Working with Karma

The first few paragraphs of this post are my attempt to wind through the mental and emotional knots of how the three poisons work to create karma. For a real life, non conceptual reflection on work ing with karma skip right down to Chuck Fondue’s story. 

Karma is the activity, experienced and observed, of the perpetual engine of cause and effect. Karma is not the cause of suffering. Suffering manifests as a result of how I relate to karma. Release from suffering is not an effect of karma. Release of suffering comes about as a result of how I relate to karma.

Karma is the beginningless activity of cause and effect. Being beginningless it is also endless. Being endless it is beginingless. Mental and emotional suffering and release from this suffering are effects and causes in the infinite expanse of karma. The effects of grasping clinging, lust, and greed of passion that come about are effects.  These effects are caused by the conceptualizing mind wanting to hold fast to, or make definitive, to know for sure, an ultimate cause of karma. Aversion, hatred and violence as expressions of aggression are the effects of the mind wanting to push away anything that reminds me of the reality that the causes and effects of karma are unknowable. These passions and aggressions are the effects of the ignorance of the true nature of Karma as being beginingless, endless and empty of true nature. 

In the cases when I experience suffering as aggression, I am relating to karma by trying to avoid, push away, destroy; i.e. act aggressively toward karmic activity that I believe threatens my well being and/or survival. It is also when who and what I think myself to be, or what I want to be, is brought into question. 

In cases when I experience the suffering of passion I am relating to karmic activity by trying to grasp and cling to, the experience of freedom from suffering. It is the suffering of the mind trying to make something permanent.

The suffering of ignorance manifests when I forget that the activity of the karma that I experience is merely a perpetual engine of cause and effect.  This engine of activity has no intrinsic nature and no form. It is a habit of a conditioned mind and therefore cannot be pushed away or clung to. Ignorance is when I believe that karma, its activity, and the resulting suffering is the absolute nature of reality; when I believe that Karma is more than merely habitual, conditioned activity in the infinite field of beingness. 

The suffering of ignorance arises when my habits of thinking and conditioned reactivity to karma draw my perception of reality away from the experiential knowledge of the true nature of being. This true nature arises to awareness when I experience a pause in the mind’s incessant activity and see reality just as it is: unconditional, universal goodness.

So how is it possible to work with something so omnipresent and and intrinsically non-existent?

From Chuck Fondse.

First things first: I am writing down my experience with mindful concern. Writing it down gives is a permanence that is not part of the experience. In fact, after I share my experience, I will tell the “rest of the story” that shows just how impermanent it was. 

November 11 to 14, 2022 

My surgery for a right knee replacement is scheduled for Monday morning, early. Arrival time is to be 6:15am at the surgery center. Today is Saturday. I have spent the past days on the beach in Oregon with my spouse. Today we spent the windy, chilly, mostly cloudy day on the beach with my children and grandchildren, with a photographer capturing the day for photos to be shared at Christmas and beyond. We are having a laughing good time. If I shared photos, you could see it. My granddaughter Alice is an angel, and Marjke is being her normal naughty self. 

Jan and I leave to pack up our room and meet the rest at a breakfast place that Alice is so excited about. The food is good, I have Buckwheat pancakes, a treat I can rarely find. Then, my body starts to cramp and off to the restroom I go. I have a history of such stomach occurrences ever since my extreme dysentery incident in the 70’s in the middle east. I have learned to live with it and for the most part control it. What happened next took me by surprise. I had extreme vertigo. Jan needed to help me to the car. I rested for the rest of the afternoon, and it seemed to go away. 

Sunday was spent at home relaxing, getting the house ready for my recuperation. Sunday evening we ordered our favorite Chinese food and I was wolfing it down as usual. And then it hit again. The whole world started to spin. I was scared. I closed my eyes, opened them and still the same. I am worried about not being able to do the surgery. After an hour, it subsides a bit and I do my pre-surgery shower and sleep in a bed with clean linens on them, following instructions of the surgery center. 

