Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Sir Isaac Newton.
My son recently introduced me to a YouTube channel which featured episodes labelled “Instant Karma”. There are a series of video clips showing people who are behaving badly getting their come uppence from the environment around them.
This “payback” element seems to fit with the common conception of karma. However this is not the whole story. On a simple level Karma can be seen as “If you behave badly/well then bad/good things will happen to you.” Such a world view would make a reasonable philosophy for living our lives.
Many faiths encourage this as a way to gain blessings or punishment from an all-powerful divine being, but there is a problem with this as it places the locus of control in someone else’s hands. We learn to behave in a particular way out of fear and to avoid punishment for the choices we make and not because we believe that it is the right thing to do.
This does not mean that we will be reborn physically.
Sometimes Karma is seen as a process of gaining a better life through a process of reincarnation. This does not necessarily mean that we will be reborn physically. At least I have yet to meet anyone who actually seems to have been reborn. There are many other ways in which the process of rebirth can be viewed. It could be seen as coming back as ourseves reborn for another life, or perhaps being reborn in some other body – whether human or not. I have always fancied coming back as a cat!
If I screw it up in this life I can always try again.
Physical reincarnation certainly sounds an attractive proposition. “If I stuff up in this life I can always try again.” However, if we choose to take a psychological, rather than a purely physical approach, to the concept of reincarnation it may be more productive for our wellbeing in both the short and longer term.
One of the teachings of Buddhism concerns the impermanence of all things. Everything dies. Nothing remains the same. Our new toys lose their shine, there is a newer version of our latest gadget loaded up with another fifty apps that we never use. This impermanence leads to dissatisfaction with the world around us, it causes us suffering by not living up to our expectations.
Reincarnation is taking place moment by moment as we adjust to our changing state of being. The world is in a constant state of flux around us.
V You can never cross the same river twice.
In the exact same way our mental states are impermanent and our mind is also in a constant state of flux. Our thoughts and emotions changing from one moment to the next. If we have positive feelings our mental state will tend to be positive, if negative we will have darker, less happy emotional states. The way in which we choose to think about events and how we decide to react to them can lead to many different states of being. Happy, sad, angry etc. Each of these mental states arises out of the current situation in which we find ourselves, passing away only to be replaced by another equally fleeting mental state. If we monitor these thoughts and feelings we can make an active contribution to how we feel.
Our mental states respond to momentary changes in our environment, sometimes the triggers that produce this change are so small as to be almost unnoticeable. Every thing is in constant motion, there is a constant state of change at play in our lives whether we like it or not – and we usually do not like it. This can ruin our day, if we chose to let it.
Physically, our bodies are just a huge test tube, with millions – if not billions – of chemical reactions occurring every second. We exchange every atom in our bodies several times during our lives. Our brain cells are in a perpetual state of change making and breaking their connections with other neurons all the time. As you read this the cells involved are not only altering their chemical composition, but also their physical connections and physical state as well.
These effects are the sum of our accumulated karma.
Every single thing that we do creates effects, (either positive of negative), that spread out through our lives like ripples in a pond. Our individual actions have consequences that can be good, bad or neutral. Some of the effects are immediate, while others may not reveal themselves until a longer period has passed. The accumulated effects of these changes are the balance of our accumulated karma, the results of our previous actions.
Positive actions tend to result in positive effects, wbile the opposite holds true for negative actions. Our current state is the result of the cumulative effects of multiple causes and effects that arise out of our past actions.
Actions that bring about positive effects are regarded as skilful, while those that do not are seen as unskilful.
As I sit at my desk writing this I am aware that my blood sugar is low. This is a consequence of several things that are related in causation but are not related in time. When a worsening in my chronoc back problem meant that I could not exercise as much due to pain, I became fat. This was made worse by an unhealthy life style related to feeling depressed because of my immobility. This all added to my stresses and after a few years I developed diabetes.
There are long and short-term karmic forces in play.
The insulin injections that I give myself to control this illness can result in a sudden drop in my blood sugar, especially if I do not eat in a timely way – so the fact that I have not yet eaten my lunch also contributes. All in all, my feeling less than 100% at the moment is the result of many behaviours and choices that I have made over many years, some of which lay within my personal control and some did not.
There are long and short-term karmic effects at play, each of which have contributed to my current state. These are related to a combination of poor lifestyle choices made some thirty years ago, these include those that I actively made and others that were forced upon me by circumstances. When we add in my more active choices of today – leaving my cheese and Marmite sandwich at home – then the situation is ripe for past events to bring my current state into being.
The same relationship between cause and effect can be seen in all aspects of our lives, from the work we choose to do, to the people we choose to live with. The most important thing is that we choose our response to events carefully, to decide what karmic effects we wish to have.
If we are in bed with our lover it may generate an entirely different set of responses.
As I mentioned above, unskilful choices generate negative mental states, while skilful choices create positive mental states. The decisions we make about how we react to events in our lives have much to do with the eventual outcome.
Any stimulus reaching our body has three layers to it.
- The initial contact.
- We feel a sensation of some kind.
- Our brain makes sense of this sensation.
- Something touched my foot.
- We react to this stimulus.
- We give it meaning and judge it.
- If we are frightened of snakes, then the touch on our foot might generate a panic attack and all kinds of negative thoughts and feelings.
- If we are in bed with our lover it may generate an entirely different set of responses.
Skilful responses are the ones that allow us time to consider our reactions, and then to act in ways conducive to our mental and physical well-being. Unskilful responses contribute to a worsening in both our current predicament and our mental state.
If we can be mindful of our thoughts and feelings, we are then in a position to use this awareness of how we feel, and how we are thinking to make different choices about how we react and so override our habitual learned responses. If we sense that we are about to behave in an unskilful manner, driven by our thoughts or feelings then we are in a position to decide to make a different response and create a better outcome.
One of the benefits of choosing to be mindful in this way, is that we are able to make different choices. This means that our accumulated karma, the effects of our previous actions, has a much better chance of proving beneficial and positive.
In this way we can reduce the suffering that arises in response to the unsatisfactory nature of the world and live a happier more fruitful life.