The karma of psychology

We’ve been considering the five natural “laws” of karma, and we now come to the law of mind (citta-niyāma).  We might think that we control our thoughts, but as any meditator knows, the mind goes where it wants to, when it wants to, and sometimes with alarming speed. This karmic “law” points to human psychological patterns: associative thought, habits of thought, the fluidity of thought, influencers of thought, the whole psychological panoply.

If we hear someone disparage a person we respect or care for, or worse, ourselves, there’s an instant reaction of resentment (at least). The desire to counter such comments can be irresistible; we don’t choose whether this response will happen or not. But we do have a choice, to react or to keep calm, i.e., not “free will”, but “free won’t”.

When some of us walk past a pastry shop, an invisible magnet draws our attention to the display window, betraying our underlying tendency to greed. We can choose to act or not act on this brief impulse, but the only way to uproot the tendency, to disable the magnet, is to develop our capacity for insight.

When a person suffers trauma, whether it involves human cruelty or random bad luck, if the trauma is severe, it alters the victim’s psychological framework for life. Such experiences can be mitigated, but cannot be erased.

On the bright side, if we are fortunate enough to meet a person whose greed, hatred, and delusion are substantially worn away, that person can make a lasting impression on us and change our trajectory dramatically.

When we are very young, we don’t recognize how our minds work. Our likes and dislikes, our needs and wants, our agitation or calm — it’s all right on the surface with no mediating forces. As we get older, we become better acquainted with our normal range of emotions: fear, love, curiosity, aversion, lust, compulsion, and all the conditions that regularly visit our minds. With even a small application of mindfulness, we can see these mind states rising and falling; we can see when we become stuck in one or the other; we can sometimes recognize when we are in a balanced or neutral state. In this way we can protect ourselves from the wanton destruction that an untrained mind can bring. Instead of being driven by every thought that passes through our minds, we can learn to pause and consider what’s happening when a particularly strong mental state becomes apparent. We can learn to appreciate it when a pleasant, wholesome state of mind (e.g., generosity or kindness) is present. We can’t easily change the basic functioning of our minds, but we can influence our responses to mental states.

This “law of psychology” is part of our universe, just as the laws of chemistry, physics, biology, and karma are. We work and play and learn and grow within their confines. This doesn’t mean we are helpless victims of fate; it means that our scope for making choices is limited by our circumstances. We can use this information to view the world realistically and avoid blaming ourselves or other individuals for experiences we don’t like, and avoid taking credit for our good luck.


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Actions and results

The third of the five Laws of Nature that describe the full spectrum of karma is the one we are probably most familiar with: our individual intentions and actions, the effects that take shape due to our choices. In the Pali canon, this type of karma is mentioned often and the other four types not so frequently. Part of the reason is that this is the category that we have direct control over — our intentions and actions in the here and now. We are often so busy calculating and planning for wished-for outcomes that the power of our own actions NOW can escape our notice. Whatever we have done in the past can be amplified or mitigated by what we do now. Whatever skill we can bring to the present affects the direction and force of our karmic stream.

The full workings of karma is a subject the Buddha called “imponderable”. That means we cannot know the details of which actions in our past will bear fruit, to what degree or when. He even said that if we tried to understand karma in its entirety, our heads would explode! Just knowing how complicated and interdependent our biological functions are and multiplying those factors by physics, chemistry and intentions, it’s easy to see that our brains are too limited to take in the full scope. When we try to find explanations for specific events, it is almost always unrewarding. Because past and present karmic energies are mixed together to produce our experience, they are impossible for us to untangle.

On the positive side, the Buddha often extolled ethical behavior and said that it would lead to positive karmic outcomes. If we persistently keep the five precepts (not-killing, generosity, non-harm with sensuality, truthfulness, and sobriety) we will be headed in a positive direction. This is a guideline that we can rely on, and we can see the results for ourselves in our interactions with others.

In the context of the sublime states, equanimity is strengthened by the depth of our understanding of the workings of karma. A primary activity in developing equanimity is letting go of the notion that we are in control, that we are in charge of our experience. We definitely make important choices that guide our lives, but we are confined by the physical world, the culture, geography, and so much more that we inhabit. We could say that our free will is limited by these forces. Through observing our own behavior, we might notice that we have less free will, as thoughts and emotions come to us unbidden, and more “free won’t”. We can choose not to act on our unwholesome impulses, which may be less emotionally satisfying in the moment, but which can quickly be seen to reduce suffering for ourselves and others.

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The karma of biology

The second of the five “Laws of Nature” that make up the framework of karma is the law of “seed” or biology. The effects of this law are generally visible to us because we inhabit our bodies and if we pay attention can see that an enormous number of biological processes are going on all the time, caused by both internal and external factors.

At the interface of the law of “weather” or chemistry/physics and biology, we know that if we are too cold or too hot for too long, our bodies will shut down. We know that as we age, our organs and systems generally function less efficiently and have a tendency to break down. We know about germ theory and gut flora, though that doesn’t necessarily help us protect ourselves. As a species, we are discovering more and more how strongly genetics influences the functioning of our bodies and minds. Environment is important, but our genes are responsible for a goodly portion of our health and welfare, for good or ill.

