Cultivating 20/20 clarity

One of the hardest themes to write to in my forthcoming book was that of ‘karma’. Thankfully, I have a trustworthy mirror providing feedback on my first draft – my meditation mentor Crystal with whom I have worked with for nearly 10 years now. Over that time, Crystal and I have cultivated a relationship described as ‘spiritual friendship’; one in which we have developed a much appreciated and heart-felt intimacy. I don’t think many people know me like Crystal does, and over those 10 years she has played a big part in the explorations to know myself; and, in keeping with my post theme this week, to come to know my karmic patterning.

On reading my book draft, Crystal offered some ideas, a couple of which I have already shared with you: how might the book function as spiritual friend, and how a description of how my life of practice manifests now could bring the book to completion. A third suggestion came on her reading my ideas on the law of karma and the presentation of some client case material; to flesh out as to why it is therapeutically relevant. And so here I am this morning giving this some thought…

***Disclaimer*** I cannot possibly convey the law of karma in one, Friday morning blog post; nor would I want to spend weeks trying to cover it: there are people far better equipped to do so! If you are interested, I recommend Traleg Kyabgon’s text.

I explain in my book that karma is one of the most known of the Buddhist teachings yet also the most misunderstood and misused. It is not “what comes around goes around”, and more accurately points to actions as having both causes and results. As explained by Reggie Ray:

“The karma of result addresses the age-old question of why our life is this way and not some other; it shows us that every aspect of our lives is the result of actions we have performed in the past.”

“The karma of causes addresses the question of how – or even whether – we influence the future. It says that every action we perform in the present is going to produce results of some kind further down the road. Our minds and the actions that proceed from them are that powerful.”

Maybe as you read these descriptions you can see how one aspect of karma cannot be changed – the result is what it is. We can know how this karma is playing out in our present day life but we cannot go back and alter that. However, knowing and recognising our contribution to past events CAN be fed into the life we are living now, giving us an opportunity to INPUT into the karma of causes. A metaphor I use in the book: karma is not a rear-view mirror, but a forward facing telescope.

The application of karma to the therapeutic work 

The Buddhist view of the human condition is probably a good place to start. Rather than the Freudian view of drives and instincts running the show; or even the Humanistic view that we all have the potential for wholeness; the Buddhist view speaks to the essential wholeness that is already present. Sometimes this wholeness is called Buddhanature, basic goodness or brilliant sanity. We are born with this fundamental wholeness, and yet faced with the givens of life* and our response to them, this essence is obscured. The law of karma highlights how our response to stress determines our suffering not only in that moment, but also in the the future. 

The patterns (which were first responses that protected survival) become rigid. Western psychology has parallel ideas: temporary states can become traits if behaviour is repeated; and in Gestalt terminology, what was once a “creative adjustment” to a situation becomes a “fixed gestalt” and determines our personality. The wider angle lens that karma offers is the view that the pattern is not who we are, it is not intrinsic. Our inherent brilliance is simply obscured by layers of protective patterns and habits. Furthermore, understood correctly, karma is not inherently “wrong”; in fact it is pretty neutral. The law of karma is, like other natural laws (e.g. gravity, evolution) describes how our world responds to our actions without an opinion, without subjectivity. You could say the mirror of karma is a trustworthy one, reflecting a shadow that needs integrating. The Vajrayana Buddhist view would even go as far as to say that the apparent confusion of our patterns and habits are in fact THE gateway to waking up – a bit like how the peacock gains its beautiful feathers by eating poisonous leaves.

Traditional Western models of therapy bring understanding and insight as to our patterns, and how they came to be. I argue in my book that a Buddhism-informed psychotherapy is a powerful model of therapy because of the compassion integral to its practice. Seeing that we developed certain patterning (karma of results) for a reason, and honouring that as the wisdom inherent as our essence. We could see the karma of causes like repetition-compulsion; but rather than trying to get rid of the pattern, releasing its wisdom is key. What is that wisdom? Wisdom is not the same as knowledge – understanding alone is not enough. Wisdom is experiential.

