As this year is preparing to gear up into full swing after a summer of fun, I’ve been cataloguing the goals and ambitions that keep returning to me, clarifying what it is that I want to work on and invite into my life in these next months. These meditations, while most definitely a strategy of procrastination, have highlighted a set of recurring patterns that seem to be an indelible part of my path to negotiate. In a word: karma.
So we all know what the conventional understanding of karma is: the action that yields either good or bad results effecting this life or future ones. As in, karma slaps Taylor Swift for bullying Katy Perry. So the internet tells me. Context aside, apparently Tay-tay did bad things to Katy and is now reaping the karmic outcomes.
The word karma or karman comes from the root kri, “to make” or “to do” and signifies most broadly “action,” the actions that define our modes of existence. Implicit in this concept is the law of causality—that every action comes from a network of circumstances and produces an outcome or effect. This rationale indeed originated in the ritual actions of Vedic sacrifice, the correct performance of which was believed to bring about consequences that engendered the optimum operation of the cosmos. Karma-yoga, as is specified in the Bhagavad Gita, designates the cultivation of a specific type of action, one that emanates from an inner intention and takes form through detachment:
“He who restrains his organ of action but sits remembering in his mind the objects of the senses is called a self-deluded hypocrite” (3.6).
“This world is action-bound, save when this action is [intended] as sacrifice. With that purpose, engage in action devoid of attachment” (3.9).
So, what brings about a consequence is one’s intention, and what we are looking to develop in our lives of action is a type of freedom-in-action, or inaction in action: the ability to detach one’s actions from egoic motivations and complicate the illusion of the ego as an acting and mobilizing subject.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Yes, indeed, Taylor Swift can rest easy!
Yoga allows us to cultivate the ability to suspend the formation of future karma by studying the subtle forces and patterns in place that give rise to our thoughts, actions, and emotions. At the root of karma are the kleshas, mental-emotional triggers or motivational forces that drive the way we act, think and feel. The primary klesa is avidya, misperception or a lack of discrimination between the illusory (ego) and the enduring. This ignorance is the foundation of all the other klesas—triggers that produce varying fluctuations or agitations of consciousness, which the practice of yoga works to still (discussed in the Yoga Sutras at length, particularly 2.12).
We exist in an inscrutable yet causal cycle of action, impression and effect: The klesas drive us to act in particular ways, which in turn imbed a residue or impression of the act in our subtle mind (vasanas or samskaras), which then provoke or reinforce a similar state of mind, which is practically realized in more actions that we take. Once again: misperceptions trigger us to take particular actions, which are subtly registered into our minds, thus reproducing and strengthening particular patterns that cause us to continue acting in ways that reinforce a fundamental misapprehension.
Though it may sound simple, our daily experience of the intricacies of this cycle is quite the opposite. Or at least, mine is. The regenerating actions of karma are inscrutable: myriads of psychological-somatic patterns coexist and operate at different paces, producing actions and consequences in conscious and unconscious states and temporalities. It can be so frustrating to continually encounter a reiteration of what seems the same (damn) thing in multiple guises, the root of which appear to be entirely inaccessible. For instance: that spot in our lower backs or shoulders that is so often sore, that posture that keeps laughing at us, the ceaseless critical voice inside, those looming fears and doubts about The Future, that mysterious attraction to situations and relationships that keep us from who or where we want to be.
The Gita says, “This world is action-bound, save when this action is [intended] as sacrifice.” In other words, we are bound in this existence by a cycle of regenerating and inscrutable actions, except when our actions are turned towards sacrifice. While treating this topic in in The Yoga Tradition, Georg Feuerstein explains that the object of this sacrifice is…drumroll…the ego. When we strive to emanate our actions from an impetus that is outside of egoic motivations, we achieve a type of action that is detached from its result and that does not reproduce itself.
Would that it were so simple. I mean, really, what do we do with this prescription of impossible action? Well, in my line of work, when in doubt, I always answer: “practice.” We come to our mats to focus our minds and listen to the wanderings of the body-mind with some level of detachment. We notice our fear, doubt, anxiety, grief, joy and everything in between as we breathe into the body. And as our mind inevitably sways into periods of identification with ego, well, we breathe with compassion to our wily self, refocus and continue on our yogic journeys together. It’s an honor to share the space with you all.