Read an Excerpt
What is Karma?
A Continuous Flow of Thought
We forget our freedom, but we never stop longing for it.
Do you ever wonder why you make the same mistakes over and over? Do you feel that you could be ore than you are now? Do you yearn to become your true Self?
This yearning means you have forgotten something that is waiting to be awakened, and it tells you that you are more than you think you are. You long to know and become your true Self. From your misunderstanding of that yearning, you may start looking for something or someone to grab onto, something to fill the emptiness within you. When that fails, as it usually does, you look for someone to blame and, in the end, you blame yourself, which leads to self-hatred or acting out. Then it all starts againpain, seeking, attachment, blame, self-doubtand you are right back where you started: trapped. Over and over again, you degrade yourself by being attached to a drama that has no reality.
This is karma: the thoughts, emotions and actions that have become a pattern within your being. That pattern is your trap. Karma is a continuous flow of thought with roots in the past, and it goes on for as long as we live and beyond. It flows from moment to moment and even from lifetime to lifetime. Just as each moment contains the birth of something as well as the death of something, karma can be birthedor brokenin any moment.
Karma is a word in general use today, yet few truly understand its real significance. A word originating in Sanskrit and used in Hinduism and Buddhism, karma has been translated to mean the universal law of cause and effect. Like gravity and magnetism, karma is just how the world works. Actions have consequences. Karma is reflected in common sayings: "As you sow, so shall you reap" and "What goes around comes around." Because it is a universal law, karma affects all of human life and is involved in every single thing we do or feel or think.
However, "bad" karma is not punishment or retribution, nor is "good" karma a system of rewards and prizes. Karma itself is neutral, a balancing out of the scales of universal law.
Every action may start a chain of effects that goes forward in time much farther than we can see. If you drink and drive, what is the effect of killing someone with your car? How does that person's absence change the lives of everyone around him? What results from your absence as you serve time in prison? The chain of karma reaches backward in time too. When you were a child, did you ever see your father sometimes drink and drive and get away with it? What forces shaped his life?
To try to trace the chains of karmic action and reaction is a humbling experience, for if we are honest we must soon see that we are all conditioned by our pasts, our childhoods, our culture, and by the very fact of being human. Notice how quickly the number of karmic possibilities accumulates beyond the amount of information the human mind can grasp. Universal mind, or God mind, has no such limits.
Birth, Death, and Breath
Karma is written on the breath.
We're all born, we all die, we all make choices, and we all carry with us the consequences of our choices. In other words, we all have karma. Karma enters into human life at birth, as the universal laws of order seep down from the great sky of consciousness to enter the human body and bind us to them. We take possession of our karma. We will either follow it blindly or learn to control our destiny by being aware of it.
Karma arrives with the very first breath, and each breath we take reflects upon the breath we have just taken. Then death comes and the breath goes out for the last time and the soul leaves the body. If you have worldly desires at the moment of death, you will write your desires on your last out breath. If you have fear, fear will go with you on the out breath. If, in one lifetime, you have left something important undone, then you will return, with last life's lessons still waiting to be learned. If you did not live your life to its fullest, you must repay that debt to yourself. Karma is how you pay.
That final exhalation of breath into death holds your karma like a clothesline, with all the clothes ready to be worn again in a familiar pattern. With the first breath into life, you inhale all that you ever were, all that you ever knew; you breathe in those same desires, those same patterns of karma, like putting on your old clothes.
We've all been everything.
When I was first awakening to spiritual life, I had all this energy running through me, and I needed to give it away, to serve, to work, to touch. I talked to a priest who got me a volunteer job working with children who had leukemia. In those days, these kids had very little chance of survival, at five years old, six years old. I would play with them one week, and the next week they were gone. It bothered me terribly. I had three healthy children at home, and it just seemed unfair. I was born a Jew, I was going to church with my Catholic husband, and I wasn't finding answers that satisfied my heart. When I began to hear about reincarnation, my questions began to be answered. Or, I should say, my old questions were replaced with new ones, and that's when I began to study karma.
When we begin to understand that every soul is a traveler through life and death, we start to have a deep understanding of what is real and what is not. Following Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, I have come to believe in reincarnation, even though the idea was very strange to me at first.
Is it necessary to believe in reincarnation to understand karma? No. Certainly it is not my aim to get you to accept the ideas of any particular religion. But consider this: Every night during sleep, a state that is mysterious to most of us, you die, or something within you dies. If you have made peace with your day before sleep takes you, you awaken refreshed. But if you carry a burden into sleep, the morning is laden with the same feelings you had the day before. It is similar with death and rebirth.