Monday morning alarm goes off at 5:15am. I get up thankful that the vertigo was gone. We were heading for the door when I almost fell. It hit again, powerfully telling me that I was not in control. I had to use my walker, intended for post surgery, to get to the car. As Jan drove me in the dark rainy morning, it did not get better. I hobbled into the center to the reception desk and was checked in. The nurse comes to get me and helps me to my room. The world is still spinning. I tell her about it. She asks me to stand before she leaves me to change into those wonderful challenging hospital robes with no back. I almost fall. She is alarmed, tells me to sit and leaves to consult with the anethesiologist. I beg her to let me be for a bit but she is not going to just let me into surgery. She leaves. I look for a spot in the floor that can stop spinning and bow my head. 

Suddenly I feel a cry come from my gut, tears flowing from my eyes and I say, from the gut I—Am— SCARRED. I AM REALLY SCARED. There is no one in the room to comfort me with “It will be ok Chuck. Don’t worry.” No I sit with my fear, tasting it, seeing it, embracing it as I had just learned to do in our Sangha. William had been helping us just sit with our discomfort we SAW in each of our own versions of the three poisons. And as I sat with it, the power of the spinning dissipated. It did not go away but I could stand and function without falling. No one was in the room yet. Then the Dr and nurses and administrator come in to “talk to me.” I was more afraid of postponing the surgery than of having it at that moment, but I was also SEEing that my body had memory that I was not aware of from the last knee surgery. That one went poorly. I was in the hospital for 3 nights and went home in extreme pain. 

As the doctor talked to me about why we should not proceed and the risks of ambulances and emergency rooms in these COVID/FLU times I forcefully asked him to be quiet and let me do their pre-op proof of walking with my walker all through the hallways, the prescribed test they gave me. I passed with flying colors. Yes, I was still not cognitively “all there” but the debilitating vertigo was gone. 

Surgery went very well. Only 1 ½ hours for a total knee replacement. Post surgery went very well and I have been walking from the first day out. Today, I can walk without a cane but use one for safety and stability. I am about 1 to 2 weeks ahead of the schedule that I was on with my last knee. 

Why do I share this? 

1. I realize that my body had a memory that I had pushed down below cognizant awareness. It was not letting it go until I heard it. 

2. I learned to embrace the fear, truly embrace it, and in so doing, the fear became manageable and my body responded. 

3. This would not have been possible had I not been practicing. Practice is what we do each morning we gather and the in between times when we “remember.” 

4. SO, thank you to the Sangh of the Pandemic. 

The rest of the story: I have had several major vertigo incidents since surgery, the last one being after our wonderful Thanksgiving meal at our house. I almost fell in the bathroom. This one has not left me 3 days later. I can function, sometimes slow the spinning down, but it is still there. I see my PCP on Friday to see if we can find out why. I grieve the impermanence of the solution that appeared to find me in the surgery center. I am scared that this might last and define my life going on. I am mad. I am trying to embrace each of those. IMPERMENANCE sucks. BUT, permanence is hell, the hell of expectations of perfection, happiness, the way it is supposed to be. 

So there you have it. Today I can write on the computer, I can read for short periods of time. I can do my exercises, I am much more pain free than the last knee, and I may even be able to play with my model trains. My greatest attachment is to my biking. That is one of my greatest fears, to lose that. This vertigo thing is a teacher that I did not ask for. NOT IN THE LEAST!!!! My oh my. What will a person do? – Chuck Fondse

_____________

These words are dedicated to all wisdom elders and wisdom teachings and to bringing about the end of suffering for all beings throughout all times and in all directions.

May it be so.

-William

Practice

The Sangha of the Pandemic offers several opportunities for a safe, inclusive, free, virtual community contemplative practice. Everyone is welcome regardless of meditation experience or spiritual lineage.

The Zoom link is:  

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789

Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays: 6 AM PacificTime

Monday: calm abiding, Samatha, Tuesday: body awareness, Thursday: Tonglen

Sunday at 7 AM Pacific Time: Four Brahmaviharas

and

Monday and Wednesday evenings at 5:30 PM Pacific Time : Practice and Inquiry       

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Sangha of the Pandemic                                           

Karma

“I have good parking karma.”

