At its simplest, karma means the law of cause and effect, and it is wise to be mindful that what we do always has effects. As with everything in Buddhism, there are layers upon layers of meaning for karma, all the way up to the metaphysical, and implications for death and rebirth. But staying for the moment at the level of the most obvious, it is not hard to understand that if you bring anger, strife and violence of attitude or action into the world, or if you bring self-absorbed drama, you will be surrounded by strife and violence, or others’ rejection of your drama and this can never be a peaceful, friendly or secure way to live. The quality of your life will be one of strife and violence, or drama and rejection, full of stress and unhappiness.
As important as this is to realize, I would like to take the discussion of karma to a subtler level, the level of the evolution of consciousness. The cause and effect to be considered here is with the relationship between mind and behavior, and with mind-set affecting our experience and shaping the future. Not so difficult to understand. As we construct the world in our minds, so we act in the world, and as we act in the world, so we reinforce the ideas we have about the world. This can be a way of understanding what Buddhism refers to as “The Wheel of Karma.”
Returning to the violent or angry person, as they construct a violent, angry world in their minds, they look for more reasons to be angry, and they will find them. Their view of the world reinforced, they will behave accordingly, and in that behavior and people’s responses, they have more verification that the world is a violent, angry place, and so their anger and violence is justified, even required. So too, the self-absorbed person will live in an isolated world of their own creation, requiring, in their mind, more reason for self-pity and drama. This holds equally true for an anxious, fearful mind, that finds reason for fear in the world, and the depressed mind that finds reasons for despair and unhappiness.
Of course people will find circumstances in the world to justify their cognitive/emotional predisposition – the world contains everything, and if you are looking for only certain conditions, you will most certainly find them. Each of these states of mind is a cause that creates the effect of finding (and even creating) justifying circumstances in the world that then reinforces the attitude in the mind.
On a societal/cultural level, the very definition of culture is the holding of unquestioned concepts about the nature of persons in relationship to themselves, to each other, to other cultures, to Nature, even to the nature and limits of consciousness. These unquestioned sets of beliefs then lead to behaviors and perceptions that lead to more of the same beliefs, behaviors and perceptions. And so the wheel turns, but it is only spinning, stuck in the mud of our limited set of thoughts, perceptions and reactive behaviors.
The importance of meditation in the resolution of this conundrum cannot be overemphasized, and it can be very helpful to view meditation, first of all, as the act of stopping your usual mental wheel. As we are carried along, caught in the momentum of the turning wheel of karma, constructing a world in our minds as has been conditioned into us by life training and circumstances, we keep recreating in the circumstances of life the reasons to continue creating our mental world in the same limited patterns. The momentum of this circular feedback keeps our consciousness stuck at a very primitive level. So, first of all, we must learn to stop the spinning.
By sitting, we are stopping. Then, in our posture, we are settling into a dedication to balance, stillness, stability, dignity, neutrality and curiosity in these moments. By shifting awareness from being caught in our spinning mind into awareness of our breathing and subsequently looking at the arising and passing of streams of thought in the mind, we create some calmness, subtlety and spaciousness to our awareness. Then, as we notice the arising of our thoughts, as we feel the pull of the thoughts, but we stay in the simple noticing and are not caught and carried away by the thoughts, we create some space and perspective on the mental activity. We realize that this thought is inside me, but we have been living as if we were inside the thought. This is a powerfully liberating insight.
Then, we have the spaciousness to notice the qualities of the thought and, almost literally, its density. Is it angry? Is it fearful? Is it unhappy? We can notice that the more fear-based the thought, the denser it will be, the stronger its pull on us will be. Ego-driven thoughts of personal diminishment or compensatory inflation will be very dense and, amazingly, an experienced meditator can literally feel their density. We can experience the pull of the thought to carry us into its very small and limited perspective and options for behavior. Then, instead of our usual habit of being carried along by the energy of the thought, we return to the spacious awareness of our breathing and the balanced stillness of our sitting, and we can experience the moment opening back up and our tension dissolving, our options for response expanding. We have stopped the wheel.
We discover that we are not caught pursuing the impulses of our thoughts, but rather are calmly, subtly and spaciously present, perceiving situations as they arise with a sense of relaxed connectedness. We realize that we are capable of increasingly calm, subtle and truly intelligent creative responses to our life situations and to the corresponding thoughts that arise. With this practice, we begin to evolve, that is to expand, our consciousness of the possibilities for who we are and what life is about. We begin to realize that the true nature of our mind and who we are is in the spacious awareness in which the thoughts, perceptions and impulses to behavior arise, and that awareness is free of all limitation – like the sun, it shines on everything without bias.
From our meditation experience, we can begin to be more mindful in the world, replicating the inner experience of meditation in our outer actions and responses. We begin to resolve, to evolve, our Karma, moving from limited, fearful, reactive separateness to a more spacious, inclusive connection with life as it is with far more creativity and compassion.
“To resolve Karma, practice forgiveness, gratitude and personal responsibility.”
– Buddhist saying
We are able to bring the Buddhist teaching about Karma to life, to forgive others and ourselves for past harms, to increasingly experience gratitude for life’s beauty and lessons, and begin to be increasingly responsible (that is, non-harming) in our personal conduct. This grows us spiritually and psychologically. The wheel now turns steadily and surely – advancing us towards a healthier and more fulfilling life.
Importantly, as individuals take this responsibility for their lives, we must also wake up and look at the various collective levels of our human society and realize great Karmic debts have been accumulated in relationship to other human communities, and to Nature, that is, to other species and the planet that is our home and source. We can dedicate ourselves to resolving this Karma through the simple formula Buddhism offers us: practicing expanded present moment consciousness and applying forgiveness, gratitude and personal responsibility – then – and only then – will humanity, having gained in true self-knowledge, be able to individually and collectively evolve into a long, healthy and happy future, the wheel of Karma now moving us toward an enlightened destiny.