I wrote and released this essay during the pre-order campaign for The Yoga of Strength. It is about karma. I hope you enjoy!
When we fight with someone, we’re exercising judgment over them. We’re saying, “what this person is doing is wrong,” in some form or another. The corollary to this is that what we are doing is right. We think ourselves better than another person. Judgment is a process of othering, of separation.
It’s a trite notion that kids fight. When we’re new to the world, we often single each other out for ridicule. We laugh at each other for perceived weaknesses and foibles. The armourless child rarely knows to not take it personally, only to retaliate in kind. The next time the victor is down, the victim knows that their moment has arrived. Or to simply take up the mantle of bully and go after someone weaker.
It makes us feel better to position ourselves over someone… for a very little bit anyway. And like an addictive drug, the effect loses its potency after a time. But by then, judgment has become a habit.
That’s the way it is, when we are kids. As we grow up, we mingle with other people, people who look and act differently than us. We continue to judge, until we mature through hard lessons. Some of us learn to love one another and see past judgment, past hatred. Others do not, and misery blossoms.
There are usually relics, however, even in the most well-adjusted. Leftover bits from childhood that never go away. Judgment’s stain is everywhere in adults. Family and friends are one thing, but strangers? The ones who act completely idiotically (at least according to what our judging mind tells us). What do we owe these fools? This frequently applies to behaviours (“Can you believe what so and so did?”). It can also apply to inborn traits.
Things like physical appearance. Like mental ability. Like race. Like sexuality.
Sexuality plays a front and center role in The Yoga of Strength. Andrew’s best friend Simon is abused by his superior officer. The sexual trauma has a lasting impact on him and he simply does not know how to handle it. I won’t spoil it too much for you, but he lashes out with judgment in an incredibly serious way, an action that generates a mountain of karma for him to scale.
The notion of karma is one of these concepts that comes up frequently when people discuss Eastern spirituality. It has been bandied about as this idea of just desserts, the big stick that the universe has for people who are “bad,” the retribution that we all picture coming to those that have wronged us. In a way, that’s true. But it also is a little more (paradoxically) complex and simple than that.
Karma can be viewed as an intersection between habit and the consequences of your actions. If you’re in the habit of judging everyone, your world shrinks. The pool of people who are “OK” is small. You become lonely, because everyone has become the “other.” If you refuse to judge, if you accept people for who they are, your world swells. You see everyone as they truly are: your siblings. But you don’t get from being a judging person to becoming a non-judgmental person without breaking the habit of judgment.
Cue the consequences of your actions. If you have cut people off through judgment, whether that’s overtly or in your own mind, you frequently have to make amends. You have to extricate yourself from the blame game and own up to your own part in the drama. You throw yourself at the feet of your victim, say that you were wrong, and ask for their forgiveness. Sometimes they do, but there are moments when people do not accept your apology. Other times, you simply have to forgive that biggest transgressor: yourself. The process hurts. In my experience, it is also liberating.
Thus the name of Book 2 of the Yoga Trilogy: The Yoga of Pain.
My own understanding of karma is spiritual. We have a curriculum in life. It is a very simple curriculum: you need to learn to love everyone the way you do yourself. Nobody is perfect, of course – I certainly am not. We are all human. Many of us try to act honourably, but we make mistakes. But there is no more noble goal than to try to live in a community-oriented way. There is a reason why the actions of people who act in a unifying manner are cherished in all of our art and culture – it is because we recognize something of value in what appears to be selflessness.
On the other hand, an evolutionary biologist might tell you that these behaviours are looked on positively because human beings are social animals and those behaviours that foster social cohesion have been selected for by evolution over millennia and we are rewarded for them by being more adept at survival. That is most certainly just as true as the spiritual understanding.
If you are a rationalist, you can understand karma by simply pointing out that anti-social behaviours are weeded out by interactions with social groups – if you act badly, you will be excluded from life. If you act really badly, society will drop the hammer on you in the form of the criminal justice system. This has often meant imprisonment or death, and a corresponding inability to procreate. If you act in a socially positive way, people will respond positively to that. We build each other up when we are dutiful, generous, kind, charitable. And the species thrives.
As a spiritual person, you can look at karma as the lessons that point our attention toward the unity of the universe. When you act in a way that separates, you will be separated. When you act in a way that unifying, you will be brought into the fold. There is a song playing beneath the surface, one that gathers people together in joy and community – karma is trying to get you to pay attention to the music. When you finally do, you can start dancing, instead of sitting off in the corner all by your lonesome.
Part of the voyage of self-discovery is coming to understand the ‘whys’ of yourself. One of the things that often gets lost in translation is the other end of karma. Might it be that closing karma’s circle, of learning to live without judgment, offers knowledge? It is no accident that they say that wisdom comes from experience. But you do not get wisdom until you forgive yourself and others. Beneath all of the armour we wear as adults is the hurt little child, the one who was made fun of for her little belly, or who he likes, or their sense of humour. They were made to feel alone, and they never want to feel that way again.
The Yoga Trilogy is a human story. It is about judgment and forgiveness. It is about the black dog that comes upon us sometimes, the one that makes us feel like we are all separated and the whole endeavour of life is pointless. Rather than pathologize it, I think that we need to understand and accept it, but try to do better as a species as we evolve. Kids learn from their parents and society at large. People don’t need to be miserable to one another – it is simply a chain of unexamined actions that we pass down generation to generation. We always have a choice. The heartbreak of violence and bullying is a leash from the past that needs to be cut. It starts with each of us, by looking inside ourselves at the shadows that lurk within. To see them for what they are. With the Yoga Trilogy, I hope to deliver that message in a way that anyone can appreciate, no matter their background.
We need the darkness to understand that we are all made up of the light.