How Karma Begins with Being Mindful

Karma is a much misused term that can lead to a lot of misunderstanding. It is often thought of as a metaphysical merit and demerit system that determines our fate, either in this life or, for those who believe in reincarnation, in the next life. Karma is actually the Hindu and Buddhist view of causality in which good thoughts, words and actions lead to beneficial effects while bad thoughts, words and actions lead to harmful effects.

We should think of Karma as an energy that we are creating in every moment through our actions. The energy we create, both now and in the future will affect us and also have an impact on others. It has nothing to do with reward or punishment but is more about taking responsibility for our actions and understanding the impact that they will have.

Karma is about doing the right thing in the present moment, just because it is the right thing. In order to do the right thing, we need to be mindful in the present moment so that we are able to reflect on the potential consequences of our thoughts, word and actions and exercise self-control. By doing so we are able to improve the quality of our lives and the lives of others. According to Iyengar, if we treat others well, life will be pleasant and agreeable for ourselves and others and our actions will bring a real social benefit.

As yogins, we are trying to make sense of life, our personal life and the wider world. The concept of karma sheds light not only on how our personal thoughts, words an actions have wide-reaching effects for others but how they shape the nature of our individual personalities. Every action we take has an impact and, over time, these impacts condition our minds to think or act in certain ways. Each action is like dropping a stone into water and creating ripples, so that our thoughts, actions and words have an ongoing impact on the person we become. If we do the right thing in any present moment and experience its effect, we are conditioning the mind to think or act in the right way. Over time, through being mindful of our actions, we may shed negative habitual patterns that have been causing harm to ourselves and others and replace them with more positive patterns.

Creating good karma begins then with being mindful. A mindful presence in the moment allows us to move away from actions that are prompted by habitual negative patterns and replace them with right thoughts, words and actions. We become mindful through the practice of yoga. Yoga cultivates in us the distance and objectivity we need to see our habitual patterns of thinking and the motivations that underpin them. Through yoga we develop a reflective mind, that sees more clearly and helps us to identify the right things to think, say or do in any given moment. The path to good karma begins, therefore, with our yoga practice.

How Can Yoga Free Us from Suffering?

Buddha declared, birth is suffering, death is suffering and our very existence is suffering. Since Buddha’s time the world has become a safer place, with less war and conflict, more material wealth, better health and more social freedom. Yet despite this we seem eternally dissatisfied and stressed.

Evolutionary science helps us to understand why, in the modern world, humans are hardwired to be anxious and fearful, are biased to negativity and subject to cravings. -see my post Yoga as A Cure for the Human Condition. Everyday life is full of difficulty, loss, and heartbreak, over which we often have no control. Our innate negative bias leads us to dwell on these problems, no matter how small, creating a spiral of negative thinking, which can consume us. The average human has 12,000-60,000 thoughts each day; up to 98% of these thoughts are the same thoughts we had yesterday and as many of 80% of them are negative thoughts. Our naturally anxious mind can spin impending disaster, shame, guilt, fear and regret from the most innocuous of happenings, creating negative scenarios that we play like mini-movies in our minds, over and over again. These responses only serve to increase and compound our suffering further.

Without the support of modern psychology or evolutionary science, our ancient Indian ancestors, already had a good understanding of the mental patterns the all humans experience. They sought to explore and put names to these concepts. Yoga developed as a set of tools to help overcome these mental patterns and ultimately put an end to human suffering. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali offers us a blueprint to break free from human despair.

According to Patanjali, the five Kleshas are the causes of human suffering. The first Klesha Avidya is the source of all suffering, the parent from which other Kleshas are born. Avidya is sometimes defined as ignorance and refers to an incorrect understanding of the nature of things brought about by our warped perceptions. Life is an accumulation of things, thoughts and experiences that we identify with along our journey. Once we have identified with these things, thoughts and experiences, we can no longer perceive life the way it truly is. Our perception becomes fogged and we are unable to see things clearly; we instead perceive life the way it is necessary to do so (or we perceive it is necessary to do so) for our survival. Unless we can create a space between our own perceptions and the real world, we will never see things as they truly are.

Through the eight limbs of classical yoga, Patanjali sets out tools to enable us to create this space, in the form of physical and mental practices, which will rid us of despair. Yoga can ultimately provide the mental clarity we need to help us to separate out our perceptions of the world from the way they really are. Yoga enables us to see suffering for what it really is, beyond our control and compounded by our negative bias and warped perceptions. Yoga practice creates in us an awareness in each moment, a stillness and an understanding that the lens through which we look at the world is just that, a lens and not reality. Through cultivating this awareness, we create the distance and clarity we need to end our personal suffering.