Do you have good karma? If you live a happy life, with wealth, health, abundance, then maybe you do. In the West we’ve taken the concept of karma and simplified it to be a kind of fate—that which we have ended up with. If you’ve been cursed with ill health, disease, and misfortune, then using simplified Western standards, perhaps you have bad karma.
But the concept of karma from the Eastern traditions is much more complex, encompassing at its essence ideas about intentionality, life decisions, and most importantly, how we respond to what the world brings us. Modern psychological understandings of learning and emotional intelligence are now coming closer to an Eastern understanding of karma.
Consider karma in the context of your credit score. If you have a high credit score, you’ve likely learned the values of the modern financial system and play the financial game well. You might acknowledge that there’s a relationship between your past financial actions and the score you have now. If you have a low credit score, there are things you can do to improve it. Even if you have bad credit, you are not fated to have bad credit forever.
In its most basic sense, karma refers to action or deed and how our previous actions affect us now and into the future. Karma is the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction, that is expressed in all life. The concept of karma has been recorded in India since the first millennium BC, although it is likely that the Indian Brahmins borrowed the idea from earlier aboriginal societies. For many, a belief in karma becomes a value system, since Karmic beliefs tell us the results we experience are similar to the cause and the results of our actions are never lost. They stay with us. How often have you heard, “Violence begets violence,” “One reaps what one sows”, or the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? These are all expressions connected to Karmic beliefs. We will reap the results of our actions, so we should live with those ideas in mind.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, karma, rather than being fatalistic or mechanistic, is understood as a memory trace or disposition from previous thought or action—an impulse which can either be acted upon and reinforced or negated by other choices. In the Eastern traditions, as with many aboriginal cultures, karma is also interwoven with other metaphysical concepts such as reincarnation, the long-term development of the soul and its multiple worlds. An individual soul’s actions in this physical world can affect the larger cycle of its path between Earth and other ancestral realms. A person might reincarnate in a lower world or even as a different form of creature, as a result of some “negative” action in this life. Though karma is present, there is no certainty that any aspect of personality or memory will come through different reincarnations.
In India, it is part of Hindu tradition that one’s actions in this life will influence your rebirth in another life. This can result in the fatalistic view that one has no choice about one’s position in the world. Similarly, because of karma, a kind person in a higher caste might understand that everyone in different levels of his society is on the same path of spiritual evolution. He might also judge people in a lower caste negatively as being less evolved. Some traditions believe that one God or many Gods play a role in dispensing karma or changing an individual’s karma. For example, the events in the Book of Job in the Christian tradition show God’s intervention. In many traditions though—Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism— only the individual himself can influence his own karma in either direction.
In Buddhism, all karma, good or bad, is seen as the force that holds us within the cycle of birth and death in this physical world. The conquest of karma and release from this wheel lies in intelligent action and dispassionate responses to life’s experiences. Any action undertaken with raw emotionality, not tempered by the conscious intellect, will create more Karmic actions and reactions. There is a folk tale from India of a Rishi, a realized being, who was in the process of leaving his body to merge with the divine. At the moment before death, he saw a deer and marveled at its beauty. This passionate act propelled him into another life as a deer. His passionate attachment to the beauty of the deer was the expression of some lingering karma he carried. As long as some stored karma exists, the individual soul can not attain liberation from the veiling illusion of this physical existence.
Some traditions believe one’s karma is set and must be lived through. As the Dalai Lama says in his book, Kindness, Clarity and Insight: “Countless rebirths lie ahead, both good and bad. The effects of karma (actions) are inevitable, and in previous lifetimes we have accumulated negative karma which will inevitably have its fruition in this or future lives. Just as someone witnessed by police in a criminal act will eventually be caught and punished, so we too must face the consequences of faulty actions we have committed in the past, there is no way to be at ease; those actions are irreversible; we must eventually undergo their effects.”
To Westerners this view might seem overly strict, yet these beliefs can lead to a life of virtuous action. Some traditions, though, do believe that one’s karma is modifiable. It does not operate with mechanical rigidity but allows for a considerably wide range of modifications, a slow ripening of the soul’s fruit. Karma is not fate, for humans act with free will creating their own destiny. A particular action now is not binding to some particular, pre-determined future experience or reaction; it is not a simple, one-to-one correspondence of reward or punishment.
In Jainism, karma refers to a kind of dark, negative subtle matter that pervades the universe and is attracted to the consciousness of a soul. When consciousness and this subtle matter interact, we experience life. It is also thought of as a mechanism, or innate quality of the universe, whereby we experience the important themes of our lives. We engage with these themes until we release our emotional attachment to them.
In Spiritism, karma is known as “the law of cause and effect.” Individual spirits have choice in how they play out their past karma; and it is thought that disabilities, physical and mental impairment, or even being unlucky are due to choices that soul has made before coming into this life in order to release past karma. Thus the theme of reincarnation is strong and the effects of one’s karma will stay with the spirit when it is not in a body, and even when it incarnates in other worlds.
Some people in the New Age movement have used karma to explain why everything happens, labeling events as positive or negative karma depending on how each event affects the person at an ego level. These popular views don’t take into deeper consideration the complexity of an individual’s experience, what they’re learning, and what the “right” path may be at a soul level. On the flip side, movies like “The Secret” promote the “Law of Attraction,” a kind of visioning/imaging where one is able to manifest good karma when one focuses correctly. These overly simplistic views assume that intention and desires at the ego level have an affect on the soul of a person.
