Yogi Assignment: Love in Action
Karma is a bitch.
God is love.
I’ve heard both of these statements recently around the yoga community and I find them hard to reconcile. So, I’m going to try and unpack them both and make sense of what appears to be a logical inconsistency. This discussion is an effort to restore wholeness and elevate consciousness to a higher level. If it is triggering for you or you find yourself in resistance, do the work and process what that’s about for you. I know from my own perspective I’ve had to put in a good deal of emotional labour to write this article. I welcome dialogue about this and really about all things, so please feel welcome to contribute to my analysis and observations and speak amongst yourselves in the comments. I only ask that you be respectful and not type out anything that you wouldn’t say to someone in person. Now, with that in mind, let’s dive in.
Karma is translated into English from Sanskrit as action, work or deed and is often used to refer to the law of cause and effect. Take for example, karma yoga, the yoga of action which often takes the form of acts of service. Karma is often used to refer to the universal law of causality, most commonly understood to be that every action causes ripples in the lake of our lives spiraling outwards. There are said to be direct, indirect, immediate and distant consequences to every action. Sometimes on a very base level people think of karma as the police department of the universe. Even then, it is important to note that karma in its most traditional sense has no emotion associated with it. It is not out to get anyone or make anyone “pay”. When I’ve heard the phrase that “karma is a bitch” it seems that people are often referring to their own hurt feelings and the desire to see the person whom they have identified as the source of their suffering pay a price for their actions. Instead of referring to universal yogic principles, in that case karma becomes a messenger of personal justice, vengeance and retribution. I know all too well how hurt feelings, especially powerful emotions betrayal, abandonment, and anger, can fuel a desire to extract a type of “payment” for the debt created. This could be called an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth sense of justice and is perhaps the most basic and elementary form of righting the wrongs of the past. Yet, I’d wager to say that while it is totally human to yearn to see the perpetrators of wrongful actions pay for their crimes, this desire it at least only a rudimentary understanding of how people truly atone for their actions in life.
Karma is not really a bitch, nor is it anyone’s bitch. Karma is a Divinely created law of order. It is impersonal and formed in love. But it is not the highest order of life. When our own pain and hurt closes in on us so tightly, there is often a desire to seek an avenger of some type to set things right again in the logical of our own moral universe. When we feel victimized we often search for a hero to step in and make things right again. Following this logic, it feels safe to claim “karma” as our champion and send off this “force” to perform the punishment that we see fit. I can’t help but here a kind of passive or even directly aggressive feeling in the statement that “karma is a bitch”. A kind and forgiveness has simply not uttered those words. I’m not here to invalidate anyone’s anger. Anger can be valid, just and appropriate. Yet, wishing harm on others, even through the impersonal form for “karma” perpetuates the cycle of suffering.
I know all too well the harm that one inflicts on oneself from hating someone or something that seen as a perpetrator of wrongs in the world and acting on that hate. Whether through thoughts, words or deeds, the desire to see someone (or even an organization) suffer is rooted in darkness and negativity. I have sat on the sidelines while people were ridiculed and remained silent simply because I thought they were getting what they deserved. This is evil at its root. To cheer on the demise of a fellow human being is quite simply cruel. While I do not claim to be above any mistakes nor do I exist at the level of seeing the impact of all actions, I can say that I believe in karma as a universal principle, but that’s not all I believe in. You don’t have to accept the cosmology of Hinduism to see that how you act makes a difference in the world. Being nice to the people you interact with increases the likelihood that people will be nice to you in return. It’s not a guarantee but even a small act of kindness makes a positive difference in the world. You never know when lending a helping hand by opening a door for a stranger or simply sharing a warm-hearted smile changes someone’s day. There are certainly actions and reactions and prices to pay as we learn from our mistakes and benefits to reap for our goodness. But the universe seems to me to be so much more than this way. I believe in an infinite universe and I try and operate from a much more nuanced and subtle vantage point than a simple zero-sum game where karma goes out and makes everyone pay for all the things they did wrong. I’d like to think of the universe as an inherently more benevolent place than a cosmic court room with judge, jury and conviction whose purpose is divvying out sentences and punishment for all our shortcomings. The way I see it is that we are all here to live, learn and ultimately to love. In other words, while I believe in karma as cause and effect, I also believe that there may be another way.
Which brings me to the statement that God is love. Love is also a commonly used term by many people and yogis. We like to say that we are love, that the fabric of the universe is love and love is the most powerful force in the universe. Some people even say that love is their religion. But what is love? And what is God?
