THE UNHELPFULNESS OF KARMA
Extract from Chapter 7 of The Big Book of the Soul
© Ian Lawton 2008
Even when the modern evidence for individual soul reincarnation is accepted, there are a number of very different spiritual approaches that can be adopted, whose adherents behave in very different ways. So our final objective in this work must be to attempt to answer the two crucial questions of why are we here? and its logical corollary of what should we do? Without answers to these questions we are swimming in a whirlpool – directionless, aimless, reactive, allowing the tides of our succession of lives to take us where they will.
All reincarnatory worldviews share the idea that we have many lives on earth because we are supposed to progress or evolve to the point where we no longer have to incarnate in the physical plane. And while this objective of ‘enlightenment’ or ‘transcendence’ is consistent, as we will see there are a number of different views as to how it can be achieved – not only from a metaphysical perspective, but also in practical, everyday terms.[i] For most people this is where the concept of karma comes to the fore, because it is supposedly the river that runs through our succession of lives and flows out into the light realms of the eternal soul. So for many their view of the workings of karma is intrinsically bound up with their view of how to achieve the progress required to depart the earth plane for good – even if souls who have achieved this enlightened state might choose to come back to assist with various earthly developments.
There are many different approaches to karma in the traditions of the East and West. Even the two major Eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, each have many different strains – although the doctrine of anatta or ‘no self’ can tend to preclude any idea of the continuity of an individual soul that reincarnates from one life to the next in some strains of Buddhist thought. Then there are the variants of Sikhism, Jainism, Taoism, Judaism, Gnosticism and a variety of other esoteric schools both ancient and modern. This is not intended to be a full explanation of the many intricacies of these different approaches to karma, but we can identify certain major strands of thinking.
The most simplistic, traditional approach tells us that we can be punished for so-called ‘bad’ karma. The harshest version of this doctrine sees the unfortunate wrongdoer devolving back down the reincarnatory chain to a lower form of animal life – or even, under some schemas, entering a terrible, hellish realm before incarnating again at the bottom of the animal chain and having to work all the way back up to human form.[ii] But most modern evidence suggests that there are significant differences between the group soul energy of animal species and the fully individualized nature of human soul energy.[iii] So many spiritual seekers in the West now tend to favor a more fluid approach that involves ‘balancing’ supposedly good and bad karma. The principle is broadly one of ‘spiritual accounting’ whereby we tend to accumulate karmic deficits – especially in earlier lives when we are less experienced – but over time our good karmic actions compensate for the bad ones, whether directly or indirectly. So the long-term aim is to achieve a ‘balanced karmic account’. But even this is seen as too formulaic by some, so the bottom line becomes the mere recognition of myriad different forms of karma that can apply in different circumstances.[iv] But does any of this karmic theory really help us to answer our two key questions?
Apparently more sophisticated approaches tend to suggest that we should live a life of non-attachment, perhaps even as a completely disinterested ascetic in solitude. In Hindu thought this frees us from generating any further karma at all, whether good or bad, thereby ending the compulsion to reincarnate. For those of a more Buddhist persuasion, by contrast, the purpose is to see through the illusion of individuality – or maya – and recognize our ‘one-ness’ with the ‘universal consciousness’ that pervades everything. We will return to these issues in the final chapter, but for now we might recognize that to separate oneself from the world for a prolonged period might be regarded as somewhat at odds with the idea of soul experience and growth – which we have already seen is one of the strongest themes to emerge from interlife regression. Having said that the pursuit of non-attachment does not have to be this extreme. It might be that we involve ourselves fully in the experiences of life, and yet still aim to find ourselves becoming less and less attached to particular events and their outcomes.
Rather worse, in the original Sanskrit the word karma means ‘action’, but as we saw in chapter 5 it is now widely associated with a process of action and reaction and of paying off debts – more commonly expressed via colloquialisms such as ‘you reap what you sow’ and ‘what goes around comes around’. So the fundamental problem with most karmic models is the misconception that, if we are undergoing trials and tribulations in the present, they must represent our predestined fate because of wrongdoing in the past – usually thought to have taken place in a previous life. Nowhere is this flaw more blatantly demonstrated than in the idea that people who are severely disabled, either mentally or physically, are being punished – because, as we will shortly see, they may well have deliberately chosen this challenge during the interlife in order to accelerate their emotional growth. On top of this there is a seemingly irreconcilable tension between, on the one hand, this inherent suggestion of a significant element of karmic predestiny and, on the other, the total supremacy of personal responsibility and free will – which themes also emerged strongly from the interlife regression evidence in the previous chapter. Many spiritual commentators have wrestled with this problem. Most, unfortunately, have had minimal success.