Psychologists are now using the term karma without the metaphysical trappings. Here it is an expression of human emotionality, whereby one’s volition is the primary instigator of karma. Any conscious expression or thought that arises from cognitively unresolved emotions results in karma. Practically, this effect may manifest as physical, mental, or emotional learned behavior that has been dysfunctional and which a person may continue to relive. In this model, any practice that enhances emotional awareness, such as meditation, counseling, or other chosen therapies, can serve to release a person from his emotional karma. This psychological approach is appropriately grounded in brain research studies that show changes in the chemistry and functioning of the brain as a result of such practices as well as long term psychological improvement.
The transpersonal theorist Ken Wilbur described karma as the influence of yesterday’s feelings on today’s feelings, a kind of habit. He suggests that our lives are not determined by our past feelings. We can transcend the past with our own creativity. Each moment has a spark of novelty, the possibility of something that hasn’t been before, and a chance for transcendence, the ending of the trance of this life. This idea resonates with the experiences of realized beings who’ve tasted Satori, or enlightenment, and, on coming back into day-to-day experience, have described how this physical world is the dream. To wake from the dream one only has to cease being attached to it. It’s the emotional attachment which generates the karma that keeps us asleep.
Wilbur also describes a kind of collective and even global karma that can act to keep the consciousness of large groups of people in a kind of rut or groove. As an analogy, he described the deep valley of the Grand Canyon. It is far easier to go with the flow down the river than to try to travel any other direction. On a collective level, our understanding and perception of the world is also shaped by similar deep grooves and habits. The way scientists and the public view an atom is channeled by all the collective beliefs that have gone before this time in history. On a more personal level, the way we view our hometown, our cultural heritage, even our family of origin, may be a groove that we’ve inherited from a collective group of people. He also suggests that most collectively inherited karmic views are not universal but rather confined to one small group, subculture or culture.
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung had a dream late in his life which helped him shift out of a groove, opening his mind to the concept of the waking dream and reincarnation. He wrote, “… I came to a small wayside chapel. The door was ajar, and I went in. To my surprise, there was no image of the Virgin on the altar, and no crucifix either, but only a wonderful flower arrangement. But then I saw that on the floor sat a Yogi—in lotus posture, in deep meditation. When I looked at him more closely, I realized that he had my face. I started in profound fright and awoke with the thought: ‘Aha, so he is the one who is meditating me. He has a dream, and I am it.’ I knew that when he awakened I would no longer be.”
Through much of his life, Jung had considered his dreams to be a valuable, clear source of information from his higher self, through his unconscious. He said “Our unconscious existence is the real one, and our conscious world a kind of illusion, an apparent reality constructed for a specific purpose, like a dream which seems a reality as long as we are in it.”
It was often through the unconscious that Jung experienced direct contact with the archetypes that guided his life. Starting as early as the 1930’s, Jung developed his idea of archetypes after reading about karma in the Yoga Sutras. These archetypes, Jung proposed, are a kind of universal psychic form that inform people’s lives in meaningful ways at the unconscious level. He described archetypes as eternally inherited forms and ideas which have at first no particular content. As a person lives, he inhabits these forms with his own experiences. An individual may also carry some forms with particular content that is inherited from the collective karma of one’s ancestors. For example, I have personally felt an attraction to the spirit world and the spirit of the land and wonder how much of my attraction is an archetypical karma from my Irish heritage.
Jung initially proposed that these archetypes were an expression of the karma of the individual. Karma might be a kind of psychic heredity of particular characteristics, like eye and hair color are on a physical level. On the psychic level these are universal qualities, the archetypes. He proposed that the bulk of our life is shaped by qualities that are unconscious and not even specific to our personality. He even suggested that complexes could “start a century or more before a man is born.”
It was through this dream and other dreams that Jung started to welcome the metaphysical idea of reincarnation and the idea that one could inherit personal karma from previous lives. He felt that his personal karma had to do with a pursuit of knowledge, specifically around the development of the divine triad and its confrontation with the feminine principle. In his own inquiry, he wondered if his karma was from his own past lives or if it was from the heritage of his ancestors. He wrote, “I could well imagine that I might have lived in former centuries and there encountered questions I was not yet able to answer. I had to be born again because I had not fulfilled the task given to me. When I die, my deeds will follow along with me—that is how I imagine it. I will bring with me what I have done.”
Bert Hellinger is another modern psychiatrist who built on this idea of family karma with his experiential therapeutic process of Family Constellations. In a constellation, a participant’s family members and ancestors are placed in a room, with workshop participants standing in. As people embody these roles, they seem to be able to access unconscious and archetypal energies that the person’s family members are carrying. Making these energies conscious and physically shifting the positions of these actors is thought to shift their relationships and release karma that is carried down through the participant’s family. Entangled karmic relationships in a family system may manifest in a person as a psychological condition, a physical illness like cancer, or other negative habits and addictions. The acting out of a constellation uses a kind of shamanic container which allows individuals, who might not even know which person they are representing, to bring into consciousness these damaging karmic forces and release them.
Whether interpreting karma spiritually or psychologically, we live with gifts of our past, which will influence our future. Jung suggested that what is needed is a shift of the karmic center of gravity from the conscious towards the unconscious, from the ego to Self, that which is more aligned with the Soul. The problem with popular views of karma is that they focus on the ego level of desire and fulfillment. Some of the older, Eastern traditions can bring us valuable perspectives about karma and help us focus on the deeper unconscious part of ourselves which is expressing itself through our embodiment in this life. To touch that deeper part you might ask, “What is the path along which my soul is traveling in this life? How can I pay attention to it and follow it? Am I following the emotional passions I have been gifted by my family, tribe or culture, caught up in these collective trances? If I am caught up, how can I free myself?”
Patrick Marsolek is a Clinical Hypnotherapist and the director of Inner Workings Resources. He is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See www.InnerWorkingsResources.com for more information.