Karma & Habit
In the ancient texts, karma is written as a compound word, karma-vipaka. Karma-vipaka means “action and result,” or what we call cause and effect. This is not a philosophical concept. It is a psychological description of how our experience unfold every day.
A good way to begin to understand karma is by observing our habit patterns. When we look at habit and conditioning, we can sense how our brain and consciousness create repeated patterns. If we practice tennis enough, we will anticipate our next hit as soon as the ball leaves the other player’s racquet. If we practice being angry, the slightest insult will trigger our rage. These patterns are like a rewritable CD. When they are burned in repeatedly, the pattern becomes the regular response. Modern neuroscience has demonstrated this quite convincingly. Our repeated patterns of thought and action actually change our nervous system. Each time we focus our attention and follow our intentions, our nerves fire, synapses connect, and those neural patterns are strengthened. The neurons literally grow along that direction.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes the karmic process of conditioning with another metaphor: the image of planting seeds in consciousness. The seeds we plant contain the potential to grow when conditions support them. The seed of a magnolia or a redwood tree contains the whole life pattern of the plant, which will respond when suitable conditions of water, earth, and sunlight arise. A Chinese Buddhist text describes these seeds: “From intention springs the deed, from the deed springs the habits. From the habits grow the character, from character develops destiny.”
What we practice becomes habit. What may at one time be beneficial can later become a form of imprisonment. Andrew Carnegie was asked by a reporter about the gathering of riches, “You could have stopped at any time, couldn’t you, because you always had much more than you needed.” “Yes, that’s right,” Carnegie answered, “but I couldn’t stop. I had forgotten how to.” Habits have a collective nature as well as an individual one. When King George II heard the “Hallelujah Chorus” in the first performance of Handel’s Messiah, he was so moved that, against all form, he stood up. Of course, when the king stands, everyone else must stand as well. Since that day, no matter how the performance is done, the whole audience stands. While this is a harmless convention, societies can equally repeat destructive habits of racism, hatred, and revenge.
We can work with habits. Through the mindful process of RAIN, we can rewire our nervous system. The genesis of this transformation is our intention. Buddhist psychology explains that before every act there is an intention, though often the intention is unconscious. We can use recognition, acceptance, investigation of suffering, and non-identification to create new karma. Through mindfulness and non-identification, we can choose a new intention. We can do this moment by moment, and we can also set long-term intentions to transform our life.
Setting a conscious intention was important for Tamara, a woman who ran a community food bank. She had come to meditation to bring balance into her life. But when she first sat quietly and tried to sense her breath, panic arose. She struggled as if she couldn’t get enough air. I had her relax and shift her attention from her breath to her whole body for a time. Later when she went back to her breath, the panic arose again. Staying curious, she actually remember the woozy feeling of ether. She flashed back to stories of her birth. Tamara had been born blue from lack of oxygen and her mother told her it took a long time before the doctor could get her to breathe. In meditation Tamara learned that she couldn’t control the breath of the feelings of panic, but she could set an intention to be present with kindness and then let go. Setting a positive intention changed her meditation for the better.
Then in 2005, Tamara went down to Louisiana for two months to help with food distribution for the survivors of Hurrican Katrina. She discovered that she needed the same focused intentions she had developed in meditation. She met people who were in the grip of the same kind of panic she had discovered within herself. They were frightened, angry, stressed out, trying to stay alive. Often the people in charge were in equally difficult states of overwhelm and shock. Tamara soon realized she couldn’t control the people or situation any more than she could control her own breath. At time she became reactive, and when this happened she would breathe, set an intention to be present with goodwill, then let go. Repeatedly setting a kind intention got her through the two months without being terrified or burned out.