With the benefit of modern regression evidence it seems that the most important distinction we can make is between the dynamics operating across successions of lives and those that hold sway within just one life. To begin with the first of these, it is clear that our accumulated experiences from past lives shape our current life plan – influencing not only our circumstances, but also the emotions we bring back to work on, and even the past-life strengths that will help us. At least this is certainly true of more experienced souls, who are closely involved in making deliberate planning choices for themselves, and in these circumstances the idea that any sort of law of action and reaction influences the process seems entirely unhelpful. As to those less experienced and more impetuous souls whose planning may be rather more directed by others, it may be that some sort of underlying law of action and reaction is applied. But if so the dynamics of this process will be so complex as to be way beyond our human understanding – and if we cannot understand something, we cannot use it to learn and grow. So expounding any number of complex theories in this area is not going to assist such a soul in deciding how to approach their life in practical terms. Worse still, who is to say whether each of us is an experienced soul who is more or less in charge of their life planning and choices, or a less experienced and perhaps more impetuous soul wielding rather less control? As we will see, outward appearances can be extremely deceptive.
So what about what happens within our current lives? If we switch the terminology slightly, it is sometimes abundantly obvious to us that the concept of ‘cause and effect’ holds true, especially when the effect follows hard on the heels of the cause. In fact in this context it clearly is appropriate to talk about a ‘law’ that pertains at all times – even if, again, most of the time we remain blissfully unaware of the unconscious causes that have produced the effects we consciously observe in our lives. It is because of this that, as well as having a life plan established during the interlife, we can be said to create our own reality as we go along in incarnate life – and this in turn is exactly where the supremacy of free will comes into play.
We will return to these ideas in the final chapter, but for now the clear implication is that we can break free from the ‘bondage of karma’ at any time. If we want to promote soul growth then each and every one of us can actively decide to start with a fresh sheet of paper and to begin ‘consciously creating’ our own future. This is true not only of more experienced but also of less experienced souls, because there are no obvious restrictions – except that to reinforce this process we need to become not only more spiritually aware while incarnate, but also more fully active in the time between lives, although to a large extent the one may be thought to lead to the other. Admittedly some souls may be rather more receptive to these ideas, and rather more ready to put them into practice, than others. Admittedly also, as we will see in the final chapter, real conscious creation does not just involve ‘positive thinking’ but also a commitment to proper self-analysis so that unconscious blockages are cleared. But, despite these riders, this undeniable fact that we use our free will to create our own destiny renders it absolutely imperative that we should shift our focus away from thinking of our present circumstances as being reactively determined by our past, and concentrate instead on how our present choices are proactively shaping our future.
We have seen that the word karma has many unhelpful connotations in this respect. We have also seen that there are many other ways in which it can be an unhelpful or misleading concept, at least in practical rather than purely theoretical terms and for all but the most learned spiritual seekers. So, armed with modern regression evidence, there is surely now a strong argument that we should drop it from our spiritual lexicon for good – and rely instead on a simple sentence that incorporates all three key phrases: ‘free will gives us personal responsibility for our own experience and growth’. This is practical and, above all, difficult to misinterpret.
