by Marc Piane
A number of years ago I decided that New Year’s Resolutions were lame. People resolve to change something, often while drinking, and then feel bad about themselves when it only lasts a few weeks. Anyone that has gone to a gym after Jan. 1 has seen how packed the place is and can easily observe the numbers dwindle as the time marches on until, by halfway through February, there are no longer lines at any of the exercise machines. I decided instead to think of a word or concept to ponder for the year. Past topics have included clarity and balance, among others. This year I have to decided to think too hard about the concept of karma. My initial interest was sparked years ago when I heard a recorded lecture by the philosopher Alan Watts. It was a real “things that make you go hmm” moment for me. His point basically is that Americans have an Americanized way of thinking of the concept of karma that centers around the idea of cause and effect. That lecture made me start to notice how the word crept into conversation and in what context it was often used. I think words are very powerful things and how we use them shapes our understanding of reality. A recent conversation I had with some fellow ponderers prompted me to look into this further. These sort of personal quests are not about finding answers. The good thing is the year is only beginning and I have 12 months to confuse myself and you further. I will check in from time to time over the year to update you on where my head has gone. It’s a dark and scary place in here, so buckle up.
When pondering a word I always start with the definition. Karma is a very old Sanskrit word that is literally translated as action, work, or deed. There is a very long tradition in a variety of religions, and while I have studied these traditions a bit, I am in no way a theological scholar. I’d like instead to focus more on the secular and specifically Western (and skewed slightly towards the Midwest) idea of karma (though related, I’m sure, to the religious one). I’m specifically curious about what the word means to me and how it gets used in the local vernacular.
There is a common phrase that “karma is a bitch” or an idea that we do something good for the karmic reward and avoid doing things because a fear of karmic retribution. People talk all the time about “banking” karma. Basically this idea is doing a bunch of good stuff so that you can do something bad later and it will all balance out. This is all well and good I suppose, but to me it feels pretty convoluted. This also means that, while most Americans don’t consider karma to be a religious concept, or if they do would be horrified to find out that it’s not originally a Christian concept, someone has to be keeping track. It also means that there has to be a common list of good stuff and bad stuff. In the end it means that we are not necessarily doing things because we think they are “right”, but because of promise of reward or fear of retribution. My Existentialist streak has a problem with this. I do have my own idea of what karma is, but if I think of the individual as a free and responsible agent and existence precedes essence and a search for meaning/answers is absurd (in the Existentialist definition) then the entire idea of a grand scorekeeper, be it a god or the universe, is poo-poo. Where’s the aspirin?
Then I had an idea. This Western concept of karma relies on the idea of cause and effect. If I do something good, something good will happen to me. The reason this idea has always been problematic for me is then, if something bad happens, we feel it unfair because karma owes us. When I look back at the translations of the word I see no mention of either cause or effect. It is more of an “is” idea. Science, religion, and philosophy are all zeroing in on the idea that everything is connected. That conception can be thought of as the Newtonian billiard ball idea of molecules bouncing together, it can be a more modern string theory idea, it can be a mystical/religious idea of life force or spirit. If we acknowledge everything is connected, an action on our part influences the action of something else. I don’t think that this necessarily has to fit into the cause and effect model. What if we instead just think that everything influences everything else? Wait a minute. Isn’t that just a different way of saying cause and effect? I’m going to give you a definitive, kinda. I think that cause and effect relies partially on the fact that we have both in mind at the beginning. When we play on a teeter-totter we can easily see that, due to gravity, the effect of one side going down is that the other side goes up. When it comes to deeds it is much harder to see direct cause and effect correlation. Also, since our action and our effect is not physically connected, like in the teeter-totter, there isn’t a one to one correlation between action and reaction. To further complicate matters, since concepts of right and wrong are different depending on someone’s belief system, it is impossible to have a one to one correlation between action and reaction. Clear as mud.
This all spins back to the Existentialists. Nietzsche thought of existence as nihilistic, devoid of meaning, but I always liked Sartre’s idea that we make our own meaning. I think that includes the meaning of life, meaning of existence, meaning of words, just plain meaning. Maybe the key is the idea authenticity, basically being true to yourself. I think what karma means to me, at least right now, is being authentic. If I’m being the best me I am having good karma, if I am not than not.
There is a lecture from the pop-psychologist and fiction writer Robert Anton Wilson about a form of the English language in which the use of the word “is” is minimized. E-prime. The goal of this is an attempt at acknowledging that reality is subjective. What something means to me might not be what it means to someone else. Our understanding of things is based on our life experience. Since no two life experiences are the same, no two understandings will be the same. In that lecture Wilson says a line that will always stick with me, “I’ve decided that we can’t get beyond words, what we’ve got to do is get more cynical about our words.” These annual exercises are about being cynical about the words I use. If my understanding of what the word karma means to me changes, will it change for anyone else? Probably not, but if you read this column, perhaps this might spark a ponder in you. Maybe it will even start a dialogue or discussion with friends. In the end, that is what being cynical about the meaning of words means… making sure they are really expressing what we are thinking.
That is where my head is now. You are probably thinking, this guy is thinking way too hard about this. Probably. I like to live by the motto, don’t believe everything you think.
Happy New Year.