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Mariana Caplan, Ph.D. Headshot

Karma and Psychology: Connecting the Dots

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If somebody had to live my life, why did it have to be me?!

As a young woman on the spiritual path, I was always both intrigued and bothered by the concept of karma. It just didn't seem accurate that everyone I knew who remembered a past life was a princess in Egypt or a king in medieval Europe. Or perhaps they had done something really terrible in a past life and they were being punished by God by not being able to get pregnant or running into continuous relationship landmines. The deeper principle of karma called to me, while many of the explanations seemed superficial and overly linear. So I did what any diligent young spiritual journalist would do, approaching each spiritual teacher or great yogi I met on my travels, and asking "What is karma?" and over the years try to sift through it all.

My conclusion, to date, is twofold: 1) The deeper principles of karma are so subtle and intricate that a lifetime of skillful inquiry and practice are necessary to begin to near a real understanding of it; 2) Viewing karma through the lens of deep psychology provides a means to approach the question of karma in a user-friendly and practical way.

Our personal psychology is how our karmic patterns show up in this lifetime. A general Buddhist or Hindu perspective on karma suggests that the individual soul moves through consciousness lifetime after lifetime, incarnating again and again in the school of life in order to complete various tasks and lessons, and to release contractions of consciousness.

The conditions and circumstances of each incarnation are based on forces far greater than most of us can conceive of. These forces determine the quality of consciousness we are given, the culture and families we are born into, the bodies we have and the significant experiences and relationships we encounter. "The accumulated imprints of past lives, rooted in afflictions, will be experienced in present and future lives," writes Patañjali in The Yoga Sūtras, the text that outlines contemporary Classical Yoga. If we want to unravel the karma we have accumulated in past lives, we need look no further than our present life circumstances.

Whatever we are experiencing in the present moment is both the fruition of our previous karma and the planting of seeds for future karma. The circumstances we encounter are our karma, are the expression of our consciousness, are the seeds of our future. We are in a great hologram of karma, and our lives reflect the intersection of our family or genealogical karma, the collective karma of our culture and, in many cases, a particular set of karmas that is expressed through the teachers and communities we encounter on the spiritual journey.

There are confrontational moments of bare honesty in life during which we perceive clearly that we are reaping the seeds we have sown at an earlier time, whether through accident, illness or misfortune. An illustration is the case of the father of a friend of mine who ran drugs for many years. When he tried to get out of the business, he was brutally tortured by a group of hit men who had come to his house looking for his hidden stash of cash. He could change his karma, but he could not evade having to experience the karmic seeds he had sown.

More commonly, many of us have found ourselves in a situation in which a seeming white lie, innocent exaggeration or an act of ignorance or indulgence comes back to haunt us. At other times, there is a nonlinear ripening of certain past karmas arising from a time or circumstance that is beyond our conscious capacity to perceive. To even consider that the psychological and practical circumstances we face are powerfully influenced by karmic forces requires a willingness to significantly broaden our viewpoint; it also offers the possibility of accepting a degree of self-responsibility that can be simultaneously daunting and liberating.

It is possible to trace our current psychological challenges not only to our parents but to our grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents and even earlier. We discover that so many of the deep challenges we face on many levels, and that sometimes feel so devastatingly personal -- not only emotional challenges but relational, physical and circumstantial ones -- are literally passed down through generation after generation and result from a degree of conditioning that is totally impersonal and unconscious.

We may be shocked to realize that the essence of many of the powerful experiences we have are influenced in an immediate way by our great-great-grandparents and even further back in history. These include depression, relationship patterns, illnesses, divorces and even the age at which we die, as well as many "choices" we experience ourselves making, such as how many children we have, having an abortion or who we choose to be in relationship with. Only now, they are being lived out in a different circumstance and moment of history. For many people, it is easier to understand and believe the reality of karma when perceived in this tangible and practical way than through the vague notion of a soul moving from lifetime to lifetime.

It is not easy to open ourselves to a wider perspective of reality in which challenging questions of justice, victimization and fairness are seen through such a wide lens. Yet, as with everything, even this perspective can be misused. Here is one example: A woman I know was kidnapped, badly raped and almost murdered. Her New Age boyfriend persuaded her to drop the charges, convincing her that she had attracted the situation to herself. Later, she suffered for this premature psychological "bypass" of the trauma she had endured. We cannot presume to understand the full complexity of karma, as it is vast and difficult for anyone to grasp.

The implications of this perspective are manifold: On the one hand, we are not at "fault" for many of the thoughts, feelings and challenging circumstances that arise in our lives; on the other hand, we are totally responsible to our lives in the present and for the implications of our actions. We release shame and self-blame, while strengthening our personal accountability and responsibility.

A number of therapies concern themselves with past-life traumas, and spiritual students are endlessly fascinated by who they might have been or what they might have done in their past lifetimes, but from a practical perspective we need look no further than our present circumstances in order to address our karma: It is all right in front of us. Whether we were a farmer in Mesopotamia, a slave trader in the American South or a bus driver in the 1940s is irrelevant for most of us. What is important is whether we are able to meet our present circumstance with a clear and discerning perspective and refrain from taking actions that further the endless repetition of unfavorable and limiting aspects of our karmic conditioning. From this perspective, psychology becomes a tool we can use to unlock, work with and evolve our karma.

Adapted and updated from "Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path" (Sounds True, 2010)