To anyone who has ever wondered what the concept of karma actually means, read this informative look at the basic principles of a karmic perspective.
The Misconceptions of Karma
When someone with a painful injury or disease comes to me for contemplative therapy for the first time, at some point in our initial conversation I’m often asked, “What did I do to deserve this?” This question signifies a willingness to examine a situation or event within the larger context of the meaning of life. At the same time, the question can be grounded in a common misunderstanding of the concept of Karma.
Taken out of its spiritual context, Karma is often misinterpreted as simple cause-and-effect in an attempt to explain life’s vicissitudes. Most of us have some vague notion of Karma as a system of punishment and reward: a kind of Newtonian or mechanistic law of action and reaction. But to truly understand Karma is to gain insight into examined living in which we take responsibility for our education.
The purpose of Karma is educational: events in our lives provide important lessons for us. If we are willing to explore them courageously, we enrich our lives with greater clarity and joyfulness. This is so whether we posit a single lifetime in which to be present at our educational forum or multiple lifetimes. In either case, certain fundamental principles apply.
Karma Is Not Fate
Karma is not the same as Fate, especially when Fate is defined as an event or future which cannot be modified and in which we are only passive participants. Karma presupposes active participation on our part, which is why we can be educated through it. It is the process by which we learn to engage with events and circumstances with greater understanding of the ways we make choices.
There are some aspects of our lives that are fixed and cannot be changed: the circumstances of our birth—where and to whom we were born, the color of our skin and eyes, whether we are male or female, and any congenital conditions with which we were born. But aside from these, very little is unalterable; everything else exists within a realm of probabilities.
Modern discoveries about genetics provide a useful analogy. We may be born with a genetic pre-disposition for a particular disease. Yet, whether this disease eventually manifests or not depends in part on the choices we make: choices about which foods we eat or avoid, whether and what kinds of somatic practices we engage in, whether we choose to take or avoid harmful substances or expose ourselves to toxic chemicals. Our choices may be either harmful or beneficial, impetuous or thoughtful. The choices we make and the actions we take either increase or decrease the probability of the manifestation of the disease. We may not be able to remove the gene, thereby removing the possibility of disease, but we can make its manifestation more or less likely.
Karma and the Concept of Vasanas
In this same way we are born with what in Sanskrit are called “vasanas”— tendencies to use our bodies and our minds in certain ways. We have tendencies toward things that are harmful and tendencies towards things that are beneficial. One of the purposes of contemplative practice is to learn to modify those tendencies which are harmful and cultivate those which are beneficial to ourselves and therefore to others.
To “live karmically,” as I call it, is to become increasingly conscious of the mental, emotional, and physical vasanas which influence our choices. The aim is to dissolve those which cloud or distort our decisions, and strengthen those which create clarity and benevolence. By this practice we become wise—that is, someone whose choices are beneficial for all concerned, including ourselves. Wisdom is always benevolent.
The first step in this practice is to refrain from asking “What did I do to deserve this?” When we ask this question we are objecting to something that is happening. For the most part we ask this question only when things are not going well, when we don’t like something that is happening. We rarely ask this question when things are going well – when we receive boons or blessings. We may object to an event or a circumstance we find ourselves in: a place, a position, a relationship past or present. Or we may object to something that isn’t happening that we think ought to be happening.
Objection is the greatest obstacle to our education—to becoming wise, because it hinders our ability to remain alive to all of the possibilities, to layers of depth and meaning, to various perspectives and understandings that would inform our choices and the actions resulting from our choices. We are often invested in objecting to things that have already occurred and therefore cannot be changed. We unwittingly allow our objections to have a hold on us, affecting our thoughts, choices, and consequently, our actions. We are unable to see the ways in which objecting limits present possibilities for creating beneficial results.
A Karmic Perspective
To live with a karmic perspective is to live in willingness to explore diverse aspects, points of view, or conditions in any given circumstance or event. It involves contemplative practices for our bodies and our minds which school us to silence and to that presence which allows for the suspension of feelings and reactions. Thus we may examine all of the wondrous possibilities inherent in any situation—even in the ones we don’t like, didn’t ask for, or are hurt by.
Such practices allow us to ask “What is it that my soul may learn from this experience?” There are many possible answers to that question—countless in their particulars. But the cumulative objective of any particular lesson is always the same: the revealing of a universal Truth. The purpose of Karma is to bring us into increasing awareness of the Truth that finite existence—which is to say everything that exists—arises from, is sustained by, and is withdrawn back into Infinite Eternal Divine Existence, which is both its origin and its end.
The more we come to recognize this, the more wise and beneficial our choices become. It is a slow, steady movement requiring courage, discipline, and self-examination. We move from ignorance to illumination. This is a movement of “recognition,” that is, we are being educated to something we remember—something we once knew but have forgotten.
Our education is a process of remembrance through which we remove, slowly and thoughtfully, successive layers of ignorance (forgetfulness) which prevent us from resting steadily in the awareness that our lives take place within Divine Life. Our ignorance (avidya in Sanskrit) is part of our human condition. The ability we have to remove our ignorance through practice is our human capacity. The educational process by which we do this is one of recognition which leads to illumined understanding.
We as human beings have this capacity because we have self-awareness—a self-reflective consciousness. We have this because we are “made in the image and likeness” of the Divine. Living in bodies may mean that certain aspects of our being have limitations: we have limited life spans, can only be in one place at one time, we cannot know everything there is to know, and so on. But we have a gift which belongs to us as human beings and not to other life forms, even animals. We have self-reflective consciousness. That is, we are able to reflect upon ourselves – our ideas, our actions, and our choices. Reading and thinking about this essay is an example of this. No matter how wonderful animals or our pets may be, they cannot reflect upon or have conversations about the meaning of life.
