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Have you ever stopped to wonder what makes you you? Of the countless, unimaginably infinite possible forms that consciousness could take, what made you turn out the way you have? In the ocean of consciousness, spirit takes innumerable forms—waves, currents, tides, whirlpools, surges—but there’s only one unique expression of that ocean unlike any other that is you. How did that happen? The answer, in a word, is choices.
Your life, up to this very moment is the sum total of the choices you’ve made in the past. Like a million little doorways, your choices represent the decision points that consciously or unconsciously guided the direction of your mind, body, health, and life would take. As an ancient Indian saying goes: If you want to see what your thoughts were like yesterday, look at your body today. If you want to know what your body will be like tomorrow, look at your thoughts today.
This concept is often referred to as the Law of Karma or Cause and Effect. It’s the process by which we create the future through the choices we make in each moment. For some, the idea of karma seems to be a mystical, esoteric, new-agey term that defines a system of divine reward and punishment based upon our past behavior.
However, the word karma simply means “action,” while simultaneously implying the consequences of that action. Therefore, karma is the impartial cause and effect process of the universe. Like gravity, karma is a foundational law of nature so ubiquitous we often don’t recognize it’s there. One might be tempted to think, “I don’t believe in karma,” but rest assured, karma believes in you.
As it relates to the unique expression of consciousness that is you, karma makes up one of three components of what can be referred to as the software of the soul. This process is essentially the engine of choice that’s governing our lives in every moment. It works like this, for every choice you make, that action (karma) creates a memory (samskara). In turn, that memory will generate a desire (vasana). Desire then leads to the next action and the cycle continues on again and again. In this way, our actions, motivated by desires based upon memories of past action, churn on and on creating a distinctive expression of consciousness that is you.
Consider any choice you’ve ever made, perhaps going to a baseball game. The action of attending the game will create memories. Those memories of the experience being either enjoyable or unpleasant will influence your next desire, perhaps to go to a soccer game instead or to follow that baseball team for the rest of your life. In this way, your experiences and karmas create the patterning framework for your likes and dislikes, your memories, desires, and choices, lasting a lifetime or longer.
In addition, our choices can fall into one of three categories—thought, speech, and deed. Each of these actions is a cause that generates specific effects. In the Mikkyo (secret teachings) tradition of esoteric Tantric Buddhism, these three elements are known as sanmitsu or the “triple secret”. They are the acknowledgment of the vast and often overlooked role of our thoughts, speech, and actions, which are the fundamental building blocks of our personal reality.
Biography Becomes Biology
The patterning and conditioning effect of karma on our minds and bodies is taking place at both conscious and unconscious levels and can account for many, if not all, of our habitual behaviors and tendencies for better or worse. If you make the same choice over and over, the impartial software of the soul lays down a familiar and deepening groove in your consciousness, not unlike digging a ditch through which water will more easily flow. Repeated thoughts fire the same neurological networks (brain circuitry), releasing a familiar chemical cocktail (hormones) throughout the body, resulting in a predictable feeling (emotion).
Maintained over time, emotions become moods, moods become part of our temperament, and temperament becomes a personality trait or state of being. In this way choices program our lives into predictable bundles of conditioned responses.
Breaking the Hold of the Past to Create New Routines
Now that we understand the mechanics of cause and effect, it becomes easier to harness karma to form new habits and routines. Ultimately, we’re always making choices, the real question is: How aware we are when we make a choice? Herein lies the key to answering the perennial question of whether we live in a deterministic universe or one of free will. Simply put, it boils down to awareness. If you make unconscious decisions, following the autopilot of your preprogrammed conditioning and karma, your life will be one of habituated, predictable thoughts, speech, and action, epitomizing Henry Ford’s observation, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
If, however, you are paying attention to your thoughts, speech, and actions in each moment, you become the master of free will, able to recognize limiting and constricting patterns cycling through your soul’s software. Once identified, you are much more able to make a different choice, form a new habit, create a new routine, or become a new version of yourself.
If we understand that applying the law of karma is essentially about one thing—conscious choice-making—what practical steps can we take to bring more awareness to our choices? Here are a few suggestions.
Meditation helps us manage our karma in two fundamental ways.
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When not actively engaged in meditation, simply practicing present moment awareness in daily activities helps us become increasingly mindful of our thoughts, speech, and actions. Become the observer of your thoughts and notice how they evolve into regular patterns of speaking, feeling, or acting. Reflect on how past choices were the stepping-stones for who you are in this moment. In practicing mindfulness, we learn to see each moment as a field of infinite choices, rather than a narrow band of recycled patterns.
Pause to Consider the Consequences
When we mindlessly fall into the trap of our past conditioned responses, the process is so automatic and unconscious, we rarely take any time to consider the results of our actions. Since every action is a cause that generates an effect, a great deal of suffering can be avoided by simply asking ourselves what the consequences of our choices will be. While we may not be able to foresee the results of every choice, by simply considering the subtle and explicit impact we make upon the world through our choices, we bring the process from the unconscious realm into the conscious realm.
Listen to Your Body’s Intuitive Guidance
Owing to the entangled nature of the universe, your individual mind/body is woven deeply into the fabric of cosmic intelligence. That intelligence knows which choices are the most nourishing and evolutionary for you in each and every moment. When faced with difficult choices that don’t appear to have an obvious right solution, tune into your body and listen to its intuitive guidance. The subtle signals of comfort and discomfort are the universe’s way of helping you to make karmic choices that are most appropriate for you right now. Your intuition or “gut” is simply infinite intelligence translated into your human experience. Following it will lead you to the best course of action to take.
When we understand the mechanics for karma in our lives as well as know how we can make the most evolutionary choices, karma no longer represents a cycle of unending conditioned reactivity, but rather a powerful tool to be harnessed for our own growth and liberation.