In our previous article, we began our exploration of one of the most important and also most frequently misunderstood concepts in Yoga, karma. Today we’ll continue our discussion of how it works, as well as why a better understanding of karma is so important for our spiritual growth.
Correcting the Myth: Karma is Not Punishment or Reward, But Growth
As discussed in our previous article, karma is not something external to which we are “subjected,” but rather something that exists inside of us and that we generate. Once we understand this, we immediately correct another one of the most common misunderstandings about karma, which is that it is somehow a form of punishment or reward.
Many presume that, because the idea of karma includes the belief that unethical behavior leads to pain, it must involve a concept of punishment – whether on the behalf of an external divinity or via the universe as a whole. However, again, both the Yogic and the Buddhist understanding profoundly disagree. Again, in the view of both traditions, the pain we experience does not come from an external source but from our mistaken thoughts themselves. In this sense, rather than externally punitive, karma can be seen as internally illuminative. In other words, karma is not punishment, but rather a crucial part of how we learn and grow – ethically, morally, and spiritually.
To give an example, we all know what it is like to misconstrue something we’ve overheard – a comment from a coworker or acquaintance about us that seems unkind. In turn, we know what it’s like to get angry or fearful or depressed, or perhaps a mixture of all three. Whatever our nature, we are likely to experience some form of pain as the result of our error. This pain is itself real, but it doesn’t come from something external, rather our own thoughts and assumptions.
Seen this way, that pain is not punishment delivered by an external agent but an internal phenomenon – one that can awaken us to the power of our thoughts. When we see that we are creating our own pain, not only through action but through belief and assumption, we receive powerful motivation to look at our behavior – both external and internal – in all areas of our lives. We not only start to look at our conduct, but also at the mental constructs behind it, dramatically speeding our emotional and spiritual growth.
In this sense, gaining a better understanding of karma helps us to see that, not only is the source of suffering inside of us, but also the power to transcend and transform that suffering. When we realize that our pain comes from our (mistaken) thoughts, we realize that we have the power to end our suffering simply by correcting our view. We don’t need to change our world, simply our thoughts. This is in fact the very meaning of the Four Noble Truths expressed by the Buddha. And not only do we have the power to transform our own pain, but, through our example, we have the power to help those around us do the exactly the same.
Correcting the Myth: Karma Does Not Require Belief in Reincarnation
You may have noticed that we’ve yet to address another major topic that tends to arise when discussing karma, and that is reincarnation. The reason for this omission is that karma can in fact be fully comprehended even if we do not believe in the transmigration of souls. As the above examples should make clear, our intentions and choices have sufficient impact on our current life, which means that, even if we don’t believe in reincarnation, the concept of karma is still valid and powerful.
That much said, it’s worth clarifying the fact that karma does not always manifest immediately – that is, we do not always directly experience the pain or challenge from our thoughts and deeds. Sometimes the impact is sudden, making it easier to observe our errors, but sometimes karma takes a while – especially in areas where we are so used to certain errors of thought and their consequences that we have become numb to the pain that we in fact are generating.
This delay means that it is often easy to overlook our mistakes – when there are many intervening factors between a choice and its consequences, it can be easy to attribute the problem to external factors rather than taking responsibility for our own choices. Obviously, if we have difficulty learning the lesson from our mistakes, the problem is likely to persist. In this sense, if we do believe in reincarnation, it’s natural that unresolved issues from this life might carry into the next. But even if we don’t, the basic idea still holds considerable weight.
That much said, if we do believe in metempsychosis, we can clarify another major misunderstanding: again, carrying karma from life to life does not in any way equate with punishment. For example, we are not born into painful lives because we were “bad” and deserve punishment, rather we are born into circumstances that naturally serve to teach us the lessons we’ve yet to learn. Thus, we may indeed have a hard life because we did not appreciate the blessings of an earlier existence, but it might also be because we did so well in a previous life that we are ready for the next level of challenge and growth in this one.
The same of course can be said about any challenge or blessing we may encounter – in the Yogic and Buddhist view, these are not punishments or rewards but rather opportunities to learn and grow. Importantly, if we do not evolve mentally and emotionally, then we will experience further suffering regardless of our circumstances – in other words, even if we have a life filled with comfort and ease, if we are unappreciative of our blessings, avaricious for more, consumed with fear of loss, and competitive with those around us, we will suffer. This is the true nature of karma – it resides in our thoughts and feelings about our circumstances, not the circumstances themselves.
Correcting the Myth: Rising Above Karma Doesn’t Place Us Beyond Responsibility
Once we understand the root of karma, it is easy to understand the Yogic and Buddhist view of how we can rise above it. Because the foundation of karma lies in our thoughts and emotions, when we bring those into harmony, we can transcend the pattern of negative cause and negative effect that constitutes what we refer to as bad karma. By shifting our thoughts toward compassion and connection, we can shift our unhealthy intentions and in turn the negative consequences they bring, essentially “stepping outside of” karma.
When we understand this, we become aware that the “inevitability” of negative karma resides in ignorance – as long as we stay unaware of the fact that we are creating our own pain, we will continue to generate it. Once we awaken to this, we begin to step out of the pattern. As a result, in the Yogic and Buddhist view, bad karma is not something that we are burdened with and must “use up” before we can move on – in fact, we can step outside of and reverse karma immediately, if we can stay mindful, focused, and dedicated.
Importantly, once again, this should not be misunderstood as permission for inaction or negligence, for the simple reason that, if we are interdependent, we are all responsible for each other’s well-being. Again, if we were to avoid action – whether from laziness, selfishness, or lack of awareness – we would experience pain as a result of our (negative and inaccurate) thoughts. When we reach a level of understanding that allows us to rise above karma, we continue to act ethically precisely because we realize that ethical action is the natural result of truly comprehending life. In this way, transcending karma does not preclude action but rather empowers and ennobles it.
Putting it All Together
Combining the points we’ve covered so far, you can see that karma is incredibly profound while also being quite simple. Although we have covered many important nuances, if we were to summarize, it might look something like this:
Karma is that natural process through which false thoughts – about ourselves, the people around us, and life as a whole – naturally lead to suffering, as well as the process through which accurate thoughts naturally lead to happiness and joy. The impact of karma can be immediate or delayed, but its source always resides in us, and thus it can always be transformed. When we fall into error, such as anger or greed, we create pain for ourselves, and when we learn from and in turn correct that error, we fulfill the true function of karma, which is to guide us to our natural state of understanding, peace, and joy.