Karma & the Problem of Compassion.

Via Candice Garrett
on Jul 19, 2012
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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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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. Personally, I don't think such a view of karma is either compassionate or philosophically correct. It's wishful, magical thinking for a universe that's fair and conforms to our own ideas of right and wrong. Needless to say, such thinking has been highly useful in upholding the brutal inequality of the caste system in India, and it's equally useful for affluent western yogis who don't want to feel guilty about having so much while the rest of the world has so little.
    Another way of looking at karma lets go of the magical thinking and simply sees grooves or patterns of behavior–every time we behave in a particular matter, the habit gets more ingrained, and the more likely we're going to repeat that behavior. If you go through life in a kind and compassionate manner, you're more likely (though not guaranteed) to receive the same, while if you go through life in an unkind and meanspirited manner, you're more likely to receive the same (not through some metaphysical force, but simply because people tend, for obvious reasons, to respond positively to the one and negatively to the other).

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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    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.

  9. Harleigh Quinn says:

    Apologies for the ads that appeared in the cut and paste. Please ignore them.
    This was the best description of the karma I have always lived, thus I determined I could do no better than the author in describing it.
    Also this:

    "What karma is truly about is accountability, responsibility, and consequences. How does this translate into our day-to-day lives, without being some kind of esoteric Zen-based philosophical conundrum? It translates into this — there are no bad decisions.

    What in the world do I mean, there are no bad decisions? Exactly that — there are no bad decisions — there are only consequences to our decisions. Let me give the example I use when I work with alcoholics and addicts, to help illustrate this notion. I find this concept of no bad decisions helpful for those trying to reshape their day-to-day thinking and it goes something like this:

    When you get in your car and leave work, turning left to go to the liquor store instead of turning right to go home, you haven't made a bad decision…when you walk into the liquor store, you haven't made a bad decision…when you buy a bottle, you haven't made a bad decision…when you bring the bottle home, you haven't made a bad decision…when you open the bottle and pour yourself a glass of whatever, you haven't made a bad decision…when you raise the glass and drink, you still have not made a bad decision…

    What you have done is potentially engender consequences for which you need to be responsible and ultimately accountable. That's karma, plain and simple. Here, we get back to the notion of action — not good or bad or anything else. Working out our karma means taking responsibility for the choices that we make and being accountable to those choices because every choice has a consequence."

  10. Harleigh Quinn says:

    And what is listed above, per this psychology today article, is what we are taught NOT to do by yoga studios and westernized new age practices around the world these days.
    We are taught to forgive, but no one mentions apology, or sanghe.
    We are taught that everyone has their own path and that criticism is wrong and we shouldn't judge….All the tools necessary to teach and force accountability have been taken away. and considered evil and wrong.

    This is the modern spiritual practice, teaching us to be callous 5 year olds again, not caring about yesterday or tomorrow, and barely caring about the person next to us.

    "All about me!!!"

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  12. 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

  13. 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.

  14. Harleigh Quinn says:

    All the information in the comment above yours points out that "karma" is an action.
    My post points out that "Karma" is an action.
    How does this story support a true understanding of karma in any way.
    To me, it seems to illustrate the westernized MISUNDERSTANDING of Karma.
    But that's just my take…..

  15. Candice says:

    Harliegh, Dub, Pankaj, thanks for sharing.

  16. dub_xion says:

    Sorry, Harleigh, for the rapid post. And strike the mention of buddhist/hindu from that statement, it was more meant to display two different views of karma, one that simply creates more of a division between me/other, and one that takes responsibility for what appears. I didn't mean to distinguish between the two. I guess maybe it's more like the scene in fight club where they let go control of the car, crash, and the narrator says he's able to understand others' feelings. Under confusion, we don't see how our minds create our worlds by movement towards appearances, fixating on them. Relaxing fixation, we can see movement of the mind towards appearances and have compassion for how other minds fixate and cause their suffering. Closer?

  17. Harleigh Quinn says:

    Closer…..except for one point.
    When using compassion the context it is used in implies sympathy, which is not compassion, and actually is meant to mean "empathy", the word that actually would have been correct in that statement.
    This is a critique, of course.
    However, I have, as I have mentioned in other posts, noticed that when people use the term compassion, they really mean sympathy.
    Compassion in action holds a completely different definition and practice.

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