What is the karma of the use of the word karma?
I am not that old. At least I think I’m not, so to go back only thirty odd years one would not find much mention of the word karma in the western use of vocabulary. Though Buddhist and yogic terms were becoming popular between the 60s and 70s, John Lennon even singing of “Instant Karma,” the word was still not one well understood by the masses or used in everyday speech.
I am fortunate to have a close, direct relationship with my teacher. That is my karma. What I do with it is part of my dharma. I have adopted many of his phrases over the years, as happens by osmosis when two people share much and spend time together. One of my favorites is “their karma” or “your karma” or even “my karma.” It is said in a way that it is fully integrated in the bones and blood.
It is so understood by me that no explanation or translation is needed yet it is a foreign concept to the culture I grew up in; just as foreign as my teacher (or any non-mod-western culture person for that matter) coming out with the statement: “hey dude.”
So now I can go to my almost 80-year-old father and say “hey dude, it’s your karma,” with both phrases being equally foreign to him yet heard over the years via the ever-expanding and homogenizing media. A perplexed look will remain on his face wondering if I am ridiculous, from another country or another time.
So perhaps we can say that the karma of Sanskrit terms entering our so-calledWestern culture, is equaled by the terms of gen X, Y and beyond Y entering the “non-Western” cultures. Perhaps this karmic duty has been carried out by popular music, MTV and movie-going experience, yet equally many in music and movies have embraced these so called “Eastern” paths. There’s no escaping the karma, no force or tide can undo.
The Sanskrit root of the word “karma” is “kr,” “to do,” karma meaning “doing.” This is something we cannot avoid in life. One of the greatest teachings on karma is in the Bhagavad Gita. A perplexed student (Arjuna) is asking his guide and teacher that if the path of complete understanding, true knowledge, is greater than the path of doing things then why do any of these things, especially if it doesn’t look too favorable?
Here comes the first problem in the subject of karma: the ease to make excuses and justify any action or non-action. Ironically, its meaning is really the opposite of this: do what has to be done; accept what you have done and what comes from it; know what you do now affects all that comes.
Karma is a vast and complex subject and cannot be dealt with in an article like this, nor even in an academic paper nor even a book. It is an understanding that has to be imbibed, soaked up, explained and then vibrates within each cell. As soon as you think you understand it (oh yes, cause and effect, what you do comes back at you) a situation will come up that will confuse you.
It is often asked why those who do “bad” things that in turn nothing happens to them? We have a childlike mind when we look at the world, human behavior and what it all means. How could we fathom such an understanding as complex and tricky as the mystery of the universe itself?
To put it in perspective, one must surrender to the fact that there is much beyond what we know. There are billions of years of life to this planet alone, billions and billions of stars with their own galaxies and planets, trillions of life forms and still our own human race has not figured out how completely our own brain works. The subtle experiences in that realm confound the hard fact scientist.
When at a discussion recently with one of the world’s top neuroscientists and a Buddhist monk, the scientist stated that if these extra-sensory perceptions are indeed valid and possible, sort of uber-brain activity, then the field of neuroscience is in trouble. Well then, it is in trouble.
This field of karma is tricky to figure out. One can look at their own life and feel an injustice but really none of us have any idea of our past actions. Some teachings and texts have listed karmic causes and effects. However, this cannot be taken as absolute.
Two people may kill. One may go on to a prosperous next life and one may be damned, so to speak. The unknown is the content of the heart at the time of the act plus the effects of previous deeds acting as a pressure towards the continuing development. Consider also how one lives their life beyond such an act; perhaps they change paths and move completely away from the old methods and habits.
The famous true story of Angulimala, the Buddha’s disciple, a mass murderer, about to murder his one-thousandth victim, his own mother, yet ran into the Buddha on the way. He subsequently adopted the ascetic path, a completely different life focused on inner growth and care for others, led him to realization, yet still the karma of his previous deeds came back at him as he died a violent death.
The Buddhist and yogic literature is filled with definitions and categorizations of karma and its theory. This could fill many more articles, another look. But for now, simply, if we understand that there is stored karma, meaning the effects of our past actions, some of these are predetermined to ripen in this life, some are minor karmas that pop up along the way, and then there are the karmas happening now.
From a personal perspective, how we respond to this issue is key, that affects the future course. This is why much emphasis was placed on practice, to clean up our karmic load and affect our current use of time and activity in a non-karma adding way.
The best approach to karma is to look at ourselves: I must take responsibility for all my actions, words and watch my thoughts.
