Karma: What It Is and Is Not
In 2012, in an unusual appearance for early March, major tornados wreaked horrific damage to the Midwest and South. As I watched news clips and read newspaper accounts of the utter destruction of homes, buildings and even entire small towns, I felt enormous empathy. And, at the same time that I listened to an elderly man weep over the complete loss of his property, I started thinking, for the umpteenth time, of the notion of Karma.
Many people would likely think it inappropriate, if not downright scandalous, to be contemplating such an “abstract” concept while such devastation has concretely diminished, if not flat out destroyed, the hopes and aspirations of those affected. And those critics would be absolutely correct in the short run, especially if anyone carelessly and rudely broached the notion with, for instance, that elderly man who is trying so desperately to cope with the end of his world as he knows it. But the critics’ viewpoint would not be useful in the long run because the “abstract” notion is in fact very concrete and practical since it affects people’s thinking and thus their future manifestations. Even so, some critics would still object because they would not want to inflict such a notion on a suffering man, a concept which they consider cruel and blaming of the victim. Yet, such is a crude understanding of the concept.
For many of those new to the concept of Karma and its connection to reincarnation, it may mean simply that one action breeds another, particularly in terms of the old (Biblical) saying, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” This definition focuses on sin, on apparently negative actions only, and thus does not suggest that any good that is done in one life will bring about good in another. Moreover, this definition of Karma, focused as it is on bad deeds committed in this life or another, suggests what amounts to psychic revenge: if you do something bad to me in one life, I (or someone or something else on my behalf) will do the identical thing to you in the same life or a future one. This is compensation, “pay-back,” of the most literal sort.
So, now, if I imagine talking about Karma as outlined above at any time to the pained, elderly man, I could understand how I would be combining insult with injury, adding to his intense feelings of victimization and powerlessness the feeling of being punished: “See, old man, what you created by your sins! You have only yourself to blame—it is entirely your fault! You made this bed, and now you have to lie in it!”
Besides blaming the victim, there are at least three other problems with this conceptualization of Karma: First, if Karma is supposed to facilitate major soul learning, there is very little learning involved (basically, do not do the bad deed again…or else!) that might help the person evolve into higher consciousness. Second, because individuals who are suffering terribly physically or emotionally are immediately and judgmentally seen as having been “very bad” in this or another life, the observer may feel it justifiable to withhold compassion and to distant himself or herself from the “bad person; unfortunately, with such a decision, a major opportunity for both individuals to advance in consciousness is lost. Third, as Karl Schlotterbeck says in Living Your Past Lives, if a person is always in reactive mode to what he/she or someone else has done in the past, there seems little way to get out of that reactivity and start something new.
Another view of Karma is that it is a manifestation of cosmic cause and effect. While this conceptualization is similar to “an eye for an eye,” it is less personal, less moralistic, and thus less judgmental. It is more mechanical, suggesting a blind, universal law, such as Newton’s view that for every motion that is a reaction. So, again, think of talking with the elderly man altered forever by the tornado: “See, ol’ buddy, it is even worse than you thought—you are not even being punished, which might have a meaning, however horrifying to you. Uh-uh, there is no meaning except that this horror just happens indiscriminately according to some meaningless, merciless law.” That would go over quite well, don’t you think?
Yet, as Schlotterbeck notes, this view does not satisfy also because it seems to be only a part, like the view of pay-back, of a larger picture. If one shifts to a slightly different view of Karma, that of “balancing,” there is still a problem, says Schlotterbeck. In the balancing conceptualization, bad deeds in one life may be balanced, “made up for,” by good deeds in another or by “creative suffering” often idealized by certain religious bodies. The idea is to always balance good and bad. However, what if you do a lot of good in one life? In this view, in order to balance all that good, you would have to do a lot of bad in another life. Accordingly, I can say to the nice, older man, “Hey, mister, you just have to know that all this pain happened to you in this life because in another, you were just too good—how about that!—we gotta keep that balance going!” Now, that’s a kicker!