I couldn’t define God even if I tried because God is infinite and undefinable. The methodology of yoga is grounded in the notion that the truth that you have directly experienced is the most stable basis for your faith. I wasn’t raised with any religion, nor am I currently affiliated with any formal institution of faith. Yet, I am a person of deep faith with a profound relationship with God. It is through my yoga practice that my mind and heart opened to the point where I was able to get a glimpse of the Eternal Divine. All I can really say is that if you desire a direct and personal experience of the Divine, all you have to do is ask for it in your heart and be willing to surrender and give yourself over to it when it arrives. God cannot be defined by our human language and even the word “God” is inadequate. Some people prefer to refer to the Divine as “Source” “Oneness” “Universal Life” “Holy of Holies” “the Infinite”. Regardless all words are but fingers pointing at a vastness that is incomprehensible through logic and yet can be experienced. Whatever I have known of God, you can too if you open your heart and mind with a willing, receptive spirit.
To me, God is the beating heart of the universe, the mighty power that is bigger and grander than all others and is the only force that truly has the authority to judge. But, the miracle of the Divine is that since God is love, no judgement happens. Learning, evolution, growth, life lessons, yes, but God is not in the business of shame, blame and punishment. God loves all things, including our mistakes and our failures. So God is not the judge that we so often hear in our heads. We judge ourselves while God loves us, forgives us and leads us. Most of all God loves us and carries us when we feel unlovable, broken, and discarded by the world.
So yes, God is love. And yes, love is the most powerful force in the universe and truly is all things. Everyone is worthy of love just as they are, complete with all their mistakes, faults and misery. At least that’s how I see things now. But, there was once a paradigm in religious institutions of sin-punishment-atonement where great sacrifice was demanded to right the wrongs of our actions. This could also be thought of as the manifestation or structure of karma. You could think of this as a cycle where human beings, being flawed and imperfect, fail constantly at walking in perfect union with God. When a human being committed a sin, that act of sin kept them separate from God and needed to be atoned for with sacrifice before things were set right. The cycle of sin-punishment-atonement was an eternal loop that humans had little chance at escaping simply by happenstance. If you are familiar with Judeo-Christian terminology you will hear the covenant of the Old Testament here, but one could easily replace the word “sin” with “samskara” and think of this cycle in a similar manner. A samsara is a behavior pattern that obscures the free and clear flow of consciousness and blocks union with God, revelation of truth and final freedom. We are born with samskaras said to be carried over from previous incarnations, which one could read as “being born in sin”. Yoga says that we spend our lives either generating new samskaras or working to remove and burn away our existing ones. Through great effort called tapas the yogi seeks to willing submit to suffering and purify the body and mind in a heroic effort to remove all samskaras. Traditional yoga philosophy also says that through total devotion and surrender to God the samskaras can be removed through what could be called an act of grace and love.
Grace is a new covenant that supersedes the law of cause and effect. In my experience you are not ready for grace until you are in true need of it. Until all your effort fails and you sit with the disaster of your life in your hands with no way to put the pieces back together the option of choosing grace might not be too appealing. But, at a crucial moment in your life, when no other options are available, the miracle of grace happens. The spiritual contract of retribution gets replaced with the paradigm of grace. Instead of the burden of earning worthiness being placed on the individual actions of each person, worthiness is redefined as an inherent quality of being. In other words, the miraculous act of grace trumps all other paradigms. Forgiveness replaces punishment, command replaces control, and all beings are worthy of love exactly as they are, with all their flaws, mistakes and imperfections. I believe that we each need to make that shift in our hearts to experience the miracle of grace in our lives. I also believe that path is through surrender. The bigger and grander our failures and flaws, the darker our lows, the greater the depth of our surrender will be. It is because I make an endless stream of mistakes that I in fact need Grace. No matter how hard I try, I’ll simply never be perfect. I am not the most powerful force in the universe and I am not in control of it all. I realize that I need a power that is bigger and grander than myself to step in and take the reigns of my life. It’s not on my shoulders. That in an of itself is a relief.
When what’s in your heart is a desire to see someone else suffer it doesn’t matter if that suffering is imagined to come from the messenger of “karma” or simply your own hands. Wishing harm upon others is antithetical to the notion that God is love and that God loves all things. So if God is love and we truly give our lives over to God, then everything changes. If one’s whole understanding of the spiritual contract of the universe rests on the redemptive quality of love, then the only thing we can truly wish for all beings is salvation.
This week’s Yogi Assignment is Love in Action.
1. Love Yourself—Look in the mirror and wrap your arms around yourself and say “Hello self, I love you. I recognize that I am loved and that I am love. My love knows no bounds. I give and receive love freely.”
2. Love other People—In whatever means available for you, commit to thinking, speaking and acting only in love. Watch your thoughts and when you find yourself thinking hateful thoughts about someone else, consciously move into forgiveness and release the negativity. Watch your words and if you find yourself speaking words of hate, change your words to be life-affirming and love-generating. Watch your actions and if you find yourself being passive aggressive or directly aggressive towards others, stop your actions immediately and check yourself.
3. Love your World—Take five minutes at the start of your day to walk around your home environment and tell your world that you love it, that it’s good and you are grateful it’s there. Let this include inanimate objects like your coffee cup, living beings like pets and family members and also more expansive things like the sky, the sun, and the clouds.