Free will is an important issue in Western Philosophy – usually contrasted with predestination. This gets us, unfortunately, in a very all or nothing kind of discussion if we don’t watch out.
Predestination, karma and fate are all sometimes used as ways of saying that what is, was meant to be. However, unfortunately, this is often taken to the conclusion that we have no controll over our future.
When I posed the question of free will on a theosophical forum one respondent put in that she had been used to discussing this issue in relation to alcoholism. Are some alcoholics perhaps meant to remain alcoholics?
Put like that it sounds awful. However, if you look at the facts it is pretty obvious that many alcoholics will stay alcoholic for the rest of their lives. In fact, even those who recover will continue to CALL themselves alcoholic in the realization that one drink can get them back into trouble.
Theosophists will talk about ‘working out of karma’. That is: when we go through something awful, we’re working out karma. The idea is that when the karma is done, things will get better.
In the original literature what was also implied was that one could work karma out faster (and more intensely) or more slowly (and therefore more easily).
In the case of alcoholism that means very simply that getting over the alcoholism is the same as the working out of karma. Or as I put it later in the discussion: there is the need to fight to
live our lives as purely as possible, even if we don’t always succeed. The fighting itself sets up new (more positive) karma.
If you look at karma as habit, then every opposition to the habit will make it easier to totally overcome it in future.
In (Theravada) Buddhism karma is one of the 5 niyamas. That is: one of the laws of cause and effect.
The others are:
- Utu Niyama
– physical inorganic order, e.g. seasonal phenomena of winds and rains. The unerring order of seasons, characteristic seasonal changes and events, causes of winds and rains, nature of heat, etc., all belong to this group.
- Bija Niyama
– order of germs and seeds (physical organic order), e.g. rice produced from rice-seed, sugary taste from sugar-cane or honey, peculiar characteristics of certain fruits, etc. The scientific theory of cells and genes and the physical similarity of twins may be ascribed to this order.
- Karma Niyama
– order of act and result, e.g., desirable and undesirable acts produce corresponding good and bad results. As surely as water seeks its own level so does Karma, given opportunity, produce its inevitable result, not in the form of a reward or punishment but as an innate sequence. This sequence of deed and effect is as natural and necessary as the way of the sun and the moon.
- Dhamma Niyama
– order of the norm, e.g., the natural phenomena occurring at the advent of a Bodhisattva in his last birth. Gravitation and other similar laws of nature. The natural reason for being good and so forth, may be included in this group.
- Citta Niyama
– order or mind or psychic law, e.g., processes of consciousness, arising and perishing of consciousness, constituents of consciousness, power of mind, etc., including telepathy, telaesthesia, retro-cognition, premonition, clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-reading and such other psychic phenomena which are inexplicable to modern science.
In other words: physical laws of nature, the truth as a cause of what’s right and consciousness itself are all causes in themselves, not depending on karma.
I’m not sure it makes a lot of logical sense to split causation into these five but at least it helps establish the following reasonably clearly:
- Our consciousness is not dependent on karma, which is why we can get out of bad karma in the first place.
- Physical nature, storms, fires, earth quakes aren’t our personal responsibility.
This gets rid of two common misconceptions – one on the side of free will, the other on the side of predestination.
The first misconception is that karma is everything that happens to us. There is actually, and this makes total sense, a lot that happens to us that just happens, that we did not specifically deserve or bring on us.
If my employer is a total ***, I may be in that situation because I was a total *** myself in a previous life. OR I may be in that situation only because he decided, for whatever reason, to not be very kind in this life. Of course it’s more likely that he just isn’t very sensitive, or has troubles at home, or whatever. But still – whatever it is, it doesn’t need to have anything at all to do with me.
The second misconception is that because what happens to us is our karma, it’s impossible to get out of. However, karma isn’t only in what we caused for ourselves and others in the past, it’s also what we do right now. And that includes how we deal with situations.
Getting back to that annoying boss: how I deal with him is likely to affect how he deals with me. Whether I walk away is up to me. Whether I help the organisation grow beyond the issues is up to me. All that is karma too, and my ATTITUDE will determine which path I choose.
Looking at karma in terms of the niyama’s also helps deal with earthquakes and such: if physical nature causes the earth quack, then the people who died there did not deserve to die, and will be compensated for so dying. Also, because they did NOT deserve to die, it is a good thing to save anyone who can be saved. This ought to be pretty obvious, but somehow it never quite is.
An inaction in a good deed is bad karma – to paraphrase Blavatsky. In other words: refraining from good, for whatever reason, is going to get you in karmic trouble later on.
A version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.
10 thoughts on “Free will and karma”
Karma from the Edgar Cayce readings is not separate from us. Our free will creates it and our free will can uncreate it. E.g., in reading 1436-3
Question- What is karmic debt?
Answer- … it is merely self being met in relationships to that they themselves are working out and not a karmic debt between but a karmic debt of self that may be worked out between the associations that exist in the present. And this is true for every soul. If ye will but take that as was given thee! “Neither do I condemn thee – neither do I condemn thee.”
20. (Q) Why do I feel such a love for my present environment at times and at others such a revulsion?
(A) Meeting self face to face in the mirror of life.
These readings say that everything is us meeting ourselves and that is my experience even to the the idea the earthquakes are a reflection of our personal earth consciousness changes that we create as “Creative Forces” aka God, with our free will. The readings strengthen this idea in the Lord’s prayer by changing “on earth” to “in earth” as in reading 2995-1:
Know that all the Creative Force ye may become aware of is within thine own self.
