What is Karma?
A simple guide to understanding Karma
It seems that the word karma has become part of our vocabulary but very little is actually understood about it, beyond the fuzzy feeling it gives when a ‘bad’ person gets away with something, and you just know that their karma will get them in the end.
So, what actually is karma? The word itself means action, and most people can relate to the idea of positive or negative outcomes coming as the result of positive or negative previous actions.
How does this actually work? Is there an external force who is totting up your good actions against bad actions and then reigning down nice or horrible things? One job promotion to you, two parking tickets for you.
Within the Indian philosophy karma is considered to be one of the fundamental principles which drives the spiritual quest, it is the karma which keeps us on the wheel of reincarnation and its invisible results that shape our destiny.
There are many different schools within India’s rich philosophical history, but most of them agree that we are caught in a cycle, perpetuated by karma, which causes us unhappiness, that we need to be released from.
You do not have to believe in reincarnation, just the idea that an action today can affect your future wellbeing.The underlying idea is that we are what we are because of what we do, and how we do it.
“In our actions, we express who or what we are (or presume ourselves to be). In other words, we externalize our inner being, so that our actions are a reflection of ourselves. But they are not only reflections. There is a ‘feedback loop’ between our actions and our being. Every action acts upon our self and contributes to the entire structure of the person we tend to be.”
– Georg Feuerstein
Although the physical action is important, it is the intention behind the action which is the key to understanding what is meant by karma.
This is one of the key teachings of the Bhagavad Gita in its doctrine of karma yoga. Karma is how an action changes you, inside and out. Some of the effects are obvious, the external impact of an action. However, it is the internal effects that systems like yoga are really interested in.
All actions leave a footprint, an echo, through the being which will impact that person going forward.
If we decided to punch someone, we would of course experience the adrenalin and the sore hand as a result (and perhaps a black eye of our own if they decided to retaliate!). But, we would also be left with the echo of the mind-set that we would have had to adopt to have taken the action in the first place. We would have had to become the ‘puncher’ deep down first.
This intention has an effect on our inner being turning you into the kind of person who punches, with all the effects of that, including negative emotions of hate, fear etc.
We can connect here how a ‘bad’ action, produces suffering as it creates the negative impact on our being through difficult mind patterns, loss of peace, and impetus to repeat the action, or similar actions, and therefore their results.
Equally so of positive actions.
It is interesting to note, that we want to release ourselves from all actions, good and bad. Attachment to positive feelings as a result of external events will also eventually lead to trouble when that thing changes and we have created an attachment to it. Our challenge is to release ourselves from any outcome of action.
The peace comes with the equanimity.
There is a Suffi saying:
You know that you are progressing when adversity comes and happiness arises to meet it.
The BG says that you have the right to act but not to the fruits of that action.
You cannot control what happens after you act, and in attempting to, you can make life very miserable.
Stress and anxiety, two very big issues in todays society, are often related to trying to make a situation be exactly how you want it to be, and the fear it may turn out differently. Next time you are feeling off your happiness radar, check in to see if you are attempting to make something be how you think it should be, or should have been.
So, how does Karma perpetuate itself? Through your mind, your desires, your likes and dislikes, your habits, beliefs, etc.
Have you ever wondered why one person wants to cleanse and spend time balancing on their head by themselves, while another thinks they are bonkers? Yoga say it is their karma!
The Bhagavad Gita teaches that the best way to release ourselves from karma is to practice karma yoga. Here you work directly with your state of mind, your intention, rather than the action itself.
By following a moral path, attempting to act for the wellbeing of family and society, performing actions without thought of personal gain or attachment to outcome, we may find a release from the constant throng of desires and impulses which cause disturbances in the mind.
Easy for you to say Krishna!
Patanjali also gives some advice. Through the practice of the 8 limbs of yoga, culminating in meditation and control of the movements of the mind, we also experience release.
The freedom of the yogis is a release from our karma.
Does this mean that we never act again? Absolutely not! What it means, is that we are released from our karmic impulses, our inner echoes of previous action. The freedom from the desires we have to act in a certain way, to like or dislike things, be attached to things, judge as good or bad and from all the distress and suffering that that brings.
Can you imagine what life would be like without the internal commentator telling you how awful your boss is, or how much you need to loose weight, or how much you need those new boots/curtains?
To just experience your life directly not judging as good or bad, just openness, that is real freedom.