We've all listened to it. The song. Justing Timberlake's song. "What goes around, goes around, goes around, comes all the way back around..." It's catchy. It's sexy. It's a cool tune! But, how much do we believe in this? We all know of at least a couple people –not to mention more than a handful of politicians– who, despite being awful humans and deserving bad things to happen to them right this minute, have a blessed existence, a great deal of success, and a life of thriving until the time of their death. So, how true is this kinda-sexy, kinda-catchy karma thing really? What goes around... does it really come back around?
We thought that a few of you might have thought about this whole karma idea once or twice before, coming up with pretty much the same type of conclusion: karma is a nice ideal, but it ain't real! And to be fair, the way the concept is normally used in everyday life makes it seem little more than a sexy idiom –at best a simplistic and naive one, and at worst, a rather deterministic one. But is this really what the scriptures and spiritual teachings tell us about how karma actually works?
A 'cause and effect,' 'input and output' kind of theory
Traditional yogic texts –such as the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali– tell us that the so-called 'law of karma' is full-on legit. You do something good, awesome. You do something bad, you'll pay for it. That's pretty much your every-layman's understanding of karma and its eternally spinning 'cause and effect' wheel. Up to here, no doubts; all clear. Yet, the law of karma exposed by Patanjali is much more nuanced than that, also telling us that, while input and output are indeed connected to the quality of our experience –and so, we can pretty much expect to reap as we sow– time and the collective component are also key aspects to consider when thinking of it. Now, that's already something new.
According to the tradition –and we're here speaking of a yogic tradition primarily based on the teachings of the Vedas– our lives are the product of our 'actions,' which is actually one of the translations for the Sanskrit term karma. A person's life and whatever happens to her, then, is the sum of the forces and tendencies she sets in motion through the choices she makes and the actions she chooses to invest in. If you choose rightly –where rightly here must be read as synonymous for 'in an ethically sound way'– the likelihood of good things happening to you becomes much greater than when you fail to do so. And the same can be expected of any bad action or choice. Frankly speaking, it doesn't take much for one to realize the likelihood of bad things deriving from bad decisions... Just ask any four-year-old who dares to put his hand on the flame of a match for the first time. Do you think he'll try and do that again?
At a very basic level, then, the law of karma is essentially a law of social responsibility where not only are we supposed to take on full responsibility for the consequences of our actions at an individual level, but –and this is one of the important bits– the nature of our actions also has the ability to impact and affect the quality of the experiences of other individuals and creatures sharing the world with us at any one point. And mind you, we say 'any one point' very consciously here –more on this below. Thus, when we speak of the law of karma, we're actually speaking of a certain law of 'karmic responsibility,' if you want: the type of ethical responsibility we all have for the lives we lead, the places we live in, the people we care for and, first and foremost, ourselves. We must always be our own example first.
A question of time, literally
For yogis, as well as for different scientific disciplines today, then, the universe and the globe are one single whole; a playground where the interactions between humans, nature, and other creatures are dramatically observable the more time moves on. And so, as time progresses, we become better able to assess and distinguish particular tendencies and dynamics for things as a whole. Whether you believe in the so-called GAIA hypothesis or not, the reality of interdependency is pretty much an uncontested principle at this point. You do something in one place today and it has the ability to affect people far removed both in time and space.
Hence, since there is truly no action without reaction, no cause without effect, and since we are all somehow, at some level, connected to one another, the only component left to figure out when it comes to the interdependency of our actions, and thus to our so-called karma, is 'when?' When will consequences begin to show their face? This is when the law of karma gets a bit 'diffuse' for the modern-day mind; the actual reason why many of us have a hard time really thinking of karma as more than just a mere catchphrase. Because, in the type of matter-of-fact linear understanding of time we normally espouse, we don't always get to see the effects of our actions either on us or somebody else. We just don't.
Furthermore, since our interpretation of life is rather 'conventional' –as in: something neatly bound by the experience of '1 birth = 1 death'– the consequences of our actions may sometimes fail to leave a real conscious footprint on our awareness before the time of our death. We are not necessarily attuned to them beyond this threshold, nor are we (or at least that's what we think!) alive by the time karma comes around 'to be a real bitch.'
This is where being a yogi is an added value! Because, when you are a yogi –or else, when you think like one– life becomes a very different thing. Linear time constraints stop being relevant. For any real yogi the essence of practice, the essence of life itself, is the understanding of it all as something exceeding the individual experience, the individual lifespan, and thus, also, individual death. And so, when yogis speak of the 'wheel of karma' and of the eternal cycle of (re)birth and (re)death, they do so much like the goddess spirituality feminists of the 1970s resorted to the term of the spiral: as something perpetually spinning, over and over, neverendingly, but where beginning and end may be slightly different, not necessarily like in a circle where beginning and end happen to come back to the very same place. The spiral is a circle as it moves through the field of time. Ok. So... what does this mean? This means that, for yogis, and thus for those who came up with the notion of karma to begin with, whoever you start life as –you as you know yourself right now– may not necessarily be the same person you end up being by the time you get to the end of it –as in, by the time you achieve 'moksha' or liberation. And so, your actions, the things you choose to do and invest time into right now, in this lifetime, may not always directly affect your present experience (and thus embodiment) of life in this particular lifespan, but they will surely do so sooner or later –well, clearly later! And THAT is the truth of karma in a nutshell.
Karma can really always be a cool type of bitch
The law of karma, then, has the potential to improve our lives exponentially; because karma doesn't always have to be a bad thing. If you choose wisely, make the right type of decisions, and work to make your life better, and the world a better place, you can always positively inflect karma's present (and future) spinning. There is always a measure of hope! We do create our 'destiny' after all, if that's a word your comfortable using, and what we do with our lives, however insignificant we may think we are, always make a difference. So, the real trick here is to ask ourselves a few basic questions of the type of:
- Why am I doing what I'm doing and do I expect to achieve with it?
- Is whatever I'm doing serving me and others and contributing in some measure to making the world a better place?
- What is the state of my life at this point and who am I blaming for whatever its shortcomings?
- And, if necessary, how can I best help myself (and thus, help others), and positively inflect the natural flow of things?