Updated: May 3, 2022
Continuing my excavation of blogs from the past. These are my ponderings following a teaching that Ajahn Sucitto gave in Portugal. If you are struck by these insights about karma then you might like to tune in to the free course on Karma at the Mindsprings School. It’s part of a four-section exploration of Buddhist teachings, called Dharma Days.
I also added a 2021 addendum to this blog from 2013. So do read down to the end…
The second thing I took from the Ajahn’s talk was: the most important actions are mental.
This is is a crucial concept to get our head around when we’re pondering on why we’re always making ourselves unhappy.
Buddhism has a very central idea, which is that of karma. This is not the old Kismet idea of fixed destiny or payback. It’s a quite rational idea that things (and by things, the Buddha means bodies, moods, mind-states, as well as objects) come into being because of previously arising conditions. So, for example, my hangover is not a punishment sent from above. It is a consequence of drinking too much beer at the firework party last night. And those extra beers were, in turn, drunk because I was in a strange and alarming place on my own and needed some Dutch courage. And there we have it: a chain of karma.
The chains of cause and effect are dizzying and actually beyond comprehension but they are real.
One of the Buddha’s key notions is that all things are conditioned except Nirvana (more about that in a later post). Our bodies, our moods, our sense of self, our thoughts and our emotions, even the things we do and don’t perceive: all these things are conditioned by the past. Complex chains of cause and effect that all crest in our current experience in the World.
I have a body because my Mum and Dad chose to have sex one summer night. I live in this house because I got sick in London and chose to leave – but also because the landlord put it on the market at the same time. I’m typing extra fast because I’ve just taken delivery of some Ginseng which I ordered yesterday because an appointment fell through and I had some spare time… The chains of cause and effect are dizzying and actually beyond comprehension but they are real.
This would all just be overwhelmingly complex if there wasn’t another aspect to karma. Which is intention.
Even though the threads of cause-and-effect that lead to this moment-in-time are infinitely dense, in the present moment we have the knife-like possibility of choice.
Even though everything is conditioned, at any given moment we can change the quality of the karma by our intention. If we act in a different way or we respond more skilfully then the chain of karma shifts accordingly.
I see someone drop a ten-pound note in the street. I can pick it up and give it back. Or I can pick it up and keep it.
It is our constant stream of mental actions that creates our ongoing sense of well-being or anxiety
From a Buddhist point of view, there’s no divine eye in the sky watching you at that moment – but the intention of your action will feedback into the stream of your ongoing karma. The Buddha talks about different kinds of karma. Bright and dark – and the bright karma leads us, generally, a sense of ease and connection (giving the tenner back). The dark karma leads us, generally, to a sense of unease and disconnection (shiftily pocketing it).
This is all fairly straightforward Moral Maze / Sliding Doors territory. But where the meditative path is really acute is in the notion of the most important actions being mental.
On a much more fundamental level, it is the constant stream of mental actions that creates our ongoing sense of well-being or anxiety. The bright and dark streams of karma begin in our mental functioning, not in our actions on the street.
For the Buddhist meditator, thoughts do not have any inherent authority. They arise and pass, in the same way, the noise of a passing truck or the squawk of a gull arises and passes. The same is true of feelings and emotional moods – the come and go like the weather on a changeable autumn morning.
Can you remember what you were thinking about 24 hours ago? Can you remember exactly what you were thinking an hour ago? A minute ago?
Thoughts are mental phenomena that we can choose to energise by our attention or not
We have been conditioned (there’s that word again) by schooling and Western society to believe our thoughts absolutely. If I think it, I must act on it. If I’m thinking it, it must be true and important.
This is a misstep.
Most of our thoughts when we observe them in meditation are (in Ajahn Sumedho’s striking phrase) ‘garbage’. They’re the random spluttering of a very repetitive kettle. Or they are the same thought over and over and over: “he left me, he left me, he left me”. Once would be enough to get the message – I don’t need to tell myself that 10,000 times a day.
And just because a thought is true – doesn’t mean we are forced to get all entangled in it. “This knife can slit the throat of a human” is a true thought – but not one I would choose to get on board with.
Basically, thoughts are mental phenomena that we can choose to energise by our attention or not. ACT therapy espouses the idea of ‘defusing from most of our thoughts if they don’t serve us. And only getting on board with those thoughts that do serve our ‘higher purpose’ (whatever we chose that to be). The same idea of bright and dark karma applies. I can choose (usually unconsciously) to fuse with the idea “nobody loves me”. And especially if I do it 10,000 times a day then this will release quite a torrent of dark energy into my system. Or I can choose NOT to fuse with that thought – because it doesn’t benefit me – and instead when I think “I’m a good writer, I’ll write something”. Then I can get on board with that and release a stream of bright karma.
If we can see the power of our mental actions, we can really change the weave of our life
So, returning to my Facebook addiction: I might catch myself feeling that fluttery, wobbly stomach feeling I get when I’m not getting enough Facebook attention. And notice that I’m really fused with the idea “only four ‘likes’ means no one loves me.” And I can see that thought as just an arrangement of mental words in my head. I don’t want to get into that dark karma, so I change the record. Decide to watch Family Guy. Do some prep for my interview this afternoon. Write this.
If we can see the power of our mental actions – and this is subtle work, where meditation really helps. We can really change the weave of our life, threading in brighter and brighter threads until the whole thing starts to gleam. And it all starts at that moment of mental action when we absent-mindedly leap on a thought train we don’t really want to board. And don’t get off till 20 years have passed!
Thoughts from 2021:
One insight that comes to me as I go more deeply into the experience of karma, is that we can think of karma in terms of the brain.
The brain has a setting that is known as the Default Mode Network or DMN. This is the auto-pilot mode where the brain-body is running in zombie mode. Not taking in new information but simply repeating assumptions from before to save energy. It was like this 10 seconds ago, so it’s probably the same right now: no need to adjust.
The Default Mode Network might be thought of as karma unrolling without intention. Things spool forward – everything unthinkingly conditioned by the past. But when we start to inject intention into the Universe then things change. The old perceptions perk up. The possibility of change emerges.
Intention is not an abstract thing. The neural impulse of intention shifts the brain from the DMN zombie state to the Prefrontal Cortex alive state. Things perk up. That is to say, we start to perceive things freshly within the frame of our intention. Does the default way of doing things actually tally with our intention? Or do we need to freshen up our perceptions?
Even if we don’t meet our intention, the simple act of intending transforms reality from past-conditioned zombiedom to future-conditioning aliveness.
I’d love to know your thoughts on my thoughts on Sucitto. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!