However, the readings advise that rather than stopping at the first layer of reflection, we try to understand the root cause because that will get us to a place where karma can be changed and affect all of the manifestations (not a unique symptom) and affect it more easily and completely and with less stress, i.e., changing a root thought or idea and seeing the world around you change because you’ve changed brings the dual reward of inner peace as well as outer. From reading
5. … For, as indicated oft, each entity has within itself the possibilities of the universal consciousness. These may be obtained by the analysis of the body with its emotions, its limitations, its desires, its hopes, its fears; and by an analysis of the mind-body and of the soul-body.
The readings talk about group karma but the group is made up of individuals who agree with the same fundamental ideas. The group is a reflection of your consciousness which means if you decide to change yourself you still need to recognize that the group is a reflection of a part of you that has not yet changed; so, you may meet additional parts of yourself. But, in the process of using your free will to analyze, explore, and re-frame, you will have the positive experiences that result from being true to what you value. And as the last line of the first readings says when you see yourself, the idea is not to condemn yourself. Rather, apply your values to yourself.
There is a great book, Glimpses of Abhidharma: From a Seminar on Buddhist Psychology. The chapter entitled “Auspicious Coincidence” has an interesting discussion of karma. Trungpa, Rinpoche says that the effect of karma means that you are predestined to be where you are in the present moment — but that the future is entirely open.
Free will is an extremely problematic issue. G.I.Gurdjieff wrote that our mental functioning is mechanical. IOW, there is no real difference between our mental functioning and that of any other organ in the body. Do we have the sense that we are consciously and intentionally digesting our food? No. But we do have the sense that we are consciously and intentionally formulating our thoughts, that are really the product of brain functioning.
One of the Mahatmas says in the Letters that it is absurd to think that our thoughts are affecting the functioning of the physical molecules of the brain. Technically, this is known as epiphenomenalism, i.e. consciousness is an epiphenomenon (byproduct) like the shadow of an object or steam from the whistle of a train. It is extremely hard for us to accept because we have been acculturated to think of ourselves as intentional mental beings who direct brain and body rather than merely registering brain activity.
Much food for thought.
A difficult but essential (IMHO) realization.
Do you think it is possible that japan’s quake is product of japanese nation’s tendency towards separatness?
We have the freedom as viewpoints of God to see what we want to see and go where we want to go. We exercise that freedom by deciding to see, to be conscious of, more or less of created space/time. Karma as practice is not likely to be very helpful in that process since it adds in non-specifics. The only understanding that counts is what you understand intimately. Besides, as viewpoints of God no one could ever do anything wrong so what’s the point? Just see what is in front of you, don’t make decisions about it, and as much as possible recognize that “wrongness” of any sort is just a feeling that will pass when understood. My opinion.
Last Saturday I posted on my website on the same subject (in Spanish, from a different point of view and … with a different intention, I guess).
I leave you an excerpt (I hope the English translation is good enough).
In my opinion, life is an ongoing dialogue with the universe, life itself (God, if you prefer), and free will is the choice we have to participate in the dialogue (or not) …
Personally I think that (before getting into the nuances about our role in relation to free will), it might be interesting to ask:
If what we do, (actions, words and thoughts, for example), influences everything else, Where does this “action “? What is the origin of our actions, words and thoughts?
If our will and our choices can coexist with the omnipresence of divinity, Where does this “will “? What is the origin of our decisions? How is our “relationship” with the “divinity”?
And more … Where is the limit, the border, the barrier and the difference between the “ourselves”, our actions, words, thoughts, will, decisions and … this “divinity”?
Who is the one who choose / decides the option we have to participate in the ongoing dialogue that takes place at every moment between life and life itself, between the universe and the universe itself, between the whole and the same whole?
That option to participate in the dialogue is not it, (maybe), God having a monologue, (rather than a dialogue), with the purpose of “knowing himself” as the creator created? Would not be God, (perhaps) trying to “recognizing himself” in every moment to himself, through his own creation?
And, if so … what is our role?
Give out garbage and you’ll get garbage back. Kind of like the computer analogy, garbage in, garbage out. If you’re in alignment with bad energy, you’ll attract it back to you.
Hi Katinka – Sharing a short excerpt from my forthcoming book.
“It is commonly perceived that the concepts of Karma and Reincarnation are unique to Sanatana Dharma. Yes, the word karma is certainly unique and originates from the root word ‘kr_’ in Sanskrit, which translates as ‘to do’. The words, Karma and Kriya are similar in meaning and translate as ‘deed or effort’ and etymologically Kriya is the root word for ‘creation’. Thus, all efforts and deeds indeed emanate from the Creator of the Cosmos and are followed by karmas and the deeds of the actions performed…”
What deeds you perform or ‘create’ out of your free are called ‘kriya’s’ and the results manifest themselves in the form of karmas over a period of time (sometimes over lifetimes). That is one of the major reasons why many religions propound ‘what you sow; so will you reap’. If we plant the seeds of love and brotherhood, we can expect the same. Contrarily if one were to sow the seeds of hatred and malice, the same will return to them.
The literature of the vedas and the bible teach us that if we plant the seeds of violence, the results follow the individual for 3 – 4 lifetimes. If one were to kill another person, death as a deed follows the individual for seven lifetimes.
I have worked with a lot people and helping them to health because of their karma and have written a number of articles about karma and the fact is that cycles exist.
The western mind wants a neat and tidy answer to why their life or things happen to them and karma gets a lot of blame. When one takes greater responsibility for their thoughts, actions, interactions and manner of speaking then karma can be more fully described and often even healed.
We come into the body and develop personality traits and along the way to get to handle the decisions we’ve made and not made. The human handbook has been written and rewritten and cause and effect along with cycles are the overall rule. Whether that’s karma we will all discover – one day.
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