(This is 'Rethinking Karma' by Palehorse - the article was recently removed from where it originally was, so I have no source.)
The “Law of Karma,” as it’s often presented, is disempowering. It has been variously used to justify suffering as “deserved,” and convince people to follow someone else’s idea of what is moral. It makes us subject to consequences for actions we have no memory of having committed, and in some forms, puts the responsibility for much of what happens to us with other beings and forces outside our control. We’re told we’re stuck on an endlessly spinning wheel until we figure out how to get off. More than likely, the only thing keeping us on that wheel is the idea that there is any such wheel to be stuck on. Do people really “get what they deserve”? Is there such thing as divine justice? Are our actions in previous lifetimes balanced by circumstances in present and future ones? Are our actions measured against a specific moral code? With so many different ideas influencing large numbers of people and competing for our attention, this is an important subject to delve into in order to gain some understanding.
My purpose in exploring this concept is not to prove or disprove a set of theological concepts which, by definition, are unprovable. What I am interested in, is personal sovereignty. I want to know how things work well enough that I’m free to choose my own experience, and let others know how to do the same. Ultimately, I want to know that choosing NOT to incarnate anymore is an option – and if it’s not, how to make it one. But before I get ahead of myself, it would probably be best to start the discussion with some historical background on the subject.
What is Karma?
Karma is an ancient Sanskrit term that literally means “action” or “deed.” The concept comes to us mostly from Hinduism and Buddhism, though Jainism and Sikhism bear mentioning as well. There is a lot of variation among those traditions, but they all share the idea that karma is a universal law of cause and effect; that our actions have consequences which return to us. Karma is usually found alongside the concept of reincarnation, and thus it is thought that our karma spans across multiple lifetimes.
From there, the ancient traditions diverge. Hinduism tends toward a more theistic approach which involves deities supervising the karmic process and “giving people what they deserve.” This implies a built-in moral code by which deeds are measured, and indeed, Hinduism also emphasizes the concept of “duty.” Buddhists are more likely to believe the natural laws of causation are sufficient to explain the mechanism by which karma operates. Buddhism also makes several innovations, suggesting that our actions plant “seeds” in one’s mind which then bloom into the appropriate outcome under the right conditions. Buddhism also emphasizes the motive behind one’s actions as being important in determining the karmic outcome. Neither of the two traditions are likely to view the process in terms of reward and punishment, but rather the natural outcome of one’s actions. When combined with reincarnation we get the common idea that karma creates a sort of “balance” – when we create causes, we have to keep returning in order to experience their effects. If we can bring that balance to zero, and keep it there, we can escape the incarnative cycle. This is probably the quickest crash-course in these traditions that you’ll ever get, and you’re encouraged to do your own research into the finer points if you feel so inclined; it’s interesting stuff. But for the purpose of providing enough historical background to aid in our discussion, that’ll do.
Things got more complicated when Eastern ideas, including karma, were adopted by Westerners with little frame of reference for the paradigm in which those concepts originated. Western ideas of karma were largely shaped by the west’s own Judeo-Christian influenced paradigm, with its moral framework and emphasis on rewards and punishments. While many people seek to distance themselves from this framework while moving on to more recently founded traditions in western spirituality, it shows up as a recurring theme nonetheless. Wicca, for instance, has added extra incentive (or deterrent, as the case may be) to follow their moral framework, in the form of the Threefold Law. This is a bit like karma on steroids, as it states that everything we do comes back to us multiplied by three. Among the various schools of thought under the New Age umbrella, it’s not uncommon to find teachings like the idea that there are “Lords of Karma” who fill in for the previously mentioned Hindu deities, although in this case there is often a clearly implied sense of reward and punishment. Alternately, between lives we are sometimes said to appear before “councils” of varying descriptions, who either decide how we will work out our karma in the coming lifetime, or otherwise help us do so. So, having laid out the explanation of the most familiar and historical views of karma, now for the fun part: deconstructing them.
