Karma & the Problem of Compassion.

Via on Jul 19, 2012
Photo credit: wikicommons

I’ve been thinking a lot about karma lately.

As a student of yoga, the topic of karma has come up often, of course. Yoga is the means by which we begin to become free of the consequences of our actions. This is central to the reasoning behind the philosophy of yoga. But how necessary is it really to understand karma?

My recent contemplation on karma started as a sequence of events, interactions and conversations. First, I was sitting in on a lecture where the teachers stated, “Karma is like cookies. If you want cookies, you give someone else cookies. Karma is like that.”

No, I thought. Karma is not like that. If I want cookies, I make cookies. Maybe I will share them with someone else who wants cookies. But I don’t make and give away cookies in expectation that I will get cookies.

Then they said, “If you want more time in your schedule, you should make time in someone else’s schedule. Karma is like that.”

And I thought: No. Karma is not like that. If I need more time in my schedule, I should discern where I am wasting my energy and become better organized. Karma is not auto-magical. It is a system that asks us to become highly aware of our own actions. So, in my mind, if I need time, where am I wasting time?

Then later, when talking to a student, she told me how she recently had a corneal tear in her eye.  She also related how a yoga teacher asked her, “What are you choosing not to see?” Of course my student was very upset, feeling judged by the teacher. If she could have knowingly prevented being injured, wouldn’t she have avoided it? Where was the compassion?

Similarly, on a recent Facebook conversation about karma,  a friend of mine said that “in no way did I ask to be raped.I cannot take responsibility for someone else’s hateful actions against me.” It is in these cases we get into murky territory. Many of my friends agreed with her. But others stated that they believe she had “signed” up for it before birth, as though signing some metaphysical contract before incarnation.

These are not ideas I have answers for.

I honestly don’t know if karma works like that. Do we somehow know ahead of time, or sign up for, experiences in this life? Or instead maybe it is just an unknown sequence of events. What I do believe is that karma is more complex than we typically give it credit for. How often do we hear the phrase Karma is a Bitch (usually when directing hateful energy toward someone who has wronged us)? And yet if I step on a bumblebee, does that mean that I will get stepped on? Or stung? When does the consequence happen: now? A lifetime or two from now? Who’s to know? Who cares?

In all the trying to figure out karma, we get lost in philosophical discussions and lose the practice of compassion. Philosophy is good. Practice is better. When we try to explain or judge someone on their karma, despite what we may believe about how it works, we lose the simple act of caring that someone else is suffering.

While I might find the idea of purpose comforting in the midst of my own struggles, I don’t expect other people to have the same feelings. Pain and suffering is a hard road for anyone, a road we walk by ourselves, knotty twisting paths that may lead us to answers or comfort, or may not. Telling someone they are getting what they paid for is like digging the knife in a little deeper. It might be right, philosophically, but is it compassionate?

In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda, he writes (on sutra 1.33)

And what of the next lock, the unhappy people? “Well Swami said everybody has his own karma; he must have done some wretched thing in his last birth. Let him suffer now.” That should not be our attitude. Maybe his is suffering from previous bad karma, but we should have compassion. If you can lend a helping hand, do it. If you can share half of your loaf, share it. Be merciful always. By doing that, you will retain the peace and poise of your mind. Remember, our goal is to keep the serenity of our minds. Whether our mercy is going to help that person or not, by our own feeling of mercy, at least we are helped.”

It is not necessary that we know how karma works. It is not necessary to explain to others how it works. When we get caught up in those ideas, it is very easy to lose the practice of compassion.

In the title of this post, I call it “the problem of compassion.” It is very hard to be compassionate to someone if we feel comfortable in the suffering of others as justifiable. Whether I believe that someone’s suffering is self-inflicted is not the question, the answer or the practice. The “why”  is a distraction. The true question, answer and practice lie in being kind, being helpful, being merciful. How can I help someone? Or at the very least, how can I feel compassion towards others, even those that hurt me?

Swami Satchidananda states that this sutra is the most important practice of the Yoga Sutras, that if we don’t practice anything else, we should practice this: be friendly toward the happy, have compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and disregard toward the wicked. In short, the practice starts with, and remains, inside of us and has very little, if anything to do with what others are doing, feeling, saying or going through.

Good karma, bad karma, there is no such thing. It is all karma, it is all the tethering of incarnation. Yoga is about rising above it all. Sure, we would like to have more pleasant experiences than unpleasant ones, but the key is not what is happening to us, or around us, but how we conduct ourselves  in the process.

So after sitting with this for the last few months, I came to this conclusion: forget about karma, it’s not going anywhere for the time being. Instead, practice unfailing compassion. Start with yourself and work up toward extending it to others. At the very least it will help us to be nicer, kinder, happier people.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

Like elephant spirituality on Facebook.

About Candice Garrett

Candice Garrett is a yoga teacher, writer, foodie and mother of three from Monterey, California. She is author of "Prenatal Yoga: Finding Movement in Fullness," assistant to Female Pelvic Floor Goddess Leslie Howard and director of the Nine Moons Prenatal Yoga teacher training program. Candice teaches yoga, prenatal yoga and pelvic health with workshops nationally. You can find her teaching schedule at Candice Garrett Yoga or her love of food at The Yogic Kitchen



22 Responses to “Karma & the Problem of Compassion.”

  1. suzette says:

    Hmmm….it's really choices. Google Prarbdha karma…maybe that will help.

  2. Bryan Ashby says:

    Well said, Candice !

  3. b-e-a-u-t-i-ful…just like you!

