Karma

As a Hindu and as a younger person, I did not quite believe in (or understand) karma. Perhaps this was because of the simplistic way in which people discussed it–similar to the way many religious concepts are discussed in one-dimensional, black-and-white ways–and because of my belief in the goodness of human nature. Karma did not make sense to me. Interestingly, though, all religions seem to have a sense of consciousness that is structural, be it karma, sin, Judgment Day, the afterlife, etcetera: all psychological mechanisms that encourage individuals to think beyond one’s daily actions and individual desires. With Hindu karma, naturally, there is the idea of reincarnation and rebirth into higher forms or castes until one attains moksha, or divine liberation. As someone who has really struggled with the idea of caste and who follows a branch of Hinduism that is against this and welcoming to all castes, I felt deeply upset and frightened by this aspect of my religion.

However, through my mid-adult years and the recent past, I began to think more deeply about this, and start to see how life had a way of evening out circumstances and situations for people. I came to realize that karma was not something silly and tit-for-tat, such as you will have bad karma if you skip mass and watch the Super Bowl, are working on a paper on the Sabbath, or are a Hindu who eats beef once in a while (as some of my friends do, though I’m a vegetarian.) Karma was something more about life balancing things out, and a couple years ago I came upon a quote by leading North American teacher and nun Pema Chödrön (formerly of the Shambala tradition) that made everything so clear, was a major insight:

            People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.

And suddenly, it all made sense, it was so beautifully put. I began to reflect on my own life and that of people I knew, to see how the trajectories of their lives played out in a spiritual sense, what lessons they had been given. This was something that one could only see in middle age, after people have gone through life’s ups and downs. Just as in all religions there are simplistic ways of interpreting complex concepts, karma was no exception. 

The girl for whom everything came easily in school and in life ended up in a profession where she has had to seek out all her opportunities. The young woman who faced a lot of financial struggle with her boyfriend (who became husband) in their early years together ended up getting a nice home in an expensive area of America when her mother inherited money back in her home country. The man who grew up moving very often due to his father’s career became a very open-minded global citizen with a career around the world and developed tremendous resilience, something unusual for people in his country, who tend to stay close to home. The couple who did not nurture friendships and social connections when younger have ended up isolated in old age, and have been forced to learn how to connect during the pandemic. The young woman who suffered many unexpected setbacks and traumas in her 20s, 30s, and early 40s is enjoying calm and prosperity in her late 40s. The man who died at age 42 had fortunately lived a very full life, having grown up in a stable family, studied at Ivy League schools, traveled around the world, and had a successful career. The woman who has jumped from job to job to find the “next best thing,” relationship to relationship, place to place, and wants everything easy has found herself alone and unfulfilled. The struggling single mom who moved alone cross country for an academic job ended up becoming a professor at a top university who is nationally renowned in her field and getting acclaim even in her advanced years. 

Without knowing the stories behind these individuals, this could all potentially read as simplistic. However, in knowing these people, and their life stories, one can see a sense of balancing out, be it challenging lessons they have had to learn, or unexpectedly wonderful turns in their lives. Karma, as per Pema Chödrön’s definition, has been a great teacher for all of these people; perhaps they could not have seen or predicted what would happen. Many of them may not be aware of the karmic lessons they have undergone, or still need to undergo. It is still an evolving process for the above people and for everyone. Some may have a heavier spiritual load than others, and this is not an easy thing to bear. If we see karma as a teacher and a practice of opening and of love, this makes dealing with life easier. We are indeed spiritual beings, and life is our greatest teacher if we let it be so. 

Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly digitized. Even our communication is much less interactive and personal than it was, due to the unfortunate preference for social media. If you couple that with the American mentality of excessive independence and secularism, it makes for a very disconnected society. I am not advocating that America lose its secular governance – especially with this administration, we do not have enough separation of church and state, and unfortunately in America, religion becomes conflated with the Religious Right and Christianity. But secular liberals have a hard time understanding anything that isn’t 110%, fair and square to the last drop equality and freedom. The idea of subjugating one’s personal desires to anything greater is simply unthinkable to them. And perhaps this is due to their having been raised in organized religion, and its heavy-handed requirements for personal behavior as well as its endless rituals and consumption of one’s time.

Despite all this, I still maintain that we need spirituality in this world. We need a sense of something sacred.