It seems that the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo recognized this imperative long ago, without the benefit of modern evidence. His master work is the lengthy, two-volume Life Divine and, although some new chapters were inserted when it was published in 1939, the majority of its contents stem from articles originally written for his monthly journal Arya from 1914 to 1919. The main thrust of this hugely erudite work is an attempt to take Indian Vedanta philosophy – one of the aspects of Hinduism – and to not only realign it with its original Vedic roots but also integrate it with modern science and metaphysics. As a result, in many crucial respects Aurobindo’s arguments and conclusions form a stark contrast to those of most Eastern gurus and mystics. In the current context we are interested in his attempt to correct some of the misinterpretations of Hinduism and Buddhism with respect to karma:[v]
The true foundation of the theory of rebirth is the evolution of the soul, or rather its efflorescence out of the veil of Matter and its gradual self-finding. Buddhism contained this truth involved in its theory of karma and emergence out of karma but failed to bring it to light; Hinduism knew it of old, but afterwards missed the right balance of its expression. Now we are again able to restate the ancient truth in a new language and this is already being done by certain schools of thought, though still the old incrustations tend to tack themselves on to the deeper wisdom… The theory of rebirth is an intellectual necessity… But what is the aim of that evolution?… The continual growth towards a divine knowledge, strength, love and purity… What of suffering and happiness, misfortune and prosperity? These are experiences of the soul in its training, helps, props, means, disciplines, tests, ordeals – and prosperity is often a worse ordeal than suffering. Indeed, adversity, suffering may often be regarded rather as a reward to virtue than as a punishment for sin, since it turns out to be the greatest help and purifier of the soul struggling to unfold itself. To regard it merely as the stern award of a Judge, the anger of an irritated Ruler or even the mechanical recoil of result of evil upon cause of evil is to take the most superficial view possible of God’s dealings with the soul and the law of the world’s evolution.
Elsewhere Aurobindo elaborates on the theme that most applications of any law of karma are ‘ignorant’, ‘puerile’ and ‘puny’.[vi] He adds that to the extent such a law exists it can and must be overruled by free will:
If the fundamental truth of our being is spiritual and not mechanical, it must be ourself, our soul that fundamentally determines its own evolution, and the law of karma can only be one of the processes it uses for that purpose: our spirit, our self must be greater than its karma. There is law, but there is also spiritual freedom… It is not conceivable that the spirit within is an automaton in the hands of karma, a slave in this life of its past actions; the truth must be less rigid and more plastic… Self-expression and experience are what the soul seeks by its birth into the body; whatever is necessary for the self-expression and experience of this life, whether it intervenes as an automatic outcome of past lives or as a free selection of results and a continuity or as a new development, whatever is a means of creation of the future, that will be formulated.
[i] In The Life Divine Sri Aurobindo, who we will meet properly shortly, devotes some time to discussing what he classifies as the four main approaches to life and their implications for day-to-day behavior; although he uses different language they are effectively the reincarnational experience model that he and we support, the illusion model that we will discuss properly in the final chapter, the single-life model and the materialist model; see book 2, chapter 16, pp. 695–702.
[ii] See note 47 to chapter 6.
[iii] See, for example, Lawton, The Wisdom of the Soul, Question 2.2. Not only does much channeled material tend to support this view, but none of the interlife pioneers mention any of their subjects having a choice to reincarnate as an animal. The only slight exception is Newton’s suggestion that a human soul can experience anything it likes in a ‘space of transformation’, which includes what it is like to be any type of animal (see Journey of Souls, chapter 10, p. 168); and that some subjects have experienced being different life forms on other planets (ibid., chapter 11, pp. 192–3). But it seems highly likely that the group nature of animal soul energy itself precludes the possibility of any sort of process of reincarnation similar to that experienced by humans. This group nature is not only demonstrated by the way groups of animals react similarly and instantaneously without apparent communication, such as flocks of birds changing direction, but also by some intriguing research conducted in the late nineteenth century by A F Knudsen. He hypnotized individual horses to perform certain movements, and found that certain others in the field would react in the same way, with group sizes varying from anywhere between three and eighteen animals. He was also able to repeat the experiment although with less elaborations with cattle, who he felt were generally less intelligent and whose group sizes were correspondingly larger at between fifty and a hundred animals. These experiments worked even when the main animal subject was as much as five miles distant from the others (see TenDam, Exploring Reincarnation, chapter 12, pp. 259–60).
[iv] For a modern summary see Judy Hall’s The Way of Karma, chapter 1, pp. 7–9. This is at least partly based on theosophical thinking.
[v] This is taken from an article entitled ‘Rebirth’ in Arya, Nov 1915, reproduced at www.hinduwebsite.com/divinelife/auro/auro_rebirth.asp.
[vi] Aurobindo, The Life Divine, book 2, chapter 22, pp. 839 and 841–3.