Schlotterbeck, as I do, sees all of these explanations of Karma as still manifesting a tinge or much more than a tinge of the notion of reward and punishment. He offers a different view: Karma as action that promotes healing, that is, remembering both the Oneness of all things and the individual’s being part of that Oneness. When someone does a “bad” deed, he (or she) creates the illusion of being separate from that which he harms; in time this separation brings about pain based on the “loss” of connection, pain that can last lifetimes if it is not experienced as what it truly is. While this process seems to suggest compensation and punishment and balancing, it is much more than that. The process suggests that there is something in all things which moves towards Completeness, towards Wholeness. Thus the individual who feels the pain of separation is constantly moved back toward Oneness by something within him that repeats the painful pattern of the “bad deed.” In this way the individual has countless chances really to face the pattern directly and thereby to “wake up,” to break the illusion of separation he himself created and realize himself once more as an aspect of the One. Moreover, he learns that, when he harms another who like him is an aspect of the One, he is not separate from his harm, for he harms also himself as part of the One. From this perspective, Karma is the repetition of a painful pattern whose primary purpose is not punishment, but recollection of and reconnection with the One (or, more accurately, awareness that the separation never took place).
This perspective on Karma seems at first much more appealing since there is no blaming the victim and no automatic, impersonal, indiscrimate, merciless and ultimately meaningless cause and effect, and no equally impersonal, distressing balancing act. So, I now can say to the elder beleaguered by the explosive tornado, “Sir, in time you will see that your current pain is really an illusion and is based also on another illusion, that whatever you did in the past divorced you from Source. But that separation never really happened! Once you recognize the illusions for what they are, pain disappears and you realize you did not ever separate from the One.” Somehow, even if this is a positive conception of Karma, I doubt the poor man, looking for a place to sleep tonight, would be interested in such a high-level, metaphysical perspective. Moreover, something here still seems incomplete and even a bit strange. For, there is still the implicit view that something happened back then that is still affecting now; moreover, there is no satisfying understanding of why these illusions should occur in the first place!
Still Another View
There is, however, still another view of Karma: it simply does not exist! Let me explain.
According to Seth, channeled by Jane Roberts, time, comprising past, present and future, is one of the “root assumptions” that frame our earthly existence. So is space. Here in three-dimensional reality, we operate as though time and space were absolute realities, even though they are root assumptions just of this reality and thus really distortions of what truly is. They are, in fact, illusions—they don’t exist beyond this reality. It is perfectly appropriate, while we are here, that we operate within these illusions, as long as we recognize them as illusions developed so that we can learn what cannot be learned without them. This is especially true when we think of reincarnation, the notion of which is based on time. As Seth says: “We have mentioned reincarnation hardly at all, yet here let me state that that theory is a conscious-mind interpretation in linear terms….it is highly distorted” (The Nature of Personal Reality, p. 153).
This “conscious-mind interpretation in linear terms” is also the paradigm that informs Newtonian physics, which buttresses the idea that what goes around comes around, that effect follows cause, that for every action there is in time a reaction, and that, extrapolating, retribution follows sin inevitably. In contrast, quantum physics, born at the turn of the twentieth century, disputes the notion of time so enshrined by Newtonian physics and thus, inadvertently, aligns with Seth’s view of time as an illusion. (Quantum physicists have actually found elementary “particles” that go back in time!) Likewise, nearly all mystical traditions say that time, as we conventionally describe it, does not exist; or, to put it another way, all time periods are simultaneous.
If all events occur simultaneously, then Karma, based on the notion of cause-creating-effect, cannot exist. Cause-and-effect is an essentially time-bound concept: the past essentially creates, then, the present and future. But if all time is simultaneous, a “bad deed” in the “past” cannot create Karma for the “present” and “future.” Moreover, simultaneous time means that all events are causes AND effects at the same “time.” One implication of this view is that the so-called future can “cause” a problem in the so-called present and the so-called past. Another implication is that the so-called past is not “finished,” done with—in fact, it is still going on and can be changed by the so-called present and future which exist “side-by-side” with it. There is, then, a constant interplay in the same moment of all “time periods.” In Seth’s own words:
Those who believe in reincarnation will ask, ‘What about past-life beliefs? And even if I forget the idea of guilt, am I bound to follow the rules of karma?’
Since all is simultaneous, your present beliefs can alter your past ones, whether from this life or a ‘previous’ one. Existences are open-ended. Now with your ideas of progressive time and the resulting beliefs in cause and effect, I realize this is difficult for you to understand.
Yet within the abilities of your creaturehood, your current beliefs can change your experience; you can restructure your ‘reincarnational past’ in the same way that you can restructure the past in this present life (The Nature of Personal Reality, p. 374).
Furthermore, says Seth:
Your religious ideas have often told you that deformities at birth were the result of the parents’ sins cast upon the children, or that another kind of punishment was involved in terms of ‘karma.’….The entire idea of reincarnation has been highly distorted by other religious concepts. It is not a psychological arena composed of crime and punishment. Again, you have free will in the conditions of your life, given the characteristics that are your own (Dreams, ‘Evolution,’ and Value Fulfillment, p. 310).
