Karma Explained

This is part of my Start Here series of posts aimed at teaching beginners the basics of the meditative journey.

Karma is not a judge, nor an accountant. Karma does not maintain a list of good and bad deeds you have done. Karma does not reward good deeds, nor punish bad deeds. These are all Christian interpretations – an oversimplified splitting of the world into “good” and “bad”, with karma as a judging god handing out rewards and punishments.

Rather, karma is the repeating motifs and cycles of the universe. For example:

A boy who is beaten by his alcoholic father grows up to become an alcoholic who beats his own son.

If you understand the above, you understand karma. It is the cycles which dominate our lives.

Karma can be passed down via genetics, epigenetics, culture, direct experience, and some hitherto unknown force, described by Rupert Sheldrake as morphic resonance, which simply means, “What has happened before, will happen again.” This force makes the universe cyclic. The universe is a giant habit.


Karma is the organizing principle of the universe. Karma arises via formations. Formations are zero-dimensional, nonlocal “code snippets” which can create the same situations over and over again across time. Formations are in nature – formations are nature.

Formations have no fundamental substance, yet can manifest in any of the six sense doors (sight, sound, taste, smell, feeling body and conceptual mind). The formation of “fire” can arise as bright (sight), crackling (sound), smoky (smell), hot (feeling) and dangerous or useful (concepts). A kitten can be small (sight), mewing (sound), fluffy (feeling), and cute/desirable (concept).

The collective unconscious is filled with formations. They populate our stories. Vampires, witches, saints, and apocalyptic end-of-days events are just a few examples of formations which appear across cultures.

Formations can be imprinted upon the individual early in life, then dominate that person’s entire life. Both Prince and Mozart apparently inherited musical genius from imposing fathers who then lived vicariously through their children.

Formations can be acquired temporarily or permanently by deliberate meditation upon an object possessing those formations. A martial artist absorbs techniques by meditating upon his teacher’s form. In Vajrayana Buddhism, visions of deities are evoked then merged with to acquire aspects of that deity; for example, Chakrasamvara may be meditated upon to acquire an embodiment of pure compassion. Certain substances can also evoke specific formations: Alcohol induces aggression, MDMA evokes empathy, and LSD can externalize formations in the form of hallucinations, making it a potentially powerful tool for personal growth and insight.

Personal karma is the cyclic arising of certain formations throughout the life of an individual. When individuals encounter one another, one thing not immediately obvious to most is that different schemas of karma are playing out in parallel, in each person. For example, a middle-manager at work appeared as grossly incompetent to me, but to a female colleague she appeared bullying and domineering. The middle-manager’s own karma apparently revolves around being cast out of groups and not having enough control over her circumstances. To master my karma, I must learn how to handle incompetence dispassionately. My colleague must learn to assert herself and speak her truth. The middle-manager must learn to become secure in her position, to relinquish her need to control, and to allow herself to be informed by others’ views. We are all handling our own streams of karma, and they are all completely different, despite sharing a common situation. I am exhibiting very different formations in the eyes of my colleague and middle-manager: the former sees me as fearless in the presence of a bully, whereas the latter sees me as obstinate and unable to be controlled. I see myself as neither of these things, however, but instead experience frustration in the presence of immovable incompetence. Three different people; three completely different experiences of the same situation.

Our own personal stories play out in parallel. Our stories are populated by formations. Other people are needed to fill the roles demanded by our stories; a person will step into the role and exhibit the formations demanded by your karma. If your story demands that you are always bullied, you will find someone to slip into that role and bully you. You will always find someone new to make you feel like a victim; your personal story demands it. If you always fall for the same type of boy or girl, that person will come along again and again – a different person, filling the same role, manifesting the same formations you expect to see.

To master karma, the formations which make up the central repeating themes of that karma must first be very clearly seen. This can be a life’s work, and all therapies, whatever their name, are essentially attempting to do this work. Meditation, in my experience, provides a unique way of seeing formations. The literal translation of vipassana is “special seeing” and, in Theravada, the 11th Stage of Insight is the Knowledge of Equanimity Concerning Formations. In this stage, formations can be “see-felt” extremely clearly as gestalts, like seeing ghosts in the room. Formations are also perceived within an integrated whole, rather than as separate events in themselves. In the context of karma, the story itself can be seen, rather than the people and circumstances which happen to be filling the roles demanded by the story on that particular occasion. Once the story itself is witnessed, the intuition of what to do – or what not to do – often realizes itself in one’s mind spontaneously. Right action occurs over days, weeks or months, and that cycle of karma is allowed to come to an end, and finally dissolve. This taking of personal responsibility over one’s karma is captured in the phrase, “The buck stops here”.

