Karma is a word that gets thrown around A LOT, yet despite its widespread use, it’s probably one of the most misunderstood ideas because an overwhelming amount of people seem to believe that karma is some sort of cosmic punishment that’s only relevant to people that have been behaving negatively and causing harm to others. Things are often said about seemingly evil people like “it’s ok, karma will get that son of a bitch”, or “wait until karma catches up with you”, and so karma is all-too-often defined in this negative context… as some sort of divine retribution.
In eastern spiritual traditions karma is known as the law of cause and effect, which is something that is very easy for us to observe and understand through our own experience. The law of cause & effect recognises that nothing exists independently, and the existence of anything is innately dependent on many different causes and conditions. Karma actually illustrates to us how everything in life is in fact interconnected and interdependent with no real separation whatsoever.
An obvious example would be our own life – if our parents hadn’t been attracted to one another, then we would never have been conceived, so their relationship is a primary cause in our existence, or you could say that our life is the effect of our parents procreating. Our life is dependent on those circumstances, but the fact that our parents even met or were born themselves is also completely dependent on countless other causes and conditions…
All we have to do is think of food we like, or perhaps alcohol, TV, chocolate, or a cigarette, and we are likely to find ourselves engaging in these activities shortly afterwards. Thinking about these things was the “cause”, and indulging in them is the “effect” of those thoughts. Drinking alcohol may be the effect we experience from thinking how much we want to drink, but it will also become the cause for other possible effects, like enjoyment, social lubrication, urinating, perhaps indigestion, and if we over-indulge it can result in drunkenness, possibly even aggressive behaviour or an increase in feelings of sadness, anxiety and lack of wellbeing. We can of course choose to respond differently to those initial thoughts and redirect their karmic outcome…
All of these things are karma, in fact everything that we know of in this life is karma. See for yourself – there is nothing we can comprehend that is not the cause or effect of something else. Absolutely everything is connected in some way to everything else in existence. Everything we think, say or do in this life has a corresponding effect on everything else, even if we cannot see it initially. This is where the idea of positive and negative karma originates from.
If we are thinking, speaking and acting virtuously with the benefit of others in mind, then that behaviour will be the cause of beneficial effects. Having a larger motivation than mere self service is considered to be a major cause for generating favourable karma. However, if we are seeking only to serve ourselves with little thought spared for the well-being of others, our behaviour will not enrich the world around us and may even harm it, while providing only transient sensory pleasure in the short term, and more negative experiences for us in the long term.
The Buddhist outlook on karma is that it originates from what are known as the 3 mind poisons:
By not realising that we are interconnected with the rest of creation, we believe ourselves to be inherently separate from other beings. Not knowing that we are all connected, we view the world as existing outside of us rather than something that we are an integral component of. We may begin comparing ourselves to others and developing a taste for things we like and an aversion towards the things we don’t like. We actively pursue pleasure while avoiding pain and misery at all costs. This divided, dualistic perception is what “causes” us to chase the objects of our desire and avoid the things we fear, but the root “cause” of this dualism is fundamental ignorance – ignorance of the seamless, interdependent nature of reality.
All of us are able to comprehend the many challenging situations that arise throughout the course of a human life, but through contemplation we can also understand that when we respond to these challenges with negative emotions, our reaction is planting yet more karmic seeds that will serve to compound this negative cycle of cause and effect…Forcefully attempting to suppress our emotions won’t work either as by doing that we are still responding emotionally by identifying with aversion, and sowing more negative karma to be harvested further down the road…
We don’t see things as they really are, and we suffer for it. Every thought, word and action resulting from this fundamental ignorance is planting a karmic seed in our lives, and when the energetic conditions are fertile and support the germination of this karmic seed, it will ripen and manifest as a karmic effect in our experience. Some karma can be almost immediate in terms of the effect ripening right after the cause, whereas other types of karma can be very slow to mature, remaining dormant for a very long time before the conditions are right for that karmic seed to germinate…
So we can generate positive, negative and even neutral karma. From the perspective of spiritual practice, purifying negative karma and generating more positive karma is considered important if we are to evolve and make progress in life, and the most simple way to do that is to practice being of benefit to the world as opposed to only looking out for ourselves. As everything is interconnected, we can have a very beneficial effect on our surroundings simply by behaving mindfully & compassionately. This can then become the cause for our own happiness and fulfilment, because we are connecting more with the nature of things – the way things really are – and less and less with the intellectual idea of separation, selfishness and duality.
Ultimately though, advanced meditation practitioners will aim at not only purifying their negative karma, but eventually also their positive karma as well, as both negative and positive forces still represent duality, and both must be transcended in order to realise a direct experience of unity. Mindfulness meditation can facilitate this process immensely as we are not spending our mental energy reconstructing the past or anticipating the future. We are not lost in fantasy, contemplating sensory pleasures or experiencing anxiety and fear from turbulent, discursive thinking. Through practice, the relentless cycle of karma can take a momentary break…
So karma can orchestrate extremely difficult life scenarios when we have an incorrect perception of reality, but it can also enable us to make genuine progress in all aspects of our life when we start to embrace the interconnected nature of reality and the limitless possibilities that come with that outlook… Knowing that everything we do in life has consequences far bigger than ourselves, we can aspire to create a positive impact as often as possible.
Ultimately karma is constantly presenting reality to us in this unified, interconnected way, and the reason we suffer and struggle so much is because we are failing to recognise it by persisting with the illusion of separation. I discovered the most beautiful 4 minute film recently that illustrates the stunning simplicity of karma at work in the natural world. It’s a film about wild wolves in Yellowstone National Park, and how they were reintroduced to that area after 70 years of absence. The film clearly shows how this very small population of one single species totally regenerates the surrounding ecosystem and subsequently affects each and every other species of flora and fauna. The presence of the wolves even changes the structure and behaviour of the rivers in that area! It is so obvious to see how one karmic seed (the wolves) can ripen into so many amazing karmic effects.
Here is the video:
Anyway, this is how to understand karma in my opinion – a dynamic force that exists because everything in life is interconnected. Our metabolism causes us to be hungry, our hunger causes us to eat, eating causes digestion, which causes nourishment and defecation etc… However if we feed ourselves toxic foods, it will also cause the negative effects of sickness. This sickness is the message of karma, letting us know that we have to act positively in order to remedy our current dilemma. This is all karma in glorious simplicity – the law of cause and effect! Just take this template and apply it to every aspect of life – the way the mind works, the way we communicate and relate to one another, the way we act. It’s all the same – sowing karmic seeds that eventually ripen into effects, which then become the cause for other effects and so on… The aim is to gain “practical” clarity of this process through meditative reflection so that we may influence a more favourable outcome for ourselves and the world around us.
It’s critically important to remember though, that this is the practice of a lifetime – many lifetimes in fact – and not some enlightened realisation that we will arrive at after reading about it or contemplating it for an hour or so! The cycle of karma deeply affects each and every one of us and is a force that we must work with directly if we are to change its trajectory. Understanding how challenging this can be is a great way to develop our innate sense of compassion, because we realise that even our enemies are subject to the same cycle of cause and effect as us.
This is of course a vast topic with many complex dynamics, so this is merely my own general perspective and by no means an authoritative discourse! Any merit contained herein is most certainly the karmic effect of having such incredible teachers, and any fault is purely my own karmic ignorance 🙂
Thanks for reading,
P.S. For this week only, please help yourself to 15% off your entire order in the Nyishar store by using the following discount code at the checkout: KARMA
This offer will expire at the end of this week – midnight on Sunday 23rd of February, so please share with anyone you think might be interested 🙂