Karma, the fundamental law of life, holds transformative power for our well-being.
Delving into the enigma of karma reveals transformative insights that can reshape our journey towards happiness and spiritual freedom.
Here is a practical look at the mystery of karma and a few strategies for overcoming obstacles on our path that we can begin right away.
A great mystery of karma is that it is a fundamental law of life that holds the key to our happiness and freedom, yet we don’t pay much attention to it. We miss its relevance for living an awakened life and undermine our capacity to change our karma and improve our life. We tend to look at enlightenment or freedom from suffering as the spiritual goal yet overlook the necessity of understanding the law of karma.
"It's not possible to circumvent spiritual law; we cannot live and act outside of the reality of Oneness. What we think, say, and do resound through the world, travels the circle that is unity, and returns to us. This is the fundamental law of karma."
—Yogacharya Ellen Grace O'Brian
Karma is simply the natural law of cause and effect. It is the fundamental spiritual law that underlies the most universal spiritual teaching— the golden rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. This is not only a golden rule for how to treat others, it is a metaphysical truth. What we do to others we do to ourselves, because there is no separation in this one life of God. Life is a seamless unity. As we sow, so do we reap; what goes around comes around.
We cannot cause harm to another without harming ourselves (in the moment and the future). A little understanding of this principle can help bring more peace and kindness to our world. But even though the teaching is universal and the effects of it are fairly obvious, we often don’t see how this works. Why? Because the mechanism of karma is subtle. The laws of nature show us that every action brings an inherent reaction. Yet because the potency of karma is primarily a mental process, and there is often a time delay in its fruition, we miss it. We don’t see it unless we know how to look for it. It is necessary to understand the nature of the mind in order to understand how karma works.
It is primarily the force of intention or volition behind our thoughts, speech, and actions that determine karmic potency and leave a residue that will come to fruition.
The motive behind our speech and actions is the seed we plant that will come to fruition at some point in time—in correspondence with its kind. It’s not only what we do but what motivates our actions. These intentions or motivations, along with memories, perceptions, and experiences, are all mental impressions stored in the subconscious mind as imprints, or samskaras. These are the seeds of karma we plant in the garden of mind and consciousness.
My spiritual teacher Roy Eugene Davis wrote: Samskaras or mental impressions result from our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and opinions (even if given to us by others). The whole system is recorded on the subconscious level of mind. Unless we are self-realized, we tend to move according to the compulsions of our self-conscious urgings. For most people, karma is what drives them through life. We decide and then forget that we decided. We dream and then forget that we dreamt. Most of us live our lives as though in a dream, and yet we say we are conscious!
Even when we know how it works, we sometimes forget. We forget the seamless nature of life and believe that our thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions are somehow operating in isolation. That is never the case.
I was reminded of this some time ago when I was challenged by someone I thought had betrayed me. I was upset by what he did and spoke to another friend about it. After listening to my story, my friend said, “Well, you should get straight with him now because if you don’t, you’ll meet him again.” In my upset, I had forgotten this basic karmic principle. He didn’t necessarily mean that I would meet that particular person again.
He meant that the upset was mine, and I needed to clear it up so that I wasn’t planting seeds of anger and resentment, the seeds of my own unhappiness. I was making myself unhappy in the moment and, at the same time, planting a potent seed for future unhappiness. To understand karma, recognize both.
A practical look at the mystery of karma and a few strategies for overcoming obstacles on our path that we can begin right away.
One of the challenges with understanding karma is that Life in this realm occurs in an interactive field of expression. Karmic impressions from the past are coming to fruition and must be dealt with while we are simultaneously creating new karmic imprints in the moment. This interaction is happening all the time. We must respond skillfully to karmic seeds that are ripening and refrain from creating any new negative imprints that will later come to fruition.
Waking up on the spiritual path—realizing who we are as spiritual beings—is the beginning of the way, not the end of it. Once we can see clearly, we can clear up our karma which operates at three basic levels:
Life is an interactive field of expression. It’s like standing in a blooming field you planted in the past, watching things come up, and sowing more seeds by how you react to what comes up. Continuously.
I watch my little backyard veggie garden with an eye to karma lessons. There is what I know I planted, and depending on the strength of the seeds, weather, and soil conditions, I have a particular harvest. I also have what the squirrels and birds plant or dig up. And I have the mystery crop that comes up annually. A great joy for me has been the growth of delicata squash (my favorite) which I did not plant. But! Like a long-dormant samskara, when I looked into how it has shown up in more than one season, I discerned that those seeds live through the composting process. So from my kitchen compost, a new crop mysteriously appeared. From what I tossed out and thought I was done with, the seeds took on new a new life.
Here are four things to remember:
Paramahansa Yogananda wrote: Since all effects or seeds of our past actions, our karma, can be destroyed by roasting them in the fire of meditation, concentration, the light of superconsciousness, and right actions, there is no such thing as fate. You make your own destiny. God has given you independence, and you are free to shut out His power or let it in. 
As we reflect on understanding and managing karma, a wise saying attributed to writer William Arthur Ward is an excellent maxim to live by: Judge each day not by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.
© 2023 Ellen Grace O’Brian