Back somewhere in the annals of time, a wise Yogi probably observed the same thing Newton would notice centuries later: that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This works great as a general rule for objects in motion at the observable level, but both Newton and our mystery Yogi attempted to apply it in ways well beyond its usefulness. Not that we should fault ‘em for it, as neither could have possibly forseen the advances of quantum mechanics. In any case, when we try to apply this physical law as a metaphysical explanation for “why bad things happen to good people,” (and conversely, why “bad” deeds often go unpunished), we run into problems.
Breakin’ the Law (of Causality)
Karma relies on the so-called “law of causality” – that every cause has a predictable effect. Therein lies a fatal flaw: there is no such law; as quantum physics is increasingly showing us, reality simply does not behave this way. We live in a universe of probabilities, not absolutes. While we can observe our surroundings and make generally reliable predictions about X event being followed by Y outcome, there is no guarantee that Y will always follow X for any given event. The best we can say is that there is a high probability that Y will follow X – but there is always the chance, however slight, that X could be followed by Z, Q or P (but not U; they’re overused enough as it is). For practical purposes this means that there is no guarantee that the outcome of one’s actions will correspond with the actions themselves in any way that makes sense to the logical mind. There can be no universal mechanism that infallibly balances out our actions as karma is said to do, because we can’t even say with total certainty whether a given action will produce the same outcome twice.
Caution: Free Will Ahead!
If I haven’t lost you yet with all the quasi-algebra – the plot thickens even more when we consider that anything that can be described as “karmic” takes place within the context of relationships and choices made between individuals. This introduces free-will into the equation – which, by definition, makes all outcomes even more unpredictable by definition. We live in a free will zone, where a broadly diverse cast of characters (some with more character than others) all coexist with the same freedom to do as they please within the limits of what is physically possible. If I walk outside right now and punch the first person I see, there are many possibilities as to what happens next. They could hit me back; they could press charges; they could pull out a gun and blow me away; they could run away. The outcome depends almost solely on the choices of the other person, and most likely will not be in any sense “equal” to my original action. To say that I might receive the backlash in some other lifetime would be a cop-out, as it is completely unverifiable. That’s not to say there aren’t consequences for our actions. If I make a habit out of mistreating people, the natural outcome is that I increase my chances of being similarly mistreated… which brings us back to dealing in probabilities. If we can’t guarantee that a negative act in this lifetime will receive a backlash, what’re the chances that it will in the next, when I may be in a completely different environment with its own unique set of influences, with a different personality, making different choices? Is there really any good reason to believe that probability increases across lifetimes?
Karma between individuals is often said to be one of the major reasons we keep incarnating. We have unresolved issues leftover from other lifetimes with other people, so we’re obligated to come back to “set things right.” Much like karma oversimplifies the way causality actually works, so too does it oversimplify the mechanics of relationships between people. Relationships are complicated, dynamic things, especially when there’s a lot of history behind them, and it’s not always possible for everything to be “resolved.” A sense of obligation to others who we form close relationships with probably does keep people stuck in endless loops of incarnations – but one thing I’ve learned about obligation is that our only real obligations are those which we place upon ourselves. For my part, I figure that if I’ve got any standing issues with anyone else by the time I choose to stop incarnating – our higher selves can just talk it out over an astral beer, with full memory of the specifics involved. Good way to cut down on the drama, methinks.
Beliefs and Subconscious Structures
The Buddhists may be onto something with this “seeds planted in the mind” idea, though I highly doubt that every single act creates a new one. What I can verify is that habitual thoughts, beliefs and actions create structures in the mind and energy bodies, which then exert a tremendous influence over what we experience. Our beliefs play a large role in creating our experience, as do the energetic structures created over time by habitual thought and courses of action. It may well be that holding a strong belief in a “law of karma” creates that structure within yourself, which you’ll then start manifesting in your circumstances. It’s worth mentioning that these structures can be nearly instantaneously changed or even destroyed, resulting in a corresponding change in the influences and experiences one attracts. Suffice to say that if there ever was a karmic mechanism at work in my life, I think I broke it. Oops.