Some people want so much to remember their past lives that they go to psychics or they try past-life regression therapies. But if you remembered all your past lives, how would you function? Isn't it hard enough to remember where you left your car keys? Knowing everything that has happened throughout many lifetimes would overwhelm your mind. And what would you do with the information? Do you really think that if greed seeps into you, you won't act on it just because you remember how greed hurt you in a previous life? The last time you ate ice cream, you gained weight. Did you learn, and will you never eat ice cream again? Let's not kid ourselves.
Most importantly, if you did remember past deeds, do you realize the implication? If standing here in your actual present life, you knew your mistakes from the past and you went ahead and did the same things again in this life, the karmic burden would be much, much greater. Your karma, which is now loose and flowing, would turn into solid blocks of stone.
No, you can't remember your lifetimes, and you're lucky you can't. You are here. This moment means more than any other lifetime. In each lifetime, the circumstances are different. Only the patterns stay the same. Be in this one life; be in this most precious moment. Use it to conquer your confusion, your sadness, or anything that stops you from living a life of joy.
All you need to know about past lives is to recognize when something feels familiar. There is a part of you that holds a record of past lives, but it is not available to the ego mind. It is known only by your intuition and your heart, where the impressions have stayed. They will tell you when you are thinking the same old thoughts again or feeling the same old despair or doing the same old thing.
If you try to change your situation by examining it with your mind alone, you may get caught in "what if's," second thoughts, self-doubts, regrets, and blamebut did all that take you anywhere the last time you tried to think it through? Or are you right back where you started? The ego mind tends to lead us in circles.
Instead of looking at past lives, look at the life you are living now. Hear your intuition when it says, "Haven't you been here before? Aren't you tired of it?"
And ask yourself, If I died right now, would I be willing to be reborn as the exact same person as I am today? That's the question to ask, not, What did I do in my past lives? If you don't like the answer, then begin to make changes. It's a new choice every time. Every single moment is a birth; every single moment is a death. It's all in younow! You are the ruler of your life.
The ego knows only separation from God.
Karmic patterns are innate, but for karma to become active, ego must arise, and this happens soon after birth. An infant is born with a very quiet bliss that covers him or her in the womb. When the child is born, the harshness of reality breaks through and the child cries out: "I am hungry, feed me. I am uncomfortable, clothe me. I'm in need of love, love me." This feeling of need is not yet ego, attachment, or karma; it is just the simple reality of being alive.
When these needs go unmet, as surely they will at times, we allow a crack to open in the ocean of bliss; we create a separation. The very first ego thought now enters the infant mind. The ego's first thought is not "I need," but "I want," and this is the beginning of duality. Our natural state of bliss is now divided by the idea that something is missing: If I have this or that, then I'll have my bliss back. This mistaken idea takes hold. The thought "I want" now takes countless forms, countless ways to keep the soul separate from its birthright.
That's what ego isour small self, born of forgetting, held together by hunger, and separated from bliss. This is the ego as it is understood in most Eastern philosophies, although Western psychology uses the word differently.
In its failure to remember anything greater than itself, the ego acts out of its own willfulness. It is through the ego's willful actions that karma is birthed. Day to day, lifetime to lifetime, karma accumulates. With this accumulation, patterns emerge as the ego makes the same mistakes over and over. Then karma solidifies.
Ego is the aspect of the individual self that keeps us limited, confused, and out of touch with the universal Self. Ego and karma are closely linked: The greater the karma, the bigger the ego. The bigger the ego, the more karma clings to it. That's why the goal of many spiritual practices is to loosen our habit of identifying ourselves with the ego.
The hungry heart has no beginning and no end.
Desire for the great sea of bliss that we felt as newborns begins to spread out in the form of attachments. The primal hunger for this oneness gets tangled up with our hunger for lesser things. Attachment is often confused with love, but this kind of love is only possession.
What if we were attached to everything in our lives and clutched so tight we didn't let our lives breathe? What if we clutched at our children, our possessions, our ideas, our religion, to life itself? Could we even recognize our original bliss?
The child who once knew bliss can spend his whole life searching for wholeness and clutching at illusions. He may have hunger growing so deep in his heart that, as he grows older, he will look everywhere but in that heart to fulfill the yearning that he feels.
