“If a theory inspires and supports your practice, it is a good theory. If it doesn’t, it is not.”Paul Grilley
For more than two decades I have been studying and teaching yoga, deepening my philosophy studies progressively as I go. At the center of these teachings is the concept of karma, an incredibly elegant and poignant way to understand suffering, gain, loss, praise, blame, success, failure, all the sometimes maddening ups and downs of our lives.
At its core, karma is incredibly simple: it is the law of cause and effect. Every action – every one of them – will generate a reaction. It is very much like Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion, which states that a force applied in one direction will generate a proportional force in the opposite direction. Which could be translated as: if you punch a wall, you may damage the wall but the same force will be felt in your hand too.
I think of it as planting a tree: if you sow orange tree seeds, you will never, ever get an apple tree. In terms of our behavior, it means that kindness will eventually bring kindness your way, just as anger will do the same.
One argument I hear a lot is that in real life, we don’t always see this happening. We don’t always see the good receiving happy endings and the bad being punished. Bad things happen to good people and bad people become rich and powerful.
I completely understand this argument and am myself a huge sucker for happy endings. The problem with this argument is that, in real life, according to yoga, Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies, there is not really an end. You win a battle – get a promotion, the girl or guy, the recognition, whatever it is you desired – and after celebrating and enjoying your win to the fullest, things continue to happen. Other challenges arise, other desires. According to these traditions, even after death our path continues to unfold; we return, and the results of our actions continue to influence us one way or another until all karma is dissolved… which can take a long, long, long time.
Another problem with this argument is that it measures the results of our actions mainly in material terms. If I get the promotion, the girl, the money, I win. If I don’t, I lose. This framing of karma does not observe the means by which we achieved our goal, the kind of trace they left around us, nor the feelings and experiences they generated in our hearts, minds and bodies. And that is a huge mistake because those are the things that last, that stay with us whether we win or lose.
For example, if you spend a huge amount of your time feeling anxious, if you resent and judge others constantly, if you feel angry about the news and personal life events all the time – even when you feel certain you are justified – these feelings are already creating an experience of suffering inside of you. You are already experiencing the consequences of your actions before they even become materialized. You already lost.
Maybe you got what you wanted materially speaking, but whatever it is that you won will not last forever. But that environment inside of you, including the hatred and anger and selfishness will continue in your heart, poisoning your life until you decide to do something about that. And you can. And it works. It’s not easy though because we need to reprogram thinking patterns that have been with us for a long time.
Neuroscientists tell us that we were being programmed thoroughly until the age of 7. Yogis talk about problematic programming that has been cultivated and reaffirmed for lifetimes.
On the other hand, if you spend a lot of your time cultivating joy and gratitude in simple things such as being kind to others as you can see they are also struggling, regularly spending time quietly and calmly, feeling some degree of peace, these feelings will stay with you even when your material desires fail to be fulfilled. You have won anyway. And over time, this attitude becomes a new programming, one that can make a huge difference in this life and all lives to come. Winning and losing, receiving praise and blame, failing and succeeding, all affect you less and less. You will still feel them, and have bad days, and get sad and angry sometimes, but that inner environment will support you and gently bring you back to what really matters.
Possible, Not Easy
I cannot offer a complete scope of this simple yet incredibly intricate concept in a few lines. We have personal karma, family karma, national karma, and more. Simple actions can get very complicated instantly.
Still, the basics remain pretty clear: our actions will always, always reap consequences, sooner or later. And the stuff that happens to us is almost always the result of those consequences. Blaming others will bring bitterness and powerlessness. Embracing challenging events as they come and working through them will bring growth and empowerment.
Another fundamental tenet of karma is that you can affect this process every day, any time. Again, not easy. But why does everything have to be easy? Easy is not synonymous with good. It just takes less effort. But bringing effort to our paths can be extremely beneficial and satisfying too.
And Then It Comes Knocking
That is the theory. This has been a lived experience for me for many years already. But of course, some things are easier to work through than others: an irritating co-worker is not the same as a home going up in flames; losing some money is not the same as losing a parent. And a knee injury is not the same as a cancer diagnosis.
It happened to me a few months ago. After 55 years of feeling great and having little more than mild flus and colds, I started feeling something was strange and it was. A cancer diagnosis… Huh?? How? How??? I was first struck with a strong desire to apologize to everybody: this was my fault; I had done something wrong and was being punished for it. I had eaten a vegetarian, organic diet for decades. I practiced yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, dance, strengthening exercises, and deep self-care for as long as I can remember. I have lived a life full of love and joy. I am happily married for 28 years, have loving parents, family, and deeply supportive and long-term friendships, a fulfilling career in theater and yoga, am highly educated and privileged in every way. And yet I must have done something bad. And karma was punishing me.
I found the same beliefs in colleagues, students, therapists. I was sinking in self-recrimination and self-loathing until I had an illuminating conversation with my teachers.
Not A Punishment
They showed me how absolutely flawed my thought pattern was. There are so many people in the world eating way worse than me, thinking hateful thoughts, being selfish and unhappy, and they don’t get cancer. Children, who hardly had time to do anything wrong in this life, do get it. Avatars, saints and masters have all manifested this and other diseases. How simplistic it is to look at karma as punishment or reward. It is so much broader, so much richer than that.
They showed me that yes, this diagnosis is probably the results of karma, but karma accumulated over lifetimes; it could be something I absorbed so others would not have to; it could be related to our times; it could be related to innumerable things. And it could be something necessary, beneficial even.
Since that conversation things started slowly shifting. It took still much work and tears but slowly I started to let go of what I wanted – for this not to happen – and started focusing on what did happen. Whatever the reason I got cancer, it is here. And I can shrivel up in fear and resentment and shame. Or I can go into that inner environment I have been cultivating for so long and feel, look, and listen. Decades of practice made this choice for me, and I have found insights I am convinced would not have come otherwise. I have seen thinking patterns inside of me that are – were, I hope – so deeply buried I could see them but not affect them. I have found love and joy of a quality I had not known before, and light and freedom and understanding. And yes, I found myself feeling grateful for the cancer. It brought me blessings. It is not a punishment; it is an opportunity. I embraced it and am doing the best I can, which in itself is already a victory.
How long I have to live is actually irrelevant. Karma will decide that, I have very little say on it, as do we all. But while I am here it is my responsibility to choose what I will invest in, and how I will love, and act, and serve. The reward is immediate and invaluable.