I Don’t Believe in Karma

I don’t believe in Karma (the New Age version, that is, which for the purposes of this discussion I’m separating from the Hindu and Buddhist versions thereof). Or the Threefold Law. Or any other attempt to stuff morality and ethics into a nice, neat proportionate package, which I’ll abbreviate as Karma/3FL. Karma/3FL states that if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you, and if you do good things then you’ll receive that good in return, sometimes in the same proportion, sometimes in some set multiple like three.

Karma/3FL is a way for people to give themselves a sense of having more more control over the external world than they actually do. Or, if they don’t have direct control, they want to be able to put themselves at the mercy of someone or something that does. Hence you have people wanting to believe that bad people get what they deserve no matter what and that some invisible force above us all makes it so.

At the other end of the supposed spectrum there’s senseless chaos. Why, if we didn’t have Karma/3FL, then bad people would just keep doing bad things without consequence, and good people would keep getting hurt for no apparent reason. To an extent that is the world we live in. There are people who die of old age having spent their lives abusing others with impunity and reaping the benefits thereof. There are wonderful people who die too young, after hard lives of unfairness. Karma/3FL is a great way to distract ourselves from that perceived imbalance and to pretend that, behind the scenes, really those bad people were suffering in private, while the good people find riches despite their suffering. (For a truly esoteric extension of this, just look at how many people comfort themselves with the idea that this person went to heaven, but that person is being punished in hell, now that they’re all dead. If they didn’t get their just desserts in this life, well, by golly, they’ll get them in the next!)

We really have no proof of this balance beyond confirmation bias, that bugaboo of thoughts that keeps us blinded to anything except that which supports our beliefs. If Nasty Individual has five good things and one bad thing happen to them, we conveniently ignore the first five and only focus on the last; supposedly that’s enough proof that they got their due. Yet people keep thinking in this regard because it comforts them more than the idea that the dastardly villain got away with it after all; that injustice is unfathomable. It’s easier to weave a fantasy around it in self-defense than to live with that stark reality.

This is the cognitive error that Karma/3FL can promote: the idea that the world is more just than it is (see “just world hypothesis”), and a justification of empathic laziness. It makes people make up stories of an ordered world to protect themselves from a world of chaos, but in doing so it also dampens compassion for those who are just “getting what they deserve”. It’s mean-spirited besides; in fact, I feel that at the heart of Karma/3FL there’s a distinct streak of Schadenfreude.

I prefer to think of being in a world of agency and acceptance. Agency means that we do have free will and ultimately our lives and the decisions we make are all on us. It can be scary the moment we come to realize that there’s no one else holding the steering wheel of our lives—that we’re it. There’s no great balancing force that “makes everything better”; there’s just us and the choices we make. And the claiming of that agency is terrifying, so much that many of us dive right into denial at the thought.

The answer to that is acceptance. Crying about the fact that there’s no one to make our decisions for us isn’t acceptance. Pretending that that mean person who hurt us is secretly wracked by three times as much pain isn’t acceptance. Passively “letting Karma/3FL do its job” isn’t acceptance. Acceptance is allowing things to be as they are, no matter how seemingly injust, and acting from there.

Acceptance also means accepting that there are many, many factors that we simply cannot control. Humans have built up our species on control; we control our environment and other species, as well as other humans, to an unprecedented degree. So we stamp our feet and throw tantrums when we reach the end of our ability to act in a particular direction. We don’t know when enough is enough. If we don’t control everything, then everything falls apart—or so we think. We want to impose order on the world, personally and globally, because it makes us feel safer from the things we actually don’t have any control over.

Yet there is already order in the world, albeit a more organic one. I take comfort in the fact that the world is made up of systems that have developed over millions upon millions of years, from the atmosphere and weather patterns to continental drift to the biological imperative to procreate. These were not created by beings that were trying to pretend they had more control than they do, but beings accepting (not necessarily consciously) that the world is a particular way in this moment, and this is how to adapt to survive it. Non-biological systems were shaped by the laws of physics—pressures and movements and speeds and resistances—all predictable and knowable at some level. Instead of screaming and ranting when these systems don’t do what I want, I can flow with them as as being who developed within them, and I find comfort in that.

Like earthquakes. I can’t stop an earthquake. If Portland got hit by The Big One tomorrow, there’s not a damned thing I could do to stop it. But I can educate myself on what to do if it hits, and what resources I need, and what to do in the aftermath. Comforting myself with the idea that the earthquake happened for some abstract reason, or that maybe some bad people lost their homes or even died in it, certainly is no replacement for preparedness. In fact, making up stories about how earthquakes happen to punish bad people (I’m looking at you, Pat Robertson) just distracts time and attention away from knowing more about plate tectonics and how that study may someday help us predict earthquakes and save lives.

