The twentieth century witnessed a vast proliferation of Eastern metaphysical and spiritual concepts that managed to change the cultural landscape of the West forever. Imported by a generation seeking personal growth and enlightenment, entire worldviews were adopted in the hopes of finding a deeper meaning to life. Out of all these conceptual imports few have been as deeply assimilated and incorporated into our modern jargon as has the concept of karma.
From an explanation of why people go through various life experiences, to describing the destined fate of ones existence, karma has become a blanket statement for getting what you deserve. As with all other Eastern mystical concepts steeped in deep introspective traditions, karma is a much more complex concept that not only describes the power of choice, but underlies the very foundation of our journey through life.
The term karma goes back millennia and was used by the Vedic caste system to justify why some people were born into unfortunate life circumstances such as poverty or poor physical health, while others enjoyed riches and affluences barely reachable by most. Your good deeds got you merits, which translated into a favorable rebirth on your next round on Earth.
Of course the concept of karma was deeply wedded to the idea of a transmigrating soul, reincarnating lifetime after lifetime in order to work through old karmic debts that once paid helped you ascend into the next favorable rebirth. The ultimate aim was to work through, purify, and dissolve all past karmic residues so as to achieve illumination and liberation in Nirvana: a state devoid of any karmic impurities and therefore free of limitations and suffering.
A modern understanding of the human condition gives karma a more practical application, as its expressions and ramifications can be witnessed in this very lifetime. We no longer need to invoke the ideas of reincarnation to see that every action has a designated reaction, and that all effects have their causes. Karma in this sense can be seen as a basic cause-effect sequence that unfolds lawfully in our day to day lives.
This understanding of karma has profound implications as it brings focus to every ruminating thought, every word uttered, and every action taken, highlighting the butterfly effect of chaos and complexity theory in our every day choices. As the flap of the butterfly’s wing in California helps bring on the typhoon in Indonesia, what you do today will play a part in the mosaic of interactions that will define tomorrow’s events.
Psychology today understands the ramifications of adverse childhood experiences, seeing that trauma imprints in the nervous system in a way that helps define future perceptual and behavioral outcomes. This is well understood, as is the fact that if you commit violence toward others your future will undoubtedly bring on more suffering for self and others. But why that child or individual was the recipient of that abuse is a bit more complex.
Traditionally, it was standard knowledge that if things happened to you it was because of your own past actions. If you got abused, you probably brought it on yourself in some ambiguous past violent action, whether in this or some past lifetime. It’s hard to say if this concept was created to justify certain atrocities, or whether they point to some deep insight into the underworking of life events. The simplicity of justifying our current suffering based on past life decisions seems to place a deterministic spin on our life experiences, placing blame on the soul’s previous misadventures. If our karmic baggage does follow us across lifetimes, then our choices may have consequences long after these particular bodies perish.
So how can we work with the concept of karma in a way that informs our decisions to generate a good life? From the yogic perspective, karma is not just a concept but a life practice deeply rooted in mindfulness. With some attention, the adept begins to realize that each moment contains a seed in which the ingredients of all future flowerings are contained. If that seed is encoded with hatred, fear, or jealousy, the future flowering of events will no doubt include elements of said emotions.
Every thought, word, or action generates concentric ripples of influence which flow out into the field of life, ricocheting and reflecting back to you in some form the embedded elements of the initial action. This generates a a self-reinforcing feedback loop that only grows and intensifies unless awareness is applied.
I smile at a random stranger, and that smile generates good feelings infused with dopamine in both me and the stranger. The stranger then feels compelled to then help another stranger because she now feels a positive feeling within. Your dopamine rush reinforces your intention to smile at others, therefore generating positive life feelings.
These feelings in turn inform your hopeful worldview, which becomes rooted in your perceptual and sensory system. You live in a world of good fortune and kindness, because this is what you are tuned to. The filters are how karma transmits and receives the world. We literally create our world experiences depending on the karmic filters we use to interpret-project the world.
The understanding of how our thoughts, perceptions, and actions help shape our world, which in turn return to shape us, becomes a living realization for those making the journey conscious. Yoga is the path that the East developed to first make the karmic process conscious, to ultimately eliminate the inherent constraints that karma imposes on the awakening mind.
Karma conditions the individual into unconscious and ego behaviors. Yoga employs the steps to decondition, purify, and release said constraints so that the indwelling being may find freedom and peace.
Yoga, in its quest to heal and clear the constraints of karmic imprints, does not push away life. On the contrary; it turns towards life itself, meeting all that arises as part of the work on oneself. Karma yoga is the yoga of life, rendering every experience and situation holy and sacred.
Eugene A. Alliende has been practicing meditation and yoga for twenty years and facilitates weekly meditation groups and classes at his healing center. His passion is the exploration of consciousness, and how a deeper understanding of our true nature can help heal the individual and the world. Read his book Dimensions of Being here