Theravadan meditation itself is not necessarily required to make such realizations – it just has convenient illustrative power in this context. All contemplative traditions have some version of the above process. In fact, any practice which cultivates stillness and equanimous perspicacity of mind will eventually produce such realizations. The Eastern traditions just happen to have philosophical bases closer to the way things actually are, rather than arbitrarily carving the world up into good and evil – a primitive mindset that lacks clear-seeing, creates division, causes no real change, and which has produced the moral landscape of the world we see today.

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17 Responses

  1. Aldous says:

    I am incredibly well read as I assume most who come to this site are.
    This is the best, clearest takes on this subject I’ve ever encountered. Truly superb and clear.
    I wrestled with the ‘formations’ concept after I first read it in Ingrahms work then dismissed it as useless to me (I stress, to me. Others with different wiring seem to get a lot out of him, its just to me with my make up his work was a dead end) in actual practice and pursued other paths which have led me to where I’m at now, but fuck me! I wish I’d had this piece seven years ago!
    Still the best site/blog of its kind and this is one of the best pieces on it!

    • Illuminatus says:

      Cheers matey! 🙂

    • JuicedJhana says:

      What would you have done with this knowledge if you had it sooner?

      How does one know if they’re incredibly well read? When I read that, I felt a little guilty that I’m not reading enough. No worries though, I’m just curious.

      • Illuminatus says:

        I know Aldous personally and can confirm he has a private library containing thousands of books. One year he drove up with a car boot full of books he was chucking out and let me take what I want. Nothing great in there, although the Thad McKraken books were entertaining (reminds me of me in my drugs phase).

        Any question about any book, I ask Aldous and he’s read it!

  2. JuicedJhana says:

    Wow. Amazing write up on karma. We as human beings have a lot of power to sway karma. This reminds me of the powers cultivated from the equanimity of a 4th jhana. Looks like I’ll be playing more with magick. Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Pretheesh says:

    Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it – Stephi Wagner <3

  4. andrew hutchinson says:

    Lovely piece bud. Everything is patterns of movement – information/”energy” moving from place to place, from “thing” to “thing”. What that thing receives and how it “interprets” it being dependent on it’s own movement patterns/”frequency” with even that being variable from moment to moment. And endless sea of information with the “nicer” stuff being accessed/tuned into when in a higher frequency.

  5. Belac says:

    Great read. Is your Jana guide complete? I don’t see it under “start here”. I have some questions about my experience with attempting Jana mediation but wanted to read all the material first

  6. Belac says:

    @illuminatus. Ah, I’ll check that out. It seems the DharmaOverground has large sections about Jhanas in their book as well. My history of meditation is western mindfulness and a vipasana retreat (but I never experienced any altered states, just 10 days of calm). I’m interested in actually moving up the meditative latter now with more serious effort. I’m sure it’s silly to ask how long it should take to reach upper Jhana states – and I’m aware expectation can inhibit the process, but I’m curious if this is a year long process or something that can be achieved in a month.

    As an aside, I want to thank you for the Do Nothing Meditation tech. It brings me to a new place sometimes as soon as 10 minutes.

    I remember discovering just how effective it worked when I was puffing on a vape bar mindlessly on my computer and realized I had just cracked myself out by consuming excessive amounts of nicotine. I couldn’t think straight and normally such an event would put me off my day, but a little of Do Nothing meditation and I felt like I had done a full reset. Too much caffeine or stimulants where jitters begin, Do Nothing seems to iron out the anxiety and get me to a prime mindset. This is a less than ideal application for meditative practice, but it’s a very pragmatic tech.

    • Illuminatus says:


      I will give you my general thoughts on the issues raised in your comment. These are rough thoughts, and are by no means set in stone.


      Firstly, Daniel Ingram and the Dharma Overground in general are far too lenient and generous in what they allow to be called “jhana”. It seems that what Ingram describes in his books as “first, second, third, fourth jhana” etc. are more like the mechanics of how a mind becomes concentrated on an object, rather than the states known as jhana in the Buddhist texts. E.g. Ingram says just getting the mind to stay with an object is “access concentration”, whereas in the Visuddhimagga, access concentration is defined as a very high state of rapture (“exalting rapture” and “fulfilling rapture”, in the fivefold classification). Ingram would place this level of rapture more as his “second jhana”, from what I have read.