Two definitions under the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for the word sacred provide an adequate meaning for what I’m discussing here. One reads, “entitled to reverence and respect.” Another reads “highly valued and important.” In many cultures, certain daily rituals are considered sacred. For example, the tea ceremony, or even quotidian tasks such as how one slices tofu in the home, are considered sacred in Japan. The coffee ceremony in Ethiopia is equally revered. Ask any Italian worth his or her weight in semolina if there is a proper way to make pasta, and do not contradict him or her. But beyond food, there are other things that are considered sacred. Certain objects, such as heirlooms, need to be treated with respect, as they hold great significance to a deceased loved one. Color symbolism, such as red at Asian weddings, is important. Various poets or writers or artists of any genre are sacred to different cultures. Russians love Pushkin and Poles adore Chopin. Brazilians, a beautifully sentimental people, worship not only their gods, but also their musicians and their land of their country.

Part of our loss of the sense of something sacred in America stems from the fact that we have so few historical edifices or places and spaces that are important. Everything here is designed for efficiency and practicality, and in some parts of the country, like the Midwest, pragmatism is valued over anything else. We do not have many basilicas or mosques like the Istanbul “Blue Mosque” that take our breath away. We do not have ornate temples like in South India whose gopurams (towers) are sculpted impressively, if sometimes gaudily, by hand by artisans of astounding skill. We do not have, as a regular part of our culture, large plazas or public spaces that exist simply to allow people to congregate. There are no Macchu Picchus here, nor an Eiffel Tower. Other than the grand nature out west or in the mountains in the east, the looming skyscrapers of Manhattan and other big cities, and the over-the-topness of Las Vegas, most everything in America in public spaces is built to scale, for efficiency and not for aesthetics. If something is large, it is usually just to serve a function: a convention center, a corporate headquarters, a shopping mall.

We do have reverence in America, but it often becomes extremist, centered on a particular person, celebrity, or even religious leader or cult figure. It can be jingoistic, insular, and dangerous. What I am talking about is the quiet reverence and respect that comes from history, from a deep love, and from a sense of the aesthetic. A quiet hush. This sense of sacred is something that makes secular individuals lay down their guard that says everything has to be about them, and experience a sense of humility and surrender that all the great spiritual masters have taught us for millennia. Life in America should not just be all about us; to live this way is not only psychologically unhealthy, but it also robs us of a feeling of something beautiful that is beyond us. It disconnects us from our continuity with other beings that existed before us.

Take time to reflect on what is personally sacred to you, what is meaningful to you, something that you respect and revere.

Intuition as Omniscience

I am currently immersed in the study of narration and narrative distance in my MFA program. More specifically, in omniscient narration. This is the notable bugbear of many writers, to the point that they do not even attempt it in their writing, choosing to write in first- or third-person limited instead. Commonly known as the voice that is “playing God,” the omniscient narrator does not necessarily know everything or see everything, but has a greater ability to go into various characters’ heads than other narrators.

What is omniscience? The ability to know everything. Is this truly possible? Is it possible to know everything?

In this day and age of Google, social media, everything available on the Internet and in public domain, it certainly seems so. Everything is available with the click of a button, at our fingertips, anytime and anywhere. People from halfway around the world can take a course at an American university, online. Someone in a small town in the Midwest can purchase something online made in a place thousands of miles away. In this Information Age, anything seems possible. Even the advent of Bitcoin and payment services such as PayPal, Venmo, or Apple Pay render currency obsolete.

In Europe, privacy laws are stricter than in the US, something that is very admirable and enviable. One’s personal information should not be distributed so freely; credit card companies and Internet services and marketing organizations know too much about us to degree that is simply frightening.

What can we do?

I would suggest that this problem creates a spiritual void that needs to be filled by our own understanding of something greater than us – call it the divine, God, energy, what you will. It requires that we go within, be aware of our breath, our inner landscape, and most importantly, our intuition. So much emphasis is given to facts and cerebral knowledge that our body’s wisdom is discarded. So much emphasis is given to ascertaining and reassuring that we forget to get in touch with our souls, and a knowledge that is beyond the scientific method. To be sure, I am a very pro-science writer; science is extremely important, and not used enough by our politicians and many people in making important and informed decisions. But there is a place for it, and when it affects our personal lives at a deep level, we have to step back and ask ourselves if there isn’t some greater way of knowing and understanding the world. Even the greatest scientists have emphasized the importance of intuition in their discoveries, and even neuroscience is slowly investigating intuition. This is not to say they espouse sloppy work or lower their standards of rigor. There is too much pseudo-science in the world, and it is equally as dangerous as excessive scientific rationalism. Rather, once they have done all the necessary work, there is something beyond the rational that kicks in, something they can’t explain but they know leads them to the right answers.

Mindfulness and meditation remind us to go within and listen to our intuition. All the great spiritual traditions of the world teach us to sit still in silence. While this may not be an easy thing to do in our modern world, it is imperative. We may not be able to “play God,” but we may be able to “hear God,” to hear something that is beyond our daily practice of rationality and scientific routine. To quote Albert Einstein, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”