Karma: Can We Escape It?

By Nancé Dooley

The first thought that comes to mind is, Why would one want to escape karma? To answer, one must first have a good understanding of the principles of karma and how it functions on our plane. What is karma? Where does it come from? How does it work?

Karma, according to H. P. Blavatsky, is "the unerring law which adjusts effect to cause, on the physical, mental and spiritual planes of being" (The Key to Theosophy, p. 201). It is also commonly referred to as the law of action and reaction, or simply sowing and reaping; it is most assuredly a law of balance and justice.

The origins of karma are rooted far in the past; our karma goes back to man's first awakening and beyond. During each successive life we exhaust some past karma and accumulate new. Events in lives past and present succeed one another, related by a karmic thread of causation. So one can safely say that man is his own karma. To understand how karma works we must know a little about reincarnation, for it is through reincarnation that karma functions on this plane.

After a period of rest, the reincarnating ego is drawn to leave its after-death existence to reimbody on earth. Our soul upon reentering this plane takes up its former life-atoms, which are stamped with the individual's karma. These life-atoms are like a blueprint. We bring only our own karma into this world — no one else's — so at each new birth "we inherit ourselves." We are our own karma.

Coming back to this world the soul chooses a course that will allow for the best karmic expansion. We align ourselves with particular races and nations and are drawn to parents with whom we have karmic ties from the past. Love and hate are two of the most compelling reasons the ego incarnates again and again. We ourselves choose when to incarnate and seek a proper vehicle and the circumstances best suited for meeting past karma.

Just before birth the soul is shown what lies ahead and the reasons therefor; then we mercifully forget. This is similar to the panorama we experience at death when we are shown the vista of our karma, and see the wisdom of what we have been through. Under normal conditions incarnate man does not recall past lives. There must be a perfectly good reason why nature does not reveal our former lives to us. If we think about it this can only be based on compassion. Perhaps we should be grateful and, if we have a good understanding of karma and how it functions, we can gain insights into our inner consciousness with less danger from tampering with the unknown.

What is past is past, though what happened in the past still has to be dealt with. Who are we anyway? We are ourselves. We always have been and we always will be. It is only the personality that changes through the ages so we can find out who we were in the past by understanding more fully who we are now, for they are one and the same, with gradual modification in each incarnation on the spiral of evolution. Everything we are today is the sum total of all we have been.

Karma is an unerring law of nature that governs everything from the infinitesimal to the infinite. Because of this, the workings of karma are intricate and multifaceted, though most people are concerned with two aspects of karma — what they call "good" and "bad." This is a narrow view obviously: judging all pleasant karma as reward and all unpleasant karma as punishment is a grave mistake, for we can perceive only the outward situation, not the inner. In every so-called "bad" karmic experience lie seeds for good, and vice versa. It is better to see karma as opportunity for growth.

This is not to say that certain types of karma are not acts of retribution for past misdeeds. H. P. Blavatsky states firmly: "there is not an accident in our lives, not a misshapen day, or a misfortune, that could not be traced back to our own doings in this or in another life" (The Secret Doctrine, 1:643-4). But what makes a karmic experience good or bad? It is how we react to it that can create pleasant or unpleasant situations. Again she reminds us that "it is not, therefore, Karma that rewards or punishes, but it is we, who reward or punish ourselves according to whether we work with, through and along with nature, abiding by the laws on which that Harmony depends, or — break them" (op. cit., I1:643).

One can see from this that it is possible to work with karma. And how do we do this? We use our free will. Many people perceive karma as fatalism: "What will be will be; it's all preordained anyway, so why try to change anything?" Perhaps so, if we did not possess free will; but we do, and in exercising free will nature gives us a tool for dealing with karma. Free will is simply choice. We exercise our free will in just living life; in the daily decisions we make, in the paths we decide to take. I think it is our ability to give thought to something and then follow through.

What should we do when difficult karma comes our way, as it must? Should we turn tail and run? Where? "There is no escape from the consequences of an act once done" (G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition). Should we be passive, then, and willingly accept? This would be one way of using free will, but one must be careful not to fall into the trap of passivity. Many people become martyrs to their circumstances rather than attempting to make the best of them. Or should we fight karma? This could also be an option, but I wonder about the results. Karma is not an outside force controlled by God or Devil. It is ourselves. How we deal with our karma, the choices we make, will have a direct effect on our future, but we can rest assured that what we undergo has validity in the larger design.

Free will is the most wonderful and the most dangerous tool nature has given us. How can we use it wisely? First, we must take full responsibility for our actions. By so doing we also accept responsibility for the effect of our actions on our brothers. By right action we send out into the cosmos good influences from which all can benefit. Many of us are so occupied with past karma that we pay little attention to the karma we are making now, which is the one we have the most control over.

We have much more awaiting us because it is impossible to exhaust all past karma in any given life. Karmic seeds lie dormant until the appropriate time for them to awaken into action: some are related to past experiences with other people and must be dealt with when they and we are incarnate at the same time. Since after-death states vary in length, some acts must have delayed results.

Most of us have difficulty comprehending suffering and why there are accidents, illness, and poverty. True, suffering may be a form of retribution, but it may equally well be part of the soul's striving for growth. There is much truth in the thought that greater spiritual evolution is obtained through adversity well handled than through unlimited good times which could lead to complacency. If all is karmic, including suffering, does that alter our obligation to help? Can we turn aside and say, "Well, that's their karma"? That might be true, but it is equally our karma to help. In accepting responsibility for our actions, we realize that not only what we do creates karma, but what we do not do creates karma also.

We can use the tool of our free will wisely and plant good karmic seeds for the future benefit of all mankind. Karma handles all things in its own time. We are never given too heavy a load. Justice pure and simple is at the root of it, and though we do not always see it or its immediate results, or understand it, it is always there. By use of free will we can modify the effects of past actions although we can never escape them. Whether a person believes in karma or not, it governs all alike.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, December 1987/January 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Theosophical University Press)


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