Photograph: Pleiades Star Cluster, NASA
Poet in Residence
Bodies and Voices
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST CARYN MIRRIAM-GOLDBERG
When I first heard what karma meant, back when I was in the my early 20s and hanging out with a bunch of Sufis who danced with dreamy eyes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that karma was out to get me. “So you’re going to pay eventually for whatever you do wrong?” I asked my friend at the time.
“No, it’s much more complex than that,” she told me, and then said something about past lives, the Akashic Records, and limited human understanding.
I thought about karma in the decades since, marveling at the many tricks and surprises I’ve witnessed since that time: good people suffering from vicious diseases, friends who died too young (in my opinion), childbirth and all the outrageous pain, the births of my children and all the subsequent joy, beautiful moments with people I had underestimated, and so many other things beyond my ideas about life
But then life, as one of my friends says, has more imagination than us, and the more I live, the more I know this is true.
A rational concept?
That’s why, in the middle of my yoga teacher training, when a visiting Swami talked about karma as a rational concept, I began to get confused and agitated. He explained to a group of us one night as part of a little talk about the Bhagavad Gita how people who suffered were paying off crimes from other lives.
“So you’re saying that the thousands killed in the tsunami of 2004 were all guilty of something?” I asked. Yes, he insisted, and they were lined up in some sense to be in that place at that time so that the scales of karma would be balanced.
What he said made me think about a television show I liked several years ago called My Name is Earl in which Earl, a previous low-life petty criminal, sees the light of karma and decides to make right all he’s done wrong to a long list of people.
But then again, even though Earl refers to karma as kicking his ass, I don’t even think Earl would see karma as simply as this swami and many of his followers saw it: that those who suffer deserve it.
A Million Tangled Balls of Yarn
Several months later, karma intervened to show itself more fully. Our yoga class had the pleasure of visiting with Joshua Greene, a long-time yogi and yoga teacher who wrote an astonishing translation and summary of the Bhagavad Gita called Gita Wisdom. Greene is also a Holocaust expert, so I asked him how he reconciles yogic teachings with the Holocaust.
You don’t reconcile it, and you shouldn’t try, yet the Holocaust does show that when we fall away from our nature, we can fall very far.
When someone from the local Hare Krishna community, also there to hear Greene’s talk, insisted that people who suffer deserve to suffer, Greene said, “Krishna says the workings of karma are too complex and beyond fully understanding.” In response to a question he asked about why humans have such extreme freedom of choice, he explained
Karma is the most changeable out of everything. If you remove yourself from that karmic sphere [of a specific situation], if you stop what’s not good for you or others, the effects of past activities are attenuated and will cease altogether.
I find it very comforting that even Krishna saw karma as a million balls of yarn tangled together in another dimension, but most of all, by what Greene said of us being able to change our karma, just like Earl in the television show.
Yoga Opens Up the Broken Heart
At the same time, Greene explained that yoga is not something that exists to make us peaceful and calm, to make perfect and easy peace with our karma, although certainly it can help at moments.
Yoga opens up the broken heart, including the parts of us that feel exploited, taken advantage of, diminished, betrayed and otherwise less than whole. After all, to quote Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Karma’s role in our opening, blossoming and breaking hearts? It’s our life path, the mysterious pattern we’ll only be able to see, at best, in retrospect. It’s the imagination of the life force intersecting with our spiritual journeys.
Karma aims our eyes toward the effects of our actions: are we causing harm or doing good, and more often, how do we see clearly enough to know which is which?
Then, if we listen carefully enough, look deeply enough into how we are part of something luminous and holy, we can live with a little more grace and understanding, joy and awe.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.