Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Understanding Karma: It's Relative, Not Just 'Good' and 'Bad'

Understanding Karma, Pt. II: It's Not As Simple As 'Good' and 'Bad'

A reader asked, based on what I said in Understanding Karma, if the assignment of ‘good' and ‘bad' could only be made retroactively and in hindsight. That's a very good question and I thought it was something that needed to be addressed, quoting Marshal Mcluen, in the ‘front of the house', rather than ‘backstage'. The answer, of course, is not as simple as yes or no.

We've come to an understanding that karma means action. So, when we talk about good karma and bad karma, we would be talking about good action and bad action - that's the common Western interpretation. The more subtle interpretation is that actions are neither good, nor bad; they are, in and of themselves, benign (read: there are no bad decisions - only consequences). It is the consequences of our actions with which we must be concerned and to which we must be responsible.

When we act, we engender consequences. From these consequences, we gather evidence and are then able to make judgments about our outcomes - e.g., if I drink too much, I will get a hangover.

In some cases, we don't have to act to gather a sense of our consequences; our evidence is gathered through cultural consciousness, social conscience, codes of conduct and other pre-existing imperatives - e.g., you don't have to go out and shoot someone to understand that it's something that you shouldn't do.

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So, in some cases, we just know, and in others, we have to learn for ourselves. And in still other cases, we should know better, but we make the choice that we make anyway. Either way, it is an understanding of the consequences of an action that lead us to the choice-point.

The stockpile of karma that we collect and carry with us is based on the consequences of the actions that we take, and that stockpile - whether we are talking about the esoteric ideal of karma as an engine of reincarnation, or the more pragmatic version that speaks to our present condition -defines the circumstances that we have created for ourselves.

By example, if you have consistent money problems, we can take that view that you may have been a thief, or a pirate, or even one of the guys that Jesus threw out of the temple in a past life, or we can take the view that you were never taught how to be responsible with money, so you manage it poorly. Either way you have ‘bad' money karma - you act poorly in your relationship to money and that has consequences for you.

On the other hand, let's say that you enjoy a great love in your life. In a past life, you may have sacrificed a great love, or lived in isolation. Or, in your present condition, you may have made choices and learned things that have allowed you to create a deep and fulfilling relationship. Either way, you have ‘good' love karma - you act well in your relationship to relationship.

Whether we take the esoteric or the pragmatic position, is of no matter. What does matter is the present moment, and how you are going to work out or work with that particular bit of karma. If and when you do, in the esoteric case you are a little closer to getting off the Wheel of Reincarnation, and in the pragmatic, you get to relieve your current state of anxiety, or enjoy the blessings in your life. All good, in any case.

Now, for the fun stuff. The working out of karma shifts around because the consequences of our actions are not always stable. Let me use a personal example to illustrate what I mean:

It is well documented that the best diet for a dog is raw food. I have 4 dogs, and my karmic imperative is to take care of my dogs, so each has been on a raw food diet. A few years ago, one of the dogs developed very severe heart problems, which were eventually managed with a whole raft of medications. The dog, which should have been dead within a matter of days of falling ill, has quite remarkably enjoyed a happy, healthy and high quality life for almost the past 2 years (the credit for which is not mine, by the way).

A few months ago, this same dog went into kidney failure. The reason was a combination of the heart medications that were keeping him alive, and the raw food diet, which had become too high in protein for his little body to handle. Two good actions make for good outcomes, which, given changing circumstance, eventually lead to bad outcomes...hmmm.

The solution: withdraw certain of the medications, and introduce more fat into the dog's diet - both presupposed ‘bads'. The dog, which, once again, should have been dead within a matter of days, has gained weight, has great blood sats, presents no evidence of congestive heart failure, is once again happy, healthy, enjoying a great quality of life, and, for all intents and purposes, remains the same as he ever was.

What's my point? The karmic imperative of caring for another sentient being to the best of ones ability in this case has been preserved (read: good karma), despite actions (withdrawing meds, feeding fat) that, presupposed, are ‘bad'.

Our actions are benign; we must attend to the consequences of those actions and gather evidence, or rely on acculturated evidence, to make a judgment about ‘'goodness' or ‘badness' because that ‘goodness' or ‘badness' cannot be applied to the action (the karma), it can only be applied to the consequences. Once we have gathered that evidence, we create for ourselves a choice-point. The choices we make determine the circumstances that we create for ourselves. We then must be responsible to and accountable for those circumstances, both for ourselves and those in our lives.

Actions are like a pebble in a pond...just remember that, when the ripples hit the shore, they come back at you. Karma is a boomerang.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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