“They must have bad karma.”

“Your karma’s showing.”

“What goes around comes around.”

“If you do good you get good.”

 The pop karma that permeates Western culture is rooted in the reward/punishment theologies of materialistic spirituality and egocentricity. It is centered on a “me” getting or losing as a result of actions or speech, or payback for the “other” who has taken something from or given something to a “me”. There is a thread that runs through it, spun out of reward and punishment, that if the “me”cannot get, or does get, what it wants or thinks that it needs, some unseen, all knowing force will come in and impose reward or punishment in the future upon the “me” the “other”. And that the current experience is a reward or punishment for actions taken in the near or distant past.

In my earliest exposures to the concept of karma, I could only grasp it in relation to my upbringing in the Catholic church. Like the pop culture of karma, it was dependent on doing good to get a reward or if I did something bad, I would receive penance in this life or the next. There was a little taste of practicing being in the present, but it was mostly about what happened in the past and how I need to pay for my bad actions, how can I prevent those actions from happening again, so that my future will be better. Somewhere in there was the idea that doing good for others would get me to a better place in the future. i.e. it was all about me. 

I have used this understanding of karma to promote the inner-critic and the self-justifier. When I do something wrong I should be punished and until I am punished appropriately, I am a bad person. Or I did something right and I should receive a reward or acknowledgment and until I do, I experience a sense of superiority in my altruism. This all can get really convoluted triggering a torrent of shame, blame, arrogance and self righteousness.

My understanding of karma as taught in the Eastern wisdom traditions is much more straightforward and scientific. It is simply action and reaction, cause and effect; action of body, emotion, and thought and the effect of those actions. It is the unconscious engine of temporal reality. There is no moral judgment, as such, because it just is. Karma is merely cause and effect ,and then effect becoming cause for further effects… endlessly. There are some elements of accurate perception of karma in the pop culture perspective in so far as they point to this cause and effect reality, but the popular conception of karma of doing something to get something only shows up in the Eastern teachings as a simile for the mechanics of karma or an inducement to not be a mean person.

From the Eastern perspective, karma is a perpetual circular track of suffering that runs on the fuel of the three poisons; passion, aggression and ignorance. It is like an infinitely long snake feeding on its own tail. It has no independent origin, it is beginningless and endless. When inquiring carefully into the fuels and the structure of karma, it becomes apparent that it is a compound of mental concepts that have no actual substance or inherent nature. Empty concepts that arise from an infinite chain of cause and effect with no initial or terminal moment.

Seeing this and experiencing the quality of this understanding, stills the habitual mind stream for a moment. In this moment that is out of time there is an experience of what Edgar Casey called the ultimate Is-ness. I think that might be what is referred to in buddhism as thusness, and in Taoism as the eternal Tao, and perhaps it is the Rapture in Christian teachings.

In the moment-less moment, there is the experience of freedom, spaciousness, unburdenedness. The perpetual habit stream of karma and the resulting suffering is seen as void of reality. It is like the experience of waking up from an all consuming nightmare and seeing that it wasn’t real. In a sense, one steps out of the endless cycle of cause and effect, karma, and steps into the reality of true nature; though there really is no stepping off or on. It is more like a final knowing that the experience of deep ease, unconditioned love and joy, and the knowing that everything including one’s experience of self as whole, holy, goodness, is just the way things are. That the grasping, clinging, greed, hatred, aversion, fear, doubt are the shadows created by the ignorance of the way things are. These shadows are a result of trying to fix or change or undo karma; cause and effect, when in reality there is nothing really there to be undone or fixed. 