In the same way as preparing for the reality of an earthquake instead of my control-freak fantasies about it, I can’t just patch over the ugliness in the world by pretending that Karma/3FL has it all covered and that it all “happens for a reason”. Instead, it’s my task and even duty to roll up my sleeves and work to make this world a better, more compassionate place, not to earn myself karma points, but because the world isn’t just, and I can do something to help those caught in the injustice. It’s something that requires me to challenge myself and my perceptions on a daily basis, to be vulnerable even when it’s terrifying, and to be courageous even when I tremble. I have to leave the comfortable realm of black and white and get messy in the gray areas in between.

And I have willingly cast off the blinders of Karma/3FL in favor of embracing my agency and my ability to act within the world, even as I learn the boundaries I have to work within. True, there’s the challenge of getting over the fear of lack of control, and acceptance of the limitations of my agency, however frustrating that may be. But isn’t it more productive to maximize the use of the control I actually have rather than engage in spiritual and mental fantasizing over control that I can’t, and will never, have? That, I think, is worth facing the fear of the loss of control and the false promises of balance that Karma/3FL claims.

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25 thoughts on “I Don’t Believe in Karma

  1. I liked this. I like it because you made a distinction between New Age (and generally Western) concept of Karma vs looking at the origins of Karma (I find ideological appropriation something not much talked about).

    So, naturally I can agree with a lot of what you’ve said. Even though many people TALK about how much they love free will, very few people exercise it and use their own free will to do what they want with their lives. I find that people ultimately give up A LOT of their personal power, and in exchange they want people to govern them (ie: like how people don’t practice agency in their lives, and just prefer God – or whatever universal being – to take control of their lives so that they don’t have to DO anything).

    And I agree that it’s just US – the choices we make as a species, and how we choose to live on this Earth. There’s no alien ship with technology coming to save us, God isn’t going to step down from the Heavens and wave a magic wand and fix all our problems. WE have to fix them because WE created them. But no one wants to take personal responsibility for either their problems, or the problems they help create thanks to the choices they make. No one wants to say that I contributed to this thing. We see this reluctance in pretty much EVERYTHING. Even in petty fights we have with our friends and family, it’s always someone else’s fault, and never our fault. This can only make things worse on a global scale where people fail to see the connections between their actions and people living half way across the world (or even across town).

    It’s ultimately, I think, an issue of awareness. The more aware you are (and the more information you have) the greater your agency can become. If, for instance, you’re not aware that classism exists, you’re least likely to move about in the world in such a way that could help eradicate class issues/discrimination. And then you’re more likely to blame other people for their problems, and feel that you’re not involved in any way, shape or form with the sustaining of this issue. And you believe the issue acts beyond and outside of you (and when confronted with the issue, might not feel that there’s anything you can do to help change it).

    So yes – great post!

    • Hell, even with the existence of gods and spirits, they’re not going to just reach in and do everything for us. That’s not their bailiwick. So even for the theistically inclined we can’t escape personal responsibility. Part of the problem is that responsibility carries a lot of, well, *responsibility*. We’re conditioned not to want it because so many people function on the level of blame and shame. Yet responsibility can be incredibly empowering, not in a power-hungry way, but in a personal strength sort of way.

  2. I agree. Looking back at the nature of Karma from Buddhism (which I realize you were specifically not addressing) I think it falls much more closely in line with what you are getting at here. Karma in Buddhism simply is “action”, and those actions result in Vipaka. Buddhist Karma is little more than “what you reap is what you sow”.

    The perversion of Karma* has always bothered me. The Karma/3FL interpretation of this “I am the owner of my karma. I inherit my karma. I am born of my karma. I am related to my karma. I live supported by my karma. Whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, that I shall inherit.” is radically different from “I am the owner of my actions. I inherit my actions. I am born of my actions. I am related to my actions. I live supported by my actions. Whatever action I create, whether good or evil, that I shall inherit.” The first is an absolution of personal responsibility, the second is the paragon of personal responsibility.

    I just want to clear up one thing though. Karma/3FL does exist in so much as good actions tend (on the bias) to lead to good results, and bad actions tend to lead to bad results. For a simple example, a person that walks around treating everyone pleasantly is more likely to be treated pleasantly by others, and a person that walks around treating others with hostility is more likely to have hostility directed at him/her.

    * – talk about cultural appropriation, though to be fair there are Indian religious interpretations of Karma that are closer to the Karma/3FL.

    • I really like your second paragraph, with the distinction between karma and actions. I think that really gets to the heart of the matter, and exposes that externalization of responsibility rather neatly.

      I do agree that on some levels yes, there is a natural cause and effect. if you’re a jerk to others, most of the time they learn to avoid you. I think part of the problem is when people expect certain results that don’t happen. Take, for example, a diagnosable sociopath who ends up being the CEO of a Fortune 400 company (it does happen!). We’re talking someone who has little to no empathy for others, and makes decisions in that regard. They often have a lot of charisma, which makes others look favorably on them (some, anyway). And they’re obviously financially successful. If they make a bunch of decisions that lead to environmental and human rights abuses, Karma/3FL would assume that they’d end up losing everything because of what they caused–and yet we have many of these CEOs happily ensconced in their offices with little retribution. Granted, this is often due to other circumstances, such as a corporation’s ability to protect its higher-ups, and political/social corruption that keeps such systems in place. But it is one example of someone being an asshole and not getting a comeuppance for it.

