I wrote this article over a year ago but it took me ages to post it. I was planning to edit and shorten it
as I was concerned with its length. Finally after re-reading i decided to share it with you in its present form. You may notice that this article relates to the other two i posted last year. In case you struggle with some concepts presented here I advise you to reread my previous articles on the same topic. One more
chapter is ready but I will leave some time for you to catch up before posting it. Enjoy!
And finally I arrive to the discussion of karma. Concept of karma and samsara are very closely related and it is hard to mention one of them without touching the other. Karma seems to be a direct imprint of samsara into the person’s life. At the same time karma also represents cycle of cause and effect present in the world of samsara. The word karma is often translated as “action”. Whilst samsara relates to the world of social constructions karma seems to represent our position within that world. Religious systems of Buddhism and Hinduism often described that position in a literal way teaching us that karma is responsible for our current situation in life.
Buddhism and Hinduism connect the “wheel of karma” and cycle of rebirth as two aspects of the same process. The most popular understanding of karma is that it is some sort of “load” we are born with and we need to work with it through our life time. If we manage to sort it out and work through our karma we can eventually free from its influence and reach enlightenment. If we mess up we produce even more karma. The reason why we should try to free from karma is because it keeps us trapped inside the samsara often described as “the world of suffering”. Samsara is usually understood as our earthy physical world. As we all now suffering in the physical world is unavoidable but it is not the only thing we experience in here. World of samsara can deliver lots of pleasure as well, only thing is that none of it is long lasting and it will eventually end. This unavoidable end- death of things is what creates pain of samsara. Just like samsara is not only built of suffering karma is not only built of the bad stuff even though it is often described in in terms of difficulties we face through our life time.
Obviously Buddhist “wheel of karma” is based on belief in reincarnation and karma is believed to be moved from one life onto the next life. If you produced good karma during your previous lifetime, your current incarnation will guarantee you a happier rebirth. Similar interpretation exists in Hinduism and it was a basis for acceptance of social inequalities. I don’t want to discuss the concept of reincarnation here mostly because I’m interested in what the concept of karma can offer for us for ONE lifetime.
Just like samsara is not only built of suffering karma is not only built of the bad stuff even though it is often described in in terms of difficulties we face through our life time. Common way of understanding karma in western culture is based in Christian morality and its punishment for sins. I heard people say things like “don’t do that or karma will get you”. It’s as though the universe was watching them and sending certain happenings down their way as a punishment. I don’t believe that this type of reasoning has anything to do with actual meaning of karma. As I have explained before when looking deeper into the concepts of Maya and Samsara it becomes apparent that they refer to the qualities of human mind more than they refer to the outside environment. In a similar way karma is not concerned with any outside forces that rule our lives but rather with the direct impact of human mind on its surrounding reality. It is true that the outside circumstances have an impact on our lives but they do not determine our actions (remember that karma=action). What determines our actions is a combination of our reaction and interpretations of these circumstances. These are based on our beliefs about the world and our place in it. This is where I noticed correlation between concept of karma and R. A. Wilson’s concept of Reality Tunnels.
Buddhists believe that only by constant repetition of the same mistakes and suffering carried with them human will start making conscious effort to free themselves from the wheel of karma. As bleak as it mind sound this is unlikely to happen to someone who is totally happy with their life. How would you ever suppose to learn anything if you always did things you like doing with people you approve and only in places of your choice? Happy life may easily trap you in your “comfort zone”. When once trapped in there you will not want to risk pain of venturing outside unless something forces you to do so.
Karma seen as Reality Tunnels
In Buddhism suffering seems to be unavoidable. However when looking deeper and especially comparing these teaching with other mystical philosophies it becomes apparent that Maya and Samsara refer to the qualities of human mind more than they refer to the outside environment. It is true that the outside circumstances have an impact on our lives but they do not determine our actions. What determines our action is a combination of our reaction and interpretations of these circumstances. These are based on our beliefs about the world and our place in it. In fact it is our beliefs, not the outside circumstances that severely limit our capability to achieve happiness. As long as we passively wait for what the life brings us and we don’t make effort to move forward we will feel that our live is empty and meaningless. Only thing that makes a real difference to our perceived quality of life is our reaction to the unpredictable or undesired events. Two people faced by the same tragedy may react totally differently- one person might quickly move on with their life, the other person may end up stuck for years constantly crying about the tragedy that happened to them years ago. Our attitude towards life and its twists is the only thing in the world we can truly change, our minds is the only thing we can really control. I believe that achievement of the control over our minds is what breaking from “wheel of karma” really means. As someone said somewhere “life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, life is about learning how to dance in the rain”.
