What is Karma?

Jagadish Vasudev (a.k.a. Sadhguru) served as my teacher this week. An Indian yogi and author, he recently published Karma: A Yogi’s Guide to Crafting Your Destiny. Here are key concepts.

karmaKarma is not some outside force that acts upon us for better or worse. We are not unwitting beneficiaries of “good karma” or unfortunate victims of “bad karma.” Rather, every thing we do, think, or feel creates an imprint on us. These imprints inform our habits, predispositions, and tendencies. They also determine what we attract and to what we are attracted. We may go through life letting this karmic imprint drive us and live with its consequences. Or, we can elevate our awareness and learn to rewrite our “karmic software.”

In simple terms, karma tells us that every action we perform has consequences. Those consequences can have individual or collective impact. They also shape the people we become and the societies in which we live. When bad things happen to good people, we find the root of the problem in collective karma.

Volition matters more than action. We may act impulsively and suffer a regrettable outcome that causes pain temporarily. But when we repeatedly contemplate hostile or vengeful acts – even if we do not take action on them – we darken our souls and suffer internally. On the flip side, we create positive karma when we consistently operate out of a state of fulfillment versus inner hankering no matter what our circumstances. While we may not be able to control what happens to us, we always have the freedom to choose our responses. This freedom enables us to chart our destiny, not be ruled by it.

Karma also has to do with our sense of self. We experience karmic bondage when we hold rigidly to identities formed by our DNA, families, cultures, life experiences, and memories. We lose touch with our discerning minds and work largely according to engrained thoughts, prejudices, and patterns. We become ensnared by external goals and expectations; we march unconsciously toward them. We find release by holding our identities and histories lightly. A loosened grip provides flexibility and greater potential for transformation.

Karma is an invitation to look within and take responsibility for our lives. We needn’t chase after what society deems worthy or laudable. Saghguru tells us:

“We were never meant to act to find fulfillment. Fulfillment was seen as an inner condition. It could not be pursued externally. We act in order to express our fulfillment, not acquire it. We act in order to celebrate our inner completeness, not pursue it.”

Life should be an expression of happiness, not its pursuit. It is best viewed as an offering to a universe to which we are all connected. With attention and awareness, we can immerse ourselves in right action and lose consciousness of the self. We become involved in the process, not the outcome. Life becomes an endless outpouring of internal joy.

To that end, Saghguru encourages us to live in the moment. The past is a memory, and the future unwritten. Yet, we often cloud our present experience with their influences. Why be enslaved by your old baggage (old karma)? Why constrain your future before you even live it? We need to give our present karma an escape route. For example, a meditation practice can help us create distance from our minds and thereby create distance from thoughts about the past or future. Saghguru says:

“When there is no karma imprint in conscious experience, every action and experience becomes liberating… You have the choice and the ability to be any way you want in a given moment.

Finally, Saghguru admonishes us not to think of karma in terms of a lifetime (or lifetimes!) of accumulation. Think of it in terms of this living moment. It’s that simple.