Karma is how God gives us the lessons we need to evolve spiritually. Paramhansa Yogananda describes karma as a mechanism created by God for our “education and entertainment.” Yet rarely are we either educated or entertained by our karmic tests, unless we accept them in the right spirit. The “entertainment” part may not come at first, but only later when we are sufficiently detached to enjoy everything as a part of God’s show.
Karma in the spiritual realm is the equivalent to Newton’s law of action and reaction in physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If we put out positive, loving energy, we receive positive, loving energy in return. If we put out negative energy in the form of judgmental attitudes or dishonesty, that same type of energy comes back to us.
What makes karma “bad” or “good?”
Swami Kriyananda describes good karma as anything that brings us closer to God and bad karma as anything that takes us farther away from Him. Is winning the lottery good karma? Not if we spend that money on ourselves and increase our sense of ego. Is having everything we’ve worked for crumble before our eyes bad karma? Not necessarily. Many people have become saints by responding to adversity with great will power and courage.
The power of a particular karma is determined by the energy and will power that went into creating it. These same two factors can also change our karma. For instance, if in the past you tried to hurt people by unkind acts, you can neutralize that karma by devoting equal energy to helping and uplifting others. The more energy and will power you put into changing that karma, the sooner it will dissipate, and the sooner the good karma you’re now creating will start to bear fruit. If you don’t know what you might have done to create a difficult karma, use your imagination as to what likely caused it.
A step by step approach to changing your karma
A dear friend at Ananda Village, who passed away early this year, exemplified perfectly how we should respond to karma. Three weeks before her passing she learned that she had inoperable brain cancer and little time left to live. Within five days of the onset of the first major symptoms, her body stopped obeying her brain. Her husband had to wheel her in a wheelchair into the hospital for brain scans.
She could feel how upset he was over what she was going through, and she said something to comfort him which we should emblazon in our minds: “Detach yourself, control the reactive process, and live the teachings.” Her succinct statement sums up exactly how we should meet karmic tests if we want to undo karmic patterns. Many of us now have this advice posted on our desks at work.
“It’s not my fault”
When we’re facing a difficult karma, the first thing we need to do is to detach ourselves. One of the most important ways of detaching ourselves is to accept karmic tests as coming from God. How do we know that our karmic tests come from God? Everything comes from God. If we don’t accept that, then we are pushing away the lesson we need to learn.
Secondly, we need to control the tendency to blame others. When something bad happens, how often our first reaction is to blame other people. We have layers of protective devices around the ego, but one of the biggest is: “It’s not my fault.” Suppose you were obeying the traffic laws, and someone ran a red light and collided with your car. If you blame that person, you’ve done absolutely nothing to change your karma. But if you detach yourself and think: “There’s something for me to learn from this experience,” you bring a positive reaction to it. Your positive reaction will help expiate the karma.
So the first step in detaching ourselves is: Don’t blame people or circumstances. Nor does it particularly help to blame yourself. Just accept what’s happening as coming from God for your own spiritual freedom.
“What comes of itself let it come”
Detachment also means accepting whatever comes and being grateful for it. It means not wishing that certain things happen or not happen; not wishing you could have this thing or that. Yogananda beautifully described acceptance when he said, “What comes of itself, let it come.” Accept not only what comes, but also what doesn’t come.
Though often difficult, expressing gratitude for our karma is an important aspect of changing it. Paramhansa Yogananda explained that Jesus Christ was referring to how we can change our karma when he said, “And to him that smites you on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that takes away your cloak forbid not to take your coat also.” (Luke 6:39.) When seemingly bad karma comes, accept it with gratitude and say: “Thank you — I welcome it!” Welcoming bad karma is not easy, but as we learn to control the reactive process we begin to understand that all karmic tests are truly for our benefit.
Controlling the reactive process means catching yourself when you first start to have a negative reaction. If you can catch yourself at that moment it is easier to neutralize the karma.
Becoming free of karmic patterns
When we respond to karma in the right way, we pass the test and don’t have to repeat it. Otherwise we get to retake the test, sometimes over a period of lifetimes. It’s important to become aware of your karmic patterns, the things that happen repeatedly. Karmic patterns are very complex. We don’t always know why a certain karma comes but if the karma is repeating in your life, that’s a sign you should spend time working on that particular karma.
A wonderful artist friend of ours told us a story about how she changed a negative karmic pattern. One day she called her financial advisor, who was also a friend, and asked a question. He reacted angrily, saying: “Why are you calling me at work? Can’t you understand I’ve got business to do? I don’t have time for this now.” And he slammed the phone down.
Our friend was very fiery and tended to be reactive. She immediately picked up the phone and called him back, but the line was busy. After calling back several times and getting a busy signal, she became engrossed in her work. Several hours later she remembered the call. However, by this time she had calmed down and had begun to think, “I wonder why he reacted like that? That’s not like him.” She called him and asked, “Is something wrong? That was such a strange reaction from you this morning.” He started crying and said, “I’m having a very difficult time at home and at work,” and they went on to have a deep and loving conversation.
For our friend, the way out of a repeating negative pattern was to respond, not with anger or aggression, but with patience, understanding, and kindness. In so doing, she neutralized the reactive process and also created good karma.
So: “Detach yourself, control the reactive process, and live the teachings.” The teachings point us to the attitudes and practices that get us out of these karmic patterns. Bringing that simple formula to mind when we have a spiritual test will help free us from much suffering.
A subtler form of bad karma
Generally speaking, if we respond to adversity with the right attitude, then what initially looked like bad karma becomes something positive spiritually. But there’s a subtler form of bad karma that comes from identifying with the body and the material world. This type of karma can make us restless, impede our efforts to meditate, or prevent us from going deeper into the spiritual life. Often it limits our faith in our own spiritual potential.
To overcome karma of this type we need to work on removing the subconscious blocks and inner conflicts concerning what we really want in life, and who we really are in our deepest nature. Remember always that overcoming any kind of karma depends on how much will power and positive energy we direct toward the process of self-transformation. We can eliminate all subconscious blocks by focusing our energy strongly in positive new directions.
Kriya Yoga and the grace of God and Guru
The most powerful antidote for our past bad karma is the practice of Kriya Yoga, which works directly on the vrittis in the spine, where our karma resides. Paramhansa Yogananda said, “Seeds of past karma cannot germinate when roasted in the fire of wisdom.” Through the deep practice of Kriya, we burn up, or “roast,” the seeds of our past karma.
The teachings of India say that the law of karma rules supreme, but higher than the law of karma is the grace of God and Guru. There are many stories in the Autobiography of a Yogi and the Indian scriptures that tell of how the guru “takes on” the karma of his disciples. The guru’s purpose is not only to give us his consciousness, but also to protect us. If it’s our karma to lose an arm, we may only get a little scratch. If it’s our karma to receive a fatal blow, it will be deflected.
The grace of God and Guru is our ultimate karmic protection. The more we attune ourselves to their will, the more that grace surrounds us. Our job is to respond to karma with the right attitude and effort, but it is the grace of God and Guru that ultimately frees us from all karma.