Human life is full of inequities. Seemingly undeserved differences in material conditions, opportunities, and abilities have an overwhelming impact on the course of our lives. Why should one person be born to hardship and struggle, or mediocrity, while others come into the world with material advantages or talent? Our destiny may also be shaped by the many natural and man-made disasters which kill or bring suffering to hundreds of people without any apparent cause on the part of the victims. Less spectacular but more pervasive are relatively common events, such as car accidents or cancer, which intrude into our lives, striking one and not another, often with no discoverable reason — "chance" events. Is there any reason behind these disparities which make up individual lives?
Although we often speak of chance, few of us really believe that we live in a chaotic or random universe, as our actions and habits of thought show. Not only basic scientific research and knowledge, but our own day-to-day decisions take physical cause-and-effect relationships for granted. There are also non-physical causes and effects, but because we are so caught up in the appearance of things as reported by our senses, and in the materialism of modern culture, we often do not realize that the physical world is only the effect, the outermost shell or body, of our real environment. Actually the cosmos, like ourselves, is composed almost entirely of grades of consciousness-substance that are not perceived by our senses. Certainly the major, most influential parts of us are our mind, emotions, desires, habits, and insights — these are what make the person, not merely the physical body. The universe, too, is not a machine or a mere conglomeration of physical particles, but alive and conscious throughout. It is formed of a multitude of living organisms, every point, every grouping, the living expression and vehicle of a spiritual entity. Every such point of life is not only an integral part of a more inclusive entity, but at the same time is formed of countless entities less developed than itself. The universe is a limitless webwork of interconnected lives, all acting and reacting on each other, and on themselves as well.
This universal action and reaction, or cause and effect, is karma, a Sanskrit word meaning action. Though some religious traditions present it as the action of a cosmic being, karma is actually universal and impersonal, an inherent tendency in nature. Every act, thought, or feeling is an impulse which reverberates throughout the universe. The universe then reacts as a matter of course, and sooner or later the force rebounds upon its source. Activities in harmony with natural patterns maintain and reinforce that harmony which then is reflected back on the actor; activities in conflict with the patterns of nature create disharmony which also is reflected back on the actor. It is not punishment or reward — such a view simply projects our own feelings onto the natural process by which balance is restored when individuals, using their free will, channel energies.
Because we do not see the immediate cause of our character, circumstances, and associations, our joys and sufferings, we are apt to explain them as chance or the will of some being outside ourselves. The inequalities in human life, however, are caused by people themselves, individually and as groups. This goes unrecognized when we view ourselves as completely new at birth, instead of as the expression of a divine monad or consciousness center with a past as long as that of the universe itself. Such a monad which has reached the self-conscious egoic stage of its inner unfoldment, has lived many lives on earth as a human being. In them it has built up, from within itself and by reacting to circumstances, particular characteristics and reinforced certain abilities and lacks. Further, each person through contact with others has set in motion causes which attract him to particular groups of people in order to experience the effects. As members of groups, we have been involved together in actions and thoughts which must have their consequences. Each human being is born with many tendencies and relationships awaiting the opportunity for expression and modification in a new set of circumstances. Considering the many causes we set in motion even in one lifetime, it is small wonder that there is such a variety of conditions in the world.
But why aren't we consciously aware of the past causes we have set in motion if we must live through their consequences? The answer lies in the complex, compound structure of human nature. During our life we tend to identify almost completely with our personality and body, but our personality or everyday psychological self does not survive death intact any more than our body does. When the spiritual aspects withdraw from this psychological vehicle or personality after death, the forces holding it together dissipate and it disintegrates into psychological "atoms" which circulate through nature as the physical atoms of our body do after death. When the time comes for us to be reborn, most of this mental-emotional substance is gathered together again and reformed into the new personality, the recombined elements having no remembrance of the human being that utilized them before. Nevertheless, because these atoms bear the impress of qualities and tendencies stamped upon them in the last embodiment, the "new" personality tends to be the direct result and continuation of the previous one. At the same time, we are much more than we express in any one life, and carry within ourselves a backlog of karma from former lives which is awaiting the proper opportunity to manifest. Because of this variety of karmic possibilities, our present personality is not formed only by the immediately preceding life: certain tendencies may be held back while other more ancient chains of causation are brought forward. We are affected by this karmic heritage we do not understand or remember because we have become it in ourselves.
