Read Mark’s weekly reflections on The Huffington Post.
We are all born with tendencies, inclinations toward different ways of being in the world. Some of us like to put things together. Some of us like to take things apart. Some of us like to have everything in order. Some of us are suffocated if everything seems too neat. Some of us feel completely who we are when with others. Some of us only feel this thorough alone, in nature. The ancient Hindu notion of karma speaks to the law of tendencies. This profound view of life is often misunderstood. This reflection explores the notion of karma and our human tendencies.
The popular understanding of karma is rather like a westernized cartoon of a very profound aspect of the spiritual condition of being human. Often oversimplified, karma is rendered in broad strokes by westerners as living many lives under the threat that if you’re bad in one life, you’ll be punished in the next—or the reverse. But let’s look more closely.
The word karma comes from the Sanskrit root kri, meaning to do; kri, in turn, is from the Pali, kamma, meaning action, effect, destiny, the work of fate. Weaving these notions into their largest meaning, the original Hindu sense of karma refers to the sum of all the consequences of a person’s actions in this or a previous life. We must consider the phrase “previous life” in various ways: literally, as well as referring to different passages within a single life of transformation on earth. With this in mind, we are responsible for the impact of our actions over time. Once we’ve formed our tendencies to act, we have the option of following them or resisting them.
This freedom to follow our tendencies or not resides in the well of what the Hindus call atman, or the breath of spirit and consciousness within. Our surrender to God is believed to be essential in dissolving the bonds of destructive tendencies. And so obeying the breath of spirit and consciousness within (our atman, or the God within) is believed to be instrumental in creating life-nourishing tendencies. Given that what is not integrated is repeated, destructive tendencies, if not faced and dismantled, repeat themselves, not only throughout one life but throughout many lives. This is the psycho-spiritual dynamic at the heart of karma. And no one is exempt from it.
So the challenge for each of us centers on understanding our own eternal journey in terms of which of our personal tendencies are life-nourishing and which are destructive, which are we upholding and which are we resisting. Paradoxically, only being human on earth can offer up the experience of spirit necessary to alter our tendencies.
My first encounter with facing my own tendencies surfaced abruptly when waiting for surgery to determine if I had brain cancer. Four or five of us were all lined up in the anteroom of the operating room, and one by one the masked angels of this medical underworld were hooking us up. My fear kept building. I thought I might explode. Next to me was a young woman, a poor, innocent, inexperienced being. She was terrified of the needle that would make her sleep. So terrified, she moaned before the needle touched her skin. Her moan was piercing. I reached for her but was tethered by my own IV. But this was her karma. The needle wouldn’t take, and they had to try four, five, six times until it settled in a vein. I lay there on my back, my last pouch of innocence torn. And I thought, “Who will suture this?” I watched her moan and thought, “What on earth is my karma? What do I fear and need to relinquish so deeply that I am here?”
I had always needed closure, had always planned the days minutely in advance, but as I struggled with cancer, it became clear—there would be no closure. It made me wonder if there ever is closure or is it just a fabrication like time, a rope of mind which humans need to braid and knot in order to get by. But there I was. The terrified young woman was wheeled off. And then they came for me. As I was rolled into the operating room, as I began to drift, I remember pressing the question: is lack of closure my needle, which—because I fear it—must be thrust at me four, five, six times until it settles in my spirit’s vein?
Up to that point in my life, I had thought of hardships as inexplicable events happening to me and others and viewed strength as the ability to endure these unwanted circumstances. Such endurance is certainly a strength. But for the first time, laying there next to this terrified young woman, waiting my turn, my sense of all this changed. Suddenly I understood strength in another way, as the character revealed by facing what comes our way—until our tendencies and habits are revealed to us, until they wrestle or dance with us, until we are worn into who we are born to be.
A Question to Walk With: Describe one life-nourishing tendency you have and one life-draining tendency you have. What can you do to encourage the what is nourishing and what can you do to lessen what is life-draining?