      So, a lot of my blog used Ingram’s definitions. It was only when I fluked the true jhana a few times that I realized Ingram’s definitions are way off-base. (As a side note, Ingram also too easily pigeonholes any meditative experience into the Theravada/vipassana stages of insight, too — e.g. a meditator says he saw something scary during meditation, Ingram might well tell him he is in the Fear stage of insight, which may or may not be the case.) In short, Ingram likes his maps and systems, and enjoys slotting people’s experiences into those maps whether they belong there or not.

      This is why I am now simply pointing people towards Ajahn Brahm’s works, instead. Brahm does everything by the book. His definitions are aligned with the Visuddhimagga (what little I know of it, that is). The result is that Brahm’s definition of jhana is the truest by a Western author (that I have come across) and these “true jhanas” are far harder to achieve. I have put some time aside each week to practise Brahm’s method and have so far reached high piti with the “seeing lights and beautiful landscapes through closed eyes” phase (true access concentration), but it has taken me a couple of hours of solid sitting, completely still, to get there. I can see why someone reaching such a state would be eager to declare it as the “Xth jhana”.

      A quick note about Leigh Brasington (“Right Concentration”). His jhana practice, states and definitions are far better aligned with Buddhist texts than Ingram’s (he should be seen as a level above Ingram, IMO). However, in his famous PubMed experiment, he was still able to press a button letting the scientists know when he had switched up to the next jhana. In Ajahn Brahm’s definitions, this would not constitute jhana at all, because the body should be completely dropped in awareness by the time one reaches true access concentration. Also, Brahm’s jhana is nondual: there is no thinker, no doer; no one to press the damn button. So you can see there is a gulf between Ingram, Brasington et al. and Brahm. A ranking system of popular jhana authors might look like this:

      5. Kenneth Folk (not really jhana at all, since he can talk to a webcam while in it)
      4. Daniel Ingram (soft access concentration, soft jhana)
      3. Leigh Brasington (medium access concentration, medium jhana factors arising)
      2. Culadasa (harder and stricter definitions than Brasington)
      1. Ajahn Brahm (true jhana in line with the Visuddhimagga; jhana as traditionally practised and defined)

      I will point out that:
      – these are massive generalizations
      – they are based on my own interpretation of a work (I might be way off-base)
      – you never truly know another’s experience, by their writing or otherwise.

      Vern Lovic has the true jhanas and you can read his thoughts here: https://jhana8.com/what-is-jhana/
      He verifies H. Gunaratana and Ajahn Brahm as describing the true jhanas and their practice.
      He criticizes Leigh Brasington’s experiment here.

      “For one, the person they chose for the study subject seems likely to be one who practices the ‘shallow jhanas’ I call them. I put a (!) at the beginning of the paragraph where it talks about this subject and how he actually signals with a double finger tap with each new change of jhana… In the deep Jhanas – this is impossible. At least, one would have to come completely out of the Jhana to be able to tap the fingers. Then would presumably immediately get right back into the next Jhana. Not so likely…”

      My final point would be that you do not need jhana to make progress and personal changes via meditation. Jhana in fact seems to be a culmination of prior practice; a sign that your mind has assimilated knowledge of where it is at, and is ready to move onto the next level. The mind must become ready for jhana, then jhana shows itself. Personally, the times when I have had the true jhana have tended to give a couple of weeks of peace and bliss followed by a whole can of worms opening (the new “stuff” I must work through to keep moving forward). Jhana is not a fire-and-forget weapon that comes along and fixes one’s life; rather, it is often just the start of more things to work through, more things to understand. There is a reason monasteries exist: long hours of practice without real life getting in the way.


      Secondly, you said you have been on a vipassana retreat. I have never been on any kind of retreat but I have heard bad things about vipassana retreats (as they are taught in the West, at least). One student told me that on a vipassana retreat he had been instructed to avoid rapture (piti) and just to do the body-scanning and noting practice they taught him. Piti is the gateway to jhana, so if it is discouraged, you are highly unlikely to get jhana on a vipassana retreat. However, this same student told me the teacher was having them move through “jhanas”; these were the “vipassana jhanas”, not the samatha jhanas we have been talking about in this comment. I do not think vipassana jhanas are well understood by the teachers on this retreat and should probably not be called jhana at all. wetwaterdrop on PPM forum wrote about his experience at a vipassana retreat and said it was pure hell that gave him psychosis, but I am struggling to find the link. I have also read of at least one suicide after a vipassana retreat where the woman entered extreme psychosis. The body-scanning techniques they seem to provide at these retreats are very harsh and buzzy and can lead to psychosis (I have practised something I believe to be the same thing, having got the idea from Ingram’s first MCTB book).

