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Karma. What is it good for?

May 17, 2024

Ultimate test for a philosophy

The value of any philosophy is how much it can improve our life. Does it make us happier, less stressed, more compassionate etc? I don’t like it when yoga teachers tell me what my spiritual truth is. But, I want to invite you to play around with the idea of karma. Regardless of what your beliefs are as to the nature of the universe, or life after death, karma is a useful philosophical concept to this life we’re currently living.


What is Karma?

Everyone has at least heard of karma and probably at least superficially understands it as ‘The universe rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior.’ In Eastern traditions, karma is understood as a part of a constellation of other ideas including reincarnation and dharma (your nature/ purpose). If you live your life well, fulfill your dharma, make the right propitiations etc. you will be reincarnated into a better life, one where you have a chance at spiritual awakening. (Yes, hierarchy and social class play a significant role in the Eastern philosophical worldview) If you live sinfully on the other hand you can expect to be reincarnated into an existence of suffering where you are purged of your bad karma. (not dissimilar from the Western concept of purgatory.)

We go round and round, life after life in this cycle of life, death and rebirth called Samsara, and karma is the currency that determines what kind of life you’re going to have on the next go around. Obviously different Eastern traditions disagree on the specifics, Buddhists, Hindus and Jains all have different ideas on what the goal should be regarding karma. But that’s the barebones Sunday school version.


What if you thinks that's all superstitious nonsense?

At this point you're thinking, 'Well, that's all fine and dandy, but I'm trying to lose weight and figure out my back pain so I can go hiking and keep up with my kids. Being told that my back hurts because I was an asshole in my past life is less than helpful.' Even if you reject any and all kinds of spiritual dogma, karma is still a useful concept for this life you’re living today.

Karma is more than a cosmic scorecard. It is essentially ‘virtue’. We generate ‘good karma’ by demonstrating excellence in courage, wisdom, generosity, self-discipline etc. This ‘good behavior’ secures us a more fortuitous birth in our next life (if you buy into that). But more than that character virtue is a desirable end in and of itself. Given the choice wouldn't you rather be courageous than cowardly, generous than stingy etc. Good character is at least one of the essential elements of happiness.


The Value of Karma

Karma is useful because we will confront bad things that are not our fault. We will have back pain. We will be passed over for a promotion. Noisy neighbors will keep us from getting sleep. The story we tell ourselves about our struggle either makes it meaningful or unbearable. We can tell ourselves that challenges are an opportunity to demonstrate virtue, to show good karma. Or we can tell ourselves that our challenges are an excuse to avoid responsibility and taking action.

If you are religious it may be comforting to believe that your suffering now means happiness when you die. But if you are not, your struggle can still be meaningful. Your struggle is an opportunity to demonstrate and develop the character virtues you want to see in yourself.

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