Sunday, September 11, 2011

Karma: A Word Doodle

A new kind of post. Let’s call it a “word doodle.” By this I wish to suggest a certain lightness toward the subjects covered. But, this lightness should not be taken humorously, even though I find humor in many places. The word “frame” is a better substitute for “doodle” than “humor.”

My word doodles are rationally and emotionally articulated frameworks of ideas and experiences about what I consider to be central and fundamental to my intimate life. Whether they are universally applicable or not is beyond my intimacy or (anyone else’s for that matter) to proclaim with certainty. My word doodles are not presented in any particular order. I will simply post a doodle, and perhaps revisions to it upon further contemplation later, as I find a sufficient voice within myself to take a coherent stab at it.

I have mentioned several of these word doodles in previous posts. “Being” is perhaps the most prevalent frame mentioned thus far in this blog. But, I have yet to articulate what I mean by that word and this is not the time to do so now. Instead, I want to articulate something about “Karma,” another doodle I have mentioned sporadically in previous posts. Presently, I am experiencing an intense karmic period. Normally, I live a more contemplative life and karma happens slower to me. I want to share it with you and hopefully give some indication as to what I mean by the word “karma.”

Karma is a concept I have experienced and pondered for decades. I was exposed to the various expressions of people beholding to the karma belief construct (a cultural word frame) when I spent six months in India. Karma has specific meanings and distinctions in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and other systems of belief. These are woven into the fabric of their traditions. The biblical word doodle of “you will reap what you sow” is a Judeo-Christian example of believing that human actions affect what happens to the life of the actor.

My take on all traditions of any kind is my own. No culture is inherently superior in its expression and I freely cherry-pick aspects of various cultures that seem most applicable to my intimacy. Your mileage may (and probably will) vary. For me, karma is best articulated as any expenditure of physical, emotional, or instinctual energy, an adhesion of intimate indifferences and mundane happenings punctuated by extraordinary moments.

So, what the hell does that mean? Some examples might shed some light.

Several months ago, the company I work for hired a new sales manager. A real sales manager oozes karma. He came in with a lot of ideas on how things should change and many of his ideas affect my marketing department. One of the many ways my department was affected was the creation of a new and rather sophisticated marketing plan for lead generation involving a wide variety of traditional marketing methods including direct mail, telemarketing, email blasts, among other techniques. All of this needs to be coordinated and executed in conjunction with various sales calling activities. The budgeting, planning, creation, tracking, analytical methods, and all other aspects of marketing have to be planned out and accounted for before anything starts. In marketing, the planning stage is the most important, though most activity occurs after the plan is set in motion.

There is nothing earth-shattering here, just that all this activity is a direct result of the new sales manager. Activities beget activities that beget other activities which are largely unpredictable, though certainly measureable and demanding further changes in activities as the response to the original plan becomes clearer. There is a ripple effect as one thing leads to another and matters play out according how participants respond to results. In this way, karma has a “sticky” quality. One thing leads to another, revealing a trail of cause and effect. This is a traditional sense of karma.

Now, let’s add to this something mundane. Two years ago, being a wargame hobbyist, I pre-ordered a couple of large, fairly complex wargames that require a lot of time to learn, setup, and play. I enjoy playing games of this sort and this enjoyment turns out to have a karmic effect on me right now because, just as all this other stuff is kicking off at work, I don’t have time to play with my new toys. As mentioned in a recent post, I ordered these two games separately but they arrived two years later within a few days of one another and more or less simultaneously with everything else I mention in this post.

This is admittedly frustrating at a certain level but, understanding karma as I do, I know that this frustration will, in turn, have further effects and ripple through my life intimately and in my connection with work and significant others if I allow it. I am, in fact, guilty of having expressed myself in existential frustration at times in my past. So, I pay particular attention to this delayed enjoyment and try not to permit it to build up within in such a way that the frustration becomes anger. I don’t deny the frustration, however, because this is who I am as a person. So, I accept the frustration and attempt to fashion it as simple disappointment. For me, writing things out in this blog often helps with stuff like this.

I believe human beings struggle in exactly this way with their lives all the time, often in much more complex situations than I have articulated so far.

But, let’s take things out of the mundane world of work and play for a moment. Simultaneously with the hiring of the new sales manager and the two great wargames that arrived almost at the same time though I pre-ordered them separately years ago, my wife, Jennifer, was dealing with some fairly serious health issues. Fortunately, they were not life threatening or anything but they did require some highly invasive surgery. As a family, we dealt with the emotional weight of this along with the extreme irritation of dealing with our bureaucratic and inefficient health system.