These structures can influence us across multiple lifetimes, which may have given rise to some of the ancient ideas about karma. Similarly to how past aspects of ourselves can manifest old unresolved patterns in our present circumstances, these aspects of ourselves can also originate in other lifetimes. It becomes problematic to try and place these patterns in any kind of moral or ethical context, however. Invariably they are the result of unhealed trauma, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Alternately, negative entities are known for implanting similar structures and interfering with one’s internal patterning (and by extension, the circumstances one attracts) without the awareness of the target. Over the course of my healing work on myself and others, where causes of present life patterns tend to be brought to light, I have yet to come across a case of someone “paying” for something they did in the past.
Nonphysical Allies and Adversaries
As you progress along your spiritual path, things tend to “heat up” which can produce an effect similar to karma. Once you’ve awakened to the idea that you’re on a specific path, your actions carry more weight, and wandering from your path, even unknowingly, can carry consequences. This may indeed be a natural mechanism, although I am more inclined to say it’s an extension of the free-will factor, involving positive and negative nonphysical entities and input from your own higher self. As we begin to awaken, we tend to attract attention from both sides. The possibility of seekers becoming the target of negative interference has already been explored in this blog. On the positive side, the saying “to whom much is given, much is required” applies here. Individual paths vary greatly, but in general, you will be held accountable for whether or not you are true to yourself and your nature as it’s defined at the highest level, with the stakes getting higher as you move closer to your Higher Self. Since this is unique for every person, exactly what you’re being held accountable for will not fit neatly into any broad-based religious moral code. Additionally, any positive beings (such as those we might think of as deities) who choose to work with you may also expect a high standard, complete with tests and seemingly harsh correction for not being true to your highest potential. Think of it like training under a venerable kung fu master. But again, this has nothing to do with universal mechanisms or what is “deserved” – it’s a matter of your higher self making an agreement with another being, likely one who specializes in a certain area, to work with one of its incarnations in order to develop in that direction. In any case, from my own exploration with various beings I get the impression that none of them are in the business of smiting the wicked and blessing the righteous across the board, and they don’t know anyone who is, either.
Belief in Karma Creates Suffering
At its worst, a strong belief in a law of karma can actually generate negative experiences in one’s life. There are many factors that could create a single negative experience – but combined with that belief in karma, one might begin wondering “what I must’ve done to deserve this,” which attaches guilt to the event. This guilt will attract more unpleasantness – and now we’re back to the vicious cycle created by the misguided idea of “deserved suffering.” Someone with a habitual victim mentality may well attract a person with sadistic tendencies who will abuse them – because they deserve it? No, because they can. If the targeted person feels guilt on top of their suffering (which is a tactic many abusers use to project the blame away from themselves!) they have only compounded their problem. As we have seen, suffering balances nothing and benefits nobody, because it tends to radiate outward and produce more suffering. Does this sound like an ordeal worth putting yourself through, over a supposed offense you don’t remember committing, that you can’t even verify? Hopefully not!
Another important factor to consider are the true psychopaths – people and entities who most would think have accumulated some heavy karma if anyone has, by deliberately causing others to suffer. However, the existence of this condition throws another monkey wrench into the wheel of karma itself. If someone literally has no conscience, then no amount of karmic backlash is going to give them one, or turn them into anything other than a psychopath. If that person were to hypothetically incarnate again without the psychopathy, their problem is already solved, and the backlash would fall on someone whose fundamental nature is not capable of committing the original offenses, and who has no awareness of having done so in the past. Once again: no balance or divine justice to be found here.
Putting it All Together
By putting the concept of free will together with the subconscious patterns and energetic structures that influence the circumstances we attract, we can explain the mechanisms behind the things that happen to us, in ways that are readily verifiable, without resorting to an external mechanism such as karma. With no way to verify its existence, and plenty of other ways to account for the phenomena it’s said to produce, karma is thus relegated to the position of a somewhat less psychotic version of the Christian Hell: a “consequence” invented to enforce a moral framework for which no natural consequences exist. We don’t like to think in these terms; that someone might commit an offense against us and “get away with it.” However, given the choice between embracing my personal sovereignty, and getting to see mine enemies struck down with great vengeance and furious anger (quite possibly by Samuel L. Jackson himself) – I think I’ll take the former. It is empowering to think that no universal mechanism or deity is “making me pay” for anything except, ultimately, myself – even if that means that the same goes for everyone else as well.
Look to no external authority to settle your affairs; all authority resides with YOU.