Do you literally believe in Santa? Hopefully not. If you do…well I’ve got some bad news. No, what I mean is that, just like the jolly Elf (yeah, I said elf. I know it’s weird that he’s an elf, but that’s what tradition says) you probably believe that the “universe” has a list and is checking it twice, to see if you’ve been naughty or nice. Were you a good little boy or girl this year? Are you going to be rewarded for giving that homeless guy some food, or are you going to be punished for getting away with something that you knew you shouldn’t have? What goes around comes around, after all.
“Wait, is this guy talking about Karma?” Good catch. Yes, I am talking about karma. Now, before you get your hair in a tizzy, I’m not saying that “karma” isn’t a thing. There is nothing wrong with the idea of karma itself. The idea that actions have consequences is as old as time itself; however, I am asking if we apply the concept of karma appropriately. That is to say, do we know the true nature of karma? Is it distant unknowable justice—like Santa handing out toys and coal—or is it a burnt hand from touching a hot Stove? Because karma is as old as time, we have attached a certain mysticism to the idea of it. A lot of us—at least in the west—believe that “the universe” hands out punishment and reward; that there is a vague notion that we are not in control, but because we aren’t committed to the idea of “God” we say that the “universe” is fair and just. This feeling is more or less encapsulated in the show My Name is Earl.
If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s freaking hilarious. The show focuses on a “lovable” dirt bag who lied, cheated, and stole his way through life, until he won the lottery. Of course, “the universe” wasn’t going to allow him to get rich and not learn anything, so, he gets hit by a car and loses the ticket. Now our buddy Earl is laying in a hospital bed, contemplating his life flipping through the TV channels, when he comes across Carson Daily. Daily is talking to Trace Atkins (I think. I don’t actually know. Regardless, it’s some famous guy in a cowboy hat) when Atkins asks “Every time I see you, you have a beautiful woman on your arm, you got a talk show, your own record company…what’s your secret?” Daily: “Well if you must know, I’m Satan.” (it’s funny ‘cuz it’s true) “No seriously, I’ve uh, I’ve been very blessed. I also believe that what goes around comes around, and that’s how I try and live my life. You do good things, and good things happen to you, you do bad things, and they’ll come back to haunt you. It’s karma.” BAM! Now we have a successful sitcom with 4 seasons ahead of it! Of course, that’s a show, and just like Santa, it’s not real. If it really was as simple as “do good things and good things happen to you” why would anyone not believe in karma? To put a finer point on it, why would anyone do anything other than good deeds? If it is objectively true that the “universe” sees, recognizes and rewards your good deeds, why is there still suffering in the world?
I believe that there is still suffering in the world, because we view karma as we view Santa Claus, or a kind of cosmic police force; serving our interests and usually only when called upon. We are never supposed to be the victims of karmic justice. To understand this you need only conduct a simple test. That is, ask yourself, when something minor but good happens to someone else do you credit karma? Or if something minor but bad happens to you do you rely on karma to provide you with the comfort that the person who wronged you will get theirs?
We need to go back to the original question is karma an unknowable Justice in the future, or is it the immediate consequence of touching a hot stove? As the Buddha said “you harm yourself as dust thrown into the wind comes back to the thrower” to put it another way, “he who pisses into the wind, merely pisses on himself.” Karma is the wind. It blows forever toward perfection. it is your orientation to that wind that determines whether karma is good or bad.
Imagine that you need to pee. It’s a relatively windy day. You have the inability to feel wind, but you can see it. You can see that wrapper that is caught in the fence. You can see the leaves dancing as they fall, the birds flying freely, or struggling, through nothingness. Even so, every direction is basically the same to you. You have done this before, sometimes you are successful in remaining dry, and sometimes you are not. Without being fully aware of it, you drop your pants and start to relieve yourself. Despite your inability to feel wind, you can certainly feel moisture, particularly when you can see it coming from you and going into your shoes.
You aren’t entirely surprised, this has happened before, but you almost never know why. You try everything—except turning around—to protect yourself from your own liquids. Some unfortunate souls even stand on their heads just to keep their feet dry. You curse the universe for being fickle and punishing you for nothing. Life is so unfair! Why does nothing ever go your way!! You have just experienced bad karma. If, however, you decide to turn your back to the wind, to recognize all of the signs around you that you are facing the wind, you will be rewarded with the ability to relieve yourself without getting wet. Now you have experienced good karma.
Karma, in its spiritual and religious sense, is part of a journey toward Nirvana, a state of pure consciousness, communion and union with all that is or ever will be. Indeed, it is the release from karma and the cycle of birth and death that precede Nirvana. It is the full understanding of your place in the world and the universe. It is the extermination of the ignorance that once led you to continually pee on yourself without understanding why you were continually peeing on yourself.
I firmly believe that enlightenment is achieved when you think deeply. When you look at your life, and you realize that, that relationship that never seems to go right is a hot stove. The anger that you feel when someone does something so obviously stupid that you can’t believe that they did it, is a hot stove. The fact that you have never taken any real time to try and honestly see yourself from the outside in, is a hot stove. They are all over the place, and you keep touching them.
Nirvana is learning to not touch hot stoves. It can be achieved, and it can be seen. It is going to be a difficult, daily task that few will ever undertake. It will be deeply uncomfortable to face your inner demons, all of the things that you have buried in shame and disgust about yourself. You are going to have to dig up their rotting bodies and learn from them. It isn’t going to be particularly pretty, but it is a whole lot better of a gift than anything an imaginary elf could ever give you. Stop believing in “Santa” and you are on your way.