      So, I advise you to avoid vipassana retreats, and perhaps see if there are samatha retreats in your area (though, as we established in this comment, not many Western folks really get the jhanas, let alone can teach them).

      I hope to write more about the subject once I understand it better myself, but don’t hold your breath. I also advise you drop jhana as a goal in and of itself (making a goal of jhana is a good way to block it!) and instead do Buddhist practice as taught from a philosophical basis; if jhana appears, cool, otherwise you are still likely making progress provided you are actually practising. Mayath from PPM forum went far with jhana as taught in Culadasa’s “The Mind Illuminated” (whose “luminous jhanas” might well be the same as Ajahn Brahm’s, though I confess I have not read TMI all the way through).

      • James says:

        James AKA wetwaterdrop here to chime in!

        People at vipassana retreats I have been through have gone through the ringer.

        I didn’t get psychosis from it – I think you may be remembering a small comment I made about my little brother doing dry noting (which is basically what vipassana is) and he went into psychosis from it.

        I did have pyschosis from just regular breath meditation, maybe that shit just runs in the family who knows.

        I think Vipassana in these western retreats can certainly be beneficial but I think they’re on a 3 out of 10 scale in how they can and should be addressed and run.

        “One student told me that on a vipassana retreat he had been instructed to avoid rapture (piti) and just to do the body-scanning and noting practice they taught him.”

        The actual instructions for Vipassana would have you accept those sensations and move forward, avoiding them is the exact wrong thing to do. I shared a fun/light experience I had at the end of my retreat with a “veteran” and he warned me against enjoying the pleasant sensations…. A lot, and I mean a lot of those guys seem to have deep, deep seated need for self torment.

        I can do vipassana sits now and get a great benefit from them but doing it at the retreat was certainly hellish for a lot of reasons.

        If Belac just experiencing 10 days of calm he must be a saint, I don’t know of anyone who has gone comfortably through a Vipassana retreat. I talked to a guy who it was his 10th + retreat and he said that one was the hardest one he had been to.

        I think Illuminats is spot on for Ajahn Brahm recommendation, even if you don’t “get” anywhere the process in and of itself sets you in such a great mood/headspace.

        • Illuminatus says:

          Oh. In the version I’ve been telling people, you tucked your genitals between your legs then murdered a woman you’d been keeping trapped in a well. Funny how we misremember these little things!

      • Belac says:

        Thanks for the detailed information.

        Would you ever do a write up about your thoughts on western occultism and its figures as it relates to all this?

        A little bit about my vipasana experience, the “teacher” was a video series -literally, I think it was a VHS tape – by one of the gurus in India who took the practice public and mainstream. We had a local expert in the room acting as a teacher, whom we would consult if we needed advice, but otherwise the video was the only source of instruction.

        The video had 3 stages we went through. Day 1-2 we focused on feeling breath, 3-5 we focused on the top of our nose, and then the last several days we scanned the body. A result they said might happen is feeling like our body disappeared, like wind, or feeling like burning lava as our…I forget the name…burned away, purifying our minds – the physical experience of our repressed negative emotions surfacing, I guess.

        Vipassana does pretty extensive vetting now days, so if they have had psychotics episodes with people, they are remedying it. I remember putting down on my application that I had “suffered from depression” and they nearly didn’t let me in, thinking I was going to snap. I had to talk to 3 ppl to explain I had tried ssris in the past and regret even mentioning it because it was such a casual/common thing.

        Ppl definitely got uncomfortable though. Our class of 50 ppl reduced by half by day 5. I remember one dude waiting until night and then sneaking out, to peel away in his car for a fast escape, tires squealing and all.

        Another funny moment was during our outdoor walking meditation ,when a traveler saw the monastery and peeled off the road, getting out of his car and shouting to us “thank god, I haven’t seen anyone on this road for ages! Where am I?”. To which we all silently looked at each other at a loss of what to do. The guy got really offended and passive aggressively apologized for being an inconvenience before someone grew the balls to break the silence and help him lol.

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