This emphasis on free will is very germane to the notion that karma does not exist in any of the terms I have discussed in the first section. And free will is also at the very core of the central notion in Seth’s metaphysics: Each of us creates his or her own reality…without any exceptions. To believe otherwise is to disempower yourself, to allow feelings of victimization to drown you in powerlessness and despair. As Seth says:
…many schools of thought over-emphasize the effects of reincarnational existences, so that often they explain present-life circumstances as a result of rigid and uncompromising patterns determined in a ‘past’ life. You will feel relatively incompetent to handle present physical reality, to alter your environment, to affect and change your world, if you feel that you are at the mercy of conditions over which you have no control….You are not under a sentence placed upon you for original sin, or any childhood events, or by past-life experience….They affect you as any experience does. Time is not closed, however—it is open. One life is not buried in the past, disconnected from the present self and any future self as well (Seth Speaks, p. 58).
But, hold on, doesn’t the belief that we create our own reality bring us back, once again, to the notion of blaming the victim, a disempowering situation? It is absolutely true that each of us chooses what we experience in our world, no matter how horrible or positive. But choosing what you create is not the same as inevitably, inexorably, unavoidably suffering the consequences of your actions. Rightly understood, self-creation is utterly empowering, given, as Seth says above, that we have the power to make any changes we desire at any time if we discover that our self-creation does not bring us what we want. He continues, “You cannot justify or rationalize present circumstances by saying, ‘This is because of something I did in a past life,’ for within yourself now is the ability to change negative influence” (Seth Speaks, p. 181).
We are here, then, NOT to endure the inescapable suffering of karma conventionally conceived, but rather to learn all we can about how we create our own reality. Outside of three-dimensional reality (3-D), our creations would be instantaneous; thoughts would be immediately realized into being. Here, in 3-D, our creations take time to materialize, giving us a chance to understand the intricacies and implications of what we create and to modify or provide alternates to what we form. As Seth says, “You may have brought negative influences into your life for a given reason, but the reason always has to do with understanding, and understanding removes those influences” Seth Speaks, p. 181).
Still, why would we choose to create dilemmas and disasters for ourselves if, it seems, we do not have to, if we are not being punished for an “earlier” transgression? The most fundamental reason for creating and experiencing the negative, as well as the positive, is what Seth calls “value fufillment.” This is the innate, Divine impulse in any entity, from every god and oversoul to every sub-atomic particle and vibrating string, to realize its infinite potential in any and all dimensions and manifestations. Value fulfillment is the cosmic equivalent of the Army slogan, “Be all that you can be.”
Furthermore, says Seth, without forming both positive and negative creations, we would not really get that we create our own reality, that we have free will, and that we always have choices: “If only your ‘positive’ beliefs were materialized then you would never clearly comprehend the power of your thought, for you would not completely experience its physical results” (The Nature of Personal Reality, p. 99). Abraham-Hicks make this idea a cornerstone of their writings: the contrast between getting what you want and getting what you do not want sharpens your perception of what you want, spurs your creation of what you most desire, and makes much clearer that you are choosing what you experience.
The only reason for creating suffering, says Seth frequently in his books, is to learn that you have the choice not to create it. Moreover, he goes on to say, even with all the destructiveness that has accompanied humanity’s striving to recognize and understand that we create all of our reality, there is much that is achieved: “The self-discipline learned, the control, the compassion that finally is aroused, and the final and last lesson learned, the positive desire for creativity and love over destruction and hatred–when this is learned, the reincarnational cycle is finished” (Early Sessions, #9).
The compassion and love Seth speaks about emerges from individuals’ seeking together their value fulfillment. Before each incarnation, we make soul contracts with others to develop our potentials as far as possible in the upcoming lifetime. This often involves one person’s being the “bad guy” and other the “good guy” to provide the contrast for each to learn more about who he or she really is. The fact of soul contracts is another major reason why karma does not exist, since each soul freely enters into the tragedy and/or comedy that will soon be staged in 3-D. There are then, ultimately, no victims or victimizers, and thus no karma. Dick Sutphen says this eloquently:
We are all different as to intelligence, health and talents, and yet we are one. We are all saints and sinners and no one is anyone else’s superior or judge. We have all experienced suffering and we have all caused suffering. And it is time to let go of the past. Can you understand now that you create everything…that you are totally responsible for everything that happens to you? (Past-Life Therapy in Action, p. 103).
