Is Karma a Bad Thing?
The word Karma has become common in many cultures, but many randomly use it in a vengeance driven way,“he or she got his or her share!”, or in a self defeated way, “it’s my karma!”. Karma is a Sanskrit word that can refer to work, act, deed, action, or even ritual. For the present need of a definition, we could put it as the moral dynamic behind one’s intentions, volitions (will, decision), thoughts, and behaviour.
One traditional way to classify the types of moral dynamics that shape our actions is:
- Sattvika-karman: when an action is performed without attachment or obsession for the results (the fruits) of it. When it is not the product of an egotistic drive. When it is coloured by “purity” and “benevolence”.
- Rajasa-karman: performed out of a drive to repeat a previous pleasurable experience or to avoid a painful experience. Its derived from a self-cantered mentality, with attachment to the possible results of it. It is coloured by “desire”, “anxiety”, and “passion”.
- Tamasa-karman: performed out of confusion and delusion, when one has no clarity or is unconcerned about the moral consequences of it. It is said to be coloured by “darkness” and “dullness”.
According to Buddhist and Yoga (Patanjali Sutras) philosophies, the cycle of karma is a difficult one to change (or escape when afflictive) because it happens like a closed loop. We have a thought or an impulse to act, this act generates an impression and a memory, this memory is stored in the mind and functions later as a substratum for the same or similar thought to emerge again. This repeated cycle creates what we might call “habit patterns” or “personality”, and it is so intrinsic to our mind that it is mostly invisible to us.
And the problems might not even be restricted to this life. Many ancient religions or traditions work with the idea of reincarnation, raising the possibility of patterns not only from this life, but inherited from countless others. From a secular perspective we could maybe analyse it as the genetic material we receive from our ancestors. There are many proven propensities to diseases due to genes, not to mention many other features that defines a lot of our interactions with the world, such as our voice, facial aspects, and body structures. Some of us might have eventually looked in the mirror and thought “oh Lord, I’m starting to look – and even act – like my parents!”.
But not everything is doomed to fate. Even though our present karma is already in motion, there is an element of free will that can shape things to come. But the starting point can be difficult: to be in the face of reality, to acknowledge our patterns and to be able to see the functioning of our minds from a neutral perspective.
These memories that trigger thoughts and actions can be mainly in four states: active, attenuated, dormant, and interrupted. Active is when that specific state of mind is happening e.g. when you are angry mostly angry thoughts will appear. Through practice, let’s say of meditation and study of moral philosophies, or maybe through life experience, we can attenuate specific tendencies, like reducing anger by nourishing compassion and calmness. A dormant habit is unnoticeable, creating the idea that it doesn’t exist anymore, but when the appropriate circumstances are there, it can resurface. We can think of it as the absence of anger or hatred when we are having good periods in life, but that does not mean we are never getting angry or worried again. The interrupted form is the absence of one pattern of thinking or feeling due to the immediate presence of something else, like the absence of hunger after eating food. The Yoga Sutras speaks of a fifth possibility, that of the burned or parched seed. When a seed is toasted for long enough it looses the capacity of germinating, similarly, when a habit is trimmed to this point it will not happen again even when the ground is ideal for it.
There is a term in Sanskrit called Swadhyaya, which means to be mindful, alert, and to know oneself. It signifies a process of self studying. We all have intrinsic individualities, shaped by all these karmas that have been done and are continually fructifying through our life interactions.
This discovery path can start with the most visible thing you own, that is the body. To know what causes pain and pleasure, what causes harm or uplift. The body is not as complicated as it looks. It needs some movement, it needs touch, it needs proper food, and it needs proper rest. To investigate these factors is to be more embodied and alert.
The next step is the mind. To be aware of our moods, thoughts, intentions. But not to stop here, but to investigate further, and try to connect the dots and find the causal forces, the consequences, and the patterns of behaviour.
Although we talk about a separated body and mind, the boundaries between both are very subtle. Happenings in the body will have effects in the mind and vice versa. Discovery of pain in the body, for example, will clearly show how that sensation can create specific moods or thoughts in the mind.
Back to our previous word, karma, if there is one great teaching it gives us, it is patience. Every karma has a momentum, a force that keeps it moving for a certain amount of time. We can visualise it like throwing a rock up: it is difficult to stop it in the middle of the descent, as it has gained speed. Some karmas are, in the words of the author Vyasa, like a wet cloth spread in the Sun to dry quickly, while others are a wet cloth rolled into a tight ball, which will demand more time.
According to these karmic philosophies, the best way for a good life, apart from the constant vigilance of Swadhyaya and the development of patience, is to produce the afore mentioned Sattvika-karmans, the product of non self-centred attitudes. These attitudes are said to generate Dharma (virtues and merit), Jñana (knowledge of how the mind works), Vairagya (detachment), and Aishvarya (possession of power and sovereignty). When the intents are freed from selfish desire and dullness, it is easier to feel comfortable with our choices and to take more moderate and rational decisions.A good, sattvikakarma, is not dissolved by a bad, tamasa or rajasa, one. All the memories of our actions coexist and are part of the stock in our minds. To produce a calm state through meditation, for example, is to develop a memory of a comfortable and freed mind space. This karma can further be the seed of many other similar occasions. But to invest in such fruits is like investing in an orchard: the tree that you plant now might only give you sweet fruits after many years. It seems very painstaking, but do we have another choice?