When I put my hand in fire I get burned. When I drop a stone in gravity, it falls. I cannot unburn my hand or unstop the fall. I can only not put my hand in the fire or not drop the stone in gravity. I cannot stop the immediate effect of an action. If I move in anger or hatred, either in thought or deed, I cannot undo that moment of action or thought. It will have some effect regardless of what I do, think, or say subsequently. When this realization spreads into the marrow of my being, the aspiration to stop the cycle, arises in the empty space of that realization. In the space of that awareness there is the opportunity and time to look around, find the key to the engine of karma, turn it off, and get off the track.

The goodness of karmic activity is in its capacity to point, urge and cajole us to be alert to suffering and the endless causes and effects of suffering. As awareness of how habit and conditioning contributes to suffering grows, the awareness of the nature of reality as goodness expands. It is as if karmic activity is a headlamp on a path that is shrouded in ignorance; shining the light of understanding on the obstacles of cause and conditioning, and showing a way through to the experience of reality as the intrinsic goodness of being.

In this reality there is only the substance-less, causeless, absolute goodness perpetuating and being perpetuated, reflecting and re-reflecting itself. It is in the eyes of a child discovering snow, and a guardian seeing the child discovering snow. It is in the awe of infinitely different sunsets and the blinding explosions of a lightning strike. It is in the first breath of life and the last sigh of death. It is here and now. No need to search or strive or do anything to get it. Just lay back in the arms of your own goodness and in that, allowing all beings to lay back in your embrace of goodness. 

_____________

These words are dedicated to all wisdom elders and wisdom teachings and to bringing about the end of suffering for all beings throughout all times and in all directions.

May it be so.

-William

The Three Poisons: Ignorance

From the beginning of life the body is constantly striving to survive. It does this by finding nutrients from outside of itself and transforming them into usable forms to promote and sustain itself. In this process it also learns to discern what is not usable and either avoids or rejects it. Internally it is also discerning, transforming, attacking, and expelling. The body develops habits and conditioning that simplifies the process and makes it efficient. In my utterly layperson’s understanding, the brain is the storehouse for the information gathered from these body experiences and directs this process through the nervous system. 

Somewhere along the line, this natural, efficient and necessary process bleeds over into the learned experiences of pleasure and displeasure and the consciousness of those experiences. We begin to link survival of the body with pleasure, and death of the body with displeasure. As infants, especially in the preverbal stage, we only have our physical being to communicate this pleasure and displeasure, or to grasp for comfort and push away discomfort. As a result of the memory of these experiences the developing consciousness also becomes conditioned to maximize the efficiency of getting what we sense/think/feel will sustain us and keeping away what we sense/think/feel will harm us. We learn that crying, pooping, crawling, talking etc. will all get a response or not; give us pleasure or not. As this capacity of consciousness matures and a sense of self and other begins to crystallize, the habits and conditioning of this early developmental stage, as well as the continuing developmental processes of coming to adulthood, continue to function and calcify throughout our lives. The efficiency of the processes of physical survival are imprinted in our consciousness and we are able to skip the conscious, linear process developing unconscious habits of thinking and feeling associated, correctly and incorrectly with survival.

Over time and through repetition, these unconscious habits of sensing, reacting, feeling and thinking stimulate the development of conditioned reactions of passion with its expressions of grasping, clinging, craving and greed as well as aggression with its expressions of aversion, hatred, anger and violence. The lack of awareness of the origin and function of these habits is one part of the poison of ignorance. 

A few of the most apparent expressions of this behavior out of ignorance for me are when I have an aversion to being around someone or some situation for no obvious reason, or when I am spontaneously yelling at a driver who won’t drive the way I want them to, or judging another or myself for not doing “it” right. This is unconscious aggression. Using concentration and insight in contemplation, leads to bringing to light the hidden conditioning or habit that runs the engine of the aggression. Upon deeper inquiry, I am able to see how my unconscious grasping or clinging or lust (passion) for something is the sparkplug igniting the start up of the engine engine of aggression. More aggression leads to more intense and unconscious passions, and the endless cycle of suffering. The process of shining a light of awareness on unconscious habits and conditioning allows me to be able to then make choices and offer responses out of understanding the reality in the present moment, rather than out of ignorant, conditioned habit.