What can we do with all this information? Perhaps if we take it on board without getting too excited about each new discovery, a big picture of our biological situation, as a species and as individuals, will become clearer. We are biological units living in a world where the laws of physics and chemistry and biology are always functioning and are largely invisible to us. We are moving along a trajectory in a system that was started before we were born and will continue after we are gone. This is not to say that we are have no power at all, but to acknowledge that our sphere of influence does not extend to changing how things are in many significant ways. We’re all born, we age, illnesses of long or short duration come to us unannounced and unplanned for, and eventually we either suffer a traumatic end or we wear out and “finish up”.

Recently I held the elevator for a couple of women in a medical office building. As we rode together, one of them said plaintively, “Why do we have to get sick?”. I left that for a moment and then smiled and said, “Because we have bodies. It comes to everyone eventually.” Both of the women were unsure about how to respond. Then one said, “Well, I don’t like it!” Hard to argue with that attitude, but an alternative might be to consider that we don’t like it when we’re sick and other people don’t like it when they are sick – no one likes it and yet it comes to all of us. How much extra distress does resistance cause? Does acceptance of things as they unfold help us to deal with them more skilfully?

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The karma of physics and chemistry

In the last post, we presented an overview of five “laws” that govern our experience, according to the Buddha. Our actions and their results are the basis of one of these laws, but are not the dominant factor. Within the context of these five laws, our actions are the only element that we have any direct control over, so it’s important for us to gain a sense of perspective on how the (largely impersonal) world we live in works.

The first of the five laws of karma is associated with “weather”, that is, all of the factors of our physical environment: the balance of oxygen and other gases in our atmosphere, the radiant heat from the sun, gravity, chemical reactions (e.g., ocean acidification), etc. These conditions affect every creature living on our planet. Regardless of where we are, without any personal choice on our part, we breathe the available air, are confined by the laws of gravity, momentum, entropy, and all the rest. Both beneficial and harmful effects exist in this world of physics and chemistry (biology comes later), and with few exceptions, we obey this law without question.

Hurricanes, cyclones, landslides, forest fires – all of these are in the realm of “weather”, as are sunny, temperate days, sufficient rainfall for growth, and night following day. The planets, the moon, the sun, these are the framework for our physical world; all of the physical and chemical conditions we experience affect every human being. It was not always true that planet earth supported multi-cellular life, and we are fortunate to live in a time when conditions are suitable for conscious beings to thrive.

How does this understanding affect our view of our world and ourselves? It forms our primary boundary. Humans (it is said) can live for three minutes (on average) without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. And yet, all of these conditions are favorable for most of us — it could easily be otherwise. So we can start with gratitude that our lives are generally supported by the physical and chemical conditions of our world and perhaps complain less about its imperfections, or at least understand that the world is similarly imperfect for all of us.

We can also accept that if a tree falls on our roof because of a cyclone or hurricane or tornado, it is simple “weather” and it’s not personal; we did not cause the damage and we were not singled out by the universe for punishment. When the storm misses us, we’re lucky; when it doesn’t, we’re unlucky — nothing to do with personal karma.

Although most of us have a general understanding of the laws of karma, we may mistakenly conclude that intentions and actions are the causes of all that happens to us and to everyone. But this is a false notion; we are all working within the boundaries of the physically possible, and there are also biological and psychological factors that direct  our actions and influence their results. These facts encourage humility.

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The bottom line

The four “divine abodes” are mettā (boundless kindness), karunā (compassion), muditā (sympathetic joy)and upekkhā (equilibrium). We’ve spent some time on the first three, and now we come to the fourth, upekkhā, often translated as equanimity. Once again, it’s a Pali word with no precise translation into English. Upekkhā describes a deep evenness of mind, an unshakeable stability that can serve as the foundation for any sense experience or thought and not be altered or distracted.

At its most simple, equanimity is a deep knowledge that this is how it is — whatever is going on. It is the absence of wishing things were different, of objecting to fate, of shouting (out loud or internally) “it’s not supposed to happen this way!”

Within the traditional Theravada concentration practices, equanimity is associated with the fourth jhāna, a sublimely stable mental state which is said to be necessary for deep insight into the way things are.

Underlying the development of equanimity is a growing understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on karma. For each of us, our individual intentions and actions have karmic consequences, but this is not the only causal connection in our experience. In fact, it forms a decidedly smaller part in how our lives unfold than four other factors. In the Pali canon we find “The Five Niyāmas” or “Laws of Nature” that govern our experience. They are (paraphrased from Ajahn Amaro’s book “Who is Pulling the Strings?”):

  1. Weather (utu-niyāma), temperature, seasons, and other physical events. We could call this the laws of physics and chemistry that govern our world.
  2. Seed (bija-niyāma), or the law of biology. Since we have biological bodies we are subject to the laws of genetics and biology and all the things that happen in the biological universe.
  3. Action (kamma-niyāma) – our individual intentions and actions; the effects that take shape due to our choices.
  4. Mind (citta-niyāma) – the law of psychology or how our minds work: the speed of thought, patterns of thought, influencers of thought – the whole psychological panoply.
  5. The over-arching law of reality, Dhamma. This includes the relationship between the conditioned and unconditioned and the full physical and mental spectrum of experience. The Dhamma-niyāma is how all the laws of nature are integrated.

