One of the most misunderstood notions in Eastern thought is that of karma. In the West, we often think about good karma and bad karma — you do something good, good will come back to you; you do something bad, and bad will come back. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Karma is about action, non-action, responsibility, accountability and consequence.
Karma literally means ‘action’. Karma Yoga is the yoga of action. What that means, in the context of the Yoga tradition, is
lending ourselves to society and being of service to other human beings. One of the most familiar of Karma Yogis in modern times is Ram Dass who, along with being a primary voice for spiritual awakening in the West, established the Seva Foundation, which provides spiritual support to the dying. Another familiar person who falls into this category would be Mother Teresa, whose Missionaries of Charity are familiar to almost all of us.
Karma within the context of the Yoga tradition speaks to the first of the yamas or restraints, which is a code of conduct for living virtuously. The first of these is ahimsa, or non-harming.
Outside of this context, karma is an action that has no charge. It is neither a good, nor bad — it simply is. In fact, one element of the samurai tradition which finds its expression in modern Aikido is the ethic, ‘No action is an action’…everything has a consequence, and consequences are at the heart of karma.
What karma is truly about is accountability, responsibility, and consequences. How does this translate into our day-to-day lives, without being some kind of esoteric Zen-based philosophical conundrum? It translates into this — there are no bad decisions.
What in the world do I mean, there are no bad decisions? Exactly that — there are no bad decisions — there are only consequences to our decisions. Let me give the example I use when I work with alcoholics and addicts, to help illustrate this notion. I find this concept of no bad decisions helpful for those trying to reshape their day-to-day thinking and it goes something like this:
When you get in your car and leave work, turning left to go to the liquor store instead of turning right to go home, you haven’t made a bad decision…when you walk into the liquor store, you haven’t made a bad decision…when you buy a bottle, you haven’t made a bad decision…when you bring the bottle home, you haven’t made a bad decision…when you open the bottle and pour yourself a glass of whatever, you haven’t made a bad decision…when you raise the glass and drink, you still have not made a bad decision…
What you have done is potentially engender consequences for which you need to be responsible and ultimately accountable. That’s karma, plain and simple. Here, we get back to the notion of action — not good or bad or anything else. Working out our karma means taking responsibility for the choices that we make and being accountable to those choices because every choice has a consequence.
Remember, when a butterfly in Africa beats its wings, the air currents in North America change…it’s all connected, and we are the thread that holds the warp and woof of the tapestry together.