  4. Years ago, when I lived in Boulder, I read about a guy who got AIDS by gay-bashing. Apparently, he beat up a gay person badly enough that both the victim and his own fists were bleeding and the virus was passed through the blood. I found this story very interesting, and told it to a number of people, who nodded their heads with a little smile, intoning the word "karma." Yes, certainly, this story shows that the law of karma is real, that everything balances out, that everybody gets just what they give, right? But what about the other guy in the story–the poor person who not only had AIDS but got the crap beaten out of him for being gay? For that matter, what about all the other people who have AIDS and/or get gay bashed? What about the people who persecute gays and get away with it or, even, are lauded within their societies for it (the case, sadly, in much of the world)?

  5. […] Garrett’s most recent contribution, “Karma & the Problem of Compassion,” offers us a glimpse into where our preoccupation with “thinking about” can lead […]

  6. Thaddeus Haas Thaddeus1 says:

    Hey Candice…I really loved this article. So much that I wrote my own with yours as inspiration. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/07/an-echo-of

    Thanks for lighting that fire.

  7. Hector V. Barrientos-Bullock Harleigh Quinn says:


    Karma literally means ‘action'. Karma Yoga is the yoga of action. What that means, in the context of the Yoga tradition, is lending ourselves to society and being of service to other human beings. One of the most familiar of Karma Yogis in modern times is Ram Dass who, along with being a primary voice for spiritual awakening in the West, established the Seva Foundation, which provides spiritual support to the dying. Another familiar person who falls into this category would be Mother Teresa, whose Missionaries of Charity are familiar to almost all of us.

    Karma within the context of the Yoga tradition speaks to the first of the yamas or restraints, which is a code of conduct for living virtuously. The first of these is ahimsa, or non-harming.

    Related Articles
    Karma Yoga and the Art of Giving Back
    Understanding Karma: It's Relative, Not Just 'Good' and 'Bad'
    The Power of Forgiveness: Why Revenge Doesn't Work
    Yoga as a Vehicle of Transformation
    Living Backward in Time: How to Set Intentions, and Remain Present
    Find a Therapist
    Search for a mental health professional near you.

    Find Local:
    Massage Therapists
    and more!

    Outside of this context, karma is an action that has no charge. It is neither a good, nor bad — it simply is. In fact, one element of the samurai tradition which finds its expression in modern Aikido is the ethic, ‘No action is an action'…everything has a consequence, and consequences are at the heart of karma.

  8. Tim says:

    I may be stealing this particular thread, however I am wishing to get my personal computer taken care of, and never place confidence in merely anybody at all with my stuff.I’m new to the area and have use for a effective provider that i can surely believe in with regard to possible future adjustments also.I estimate I discovered one appears trustworthy.Is this a legitimate neighborhood service provider that I can trust? Here’s the name and info A Plus Computer Support 2300 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd. #101 West Palm Beach, FL, 33409 (561) 283-4034. Good looking out!

  9. Pankaj Seth says:

    The primary import of the concept of karma is to present a worldview where what we do matters, creates the present and the future. This is opposed to a worldview where "God's will" is the main driver of events, or some sort of fate due to concepts like 'the fall' in Christianity, or 'punishment by God' etc. Beyond that, Buddha specifically stated that how karma works is 'unthinkable'.

    "The importance that all these Indian metaphysics (The Six Darshanas, including Yoga), accord to “knowledge” is easily explained if we take into consideration the causes of human suffering. The [painful quality of an unenlightened] human life is not owing to a divine punishment or to an original sin, but to ignorance. Not any and every kind of ignorance, but only ignorance of the true nature of Spirit, the ignorance that makes us confuse Spirit with our psychomental experience, that makes us attribute “qualities” and predicates to the eternal and autonomous principle that is Spirit — in short, a metaphysical ignorance. Hence it is natural that it should be a metaphysical knowledge that supervenes to end this ignorance. This metaphysical knowledge leads the disciple to the threshold of illumination — that is, to the true “Self.” And it is this knowledge of one’s Self — not in the profane sense of the term, but in its ascetic and spiritual sense — that is the end pursued by the majority of Indian (metaphysical) systems, though each of them indicates a different way of reaching it."
    Yoga, Freedom and Immortality • Mircea Eliade; Princeton U. Press; 2nd edition, 1970

    "Fate or divine dispensation is merely a convention which has come to be regarded as truth by being repeatedly declared to be true. If this god is truly the ordainer of everything in this world, of what meaning is any action, and whom should one teach at all?"
    The Concise Yoga Vasistha, Translated by Swami Venkatesananda • State University of New York Press, 1984

  10. dub_xion says:

    Two friends, a hindu and a buddhist were walking down the street together. On their walk, they passed a destitute man unconscious on the street. The hindu said, "boy, that's some bad karma that guy has", the buddhist replied, "no, it's my karma to see this man the way I see him." Karma is something one works with as a matter of their spiritual practice, not pass off on others. What are my reactions to see someone suffering and my preconceptions about how to "help" them? My preconceptions about this are my own karma, i.e. my world view forced upon me at that moment.

  11. Candice Garrett Candice says:

    Harliegh, Dub, Pankaj, thanks for sharing.

  12. […] the sum of your past experiences (in the case of karma, past lives too) and is usually seen in a less than positive light, unless as some allude to, it […]

  13. […] is the doctrine of karma as I understand it, and it has been immensely liberating for me because it has allowed me to […]

  14. […] up that your innocence was robbed from you. Sometimes life is this way. The only response I have is karma. There are events, situations, relationships and dynamics that we are born signed up to experience […]

Leave a Reply