For example I may discover that the behavior or speech patterns or dress of the person that I have an aversion to, are the same expressions that I have been trying to eliminate in my own behavior; expressions that have caused some kind of suffering for me or others or have been detrimental to my craving or holding on to friendship, position, acceptance etc. 

Over time with consistent, regular, contemplative practice and open ended inquiry (inquiry without expectation of results)into what is happening in these instances, the light of awareness reveals the unconscious knots of aggression and passion that cause so much suffering in our lives and the lives of others. This awareness liberates thinking, feeling and acting from the prison of ignorant reactivity, allowing true freedom of choice in the present moment. Shining a light on conditioning and unconscious, habitual thought patterns, reveals our ignorance of the reality of the causes of suffering, slows down the process and opens up space for clarity.

This open, spacious, clarity reveals the other part of ignorance; the ignorance of our intrinsic  nature. 

As the clutter of unconscious habits dissolves, the spacious freedom of present reality opens up and there is an awakening to the realization that we and all those we share the cosmos with are intrinsically good, generous, kind, compassionate, joyful and non-judgmental beings. The more that we are able to cultivate this knowledge through practice, the lighter our experience of reality is. This lightness is generative and the boundaries between self and other also begin to dissolve.  The resulting space expands to include not only personal suffering and freedom from that suffering but also opens space for the understanding of the suffering of others regardless of how it manifests; in hatred, clinging, anxiety, despair, or violence. It also clears a space for mutual joy, kindness, and ease of being. The capacity of strength that comes with this experiential knowledge slows the conditional processes down enough that there is time to respond appropriately rather than react habitually in the face of suffering or joy. 

As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught: “Everything is working working.” The three poisons that cause so much suffering are also the medicines that initiate the healing of awareness of the suffering. The suffering of the three poisons cause us to seek out the end of suffering because it is the intrinsic nature of all beings, not only to be free of self suffering, but to long for for all beings throughout all times and in all directions to  be free from suffering.

May it be so.

These thoughts and practices are dedicated to all wisdom elders in all traditions, and to all beings throughout all times in all directions, with the intention that they may ignite the flame of self awareness and provide a little solace and ease.

-William
 

Practice

The Sangha of the Pandemic offers several opportunities for a safe, inclusive, free, virtual community contemplative practice. Everyone is welcome regardless of meditation experience or spiritual lineage.

The Zoom link is:  

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789

Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays: 7 AM CR Time

Monday: calm abiding, Samatha, Tuesday: body awareness, Thursday: Tonglen

Sunday at 7 AM CR Time: Four Brahmaviharas

and

Monday and Wednesday evenings at 5:30 PM CR Time : Practice and Inquiry                                                   

The Three Poisons: Aggression

The three poisons of passion, aggression and ignorance are inextricably linked and interdependent and are the causes of the conditioned and habitual whirl of what is referred to, in eastern traditions, as samsara. When these habits of thinking and being are explored it becomes apparent that they are the primary causes of mental and emotional suffering. When inquiring into the nature of each one, individually, there is an awareness of how they arise from and give rise to the other two in an endless cycle. Noticing this, an understanding becomes apparent that, because they rely solely on each other for activation and sustainment, they are empty of independent, inherent substance and when one of them dissolves as a result of this understanding, the whole conditioned, habitual, cycle of suffering dissolves with it. 

Aggression

When I was first introduced to the teachings of the three poisons in Shambhala Warrior* training, it seemed obvious that aggression was a poison; unlike passion and ignorance, which I thought could be seen as either a gift or blameless (respectively) and therefore not really poisonous. I associated aggression with intentional violence, hatred, meanness, anger, rage etc. I was ignorant of the more subtle expressions of aggression that arise out of aversion. Aversion is a more insidious form of aggression and violence that I have often cloaked with spiritual, social or political, superiority. Whereas passion, as a poison, is any action, feeling or thought that tries to attract, grasp and cling, aversion is any action, feeling or thought that tries to push away or avoid. (It is understood here that there are some of these movements that are necessary in moments when our existence is threatened.)

