August 29, 2012

Karma: It’s Nothing Personal.

Part Two of The Three Most Liberating Things I Have Learned from Yoga.”

(Part One is here.)

“Man’s life in the world is bound by his actions.”

~ Bhagavad Gita 15:2

When I was a kid, I used to get angry at inanimate objects.

I would dial our rotary telephone too fast and become incensed when the call did not go through. I would shift gears on my bicycle too quickly and grumble when the chain jumped off the sprockets. I would muscle the lawnmower through tall grass and grouse when it became clogged.

Though I cannot reconstruct my exact state of mind at the time, it seems that I attributed moral agency to machines, and interpreted their negligent or intentional thwarting of my purposes as conscious acts. My father tried over and over to convince me that it wasn’t a moral issue—that that was simply the way the machines worked. But I seemed to have been sure, at some level, that they were doing it on purpose.

Interestingly, it was this unarticulated belief that kept me from changing the way I behaved in order to change what happened to me. As long as I believed the telephone could have worked the way I wanted it to if it chose, its demand that I dial it in a certain way seemed arbitrary, and I refused to comply. I wasn’t responsible for what happened to me–the mean old phone was.

“Revelation, Chapter 14” by Bale

Does this sound familiar? If you were reared in a Christian environment, it may. In fact, it may even if you weren’t, because the belief in a personal God around which Western culture is built encourages us to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that the consequences of our actions are meted out by a discriminating entity bent on rewarding or punishing us. And you may have noticed that, as often as not, a rule-bound religious upbringing oriented toward pleasing a heavenly judge is about as much of a deterrent to bad behavior as capital punishment, and maybe less.

Whenever I hear people say that “everything happens for a reason,” I want to ask them whether they mean that every event has a cause, or that every event has a purpose. I suspect that most often, they mean the latter: that things happen because “the universe” wants them to for reasons of its own.

But I am here to dispute that: things happen because of what we do—not as a result of any conscious moral agency, but because that’s simply the way the machine works. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and every event is the result of causation. Garbage in, garbage out.

Of course, the obvious question is why the machine works that way, and so many answers have been posited for that one that I will not attempt to answer it here. I hasten to add that many of the most enlightened people I have known have had a deep, experientially informed faith in a personal God, and that simply has to mean something. But I am nevertheless going to insist that, when what goes around comes around, it does so not because God sent it, but because that’s simply the way the machine works.

This is the doctrine of karma as I understand it, and it has been immensely liberating for me because it has allowed me to experience what happens to me principally as the result of my own actions. Before, I was like the kids in a cartoon I once saw, marching around the kitchen banging on pots until one of them said, “I wish mom would tell us to stop; I’m getting tired.”

Now, responsibility rests with me—not because anybody says so, but because that’s just the way the machine works. Neither can one act without consequences, because the mechanism is simply not set up that way. As you sow, so shall you reap.[i]

So when the old hymn asks…

And must I be to judgment brought,
And answer in that day,
For every vain and idle thought,
And every word I say?

karma answers Yes; not because God is watching you and writing everything down in His book, but because every thought, word and deed creates samskaras (impressions) in the chitta (mind-stuff), and sends out ripples into the world, that are simply going to have to work themselves out.

Yes, every secret of my heart,
Shall shortly be made known,
And I receive my just desert
For all that I have done.[ii]

Yes, says karma­­–that’s absolutely true. And whether your belief in a personal God who knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ sake is explicit or implicit, up-front or deep beneath the surface, this is­—as strange as it may sound—very good news.


Visit Scott’s spiritual direction website, Open to the Divine!


[i] See Galatians 6:7-8

[ii] By Charles Wesley, prolific hymn-writer and founder of Methodism.



Editor: Brianna Bemel


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