The Karma of the Divine Being
Divine Being knows itself as itself and as everything that it creates—that is, everything that exists. What being made in “His image and likeness” means is that we, too, have the ability to know Divine Being in everything that exists. Therefore we have the ability to know ourselves and all of creation as fully enlivened beings within His Being. Karma is the school in which this activity takes place. We may be born in ignorance, but we have the gift of self-reflective consciousness so that we may educate ourselves and learn the lessons inherent in the circumstances and events of our lives that remove the veils of ignorance from our souls.
Divine Being has free will, the ability to make choices, and therefore so do we who are “in His image and likeness.” There is a difference between 1. the conditions under which we may make choices and 2. free will, which is the unimpeded ability to choose for ourselves. The conditions of our choice may be limited. We may only be able to turn right or left if we come to an intersection where the road ends. But our ability to make a choice remains unimpeded.
There are times when the conditions affecting our choice may mean that the only choice we have is how we will respond to something, or what attitude we will take regarding a particular circumstance. But no one can take away our ability to choose – even when the conditions of our choice are limited.
The School of Karma
The school of Karma seeks to teach us how to remove the limitations we place upon ourselves and our choices, often without even knowing we are bound by them. It is a process of purification of our understanding which removes the limitations on our free will—our choices—created by our ignorance.
As our education proceeds, our will progressively aligns with Divine Will whose choices are always to the Good, always benevolent. Divine will is always benevolent because the essence of Divine Being is Love. This does not mean that bad things cannot happen—they certainly do—but it does not mean that we are abandoned by God when bad things occur in our lives. Because Divine Will is completely free, so is human will. This means human beings are completely free to make choices—even choices that are clouded by ignorance or driven by harmful thoughts or tendencies.
The school of Karma is the school wherein we are placed in situations, circumstances, and relationships whose end is the removal of our ignorance. Sometimes these lessons are harsh. But if we are paying attention, they allow us progressively to recognize the sacredness of creation, the Love that is its origin and end, and our place within it. Accordingly, there may be particulars to which our soul is asked to attend so that we may begin to grasp the lesson as a whole. Once we have grasped a particular thread in the tapestry of overall understanding, then that particular lesson is complete and we no longer need to repeat it.
This is a school in which, with time and discipline, we move from intermittent remembrance of our place within the Love that is both origin and end of all existence, to active ongoing awareness of this. This living awareness is illumination. It is the light of Divine Consciousness—the self-knowing, self-reflecting Consciousness which enlivens and illuminates our own consciousness as we begin to remove the layers of ignorance obscuring its brilliance.
As we remove the successive layers of ignorance which dim the light of our consciousness, our choices become wiser and more beneficial. We become more and more aligned with Divine Will in our thoughts, words, and deeds: that is, we begin to will only the Good for ourselves and for others.
It is a slow, quiet, personal process which we must undertake for ourselves. No one can do this for us. In the school of Karma we take responsibility for our choices, our actions, our orientation toward whatever is happening in our lives. We take responsibility for our thoughts and deeds rather than telling others what we think they should do and how they should be. This is something others will learn for themselves in the school of Karma.
Karma: Choosing The Greatest Benefit to Myself and All Concerned
To live with a Karmic perspective is to ask “Right now, what are the choices I may make toward the greatest benefit to myself and to all concerned?”
Contemplative practices allow us to be attentive to the teachings we might receive from the school of Karma. We do this not by force—not by attempts to suppress our thoughts, not by setting intentions, nor by forcing our bodies into postures and learning to work through pain or discomfort, not by forcing our minds to be still—but by something even stronger. In the wonderful paradox of contemplative practice, we do this by being gentle and attending to subtlety and silence. In physical practices we do this by alleviating pain so that we might notice the “nothing” that we feel when there is no pain or tension in our bodies. Physical pain is one of the greatest obstacles to resting in Divine Presence. The “nothing” that people feel when they are not in pain is the vast ground of contemplative experience, the vast ground of silence.
The contemplative therapy I provide and contemplative practices I teach are practices for our bodies and minds which anyone can do. They are not athletic, and do not require great strength or fitness. What they do require is discipline—the willingness to engage in them steadily, even if only for a little time each day. Determined steadiness in contemplative practice removes our limitations, the layers of ignorance, so that the light of Consciousness may shine ever brighter from within us, illuminating our choices so that they are always toward the Good.
We do this with our minds by attending to the silence, to the arc of whatever arises within the silence as well as its falling away, back into the silence – into longer and more sustained spaces of silence. For it is within this silence, when we may even believe we have “fallen asleep” that we are not in sleep, but in the deep Consciousness of Divine Being. Eventually, with practice, the boundary between the silence and the not-silence begins to dissolve and this is when we begin to make clearer, wiser choices because we are no longer caught in the drama of the choice making, but are making choices informed and sustained by the silent ground of Divine Presence that we are able to rest in more and more.
The purpose of the school of Karma, then, is to educate our souls. It is an education, to use the words of Dante, into “The Love that moves the sun and all of the other stars,” and to our being within that Love. It is a poetic progression into wisdom – into responsibility for our thoughts, our choices, our actions which, through contemplative practice, become increasingly beneficial for ourselves and therefore for others.