Aversion is the surreptitious form of aggression that is seeded in the grasping of, and clinging to what is thought of as the good and the beautiful and pushing away everything else. Aversion often shows up as micro aggressions in speech and action. It is mostly unconscious until it is pointed out to us by someone who has been on the receiving end of it, or we discover it in the contemplation of suffering. For me these aversions are so deeply rooted and pervasive, that the process of uncovering them and weeding them out has been filled with shame and pain and I found myself redirecting  the aggression and aversion, that I had manifested toward the other, back on myself. And as a result perpetuating the cycle of violence.

With careful and gentle guidance from teachers, spiritual friends and the sangha of compassionate beings, as well as faith in universal goodness, I have been able to sit with this aggression in gentle observation. Like a guardian sitting with a young child who is in the heart of an emotional explosion; present, allowing, and soothing but not stopping or changing the experience. Working in this way, I began to see the conditioned nature of aversion and aggression. I began to understand that most of the aggression and aversion manifested as a result of habitual and conditioned responses that were imprinted in childhood and cultivated over time in the search for pleasure and avoidance of displeasure. With aversion it was less the outward expression of aggression that I recalled but the subtle looks, gestures and speech filled with hidden meaning. Like the times when, driving to baseball games, my mom insisting that we not go through the part of town where black folk lived to get there because “it’s dangerous”.  Or the unwillingness of adults to talk openly about sexuality while giving the impression that it was evil. 

In perceiving the conditionality of aggression, aversion and all the reactivity that manifests out of them, I began to understand that they were void of their own substance or form and only existed as a result of my unconscious habits of clinging, grasping and attachment. My anger, aversion, fear and aggression were a result of a fear of loss, or of a memory of the past, or anxiety about the future. i.e not really real in this moment.

Over time and through persistent practice of presencing, and insight into the nature of my aggressions and aversions as well as my passions, the incessant cycle of elevation and diminishment of self and others has begun to dissolve. As a result, little by little, I have been more able to respond to situations out of the experience and awareness of the present reality, instead of reacting out of an unconscious habitual thought stream. Awareness of the causes and conditions of the suffering that occurs because of these poisons an important step on the path to freedom from that suffering. This capacity also supports the skill  to be able to see through the aggression and aversion of others and into the heart of their suffering, so that we can respond out of compassion instead of passion.

This description of the process sounds a lot more complicated than it is. Begin by looking closely at the most obvious expressions of aversion or aggression and asking a simple question like “Where did that come from?” or noticing how the body changes in the midst of the expression. This slows the reaction time down enough that the connections to memory, fear or habits of thought can be observed.  In the moment that the aggressions happen it may not be possible to do this, so when there is time to reflect, in a safe environment, one can recreate the experience  in the imagination and begin the inquiry. This leads to a clearer understanding of the origins of the poisons and our suffering. The more that we understand our own suffering and how it develops, the more skill we have when we engage with others who are suffering and expressing that suffering through aggression or aversion.

Ultimately we begin to see that all passion and aggression and the resulting suffering is seeded in the ignorance of how these things work. We might also begin to notice that at the core of these passions is the deep longing for the expression and experience of our inherent goodness and the inherent goodness of all beings.

May it be so.

– William

* A system of practice and insight developed by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche to whom I dedicate all these words and this practice.

Practice

The Sangha of the Pandemic offers several opportunities for a safe, inclusive, free, virtual community contemplative practice. Everyone is welcome regardless of meditation experience or spiritual lineage.

The Zoom link is:  

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789

Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays: 7 AM CR Time

Monday: calm abiding, Samatha, Tuesday: body awareness, Thursday: Tonglen

Sunday at 7 AM CR Time: Four Brahmaviharas

and

Monday and Wednesday evenings at 5:30 PM CR Time : Practice and Inquiry                                                   

The website for the sangha is: gratefulroadwarrior.org

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