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.