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February 1, 2019

So How Does Karma Work, Anyway?

Author’s Note: this is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Not Buddhism. Not Psychology. 

Along with the advent of Yoga and Buddhism getting so popular around the world, it seems as though people have all sorts of concepts as to how this thing called karma works. A lot of people seem to relate it to a “be good, do good” mentality, or this idea that, “what goes around, comes around,” as if karma were a kind of golden rule to follow.

If I do good things, then good things will come to me, and if I do bad things, then bad things with follow.

I would not necessarily go so far as to say that karma can not be looked at in this way, but would rather expound on it a touch (my only concern being that we might get caught in a wholly similar belief of right and wrong; that if we do not follow the right path, bad things will occur. And I particularly dislike the belief that, if or when something we perceive as bad happens to us, then it must have come about because we did something wrong. In essence, I am not a fan of talking about karma as either good or bad).

There are numerous ways of looking at karma. It is, by all accounts, a vast concept. In Hinduism, we find a metaphor of an archer to describe karma. Using this metaphor, three arrows of karma exist. The arrow which still sits in the quiver is the karma which has yet to come into fruition. The arrow which is nocked is the karma we have yet to choose the direction of, and this speaks to a choice we all have in our doings. Finally, there is the arrow we have shot, or a choice we have made and can only now find some personal agency, or responsibility, in what comes.

In Buddhism we talk of causes and conditions, in regard to karma. From this perspective, instead of looking at karma as a black and white ordeal, we might come to see that there were a great many factors which have gone in to creating that which we find ourselves experiencing, none worse or better than another.

What neither of these views preach, interestingly, is that we have done something either good or bad. They are only descriptions of – people trying to identify and understand – how life seems to take its course.

Are they a truer understanding than any other? I prefer not to wonder about this. It just does not seem to serve me to do so.

Of course, and from a Buddhist-psychologist’s perspective, I take little issue with anyone’s way of looking at things, up until, or unless, that view begins creating unnecessary havoc (and, even then, I am still ever curious as to how one might broaden their view, in that they might find some space, rather than try to demonise the view itself).

So karma itself I am alright with. It is only when we start talking of good karma and bad karma that I start to wonder whether such things are useful.

And, to be fair, they might be. They might help one to follow some moral code of ethics.

Yet, when we use karma as a way to qualify whatever reason we feel that we are bad in some way, I would rather cut this belief down than allow it to flourish (an example of compassion, rather than it’s idiot companion).

From a psychological perspective, I would relate this idea of karma to that of finding one’s personal agency. Might we be able to identify those things we have had a hand in creating, and, as such, might we be able to take responsibility for them?

Again, I urge all of us to lessen the grip of good and bad, right and wrong. And still see if we can find our agency within. As I have said somewhere else, the word karma simply means “action.”

We create actions, and we can take action. We can also choose to look away from certain things, and this, too, is a form of action.

As far as karma is concerned, it would seem we could either choose to see it as some otherworldly force, a way of painfully justifying our mistakes, or we could look at it as just another way things might be. Not good, not bad. Not right, not wrong. Not this or that, but all of these things, and somehow more.

To use a word with connotations in both philosophy and psychology, perhaps we could look at karma as a kind of gestalt. That karma is ever so simply a thing that somehow becomes greater than the parts what went into making it (and in a way, all things are a kind of gestalt. Both spirituality and psychology included).


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Dane Reese Feb 2, 2019 4:18pm

“…my only concern being that we might get caught in a wholly similar belief of right and wrong.”

If I understand what you are saying, I think this is the conundrum that is eventually faced by all who strive to follow a path of nonjudgment. Essentially, isn’t choosing to practice nonjudgment, rather than judgment, already an act of discriminating judgment? I believe this is the core theme of the Blue Cliff Record, which I recommend highly to followers of this path. I believe the problem is most clearly stated in its first case, which also gives what I feel is its best answer: “It is enough to ask the question. Bow and withdraw.” Which I think is about the same place you leave it, and the best place it can be left.

Dane Reese Feb 2, 2019 4:11pm

“You have the right to action [karma],
but not to the fruit of action.”

Bhagavad Gita II.47

Dane Reese Feb 2, 2019 3:35pm

“I particularly dislike the belief that, if or when something we perceive as bad happens to us, then it must have come about because we did something wrong.”

Yes, I think the “havoc” that can be wreaked by this interpretation is precisely the blaming of victims. What evil wrong action did the children in Iraq, killed in the war, or seeing their families killed, do in this or a past life? None, my children, none.

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Zeri Wieder

Zeri Wieder, a writer and possibly other things, practices and writes about relationships and spirituality through the lens of what he calls radical, contemplative, and integral psychology. The word radical come from the Latin, radix; literally of, or pertaining to, the root. Very few have soared, without first having found their footing. A strong, grounded foundation. Self-care routines, learning healthy boundaries, building resilience to face life’s little adversities. Raised in the Tibetan Vajrayanic tradition of Buddhism, contemplative, mindful practice will forever be a part of his psychological and spiritual reasoning. But Zeri also loves the Existentials, and finds such philosophical dilemmas to be quite helpful in the process of self-enquiry. Radical, authentic, and genuine honesty, with a tinge of contemplative, mindful responsibility. Finally, in the practice of integration, we learn to bring it all together; to individuate whilst integrating. To bring personal agency, self-spirituality, the somatic, and the intellectual all into one comfortable, likable, and lovable container. That’s the elevator pitch, anyway. Author of the hopefully forthcoming book, Not Buddhism. Not Psychology. Follow Zeri on Instagram and Facebook.