For about three weeks, my daughter and I were basically taking care of my wife and the household as she recovered from surgery. Even today there is much she can’t do that I do in her place. Take the recyclables to the sorting bends. Carrying hoses around the yard for irrigation. Carrying a basket of laundry upstairs. Lots of carrying things. Things that normally she handles with ease. In fact, Jennifer normally handles many things, she is a wheel of activity. Being a highly karmic person, Jennifer emits karma and I receive much of its consequences. This is one of many ways that joins us as husband and wife.

Jennifer’s surgery meant I had to take time off from work, which I certainly don’t mind. Family always should come first. In this case, I’ve known and loved my wife for 24 years. There was no question about showing her all the compassion I could muster. There is the karma of that intimacy which I won’t elaborate upon here. I would be dishonest with myself, however, if I pretended that the time away from work and the now more clearly established general mix of emotional frustration did not impact me intimately. This, too, is the stuff of karma.

Let’s add a further karmic event. Back in May my mother experienced an emotional episode that requires medical attention. She is getting up in her years and I can’t trust her (or my dad) to simply take care of this matter herself. I needed to be personally involved to make sure certain questions are asked and certain understandings are attained by both my mother and her physician. This appointment happened three days after Jennifer’s surgery. It could have been canceled but Jennifer was doing well enough at home to be entrusted to her work assistant for a few hours. Suddenly, I have heavy karma dominating me.

Now, we are at the stage where I think I can articulate a trajectory between my work activity, my wargame activity, and activities resulting from the actual workings of my wife’s body and my mother’s body (which scientifically have nothing whatsoever to do with my work and my hobbies). The demands of their bodies and the demands of my work and my personal desires to direct my attention elsewhere, to contemplate, are all real and they are all interconnected not just in my intimate experience, but to some degree with each other.

Being away from work meant a few key phone calls were not returned as promptly. Communications with the sales manager, my boss, and my team members were affected. I simply did not have the gusto that is typically at my disposal to deal with things. Meanwhile, my mother’s body and my wife’s body have nothing to do with each other yet they are intimately bound as I cannot be in two places at once and each requires a certain, large degree of my attention.

Now, one danger with karma playing out like this is that there is a tendency to want to control everything. I want to “make” time for everything. This, also, produces frustration to the extent that I get more and more attached to every aspect of all the activities I have described. Karma is sticky. So, I try to be cognizant of these frustrating elements in my intimacy and deal with them through writing or jogging or in my yoga sessions. Treat myself to a movie or book or something; things of that sort.

But, this post is not about how to handle karma; that is up to each of us individually. There is no universal fix, in my opinion. People who teach universal fixes are silly people. They don’t understand anything if they don’t understand the fundamentals of human diversity at the rational, emotional, and instinctual level.

Be that as it may, I hope by now I have articulated how all sorts of levels of human experience and activity are interrelated and how the energy of seemingly disconnected events or activities can be connected. It is the connection of all things great and small, important and mundane that most clearly reveals the stuff of karma.

Now compare these past weeks with that first wonderful day when Jennifer and I visited Boston back in 2009. The street walk signs were all changing in good time on a bright, cloudless day, and I was in tune with the positive energy of the city. Everything was going my way. Jennifer was having fun too. I’m not so arrogant as to believe that any of this easy, effortless experience of fun was happening because of me. I had no control over the smooth flow of the day. Nevertheless, that day as it occurred was perfect in its karmic manifestation.

That karma has this sticky or magnetic quality can be shown in another mundane example. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Clint celebrated his 50th birthday at our house. Naturally, there was a lot of bustle associated with having about 18 people over for dinner one night. Jennifer probably overdid her activity during this event, but that is another story.

What I wish to share has to do with birthday cakes. My wife made Clint her grandmother’s chocolate cake and a German-chocolate cake to boot. She hasn’t baked two cakes at one time in years. But, karma being a magnetic, this-sticks-to-that, sort of thing, there was another cake involved which wasn’t planned for nor anticipated. In fact, we didn’t even present it at Clint’s party.

My great aunt lives near us and she makes the best pound cake in the universe. She is much older these days and my great uncle is not in the best of health, so she doesn’t bake and get out as much as she used to. At any rate, it has been several years since she visited us with any of her good baking. Of course, out of blue as Jennifer was baking Clint’s cakes, my great aunt calls on the phone and tells us she has half a pound cake baked for us. She’d like to come over a visit.

Jennifer has always liked my great aunt and naturally was thrilled she wanted to visit. The couple of pieces of pound cake that we ate were delicious, but we ended up freezing the rest before Clint’s party. We’ll enjoy it with peaches or something a few weeks from now. Still, the point here is that Jennifer rarely makes two cakes and, suddenly, we are inundated with a wonderful but heavy and filling traditional southern pound cake as well. Behold the magnetic, sometimes tasty, stickiness of karma.

Let's take another concrete example: My daughter recently asked to go to a friend’s house after she visited my parents. I instructed her to call me when she left my parents.

