The notion that all actions have consequences has been so well accepted in the West that teachings about karma are often readily embraced. The fact that all results are related to prior causes seems obvious and self-evident — that is, until we realize that many consequences don't come to fruition immediately and that major life-events may be rooted in actions either in past lives or so long ago in this life that we no longer remember them.
"How can we learn this way?" we might ask. "It seems so unfair." Wouldn't it be more efficient if all effects were immediate? After all, in training a dog, if you wait days to reward or punish it for its behavior, it will never connect those effects to its earlier actions. Wouldn't we learn faster if we met the natural consequences of our behavior immediately?
The observation is sound that when effects are too long in coming, we lose the thread of their connections as well as their relationships to what produced them. But as we look deeper at what it means to really "learn" something, we see that coming to understand something fully demands levels of attention we rarely give to our situations. In considering whether or not karmic operations are fair or efficient, it can be helpful to look at the question from different perspectives.
Certainly, when we train animals or small children who can't yet reason, we need to make clear the relationship between an action and its result. Until they get it, we keep them on a very short leash; the more they understand the correlation between causes and effects, the longer a leash we give them. With our children, we're not only helping develop good impulse control, but sowing seeds for later decision making.
In the beginning we are doing the thinking for them, but as growing human beings we are supposed to be developing our mental and intuitive functions. That is, we don't want to act like trained seals who respond the same way all the time; we're learning how to discriminate, think for ourselves, make choices and judgments — and a very good way to learn is to make mistakes and adjust our behavior.
It's true that sometimes we are ignorant of wrongdoing, but much of the time we are warned or reprimanded immediately (think of teachers and parents disciplining and punishing their kids) and we still don't always change our behavior. One has to be ready to change. Consider all the ills of cigarette smoking — breathes there a smoker who can't list the dangers?
From another perspective, we're complex beings generating karma on different levels, primarily physical, emotional, and mental. Physical effects often happen quickly — step in front of a moving car and you get immediate physical karma — but it may take many years for the shock of the car accident to be tempered. Karma plays out on the mental and emotional levels too, each needing its own time-frame for resolving disorders. It can take months for the physical body to heal from the crash, with each of those moments being another opportunity to generate or harmonize karma. So perhaps in one second we learned (intellectually) not to step out in front of moving vehicles but the effects on our body and emotions take much longer to unroll. If all effects — physical, vital, emotional, and mental — were immediate, we literally might not be able to live through the experience.
Consider Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where victims suffer their whole lives from one event that, in some cases, they can't even remember distinctly. Physical child abuse is another case where an incident may take only a few minutes, but may leave a lifetime of mental and emotional scars. It may feel unfair that a whole life can be changed in a moment, yet we know it happens. Is it just? From a purely personal viewpoint this seems cruel and even evil, but from the perspective of the immortal soul perhaps this is the most efficient way for Life to help reveal what we need to know. If PTSD is one of the kindest and most efficient methods possible, what might be the worst?
Again, sometimes we make mental changes quickly but it takes time to adjust emotionally, as when we suddenly discover a few facts which contradict a lie we had long believed. Meanwhile, our body has the habit of reacting against something which we now know to be untrue. Stomach tightening, blood pressure rising, adrenaline dispersing, all for an ancient position we no longer even hold. We're not always very efficient at adapting to the paradoxes and confusions life brings our way; perhaps this is a key to why it seems to us that karma doesn't itself act very efficiently.
Another consideration is that the effects of our actions ripple out in every direction and it may take lifetimes before all the actors are reassembled and the circumstances ripe for reaping effects. For example, say you are in a one-day seminar with ten other people, and you bring a fruit basket to the group leader. The leader may feel wonderful but other folks may have harsher reactions, from annoyance to jealousy or bitterness. Some may react outwardly but some may not, and you may never be with these folks again in this lifetime. The karmic effects of their reactions, which ripple out to affect people you've never met, may need to wait long ages to work themselves out until you are at last together again.
