Sunday, January 16, 2011

Toward a Working Definiton of Karma: Part 1

There are many definitions of karma in popular culture. Then there are the definitions that come from the New Age movement- I call it palatable spirituality for the middle class. As a student of yogic thought, I am no expert, but I'd like to explain karma through various sacred texts from the East.

Karma means action. We accumulate our karma through our deeds, which stem from our thoughts. Every action has a consequence--we often forget that irritating fact. Even if we don't see the result, all of our actions are accountable to a natural law--this is called the law of karma.

Here in the United States, karma is often described as retribution. The term itself originates from Judeo-Christian ideology. Our culture is obsessed with judgment--we judge others, we judge ourselves, we predict hellfire and devilry--we are the karma police that passes sentence on actions without even understanding motivations or intent. I see this as a collective overactive superego that focuses on what we should do; Freud taught that the superego is relentlessly punitive. When we feel awful about ourselves, we displace our discomfort onto others. Hell is a real place in our minds: for some, it is the big burning hole; for others, it is life on this earth. The second belief is closer to the law of karma.

Since our individual karma begins with our thoughts, we have to understand that the mind is a battlefield. Within our unconscious we develop patterns that often dictate our actions. These are samskaras--they develop through repetition. Consider the images you see every day. Are they peaceful and loving? Are they hateful and angry? The more we surround ourselves with certain imagery, the more the mind takes on their influence. For example: how many of us watch television or play video games? Do you see perpetual violence on the screen? Is there a callousness about human beings? From this onslaught of negativity, do you find yourself thinking with anger? Do you want to hurt someone? Already your mind is taking on the samskaras that can direct your actions in any given moment--from unpleasant speech to physical bludgeoning. We let in rage and hate through our computer, but would we invite the local sociopath into our home for dinner? This is the afterbirth of a society that drills their citizens to think that they are alone and unaccountable.

No samskara has to be permanent. Instead of video games, listen to soothing music. Instead of television, read a book that edifies our consciousness. Be aware of who and what is around you. Obviously, we cannot control our environment constantly, but we can reduce the amount of negativity we encounter. It all starts with what Patanjali calls "right knowledge". As he writes: "The right kinds of knowledge are: direct perception, inference and scriptural testimony." Perception refers to understanding as well as point of view. Direct means immediate--an encounter that takes place between the individual and the experience. Inference refers to discernment: through logic, we come to a conclusion based on reason. Scriptural testimony isn't memorizing holy writ and bleating it back. It is the writings of superconscious beings who have knowledge of the Divine. Karmic thought surmises that the Divine lives in all of us: some call it the Atman, some call it the Kingdom of God , some call it the True Self (in Taoism, this can also refer to True Name).. This testimony must resonate with us on a deep level--we may not like it or agree, but somehow and somewhere inside of us, we know it is true.

To be continued...


  1. "the afterbirth of a society ..."

    evocative and powerful imagery.

  2. Tinkerbell: I wondered if it were too strong, but it came to me as I wrote it and I thought: WTF.

  3. Lux--sorry, for some reason I couldn't comment. It will come once I have work under control.

  4. Interesting that you say human behaviors have patterns in which case they can be scientifically studied and more importantly predicted: pattern X would lead to consequence Y. Something I think philosophers and scientists have been trying and not fully getting a handle on behavior.

  5. Since I don't have to get up early to go to work, I'm not awakened by an alarm clock, so almost always wake up in a pleasant mood. The key is to keep that feeling going as long as possible. Watching the morning news makes me lose it really fast which is why I never do so. Taking a warm bath in the evening helps greatly in reducing my burdens.

  6. A lot of this one can find parallels in western thought, either in psychology (as you have pointed out), sociology or philosophy.

    I have to admit that I'm still struggling with the concept as defined here. While one can obviously see a certain sensibility in explaing karma in terms of an action/consequence dynamic, I can also see a bit of a wrinkle that stands the concept on its ear. Sure, every action has a consequence. But I can cite a number of instances in which the actor is the not the one who either enjoys or suffers the consequences. Often either because of competition or power inequity there's this disconnect between what we do, and what we receive.

  7. Thomas: Actually I got that from a book called Ayurveda and the Mind, along with an ayurveda program. I try to practice it, as I am very sensitive to energy and images, and it doesn't take much for me to go from positive to negative.

    SJ: Some of this is my own interpretation of all the stuff I've read and discussed with folks. One has to infer that the universe follows some sort of logical natural pattern, even if it seems unjust to us humans. Mainly, I think of Thomas Jefferson who accepted God because it made sense in terms of natural elements; Jefferson was also a scientist who died before Darwin's Origin of Species.

    X-Dell: In a way, you've predicted my next post, which is on reincarnation and the relationship to karma. I'm sure you can cite incidents in which the consequences of said action were not realized by the actor. So could I and how! But here's the rub: we don't really know. What we see isn't always what is. What we may see as a lucky break, may turn out to be a curse in disguise for the actor. This is small consolation, but I'm beginning to believe it: you know my husband, John. Over the past year we've dealt with some amazing shit--horrific and absolutely incredibly evil. (I can tell you about it in a different medium.) I struggle with revenge: I want these people to feel like they made us feel. John told me that they are already paying the consequences for their actions simply by living in the dark, or what the Sutras and the Gita would call ignorance. The Christian faith would call it a love of worldly things. I am beginning to see his point, but it isn't emotionally satisfying. I agree there is a disconnect between what we do and what we receive for a while--maybe an entire lifetime, but things even out. I'd have to explain this situation to you and I would love to do it when we can talk, because it has really taught me about detachment.

  8. Karma. Paying the toll. I can't believe we are having the same thought pattern going on. I'm just starting to see how they work hand in hand. Can't wait to read the next installment on this.

  9. Spongy: Great minds think alike. If you look at all faiths, they all suggest karma, but not as bluntly as Buddhism or Hinduism. Wiccans believe in karma. With karma, you have to take the long view (and it is so hard.) Everything will be balanced out--in the correct time. It is never when we want it, but that may be precisely the point because it is our anger that wants retribution and then we are just adding more karmic debt that we will have to pay off. Mind you, I may know this, but feeling it is a different matter.

  10. Cool post, thanks!~~ I love this jazz~~ makes a lot of sense, indeed.

    But wait, where does Iggy Pop fit in? No more Sex Pistols? ;->

  11. Great post Susan. You just reminded me of where I learned most of my guiding principles. So much time and so much noise has passed I had nearly forgotten. It's time I again paid attention.


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