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The Dogma of Karma

Last week I wrote about the tragic murders of Dominique Fells and Riah Milton, both trans black women who were viciously killed this month for their gender identities and race. I wrote about karma and privilege. I feel compelled to write more.

Karma is the cosmic law that states all actions, even thoughts, that originate from us into the world return to us at some point. As Paramhansa Yogananda explained, “This is the law of karma: As you sow, so shall you reap. (Galatians 6:7) If you sow evil, you will reap evil in the form of suffering. And if you sow goodness, you will reap goodness in the form of inner joy.”

It is a perfect circle, Divine harmony. In the cosmic law of karma there are few innocent bystanders. Some take it further to suggest that karma is like a piggy bank, we can collect the coin of good deeds and pay it out to avoid suffering.

This belief has never sat well with me. There is, of course, a certain comfort in knowing that justice will always prevail under this cosmic law. Especially when faced with the perpetrators of extreme inhumanity. And, as in all things religious, there’s a difference between interpretations. Perhaps goodness and evil are merely internal experiences, rather than external realities? One can hope.

The flip side of the coin is fairly gruesome. The idea that what you get is what you deserve, always. It can cause an aloofness to human suffering or worse. It can feel callous and accusatory to the recipient of human tragedy. I’m not saying this belief causes everyone to be uncaring, only that it’s a real and present danger.

These teachings come straight from the ancient wisdom of yoga. Who am I to question them? And yet, when a belief does not sit well with us, when it causes us to press the mental fast forward button and move quickly to a new topic, perhaps it’s worth a pause.

What I can tell you is this, staring unblinkingly into human suffering breaks a sensitive heart wide open. If we lean into that suffering, breathe through it, we come out the other side with a deep and abiding compassion for humanity.

I have come to a different understanding of karma. I can’t say that it’s true, only that I no longer need to push the fast forward button. I believe that karma is about learning. I believe that what comes to us is there to teach us something. My privilege and pain. When tragedy strikes, our choice is to let our pain, anger, whatever rises, transform us in ways that make us more compassionate or let it crush us with fear or despair. Or maybe a little of both.

I can’t know the lessons of Dominique and Riah’s murders, nor George or Breonna’s or countless others. What I can know is that their deaths deserve lessons be learned by us all.

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