October 21, 2010

The Weight (MDIV 555)

Journal for October 21, 2010

“We can understand the workings of karma in our lives most clearly by looking at this process of cause and effect in our ordinary activities and by observing how repetitive patterns of our mind affect our behavior. For instance, being born in a certain culture at a certain time, we learn certain habit patterns.” A Path with Heart, by Jack Kornfield, page 275-6.

The idea of karma is very interesting to me for two reasons. I simply try to understand why people do the things they do, myself more than most simply because I have more knowledge to work with. Understanding why other people do the things they do is at least as puzzling, especially as I don’t know what they are thinking. The role culture plays in one’s karma, I feel, is often far larger than we give it credit for. We are all products of our culture and we act in the manner to which we have been culturally habituated. Even counter-cultures suffer from this influence.

That is not to say we have no free will. It is only to say that so long as something goes unrecognized, it goes unaddressed. Culture is usually either entirely unrecognized or misrecognized. For example, my friend Jake once posed the playful question “If you could live at any time and place in history, when and where would you choose?” My other friend and I looked at each other, then at him. “Are you kidding?” she asked. “This one, of course.” Jake was surprised to hear that answer from a fellow history major, but we explained, “Jake, if we lived at any other time or place in history, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be studying at the university, wearing pants, or even talking to you without supervision.” It had never occurred to Jake that for a woman to go back in time would involve her submission to cultural dictates which did not apply to him as an educated, white, Christian, male. That was his karma. Shortly after that, he began an exploration of women’s issues.

I know I come with a lot of karma, from my DNA to my culture to all the choices I’ve made in my life. Often the weight of it feels almost overwhelming, as though it is a great burden I’ll never get out from under. I feel like whatever successes I have had in changing my karma have been so very small. For example, as a teenager, I stopped chewing my fingernails, a lifelong habit. But really, how important is that? Some days I feel it’s a great victory and at other times entirely superficial.

Oddly, I often feel that cultivating good qualities, like generosity and equanimity, is almost easy compared to how difficult it is to let go of bad qualities, like obstinacy and laziness. The minute a bit of unkind gossip comes out of my mouth, I can recognize it as unskillful, but I can’t call it back. Getting to that beginning spot of unskillful action is so very hard. On the other hand, creating a beginning spot of skillful action seems much easier. Sometimes the intention behind the skillful action hasn’t been exactly pure, in fact, at times it’s been quite grudging, but it feels like I can actually make progress towards purifying that intention. Whereas on the other hand, I can’t even find the intention behind unskillful actions until it’s too late.

Perhaps it’s uncharitable, but I don’t feel like whatever good I do when I cultivate skillful qualities balances out the harm of my unskillful thoughts, words, and deeds. Things are so much easier to break than to build. One catty remark can taint someone’s opinion forever and then they close their minds to a thousand compliments. I feel like the only place bad karma can be undone is at the very beginning, at that intention. It can’t be balanced or redeemed or purified through a million good deeds.

That is a very heavy weight. Yet bearing guilt for all one’s past misdeeds is also karma, and not very helpful karma at that. I don’t think guilt is a good motivator of skillful actions, it’s not a pure intention. When one acts out of guilt, one generally acts to make the guilt go away, to make oneself feel better. I try to let go of guilt, but the responsibility for finding the roots of my future unskillful actions, no doubt numerous, still weighs on me.

What kind of intention does that breed?

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