Karma is affecting us in each and every moment, which is why it's such an important concept for everyone to understand. Since learning this philosophy, I cannot help but see the world in terms of karma. I know that everything in my life is the result of my own actions, making me all the more mindful of every action I take moving forward. In essence, understanding karma motivates you to be a better person.
Here I'll explain more about what karma is and isn't, how to create it and how to transcend it with yogic techniques.
Misconceptions About Karma
Most people in the West equate karma to the old adage, "You reap what you sow." They think karma looms over them like a curse, ready to punish if they behave in an immoral or unethical way. In this light, karma is scary.
In reality, however, karma is not scary at all — it’s a beautiful philosophy that explains how the world works. I've found that through this lens, everything about life not only makes more sense, but is also comforting; we are the creators of our own destiny.
(You may still be wondering, What are karma and destiny?)
A Law of Nature
Karma is nothing more than cause and effect. The Sanskrit meaning of the word means "action," not “punishment” or “curse.” It explains one of nature’s laws: every action has a reaction.
In the law of the conservation of energy, Einstein explained that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another. Like many recent discoveries of science, this was actually already explained many thousands of years ago (such as in the Bhagavad Gita). The same is explained in Newton’s third law of motion: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. These theories are nothing but karma! What the wise rishis taught so long, long ago still holds true today. Karma isn’t a made-up spiritual theory, it’s undeniable.
Everything we do has a reaction. Some actions, like turning a key in the ignition, have immediate reactions. Others, such as those that come from our words like insults or promises, might have delayed reactions. This is where karma gets a little fuzzy. While a reaction is guaranteed, there’s no way to know exactly when the results of our actions will come to fruition.
3 Ways to Create Karma
There are three ways in which we can create karma.
The first one is with our bodies. When I walk through grass, I’m creating karma. Each step, each action, compresses the grass beneath my feet. The reaction is immediate. Likewise, if I give a hug or if I were to hit someone, that reaction would immediately be felt by the other person.
The second way that we create karma is through our words. Speech carries immense karma. While I hope to someday let go, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still affected by hurtful words spoken to me long ago. Our words reverberate in the lives of others for a very long time.
Thirdly, we create karma through our mind. This is the most important and impactful of all three types of karma. Even a physical action has a mind component. If I were to push someone (physical karma), it’s my mind that’s initiating that action (mental karma).
The mind rules the attitude in which we do all actions; therefore, that which is done with the mind is the real doing. I can do something theoretically good, like babysit for a friend. But if my real intention behind this action is to get a favor in return, it’s therefore a purely selfish action. I create negative karma. The same holds true if I volunteer in hopes of getting good karma in return. It’s the intention behind the action that creates karma.
(Therefore, you may want to learn more about The How and Why of Strengthening the Mind.)
Reactions Throughout Rebirths
There’s no way to know when the reactions of our actions will manifest. They might be immediate, tomorrow, next year, later in life, or even in a future life. Karma is tied to the cycles of rebirth. Until we rise beyond our karma, we are reborn again and again, living out the reactions of our actions and continually doing more actions that cause reactions.
We are the creators of our own destiny. The difficulties in my life which seem disproportionately painful to my own actions are likely the result of past karma. I’ll never know what exactly I did to deserve them, but it doesn’t matter. I can only move forward living in dharma: righteously, lovingly and ethically. Even the blessings in my life must be a result of karma and not just “good luck.”
Transcending Karma With Yoga
It’s one thing to understand karma and another to transcend it. To do so, we have to learn to control our mind. Otherwise, we create karma without abandon, as every thought bears a reaction at some point or another. That’s a lot of reactions!
Yoga gives us two wonderfully accessible tools to train our minds: pranayama and japa. Pranayama suspends thought, while japa (with ja meaning "birth" and pa meaning "sins") destroys repeated births. By repeating mantras, thought and its subsequent reactions are eliminated.
(Read on here if you're still wondering, What Is Japa Mantra?)