  3. Yes, this. Thanks.

    It is a point that is bothering me for years.
    The victim blaming, the excuse not to act ‘let karma get him’.
    Hell no, I am a witch, I don’t wait for karma.

    The world of humans is not fair, nor just, if you want to have it fair and just, act.

  4. I really liked this post. The whole natural world shows us that the concept of this New Age Karma/TFL is wrong or at least can’t possibly be entirely correct. A great essay.

  5. Great post! Like you say, the concept of karma has become twisted into an excuse for absolving oneself from personal responsibility. It has become yet another aspect of the modern worldview that supports giving up our power (power-within).

    Yes, the New Age view is correct that like attracts like – that reality mirrors back to us what we project. We all dream reality into existence, but because we are all essentially One, reality is a collective dream. And thus we personally each share responsibility for ALL the evil that happens in the world. Energetic cause and effect is real, but the effects are shared by all of us, because we are all participating in the dreaming. Yes, by being conscious dreamers we can to a great extent influence the external reality of our life, but we all are connected in our dreaming – so we can easily create bad causes for others to have to deal with (like dreaming an uber-luxurious lifestyle for ourselves that creates poverty and death in other parts of the world). Cause and effect aren’t direct, simple, and isolated to each individual. Frankly, the idea that it is is naive and childish (much like the New Age movement in general).

    Similarly, thinking that everything that happens in the world is according to the Divine plan is also naive, because it completely denies the fact that there are two opposing forces (so to speak) at work. Yes there is a Divine plan (the will of the Earth and Creator, that supports the flourishing of all life), but there also exist beings and energies that desire and work toward the opposite – and many humans consciously and unconsciously choose to serve the will of the latter. That is what free will means, that we can always choose to go one way or the other.

    The Abrahamic religions understand that evil exists, even within us humans, but somehow don’t put two and two together in realizing that evil in the world isn’t the work of Satan, but humans. Yes, dark entities do hugely impact the world, but only as much as humans enable them to (we are their doorway to agency here, just as we are for angels as well). To be fair, they are constantly trying to manipulate us to create more darkness (in subtle and deceptive ways), but the responsibility for our actions ultimately lies with us, regardless.

    People need to watch Star Wars again – there is much truth there!

    • Thank you! I don’t have a lot to add to that, except that I think much of the “opposing” forces are perfectly natural and not actually trying to destroy everything in a conscious manner–the entropy of the universe, for example. I think sometimes we blow our own importance up way further on a universal level than is necessary, which doesn’t of course make us and our actions less important on our own level.

  6. Thanks for putting this up. I’ve had issues with Karma/3FL since before I had admitted any spirituality to myself at all. And its even more of a turn off these days since I tend to hear it used most often in conjunction with victim blaming for events around the local gossip mill. “Well, she MUST have done something to earn what happened to her…”

    • You’re welcome! And that drive me crazy, too, this idea that “everything must have a reason so let’s make one up that helps us feel better about what we see as crappy things in life”. I hate that pity-inducing “You’re just working off some bad karma” when applied to anyone at any disadvantage, as though things like genes not firing correctly can’t exist independently.

  7. I stop believing in Karma when a wall fell on me. Actually I never believed in Karma – the New Age kind – since I thought it was a lot of misplaced Christian hooey about “the Divine Plan for each of us” mixed up with we have to experience this stuff to become enlightened Ascended Masters (TM). The world is random, even Christ pointed that out when He said about the building falling on innocent people, through no fault of their own or their Ancestors. Crud happens – it is a part of the Chaos we live in. In the grand scheme of things, Chaos is always with us forcing everyone to cope with change. If we don’t change, we become extinct. Sorry got off on another topic there… but you are right Karma is a form of illusionary control.

    • And when you get down to it, something big like a building falling is largely a product of physics (and sometimes bad construction). A living being caught underneath was there at the wrong place and wrong time, just like a mouse caught by a hawk was unlucky.

  8. This is a wonderful post, thank you.

    Karma has been co-opted as a White Man’s Bogeyman, a way for weekend-spiritualist soccer parents to frighten people into adhering to a concept of social acceptance, and using it to justify the world around them.

    Bad things happen to good people, just as readily as bad people. I equate it to Friday the 13th. There’s nothing inherently unlucky about the day, but when people are LOOKING for bad luck, they’ll use any excuse and may blow it out of proportion.

  9. LOVE IT. Being homeless in a car with many disabilities and every social service aware and doing nothing, thinking of all the freakin’ help I have give others and low wage social service jobs I had where I went above and beyond, I was like “Wow, what goes around does not come around.” This was the first post on my blog and a big hit at Witchvox til I got stagefright. Found out a lot of people live in fear the way I did/do from this crap. http://tidesturner.blogspot.com/2010/12/creating-each-others-reality-myth-of.html Ian Corrigan has a good speil on this too.

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