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).