So much of our karma is outside of our awareness and held in the body. During our early years, we didn’t have the capacity or resources to process moments of unbearable and overwhelming experience. If there wasn’t sufficient relational support, emotion responses got stored in our bodies and nervous systems – held ‘safely’ until we are able to mobilise them again and digest. No wonder we find unintegrated material resurfacing years later, especially within the field of close, personal relationships. This is the root of the repetition-compulsion: this includes re-enacting the original wounding event and finding oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This is the wisdom aspect: the attempt to draw the shadow material to the surface for air.

Healing requires that we go into the yet to be processed bodily held emotion. Childhood experiences, including trauma or undigested overwhelm are held in the bodily tissues. When an event in the present re-plays this overwhelm, whilst feeling very real it is actually an echo of the past. I shared last week how I am seeing the Buddhist description of the three kayas permeating through life and experience; and I also see how the three kayas inform our therapeutic work concerning karma and how it is stored in our body-mind for years as 3 levels of narrative: 

  1. the verbal narrative of the wound, including all activity of mind such as thoughts, beliefs (dharmakaya)
  2. the somatic echo or bodily experience of the wounding event (nirmanakaya)
  3. the communication of subtle energy in the neuroceptive layer (processing of the environment and relay of information between the body and the mind). 

The ‘self’ of the therapist offers an empathic and compassionate holding where the replay of narrative (mind) and arousal (somatic) can be explored; the ‘other’ of the client attaches onto the safe neural network (neuroceptive) and once dis-integrated states become integrated: mind and body re-synchronised.

Meditation is another way that mind and body can be synchronised: this is a very basic function accomplished through mindfulness of the breath. Meditation is also a way to experience the “impulse” of the habitual response without actually following it through. Traditional Buddhist texts describe how the binding posture of meditation allows karmic impulses to come into awareness (intention and volition) without committing the action that sows new seeds. That is the theory at least; and in my experience the relational vehicle of therapy can enhance the holding of direct experience and arising impulse.

The story of Jake, a 32 year old man experiencing disillusion in his relationships, might help us unpack these ideas. Jake could be described as someone with relational paranoia. A deep fear of abandonment would leave Jake constantly worried as to how those close to him perceived him. Any gap in communication – unreturned phone calls or messages – would leave him in a spin. Jake complained of being highly activated “nearly all the time”, in the gap before a friend replied. Through our discussions, Jake and I explored the familial story and roots of this abandonment fear: the karma of results. We then lit his curiosity: how was he perpetuating this karmic tendency for seeming abandonment: the karma of causes. Jake came to see how his ‘checking’ behaviour was actually sowing the seeds of the very results he feared – like a self-fulfilling prophecy, his “need to know” out of the fear of “being ghosted” got the certain return of rejection. Jake and I tried a few experiments in our work together. As he brought a relationship he was worried about to mind, I guided him to feel into the separation anxiety; to feel the impulse (for example, reaching out to his phone), and to learn how to bear the affect of “not knowing”. Original experiences are overwhelming often because they happen alone. My presence helped Jake gain confidence he could bear the aloneness. From here, I helped Jake try out new patterns including how he could self-soothe in contrast to reaching out for someone else to soothe is hot nervous system. This is the forward scope of karma, and how we can influence the karma of causes.

We can’t change our karma of results; but we can come to view it as our greatest teacher – the patterns, whilst ‘confused’ also reveal our wisdom (co-emergence); in Jake’s case, his propensity to check was a gateway to revealing his capacity for interdependence rather than dependence. This is coming to know our karma as a powerful container, as a path. 

I’ll add this – I believe this is where the Enneagram delivers: a comprehensive system that maps our confusion, or the 9 ways in which we disconnect from our true essence and how we get fixated (the inadequate strategies and behaviour) in an attempt to correct our course. 

Deeply knowing the confused pattern, recognising it as it is playing out, and compassion for its appearance is the key to our liberation.

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*Buddhist texts explain what we cannot avoid as human beings: birth, ageing, sickness and death. The existential literature adds freedom, isolation and meaninglessness.

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