But we are more than psychomental beings. Our spiritual aspects are enduring and retain the record of our past. If we centered our consciousness on these levels, we could know our past lives — though we might find this a very sobering experience indeed. As our everyday consciousness becomes more universal, it gradually grows toward its parent, the spiritual monad, until eventually we will pass consciously through death and reimbodiment, and be able to know the causes of the events which befall us.
If everything has a cause and nothing results from chance, some people conclude that we must be trapped by the past into a predetermined, inescapable fate. Such a view overlooks the fact that we are not creatures only of matter or mind, but fundamentally identical in our inmost reaches with cosmic divinity. Because of this, every entity in nature has free will, although its freedom is limited by its degree of evolution and by other entities around it. Of course, our past, the character we have created for ourselves, our habits of thought, feeling, and action, are powerful forces, and it is easy to drift along the route of least resistance in ourselves. But if our desire and commitment are strong enough, we can change. While we must inevitably deal with the consequences of our actions, we need not be controlled by them. New karma arises constantly from our reactions, motives and attitudes, and at every moment we are different, a new self-creation. The personality who receives the effects of past karma may be quite changed from the one who originally made it, just as the mature person is usually different from what he was as a teenager, though he must deal with the consequences of the teenager's decisions. His present perspective may allow him to meet creatively even unfortunate effects of his past, transmuting something potentially negative into an opportunity to learn and grow. By starting causes of a more harmonious quality we can mitigate the effects of, and perhaps find positive aspects to, much of the former disharmonious karma we have made, and plant seeds of a new kind for the future. Far from fatalism, karma allows us to choose and make our destiny, giving us the opportunity to control our life and circumstances by controlling ourselves and how circumstances affect us.
Sometimes karma is also misinterpreted as a rationalization for callousness and for maintaining a status quo of suffering and injustice, individually or socially: "These people have brought their difficulties on themselves; it's their karma, and I won't interfere with divine justice." Such reasoning ignores the fact that it is not only a person's karma to experience misfortune, but also to have someone there in a position to help. By choosing to remain aloof from the plight of another, we create self-limiting karma for and in ourselves. As parts of one organic unity, identical in essence with each and every other part, it is our responsibility to assist others to the best of our ability: compassion and fellow-feeling for all is the pathway of growth and the expression of what is truly and nobly human.
The key to understanding the present lies in recognizing that everything has a cause and will have an effect. For the universe and all in it have been formed by their past activities. We each have shaped ourselves through innumerable lives into exactly who we presently are, and by our thoughts, actions, and desires now we form our future self. By our reactions to those around us we are setting up a pattern of causes that will have to be worked out in future relationships with those people. And just as we are the great storehouse of our past karma — our traits of character, tendencies, abilities — so is every other entity in nature its own karma. As human beings, we are part of greater entities — the earth, solar system, galaxy — which create their own karma. This larger karma affects humanity as a whole, just as our individual actions affect the smaller lives which compose our bodies. There is an interaction and reaction among all things, for the universe is a unity, a living organism, not a collection of superficially related parts. Each part affects the whole at every instant, and is affected by it, and it is these karmic interrelations that make the universe function as it does. Our lives have an impact on everything within and around us; what we choose to think and do and feel is not limited in its effect to ourselves or to those we know. If we can see beyond the narrow, self-centered aspects of ourselves and live in accordance with the wider interests of the many beings which surround us, we will become a positive influence of planetary extent, creating karma which is a present and future benediction.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)