True forgiveness of self and other is then the achievement of what Seth calls “high intellect,” the intellectual-intuitive-emotional wisdom to realize that at the soul level, no apology or forgiveness is really necessary or makes any sense, since we all create or co-create whatever happens to us–NOT so we can grind ourselves to bits with the consequences of our actions, but so we can realize more and more of who we really are. Thus, the ultimate purpose of the notion of Karma is to realize its non-existence.
Still, because most of us have a long way to go before we can achieve this “high intellect,” we make use of the notion of Karma the way we make use of Newtonian physics. In the macro world, which is the world of 3-D, Newtonian physics works well enough, until it doesn’t. When we follow the root assumptions of the 3-D world to their depths, those assumptions prove baseless, especially in the sub-atomic micro world of strings and D-branes. Yet, if we stay focused in the area where it seems to “work”—the arena where space and time seem to be what we usually imagine them to be—much can be and has been achieved with regard to understanding the dos and don’ts of using energy to create reality. Saying in another way what he constantly says, Seth notes, “Generally speaking, you are here to expand your consciousness, to learn the ways of creativity as directed through conscious thought” (The Nature of Personal Reality, p. 142).
In our learning the dos and don’ts of consciously manipulating energy, the illusory 3-D experience of linear time can be very useful (unless we forget that 3-D is not Ultimate Reality). In articulating the use of such experience, Seth comes closest to any sense of traditionally-conceived Karma by describing what he calls “natural guilt,” that innate sense of justice and integrity: “Natural guilt is…highly connected with memory, and arose hand in hand with mankind’s excursion into the experience of past, present and future….Any previous acts that had aroused feelings of natural guilt were to be avoided in the future” (The Nature of Personal Reality, pp. 144-5). But he is quick to say also, “It does not carry with it [as does traditionally-conceived Karma] any built-in connection with punishment as you think of it. Once more, it was meant as a preventive measure. Any violation against nature would bring about a feeling of guilt so that when a like situation was encountered in the future, man would, in that moment of reflection, not repeat the same action” (The Nature of Personal Reality, p. 145).
If someone who is now, for instance, a criminal had fully distinguished in childhood between natural guilt and artificial guilt, that person would not later have broken the law. Artificial guilt is based on deep shame, on the notion that the individual who violates is at core rotten, horrific, incapable of redemption, totally unable to reflect and cease to violate again. Through such an extremely limiting belief about oneself, either started in the current life or carried over from a past life and reinforced by an abusive family, the individual keeps creating a reality that expands his or her sense of worthlessness and self-loathing with the consequent, often violent, outward manifestations of various kinds. If our laws and their execution were truly humane, we would, indeed, halt and incarcerate those who grievously violate, not ultimately to punish them, but rather to give them the time and space to do, with a lot of help, the kind of reflection that leads to wisdom and self-forgiveness and awareness of how we create our own reality. Moreover, if their victims are to find ultimate release from their own rage, hatred and despair, they, too, would need to go deeply inside and finally understand how they are not, at the soul level, victims at all, but rather creators of realities filtered through limiting beliefs about life and their own power and nature. Dick Sutphen’s words are again pertinent here:
Can you accept that wisdom erases karma? These past lives [or past events in the current life] no longer need to affect you. They do so only because you allow it…because you have not forgiven yourself!…Can you make it all right with yourself to release and rise above the past…the past of being a victim and the past of being the bad guy? Can you let go of all the past situations you’ve lived and suffered? If you are ready to truly forgive yourself, you can release all the undesirable effects right now. You can wipe the slate clean and move forward into your present life, clear, focused, in balance and harmony (Past-Life Therapy in Action, p. 103).
Recently, I was called to be a juror; and, like many others so called, initially I was not happy to be summoned away from my life, especially since I had a doctor’s appointment for my injured toe, a meeting that might then have to be cancelled. But I also started to feel an energy, a flow, that told me that I was going to be doing, not just my civic duty, but, more important, my duty to a soul contract.
