July 19, 2012

Karma & the Problem of Compassion.

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

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