Released on May 22, this is a discussion of karma, enlightenment, and the virtues of letting up on the judgment a bit. It’s an ode to liberation. I hope you enjoy!
Why is it that we often feel that we are bound by life? You know what I mean – that we must suffer a drudgery, in accordance with a system of governance and ideas that predate our lives and control our every action? We are beholden to outside forces: our parents, our teachers, the state, social norms, the laws of the universe. It is through these systems that we end up feeling without liberty. Without choice.
It seems that we have no choice in the matter of being born. Does anyone have the memory of the decision that their parents came to in conceiving them? No, of course not. It was a decision by our folks for us to exist. We arrive in this world, squalling and surprised by it all. We might be born rich or poor or somewhere in between. We and our parents might be any colour on the spectrum, living in any one of the many cultures on the planet. We might be gay, straight, somewhere in the middle, or something else entirely. Our circumstances are different, but the questions unite us. How did we even get here? What is here? Why?
These are the million-dollar questions, the ones that have plagued philosophers and mystics since the dawn of consciousness. Most of us give up on pursuit of understanding early in life, content to simply live our lives in the way that most everyone else is doing without question. We go to school, get a job, get a house, maybe get married, get old, retire, and die. But there are some of us who are not satisfied with that – at least, not satisfied with that without continuing to ask the questions.
Random chance is an easy enough solution, at least for people asking scientific questions. There is a certainty to science, one that is mostly unperturbed by such grander queries (except perhaps the type of work they are doing with God particles and CERN). Science does not need God, it does not need belief. All it needs is proof, and proof is readily available for most of the questions we ask the physical world. But in terms of the big ones, it is completely without satisfying conclusion.
In spite of this, we live our lives. Life as a whole does not care about the questions – it is here and it is in our faces. We can (and many of us do) live without caring a whit for spiritual matters. We are born, we grow up, and we die.
What I find funny, though perhaps not unsurprising, given human nature’s proclivity for feeling ‘special,’ is a popular notion among the spiritual community. Essentially, many people on the spiritual path will judge themselves superior to people who are not quite as ‘woke’ as they are. As the idea goes, everyone must achieve Self-realization, and we are all supposed to do that. If you’re not doing that, your little snatch of soulstuff will reincarnate and you’ll do it in the next life. Or the next.
And it is all about choice.
Western notions of karma, the wheel that turns, the misunderstood notion that we are to be reincarnated based on choices in our lives until our itty bitty soul is ‘perfect,’ is most definitely a human conceit. For all of the ideas generally held by the spiritual community, the detestability of the human ego seems quite prevalent. And yet, in a way, this kind of idea about karma almost certainly fueled by ego, because it is playing the separation game, the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ game. That is to say, it is judgmental. It is not enough to think that these little separated bits of soul need to be purified. We also cannot become ‘perfect’ until we do the ‘appropriate’ things and act ‘appropriately.’
So, what is appropriate?
Generally, ‘appropriate’ in this sense is in some way acting selflessly. And for good reason – what looks like selflessness is the root of all virtue. But I would say it is a symptom of enlightenment, rather than a cause. The reason for this is simple: if we undertake actions in order to get somewhere – if we act selflessly in order to be ‘good’ and get off the wheel of karma – we are not ever going to get where we think we want to go. We are going to keep playing the game and never dispel the illusions.
But is that really such a bad thing?
Selflessness happens not because the enlightened person ‘wants’ something. Selflessness happens because the enlightened person has remembered who and what they are and it is in their nature to do these things. It happens because they have recalled that they are at their core in harmony with nature, with the flow of the Tao. In fact, they are Nature. But these people do not judge people who have not recollected themselves as ‘less than.’ They ‘judge’ people who have not recollected themselves as no different from them, just as perfect in their imperfections as they are. To very loosely paraphrase Neem Karoli Baba, they don’t give a shit about karma. They just love everyone. So what is karma, then?
Karma is a description of actions. We have to remember that we are not in someone else’s shoes when they do something. We have no idea what anyone is thinking when they hand a homeless person $20, or when they buy a coffee for the next person in line at Tim Hortons, or when they volunteer at a soup kitchen, or when they stay home and play video games by themselves all weekend. Admittedly, one of those actions is not like the other. But, tell me, did you judge one of those examples as ‘unenlightened?’ Could an enlightened being actually spend his time vegging out on the couch watching junk on Netflix?
This is the trap that we have built for ourselves with the notion of karma. It is just one more way of judging other people for their own actions. We look at someone acting ‘badly’ and we might ask ourselves ‘what kind of ‘karma’ is that building?’ or say something self-righteous to show them ‘the way,’ digging our own holes deeper in the process. When Jesus talked about giving up judgment, this misconception was part of it. There are no half measures. Like Kabir said, there is a place beyond good and evil, and it is at the heart of all of reality.
If we find ourselves in this trap of believing in karma, what can we do? Well, the first thing is to climb down off our high horses and get down in the muck with the commoners. We are all completely, one hundred percent, beings of equal worth. From Jesus to Genghis Khan, not a single person is better or worse, nor more or less deserving of life. The song of life is a single piece, played by one musician, a light that is reflected through an infinite number of mirrors. It cannot be done ‘wrong,’ because every single part is just as important as the next.
This is what liberation means. Understanding the unity, the illusion, but remaining an actor in the play. The wheel of karma breaks, not because you suddenly have become something more than what you are, but because you have finally realized your own worth. You are not this separated bit of soul, bound to the body that you inhabit like some little speck of light. You are the sun itself.
But you are also the guy who eats too many Cheesies from time to time. The girl who was assaulted in her youth and still bears the scars of that pain. The father of five, working three jobs. The scumbag lawyer who has forgotten her ethics. The addicted single mother, high as a kite and unable to care for her daughter. The spiritual teacher wearing robes and meditating next to a pile of burning incense. You are You when you are ‘good,’ you are You when you are ‘bad,’ you are You when you stumble, you are You when you are riding high.
All of it – everything – is You. There is no lower case ‘self,’ only the big Self. And you remember and recognize that, so that when you act, you act in accordance with that. And what that looks like does not obey the rules of reason or human conceits about righteousness. $20 bucks for the down and out panhandler? It feels right. No question, no expectation. Coffee for the next person in line? It feels right. What a fun idea. Volunteering at the soup kitchen? It feels right. My pleasure. The weekend Netflix escape? It feels right. Why not?
This is what liberation is. It is not about acting differently in expectation of a ‘better’ outcome. It is acting in accordance with one’s nature – one’s true nature – without question or reservation. It is about making choices without fear or regret. It is leaving judgment in your dust. It is recognizing the fact that even when one seems so ignorant of ‘what is going on,’ like the despot murdering his own citizens, this ‘monster’ is just as enlightened as the blissed out dude painting the mandala on the mountaintop.
It is about seeing the circus for what it is and diving in, heart first.