The Nature of Karma

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by DCH Park

Karma is a widely recognized word these days, though it’s not well understood. Most popular notions of karma have to do with cycles of debt, obligation, and sin. If somehow in life I have done something to hurt you or that is morally or ethically repugnant, I incur a karmic debt that my soul carries until it is repaid.

I may not repay this debt immediately, but I must eventually, even if I don’t do so until another lifetime. Thus, in another life I may find myself on the receiving end of exactly the same mistreatment that I inflicted. In extreme cases I may find myself reincarnated at a low station in life or even as a lower order of animal as a form of cosmic restitution. This is what I learned as a child about karma in school. It also reflects most American’s basic understanding of karma.

I find it interesting how similar this view of karma is to ideas of divine justice and eternal punishment on one hand and Santa Claus checking his list on the other. All of them depend on some supremely powerful agency who can’t be fooled and keeps track of all of the secret sins that we commit. Consider how well suited such a notion is to keeping people in line. Since the agency is able to see and know everything about us, we have to meticulously police ourselves in order to be found worthy.

Karma has the added “benefit” of a built-in explanation for suffering and an argument for embracing your lot in life no matter what it may be. – If I am suffering it must be due to a karmic debt that I must repay (or that I’m paying forward). Any action that I take to change my condition carries the risk of upsetting this balance and throwing me deeper into karmic debt. If I am a servant or slave, I must have a large karmic debt. I’d better not try to revolt or change the social order. In fact, I would be wise to strive to be the best servant or slave that I can possibly be. It’s best to not even try to mess with Santa’s list, just be good!

On the other hand, if I am rich and powerful, it must be due to having lived very generously and properly in one or more other lives. I must therefore be a virtuous soul and I am justified in enjoying my wealth. Furthermore, my decisions must be inherently just since I am an obviously relatively enlightened soul.

However, in Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda describes the first meeting and initiation of a young man who would become a great yogic master with Babaji, an immortal Christ-like figure who brought yoga back to humanity after it had been lost. Babji tells the young man to return to the cave where they first met in two days. When he returns, he finds a great palace with a sumptuous banquet set up instead of the cave in the rocks.

Amazed, he asks Babaji why the palace had appeared. Babaji explains that they were close friends in the young initiate’s former life and that he had expressed a strong and sincere desire during that life to be in such a place. Babaji had chosen to manifest the palace for his friend upon the occasion of his initiation as a gift, in order to discharge the karmic debt that he had created with his wish.

The true nature of karma, then, is in the ties that we form to bind us to the creations we choose. As long as these creations are chosen from the perspective of freedom and joy – in other words from the heart of our power – they are a bond that we make with ourselves and the universe. We are bound to them until we release them, for example, by experiencing them and fully discharging them.

As long as we ignore or resist them, our creations will continue to present, even if they are no longer what we would choose. They lock us into patterns that repeat or even grow over time. Letting go of resistance and opening to these experiences can be the beginning of freeing ourselves from the karmic bond.

Beyond experiencing the chosen creation, deep healing comes from a return to the joy and power in which the creation was chosen in the first place. From this perspective, it is easy to discharge the creation or relinquish it even without fully experiencing it, since we are now on the same level of creation or higher.

Knowing this, we can even discharge karmic bonds without having to experience the creation fully. Awareness of the nature of karma and of what is happening in the body and the world can be enough to illuminate the bond and the choice that motivated it. Given this recognition, it is possible to return to that point of creation and un-make the choice, thereby freeing the energy devoted to the creation and opening the way for deeper healing.

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“The Nature of Karma” by DCH Park is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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