What is going on in my life is a direct result of my own particular mindset, how I live, how I treat people and how I respond. In the second chapter of the yoga sutras, Patanjali deals magnificently with karma, building on how Sankhya philosophy presents it. At one point we are told that all future suffering can be avoided. Then, we are told that the situation we are in right now in life can be used to work on ourselves, transform ourselves.
It all comes down to how we handle our current circumstances. Life may seem unfair but how I approach it is the key. This prevents me from adding to my karmic load, which increases suffering.
I cannot over-emphasize this point. Many turn to spiritual practices of yoga and meditative techniques for insight, calm and relief. This is a good thing. But it is not enough. Doing what has to be done is essential and really a part of your practice. A crisis may come. It can be valuable to sit quietly, reflect, give some space, but nothing can replace doing what has to be done.
So don’t just resort to practices in times of difficulty, do not procrastinate and cause further suffering, instead do with awareness.
This key term of “do with awareness” leads us back to the teacher in the Gita teaching Arjuna to do what has to be done. The two central tenets of the whole teaching are “nishkama karma” or desire-less action, and “karmasukaushalam” or skill in action. If you could personally adopt these two aspects you would understand karma in a personal sense by observing life unfolding right in front of your eyes.
To do what has to be done and not get caught up in forcing your selfish end on it is the essence of “nishkama karma.”
Every moment we are tempted to argue for our own agenda, which is based on some form of attachment. We may be convinced we are right and deserve justice. This is where karma becomes a tricky topic because we feel that karma should work out the way we are looking at it. Fortunately, karma is far less personal than that and operates on much more of a universal set of principles. So best we can do is check our own motivation and selfish intent behind all of our doings.
This is not easy but as I have found, to achieve any peace, it must be part of our lives. To do what has to be done without causing another reaction is often termed the “non-doing of doing and the doing of non-doing.” This is also the meaning behind “karmasukaushalam.” To be able to behave in a way that checks our intentions we need to function skillfully. The simplest way I could translate this and apply it in my life is by caring.
If I care for the environment, I will do my best not to waste water. This doesn’t mean don’t use water, but just enough. It is a skill to not over-use it and a refined mental attitude to look at it in a way that does not get caught in “it’s my right” or whining “I’m thirsty” or “I simply forgot and left the tap running.”
It is the same in public bathrooms in using the paper tissue. How much is wasted and thrown on the floor carelessly? It applies in taking our food, dealing with people. None of it can be avoided in life. To do it well requires the “normal-plus,” meaning you care enough to do what has to be done and put your own interests, sensual pulls and desires aside.
I just recently attended an inspiring talk by an Irish man who was shot in the face at the age of ten by a British soldier and has been blind since, now forty years on. He has since gone on to set up the organization Children in Crossfire which helps thousands of young children, particularly in Africa, to have some opportunity.
Though he was poor, from a family of twelve, unemployed father, he had three things going for him: good family, good community and opportunities that even a young blind man could survive, go to school and eventually move on.
He realized that there were many children in the world that maybe had their eyesight but did not have these three factors. From the day he was shot he has never felt any anger or hatred towards the soldier. They even met about seven years ago and became good friends. All he wanted to share with him was that he held no animosity or ill will towards his shooter and only possessed forgiveness. His whole life has been colored by this attitude, this aspect of character.
He realized that the only person anger would hurt was really himself. He knew that he couldn’t change what happened but he could change what he was doing and thinking now and therefore what would happen. This has led to a fulfilled life and one that now actively helps and shares with others.
These personal examples of a life well lived without a dominance of controlled outcome, are the best way to understand karma and to apply it in your life. Know that we cannot answer everything or solve every issue in the world. But in a way, we can if we understand that the bit we do has to be done and thus should be done well; all of our actions: from practice to eating, working, our relationships and so on. Though I cannot help everyone, I can help some. See what comes in front of you in life and “do” that. Try to truly care. Then, do everything with awareness.
Paul Dallaghanis a senior teacher of Pranayama, Asana and the meditative art and science of Yoga. He has been a dedicated student for over a decade of both Sri O.P.Tiwari, one of the few remaining classical yogis and masters of Pranayama, and the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in ashtanga vinyasa. Both of these great teachers have personallycertified Paul in these practices, a unique position as the only one to receive this double honor. One of his main gifts is to be able to relate the teachings in a very down-to-earth way for the modern seeker. He does not take life or yoga too seriously and as a result the discussions and philosophical sessions are lively and humorous, helping to explain the meaning behind the practices and philosophy. For more please see his full bio. Paul is the founder and director of Samahita Retreat, a premier retreat center in Asia, and Centered Yoga, a leading yoga training school since 1999.
Editor: Seychelles Pitton
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