There is an ancient question that is asked in ever-new ways, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
There are, of course, many different contexts in which to examine this question, but the one where it gains great importance is on the mystical path. Before we get into this, we must examine how we end up on this path.
Many of us come to the mystical path because we have tried everything else to overcome our particular challenges. Whether we are battling a chronic illness, loss, relationship struggles, or financial hardships, we may have gone through all kinds of conventional and practical solutions. Some of those solutions may have worked for a while, but somehow the problem never went away…
It is in this context that we turn to mysticism. We look for peace but mostly, we look for answers, especially to this question, “Why is this happening to me?”
The Concept of Karma
Of the many confusing concepts in nondual Eastern traditions, karma is probably the most misunderstood. There is a widespread notion that it’s a straightforward tit-for-tat, with memes like “karma is a b***h” in wide circulation. And when we don’t see this in manifestation all the time, the concept becomes even more confusing. Take, for instance, a criminal who gets away with a heinous crime. Or, in the most immediate context of our own challenges where we strive to live a virtuous life and yet are slammed with insurmountable challenges – how does the tit-for-tat theory fit in?
This widespread phenomenon is the result of an incomplete understanding of a complex concept and its inappropriate use. You see, karma is not a tit-for-tat at all. Nor is it a simplistic equation of getting what you deserve. Karma is tied to another highly important concept and that is of the perpetuity of the soul and its transmigration.
In the Bhagavad Gītā, Lord Kṛṣṇa says:
na tvevāhaṁ jātu nāsaṁ na tvaṁ neme janādhipāḥ
na caiva na bhaviṣhyāmaḥ sarve vayamataḥ param (2:12)
“At no time did I not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”
In other words, who we really are is eternal, has always existed and will never cease to exist. We only know of this life that began at birth and will end at the time of death. Here, we are referring to the death of this body and the end of life story. We tend to think of our life as the interval between birth and death since we can’t (ordinarily) see past our own birth or death.
Lord Kṛṣṇa continues in the next verse:
dehino ’smin yathā dehe kaumāraṁ yauvanaṁ jarā
tathā dehāntara-prāptir dhīras tatra na muhyati (2:13)
“Just as the embodied soul continuously passes from childhood to youth to old age, similarly, at the time of death, the soul passes into another body. Such a change doesn’t disturb or delude the wise.”
The key words here are “…at the time of death, the soul passes into another body…” A-ha! What kind of a body will the soul take up? Well, it depends on what we did in the previous life and all the other lives we have lived. What kinds of experiences do we want and need to learn from? What desires have gone unfulfilled that are driving our trajectory of births and deaths? What lessons do we need to learn to evolve? Based on the dense web of longings, attachments, and aversions, we take the next birth within families and circumstances that foster growth and evolution. We can see then that the body we take, with its genetic proclivities (and therefore the diseases it may be subject to), has a greater purpose – our own evolution.
However, it’s not as simple.
Sure, we can be born into families and circumstances to continue our growth, but we don’t know that. Nor does this prevent the onslaught of events and situations of upbringing and countless interactions with the world that create more longings, attachments, and aversions. Not only do we bring in the stuff of our previous births into this one, but we create more and more stuff that will keep us bound in the “story of me.” At the time of death, this story ends like a chapter in a book and another one begins. And on and on it goes. This is called saṃsāra.
Karma then is the sum total of all our previous actions. Everything we do leaves an energetic and psychic imprint. Transmigration refers to the transfer of this mass of imprint from one life to another. The reason we continue to be stuck in saṃsāra and through the cycles of pain and joy, good and bad, suffering and peace is that we continue to collect more and more of these imprints. These subtle imprints dictate everything we do – our choices, habits, and consequences, including where we are born and what kinds of things we will experience.
The entire spiritual journey can be summarized in one way, which is to stop collecting more imprints. When we awaken to the truth of our true nature, this mass of imprints ceases to drive our lives. It loses steam and saṃsāra, the wheel of births and deaths comes to a rest. We move beyond the “story of me” to realize our true eternal nature.
Blame Versus Responsibility
The obvious problem here is that we don’t know all of our previous births or actions. We only know the ones in this chapter – we have no knowledge of the countless chapters in the book of our long journey. We can’t see that this chapter contains the consequences of what we did in the previous chapters. Since we don’t know our own history, we feel that these consequences are not justified. We simply can’t comprehend why things happen to us the way they do. Since we are unable to see the past the current chapter of this life, we blame everyone and everything else for our problems – our genes, parents, families, culture, society, leaders, etc.