(Quoting Ajahn Amaro, p.27) “At any one moment all five of these laws are operating simultaneously, so what we experience right now is not just the results of personal actions. Choosing to listen to a Dhamma talk or read a teaching leads you to experience an effect because of that particular karma, that choice, but it’s also the result of the very fact of hearing or seeing. The mind taking that sound or sight, and interpreting it and giving it meaning, is citta-niyāma. And the need to breathe, the feeling of the weight of the body on the chair, are related to the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. They all play into what we experience in one moment; at any moment all of these elements are playing together.”

We’ll be looking more closely at each of these niyāmas and how they affect our understanding.

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It’s not about you (me)

Still on the subject of muditā, what gets in the way of sympathetic joy? The biggest obstacle is our tendency to measure ourselves against others, often in superficial ways. If we judge others harshly, it is quite likely that we are judging ourselves harshly, even though we may not be aware of it.

How can we loosen the grip of the me-centric world view? The Buddha had a lot to say about this since our inclination to identify with things and take things personally is a primary obstacle to seeing things as they are. Often, the Buddha recommended using the phrase “This is not me, this is not mine, this is not my self” when we encounter situations we feel stuck in or challenged by. Everyone is confronted by difficulties in life, but we have the option of identifying with them or not. The same applies to our successes and our pleasures; these also are “not me, not mine, not myself”, they are passing phenomena.

This practice works as a tool when we’re caught up. If we feel a strong emotion, positive or negative, and start to notice how we’re gripped by it, we can take a breath and remember that this emotion is not “me” – it is a passing set of thoughts and sensations that seems as real as anything can, but will peak and dissolve shortly. It has no significance in and of itself unless we grab it, massage it, and remind ourselves of it over and over again until we lose sight of everything else. Self-absorption in such moments can overwhelm us if we let it. But keeping our balance demands that somewhere in the back of our minds we don’t mistake our feelings and preferences for our selves in some absolute way.

One trick is to try imagining what a situation we’re in would look like if we were absent, simply not there – what would be different? Without “me” as the subject, taking in events around us, without that single point of reference, what would be going on? How would our perception of the situation be altered if we viewed it through this wider lens?

Once when Sayadaw U Tejaniya was suggesting ways of opening out our awareness he said: Make yourself like a satellite dish for the input of your senses — receive everything without discriminating and trust your innate wisdom to assemble the information as needed. This turned out to be freeing advice for many of us. Instead of picking and choosing all day long – “I want this, I don’t want that” – if we just let awareness accept the input of our five physical senses and our one mental sense, we can really relax. We can notice others’ moods and demeanors; we can escape our habits of mind and receive life in a profound way. This isn’t to say we should drift aimlessly through our days, only that we have the ability to open up to wisdom by setting aside the need to keep building and shoring up a self.

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Discovering joy

For some of us, the idea of celebrating others’ successes and happiness seems anti-intuitive. We have a hard time imagining not reacting with jealousy or envy, or otherwise comparing ourselves to others. But we do it all the time; joy catches us by surprise. When someone we care about comes through a difficult time; when we observe others being kind to each other; when people let us merge into a crowded traffic lane; when our school or team receives recognition — all these and many more are instances that draw forth sympathetic or appreciative joy.

In another category, we can consider all the people we know who help others in creative and steady ways: one friend helps at-risk youth learn to drive a car, another brings her dog to a special school so children with learning challenges can read to the dog, another friend makes thousands of jars of preserves and jams which are sold to support a research charity, a relative dedicated years to rescuing neglected animals. Many meditation teachers, hospice and other volunteers of all sorts offer their services gratis. Thinking of any of these real-life activities can lift our hearts.

Our attention is like a spotlight. Its default position is to highlight our own concerns, our likes and dislikes, our obsessions. But it is a simple thing to turn the light outward, onto other people. It can seek out the quiet ways in which the people around us are generous and caring as a matter of course. I remember being struck by a revelation, years ago, sitting around a kitchen table with a group of adult friends; each of us was providing support to a relative of our own who was in strife, and we hadn’t known about each others’ generosity. There is an invisible world of beautiful actions going on all the time. It is sometimes easier to talk about people who need compassion than it is to recognize folks who give us cause for joy. We can cultivate the habit of spotting and highlighting joy; we can tell each other the lovely stories of joy that we’ve observed or heard of.

One way of cultivating joy within the Buddhist tradition is to provide sustenance (requisites) to monastics; food, lodging, medicines, and robes. In Theravadan communities, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis may only eat what is offered directly to them. This creates the opportunity for laypeople to provide them with food so they can continue to practice in the way prescribed by the Buddha. To be part of this process is, in my experience, a reliable generator of joy.

For each of us, there are myriad ways to both celebrate the inspiring actions of others and do things ourselves that lift our spirits. It will be well worth investigating both of these paths to muditā, a boundless, flowing state of joy, accessible to everyone.

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