breeds anxiety, worry, and unproductive actions. It is filled with self-doubts and unsolicited excuses for everything. It takes the outcomes too personally, and is afraid to fail. It is jealous, timid, and easily distracted – because this approach is not focused on the task, but on the ‘ego’ that is associated with the outcomes of the task.

What Gita terms as ‘NishkAma karma’ is the task-oriented approach. It focuses on the task, not on the ‘ego’. The man, who is focused on the work at hand and not on the outcomes, will have resolute and unwavering thinking. Determination will come naturally to him, but not the obsession. Free from distractions and obsessions, his action will be marked by precision and strategy. He will not fail - because even if he fails, he will use that failure as a learning opportunity.

The Vedantic Approach

Gita is a Vedantic text – a text that builds on the philosophy propounded by the Vedas and the Upanishads. Vedantic philosophy considers self-knowledge as the way to cessation of sorrows and attainment of bliss (आत्यन्तिक दुःख निबृत्ति परमानन्द प्राप्ति). Therefore, the Vedantic approach to solving life’s problem is a top-down approach. Instead of focusing on individual problems and finding specific solutions to them, it believes that we can address the root cause of problems by having the right knowledge.

Following this approach, Gita finds the solution to anxiety and procrastination in a task-oriented approach. The problem lies not in laziness or lack of clarity, but in our approach to individual tasks. 

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