We forget that our choices and unique personality traits are influenced by the large mass of the imprints of our previous actions. Well, this is true for everyone else too. In other words, we all think/feel/act the way we do because of our own mass of imprints. While we are also subject to others’ imprints by way of how they treat us, how we respond to it creates our own imprint, which gets added to our large and growing collection. This large mass drives all of our choices, and how we think, feel, and act – and by default, the consequences of such thinking, feeling, and acting.
Blame is easy in the short run. All we have to do is direct our rage and disappointment at another (or many others). It absolves us of any responsibility… but you see, this is where karma creeps up. It silently accumulates and fuels our lives. Whatever we blame on God, politics, religion, family or society comes back to keep us in the grind of saṃsāra.
What’s the solution then?
Let’s return to the Bhagavad Gītā.
Lord Kṛṣṇa emphatically states:
uddhared ātmanātmānaṁ nātmānam avasādayet
ātmaiva hyātmano bandhur ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ (6:5)
“Elevate yourself through the power of your mind and stop degrading yourself. The mind can be a friend or an enemy of the self.”
The mind is the friend. Or the enemy. It all depends on whether we place blame or take responsibility. When we place blame, we create more karma. When we take responsibility, we lighten the imprint load.
With blame, we try to change the world – an impossible task. With responsibility, we change ourselves – a very doable thing. In this shift of perspective, we stop trying to find mystical solutions such as mantras and rituals to practical problems. We are able to see the disease, the relationship, the financial constraints – in a new light. With this shift, the mystical automatically begins to seep into the ordinary.
The moment we take responsibility for how we think, feel, and act, we step into our own power.
Equanimity: Practice And Result
Karma is much, much more nuanced than this, of course. As an example, for the most part, it is impossible to assign a particular result to any one action. As in, we can’t always conclude that “this” happened because of “that” since karma is the sum total of all our actions. This adds to the confusion and inability to know why things unfold the way they do. Additionally, in our habitual linear way of thinking, many other questions can crop up in such discussions:
“Does this mean we should stand by and do nothing to help others since they are just facing their own karma?”
“Does this mean people can do whatever they want and we just have to bear the consequences of their actions?”
“Does this mean I should sit on my hands and not act in the world?”
“Does this mean that the suffering of innocent people all over the world has nothing to do with oppressors?”
“Does this mean tyrants should not be punished?”
“Does this mean the justice system should be disbanded?”
“Does this mean…?”
It doesn’t mean any of these things. Notice that all these questions have to do with changing someone else’s behavior in favor of what we think the outcome should be. Here, we are discussing a more subtle aspect – that of stopping our own wheel of saṃsāra.
The shift from blame to responsibility results in a turning inward of the mind where we think and act in accordance with what is needed at the moment, with no intent to change anyone else. Our focus remains on freedom from our habitual and impulsive way of being that is driven by the imprint mass. This phenomenon is the basis for epigenetics – changing our lifestyle, for instance, can change gene expression where you can have a gene for a certain disease but it isn’t expressed as the overt disease. Changing your lifestyle may sound like a practical solution, but it is highly mystical. As we know, it’s extremely challenging to be able to change the direction of our life through choices and habits that don’t align with our upbringing and deep-rooted habits and beliefs.
With ongoing practice, our mind becomes steady and we learn to remain still. Equanimity dawns even as chaos erupts around us.
We become so inwardly focused that our external actions take on the luster of equanimity and stillness.
The beauty of such an approach is that such actions naturally lead to more wholesome outcomes for everyone involved.
This is one of the many paradoxes of the mystical path.
We help because it is the thing to do, not because we think we are saving someone. We respond to criticism by looking within and observing our own response, eventually turning it into energy for subtle work. We use every event and every occurrence as a stimulus for this transformation.
It goes without saying that this practice requires considerable maturity and self-reflection.
In this kind of practice, the energy of karma is transmuted into the energy of transformation. The mind becomes a friend. Poison turns to nectar.
The wheel of saṃsāra slows down and eventually stops, where the dualities of suffering and joy flow into one continuous stream.
The mystical penetrates and pervades the mundane.
The chapter of our life ends, but we stop re-writing the same story over and over again. The book loses its hold on us.
Buddhist Prayer Wheels at Boudhanath Temple, Khatmandu, 2017
Potter Spinning Wheel by Simi Jois Photography
Learn more about karma, transformation, and practice in the Kālī Mahāvidyā Self-Study Course.