Perhaps you were raised in poverty, or perhaps your youth was comfortable but devoid of love. Thus, you don't know how to create love or accept love, so you search all your life and you cannot find it. What do you find? Food. Drugs. Alcohol. Dependency on someone who hurts you. So many things to find in the world! You may even find religion to fill up the hungry heart. But something is still missing.
The hunger, still burning within you, moves from one moment to the next, from night into day, from one life to the next. It is powerful and demands to be taken care of; the thirst must be quenched. In the quest for what you think you need, you sometimes hurt others, even if you try not to. And so, new karma forms. Hunger drives you, then regret drives you. Yet the hunger continues, this craving for oneness that takes on many disguises. In the end the question for some of us comes down to this: Where is God? We do remember Godbut we remember in the form of a great hunger.
Then you may ask, How did God let this happen? How did God let me become an alcoholic, or obese, or so terribly depressed? How did God let me waste my life in the pursuit of pleasures that don't last? Eventually you may give up on God, or the hunger itself may become your god.
We are all given glimpses of a higher reality, whether we choose to act on them or not. There are times when we are reminded of the primal bliss, times when we sometimes dare to believe that freedom and wholeness are possible. By then, most of us have gotten used to our karmically conditioned life and we've become comfortable. We settle into this place of comfort because it is familiar. Even pain can be comfortable, compared with the fear of the unknown. When we move too far toward freedom, we become afraid.
Perhaps you've moved a little closer to your heart's goalto Christ, to universal spirit, to the gods and goddesses of any tradition or maybe you've just grown closer to love, to kindness, to beauty, to whatever it is that will awaken you to the very truth of who you are. And then you back away.
We are torn between fear and longing. Meanwhile, the karmic ties keep tightening.
The ego plants seeds of suffering and waters them with self-doubt.
Even a tiny baby determines how tightly her own past karma will wrap around her. How completely will she identify with duality as it arises? How quickly will she forget the oneness? How eager will she be to embrace the attachments of earth? It's certainly not a rational choiceit's not even a choice of the conscious mind but there is choice nevertheless.
After we have tasted duality and the beginnings of ego, and after our old karma has settled in to surround our souls, new karma now has a place to cling. We create new karma through our own actions. But as young children, before our actions carry full karmic consequences, we encounter the judgments of others: "You're clumsy." "You're just like your father." Or perhaps judgment hasn't even been spoken, but we feel it.
Karma adheres to karma. Picture how Velcro sticks to itself but not to a smooth surface. Karma works like that.
If, for example, you have a karmic pattern that consists of you continually telling yourself that you're no good, then you will embrace every experience that reinforces this belief and reject every experience that challenges it. As children we constantly pick up clues about who we are. We absorb these clues, developing deep habits that hold karmic value; in other words, they have grown a karmic root. For example, a child proudly brings a drawing home from school and her mother ignores it, once, twice, ten times. Every child eventually gets a message from this. A child who has a deep pre-existing karmic root of self-doubt will be more deeply wounded than one who doesn't. She will think that she isn't worthy of her mother's time. She may stop drawing and never return to it again. But another child, without such a root, may not feel it so deeply.
We absorb others' beliefs about us until we are conditioned to believe in our false personalities, which we continue to build ever more elaborately as our lives unfold. After a while we just ride the waves made by the judgments of others, allowing them to take us where they will.
Meanwhile, beliefs give rise to actions, which in turn become habits. Thus, we create new karma. Karma arises in our interactions with people. The rule is simple: If you hurt someone, you will have to pay for it. If you cause pain, you will have pain. As the ego carries out its projects, its plans for getting what it wants in the world, new karma is laid down over the old and becomes intricately entwined with it. We become ever more tangled up in karma.
The Rig Veda, an ancient sacred text from India, calls these patterns samskaras. They are not ordinary habits, but habits you do over and over and over again until they feel like part of your psyche, part of your being, something you have had with you always, because indeed you have. At the base of them, further back than the pains of childhood, and beyond the reach of psychotherapy, there is a karmic root. So to give up a root feels like you're giving up a part of yourself.
No matter what words we use to describe the process, our ego minds use our karmic patterns to trap us in a small life. We are well and truly stuck! We are conditioned by our childhood and our culture, we find ourselves in a world where most events are beyond our control, and when we seek freedom, fear grabs us. Is freedom even possible?
As long as we bounce along in the world of action and reaction, the answer is no, we are not free. We will need to look at a hidden dimension of our lives, where karma has no power. That dimension is the soul.