I went into Sunday’s Yoga Sutra discussion wondering what we would talk about. The idea of karma is typically oversimplified and/or immediately connected to reincarnation, so there are many ways we can choose to avoid this topic all together. However, the concept of karma is really not that simple and for me the understanding has changed and become more nuanced throughout my life and practice. It also is an important concept to take to heart if we start to want to make actual change within ourselves and the world around us.
First we have to remember that karma and its build up in our lives comes from the experience and work-through of our obstacles (kleshas – see the following links for past discussions) – Avidya, Asmita, Raga, Dvesa, and Abhinivesa. Every action that we take in life has a reaction or consequence that either builds up painful experiences, pleasurable experiences, or creates no build-up at all. The first step in understanding karma is building awareness around our actions and reactions AND making and taking the time to reflect on the results without preconceived notion, expectation, or attachment.
The practice of yoga (and life) needs to be made up of equal parts ACTION and REFLECTION otherwise we just barrel through “doing” without being aware of or tending to the impacts. We can delude ourselves that things are happening to us and around us instead of taking responsibility for the waves we make around us and inside us. Yes, life happens, but how we react and the consciousness we put in to living is up to us!
But then the question comes up often – “Why do bad things happen to good people?” – and I think that is one of the ways we can dismiss the important work of understanding karma. First, we have to look at the judgement of “bad” and “good” and for whom? It would be easy and great if we could look at every action or experience and judge it as “always bad” or “always good”, however that is not the case. We all have bias and preconceived notion on what is “bad” or “good” according to our culture, our upbringing, our education, our status, etc…Look at where the world is now! We have come to a point where without inner reflection each “side” can somehow make an argument they believe is “just” and “right” with the information and the understanding that they have been given or seek outside themselves.
Sometimes violence is needed to ensure safety in the future, sometimes pacifism is needed to quell the violence in others. To assume that ONE action is required in EVERY instance to get the same result is to deny the complexities of Nature and how it so easily trips us up. Einstein said that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” I add to this that we also have to be alert to the fact that every seemingly similar action may not always have the same result – context as well as intention have a lot to do with experience.
Where the practice of yoga comes in is to teach us the awareness and attention it takes to get back to our inner foundational nature of compassion and undisturbed consciousness. This practice allows us to ultimately let go of superficial biases and dualistic judgements, and guides us back to pure experience. Only YOU know your true intention, so you have to do your own work. There are many outwardly looking “good deeds” with harmful results as much as there are outwardly looking violent and morally questionable “bad deeds” that have an ultimately good result. The only way to know the difference is to first know your own intentions and reactions, to let go of your expectations and biases, and when YOUR consciousness is clear, only then may you be able to see TRUTH more clearly.
Karma is not an easy linear concept. Wether you believe you will come back again or not to deal with things, we have to understand that every action we take does have a ripple effect outward in many directions in THIS LIFETIME! There is no prerequisite to believing in reincarnation to very clearly see sometimes that what you put out you get back, or that “what comes around goes around”. To break the cycle of karma we have to reflect and be aware of the results of our actions, and within that reflection be willing to make adjustments to our actions in the future.
“We are all in this together” has been a common refrain these days, and I do think that eradicating karma is not just an individual endeavor. For me, it is clear that as a community we are now dealing with historical and societal karma. We are all feeling the effects of long term environmental encroachment, racial oppression and discrimination, and obvious breakdown of our political system. As individuals we need to identify ways that our actions and reactions have contributed to this communal upheaval and strive within ourselves to calm the waves.