I became Juror #11, called to render judgment on a DUI case. The defendant, a middle-aged man, was accused of driving while under the influence of alcohol, eluding police, driving recklessly, and driving 130 mph, double the speed limit, with the result that he crashed his car into a ditch and was severely injured. Though the memories of a couple of police officers conflicted a bit, though the young prosecutor had to be helped by the judge to ask the proper questions about the chain of blood evidence, the State’s case was quite strong. While the Defense did not call any witnesses, their story was that there had been a second person in the vehicle who was the driver, while the defendant was a hapless victim of the recklessness of that driver. But too many details provided by the prosecution made this story too fantastic to be credible. The defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
When the foreperson orally delivered the verdict, the defendant hardly reacted, maintaining the kind of vacant, clueless look he had displayed for two days. He wasn’t fully present, for his subterfuge created a distance between him and the proceedings. As I watched him, I knew not only that I and my fellow jury members had done what we were supposed to do, but also that we had done what, on a soul level, he had contracted with us to do. After the verdict, the judge told us that this was the defendant’s second trial, that the first ruled only by a judge also resulted in a conviction. Given the incredible nature of his story and his first conviction, it seemed reasonably clear that the defendant had not wanted to acknowledge responsibility for his actions at any level. The substantial injuries he had sustained after crashing into the ditch had not been enough for him to awaken and start the process of owning his creation of his reality in any way. He needed us, the jury, to quell our distaste for bringing judgment and pain to another human being and instead help him stop his recklessness and to do so even if it meant requiring his incarceration. Such would become the most compassionate action we could take, even though he might not see it as such at the conscious level. Again, on the soul level, I saw what would happen to him now not as punishment, but rather as a very much needed opportunity to finally take responsibility for and open to his true self.
So, after all this meditation, what am I to say now to that elderly man who apparently lost everything to the tornado last March? Should I outline to him the argument I just made above to disprove the notion of karma as crime-and-punishment? Well, of course not! To do so would be to erect a wall of words between him and me that would not help him in any pragmatic way. Should I then think to myself, “Well, he created this disaster with the help of the tornado for some learning rather than for some punishment; therefore, I do not have to help him”? Seth would say no. In another example, he says “You cannot say, ‘The poor are poor simply because they chose poverty, and therefore there is no need for me to help them.’ This attitude can easily draw poverty to you in the next experience.” (Seth Speaks, p. 181). What Seth is saying here is not that you will be drawn to poverty as punishment, but that you will have missed an opportunity to learn about your own capacity for compassion, as well as for poverty, and thus will be drawn to it again in another life. (If there was not already an attraction to being poor, you would not have been thinking so much about it in the first place. The attraction might be present because, for instance, you might be wealthy in the present life and wish, at the soul level, to experience its opposite.)
The argument I delineated above is, then, not for the elderly man–it is for me, so that I can understand in general what is happening and avoid any kind of judgment, so I can develop my compassion further, and so that I can render him in the moment what he believes he needs. I would offer my compassion and other assistance, and listen to him to know where he is emotionally. After a lot of connecting through various kinds of help, I might possibly develop a hint of why he might have created this disaster. I might wonder, for instance, if he had lived several lives living securely without anything tragic happening to him; if so, he (along with others in the area, but for their own reasons), might then have summoned the tornado to give him a chance to understand how he could develop a higher sense of security, a basic resiliency, by facing immense difficulty and getting through it. Or he might have chosen the tragedy to develop his capacity for asking for help and receiving care and caring from others, after lives of being self-sufficient and giving without opening to receiving. Or, beneath his immediate pain, he may have wanted, by feeling the power of the tornado, to revitalize his waning interest in life through “fighting back” to rebuild. Or he may have wanted to simplify his life by living in minimal conditions so he could move without distraction deeper into his internal life. There are many other possibilities to account for his creation.
No matter what, however, I would do my best to stay as long as I could in the state of “high intellect,” being consciously in both the 3-D world and beyond, and understanding the validity of the useful ficiton of the 3-D world while not being completely blinded by it. In that way, Spirit would guide me to know in just what ways I could meet the terms of our soul contract and aid my companion soul in his value fulfillment while thereby advancing my own.
Roberts, J. (1986). Dreams, ‘Evolution,’ and Value Fulfillment, Vol II. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall.
_______. (1997- 2000). The Early Sessions, Books 1-8. Manhasset, N.Y.: New Awareness Network.
_______. (1974). The Nature of Personal Reality. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall.
_______. (1972/1994). Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul. Novato,CA.: The New World Library.
Scholotterbeck, K. (1987). Living Your Past Lives: The Psychology of Past-Life Regression. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sutphen, Dick, & Lauren L. Taylor. (1983, 1987). Past-Life Therapy in Action. Malibu, CA.: Valley of the Sun Publishing.