Well, she failed to call so about 3 hours later I called her cell. No answer. I called my parents. She had left a couple of hours ago. After repeated texting and voicemails left on her cell we started calling her friends. No one knew where she was. My concern heightened. She has never done anything like this before, but she is at the age when boundaries are usually tested.

We made contact with two of her friends and tried two other friends. One friend phoned Jennifer back on her cell but she inadvertently hit 'ignore'. A few seconds later my daughter finally called but we had poor cell reception and we told her to call the home number. The phone rang but it turned out to be one of her other friends retuning our call from earlier. Of course, my daughter tried to call us exactly as her friend did, so she got a busy signal. This is karma we created. Everyone experiences what might be called episodic hiccups. It is the mediocrity of karma that makes it so easily understandable.

Karma is mostly neutral. It just happens. It can come in bulk, bad, good, indifferent, or meander in slowness. Parts of it are due to my actions, such as how frustrated I allow myself to become over not being able to devote attention to things of personal interest that I would rather be doing. Certainly, how I respond to my wife's operation can lead to all sorts of marital issues if I abandon her and/or resent her for her needs. More to the point, I love her and can give her more of myself during her recovery to good health.

These are examples of how my activity shapes the karma of events, my contemplative life, my life as needed by others. But, most of what is happening is not the result of me at all. So, while specific human actions play a role in karma, it is often a trivial role. Activity in the world happens and affects me regardless of what type of participant I am.

The larger workings of karma as physical forces and phenomena is more complex. Will the thunderstorm hit your house? Will you be caught in ten miles of backed up traffic on the interstate due to an accident that blocks all lanes? Random earthquakes shiver the globe. In grand schemes of time there are possible collisions with chucks of inter-stellar space that wipe out the earth completely. It has already happened a couple of times.


On this date ten years ago BIG karma happened, affecting millions of lives on the planet here ten years later beyond their control, like a cosmic reverb.

There are large karmic forces at work that are completely disconnected from your intimate karma and only trivially affected by it. Then again, there are collective intimacies that affect things. The human contribution to global warming possibly resulting in stronger hurricanes is one example. The accumulation of public debt and its weight on the economy is another larger connection of collective intimacies on BIG karma.

If you perform an action that might be interpreted as meritorious or condemnatory, the engines of the universe do not care. Tornadoes and earthquakes kill people regardless of their karma. However, the engines of human experience and particularly the very karmic engines of human interaction do tend to reward and punish, celebrate and educate human behavior. Individual acts certainly resonate with cause and effect. Collective patterns of human behavior exhibit magnetic or conductive tendencies toward certain results.

The karma of smoking, for example, could lead to your own cancer or no cancer at all or, perhaps worse, the cancer of a loved one through your second-hand smoke. The karma of hugging generally leads to smiles and openness, a release of stress and feeling of comfortable ease. The karma of a hugging smoker would tend toward all of these traits.

Despite common perception, there is no “good” karma or “bad” karma. There are simply cultural tendencies of the effects of human interaction. Karma is neutral. But, so is clay to the potter and so is marble to the sculpture. The medium of earth and stone can be molded by skilled hands into a creation. The best or worst of intentions is no guarantee of either success or failure. But, there are ways of molding karma as the human medium of activity into the most hopeful results.

So, we have the impersonal and indifferent aspects of karma. The weather, the trajectory of comets through millennia, even the workings of the stock market are beyond specific personal accountability or control. Though you and I are clearly affected by the experience of the genetic make-up of our bodies, genetics itself involves biological interactions beyond our choice. To that extent, much of our intimate experience is, in fact, due to indifferent karmic forces of biology. Intimacy has an impersonal foundation.

Nevertheless, I do love my wife. That is a karmic manifestation by me and is a personal intimacy proclaimed in action for all the world to see. A great deal of karmic intimacy is by choice, as I hope the examination of my recent life and other examples given in this post attest. Just don’t try to stretch these moments of intimate choice into a connection with some asteroid that might obliterate the earth in another 1,000 years. No such connection exists and it is what I call subtle-arrogance to think our intimacy is connected to the universe in any significant way. The meaning and significance we each find in life is our own invention. The karma of the universe is hazard.

In this context, karma is an essential word frame for understanding my daily life and my relationship to others and to the understanding of extra-intimate events and the mechanics of BIG karma. Obviously, it is primarily a matter of belief but I find karma to be substantial as a guiding principle in my intimate days.

A final note. I do not believe in reincarnation. I do not place karma in the traditional context of what you do in this life will affect your next life (Hinduism) nor do I see it as the medium to which you are fashioned by or liberated from samsara (Buddhism). For me, it is more than enough to contextualize karma as a way of understanding how things happen in both the intimate and indifferent milieu of human experience.

There is an intimacy within indifference. Things can be interrelated but that doesn’t make them less random. That is enough.

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