There just isn't enough earth-time to untangle each and every one of the physical, emotional, and mental effects that flow from each of our actions immediately after an action occurs. Our universe is continually reacting to how we are, how we act, how we think — but it's just too complex to receive and recognize all the effects instantly.
We might also consider that forgetting our past behavior is sometimes a blessing. By not remembering all the details of our past lives, we are protected from being overwhelmed by old regrets, grudges, and prejudices as well as from memories of past successes and failures. We need not hide from old enemies or past creditors, nor get confused by the tremendous changes and increase of information as the culture evolves. Memories of a more primitive past life might be quite shocking to our present sensibilities. Imagine how much therapy we'd all need!
If we maintained memories of everything from this life as well as all our past lives, we'd have a huge and chaotic amount of information to manage, with loyalties being pulled between multiple families. We are able to focus on today and what is important now without being flooded by unhappy memories (not to mention untold tragedies) or paralyzed by feelings of guilt or dread of karma-to-come from old mistakes. Besides, it gives us a better chance to make friends of former foes.
Another point: as in secular law, ignorance of universal principles is not a valid excuse for breaking universal laws. We may as well accept that, on various levels, delayed consequences are an integral part of how our life works. For example, if children aren't taught dental hygiene, rotten teeth will result — but not immediately. Sure we would more quickly learn to brush our teeth after every meal if our mouths hurt until we brushed, but this doesn't happen; tooth or gum pain doesn't occur till months or years later. Is this delayed effect a symptom of an inefficient universe? Consider too that while thoughts have force and the impact of our hurtful or helpful thoughts is certain, mental power doesn't instantly play out in the physical realm. Its results unfold variously and indirectly. In the same way, most crimes aren't discovered in the act of commission, so time is needed for the perpetrator to be brought to justice.
A final thought has to do with how illusory our concept of time is: maybe the effects are actually immediate but we only perceive them happening later . . . is this too bizarre? Consider the notion of timelessness as compared to time, for it is said that spirit lives in what is called "duration" (timelessness) while our bodies live in what we call "time." It's said that what appears to be happening sequentially is illusion — maya — only partially apparent. Our brains process information at a certain vibration rate and so life appears to us to unfold in successive steps, but the perennial wisdom tradition tells us that time is not as it seems. For example, The Secret Doctrine by H. P. Blavatsky says that
Time is only an illusion produced by the succession of our states of consciousness as we travel through eternal duration, and it does not exist where no consciousness exists in which the illusion can be produced; but "lies asleep."— 1:37
Whatever plane our consciousness may be acting in, both we and the things belonging to that plane are, for the time being, our only realities. As we rise in the scale of development we perceive that during the stages through which we have passed we mistook shadows for realities, and the upward progress of the Ego is a series of progressive awakenings, each advance bringing with it the idea that now, at last, we have reached "reality"; but only when we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya. — 1:40
Blavatsky further explained in Isis Unveiled that "The human spirit, being of the Divine, immortal Spirit, appreciates neither past nor future, but sees all things as in the present" (1:185).
It sees all things as in the present? Maybe our spiritual soul does know immediately, or gets the reverberation of all the effects immediately, and perhaps our task is to learn to listen better. Leaving aside the mentally ill, most adults know when they are doing something wrong. Down deep inside we know. And when we act against our own knowing, it takes some complicated dancing to harmonize all the hurtful rhythms we've put in motion. These may seem to us to take lifetimes to play out, but maybe that's just part of our personal illusion. Perhaps when we become more efficient at living our lives as awakened, integrated, and kindly beings, karma will seem less unfair and inefficient to us. And more immediate.
There are two ways: One is to expand your ego to infinity, and the other is to reduce it to nothing, the former by knowledge, and the latter by devotion.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)
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The Knower says: "I am God — the Universal Truth."
The devotee says: "I am nothing, O God, You are everything."
In both cases, the ego-sense disappears. — Swami Ramdas