I guess most of you are familiar with the term “reality tunnel” but just to remind the main concepts- recent scientific research on the functioning of the human brain indicates that because we are unable to consciously process all the information received from the outside world we only accept the bits that match our previous experiences and relate to our preexisting expectations of reality. Whenever we receive information about something new that we’ve never seen before our brain immediately interprets the received stimulus in relation to its preexisting classification system- our belief system. Everything that denies our belief system gets filtered out of our conscious memory. For example If one believes that the world is a horrible cruel place their mind will be constantly filled with suspicion and bitterness towards other people. Even if they experience act of kindness from somebody they will be highly suspicious of it and will search for some hidden agenda behind other people’s kindness. On the contrary if one believes that the world is a wonderful friendly place they will interpret other people’s behaviours as positive. Even when faced by nasty behaviour they will likely assume that the other person didn’t really mean any harm. This interrelation of experience and its interpretation creates what Wilson called a “reality tunnel”. I like imagining reality tunnel as some sort of a lens that our brain looks through when watching the world. This lens absorbs only chunks of surrounding reality what means that it will never allow us to see the full spectrum of the surrounding events. Wilson developed this point even further saying that since everyone of us is a unique individual every reality tunnel is different. Since our reality tunnel creates our perception of reality it means that every one of us lives in a slightly different reality and none of them matches so called “objective reality”.
Everyone has their own reality tunnel and each of them in its own way is a prison. Since we are only able to see a fraction of reality, certain things will always remain inaccessible and invisible to us. In consequence we are guaranteed overlook many possibilities that we simply fail to recognise. We will never be able to form perfectly harmonious relationships with other people and the world around us since differences in our belief systems lead to conflicts. If lucky we may feel perfectly happy with our vision of reality but most of us go through lots of unnecessary suffering and difficulties that could be easily avoided if we could adjust our reality tunnel to fit the surrounding environment. This is where reality tunnel resembles concept of karma. Reality tunnel creates the world of samsara, world full of conflicts and suffering.
Our perception is severely limited by our capacity to learn and take on new information. To understand just how limiting a reality tunnel is you will need to understand to what extent your mind rejects everything that denies its vision of reality. As a principle in our everyday life we are looking for confirmation and appreciation of our views. We happily associate with people who share our beliefs and we avoid those who don’t. Simple denial of what doesn’t fit in with our vision is the easiest way. For example when reading an article written by your favourite author you will automatically pick up and memorise bits of information you agree with and dismiss those you disagree with or can not understand. Later when telling your friends about what your read you will repeat only the bits you managed to memorise. It is possible that author’s message was different to your interpretation but you might never bother to verify it unless someone else confronts you about it or if you hear someone quoting bits you never even noticed there. If taking part in a discussion we are more likely to support people we agree with even if their argument doesn’t hold. We can literally spend years expanding on the knowledge of what we already know. This will obviously make us experts in a given domain but it doesn’t bring us much closer to enlightenment. This is because enlightenment comes from expansion of our realty tunnel, not from expansion of our knowledge.
In most cases only way to break out of our reality tunnel is by experiencing something that literally shakes up our belief system and forces us to change it. Even then it may not happen automatically and after an initial “shake up” we usually end up in a state of crisis. Every crisis can be seen as a transition state during which time we try to restore our damaged vision of the world order and forget about the very thing that caused the “damage”.(Note that the world “damage”doesn’t need to be taken literally). Depending on how strong the “damage” was we either come back to our old reality tunnel with a bit of a “scar” on its “walls” or if the “damage” was profound we will be forced to accept a new version of reality. Complete change of reality tunnel might not be possible, I certainly never came across any writings suggesting otherwise. However the more variety we experience in life the more chance we have to expand our reality tunnel.
To understand just how difficult it is to change a reality tunnel one needs to understand that is it not our conscious opinions and thought we need to work with. In every single moment of our lives our subconscious filters out most information we receive from the outside and only tiny fraction of it makes its way to our conscious memory. Because of that we may spend most our lives without ever questioning what we see. Even though each reality tunnel is different (we are all unique individuals) they overlap with each other just as our lives mix with other people’s lives.. Depending on how much variety you experience in your early years your reality tunnel will be more or less open to other possible explanations of reality. I guess modern psychology teaches lots about it. The older you get the more difficult it is to change your reality tunnel and you might need an extremely strong stimulus in order to do it.
And this is where concept of reality tunnel resembles significantly concept of “wheel of karma”. According to reality tunnel theory our beliefs about the world are rooted in our experiences of the world and environment we live in. On the other hand when interpreting our experiences we refer to our preexisting belief system. It really is a vicious circle and in many ways it could be metaphorically explained as a “wheel of karma”. As long as we repeat our old patterns we don’t learn anything new about the world, therefore we will constantly move in circles; just like metaphorical circle of reincarnation. Even though each circle differs a bit from the previous one overall they represent the same pattern. However each time we avoid repetition we allow our reality tunnel to expand and we discover more possible versions of reality. Ideally we finally reach enlightenment and realise that there is no such thing as one fixed reality and with that we realise our endless possibilities. Until that point we are practically trapped in the “wheel of karma”.
Even though constant expansion of our consciousness brings clear benefits most people are totally unwilling to change they way they think or feel about the world. We convince ourselves that it’s our circumstances, not ourselves that need to change. Buddhists believe that only by constant repetition of the same mistakes and suffering carried with them human will start making a conscious effort to free themselves from the wheel of karma .Only when you’re dissatisfied with your life at some point you will finally ask yourself a question- “is there anything I could do differently?” Or “how do I always end up in a similar situation?” This is a starting point for a real change. But even then we are likely to search for solutions around us rather than inside us. Sometimes change of environment may prove very inspiring and it can somewhat force the change of attitude upon us. If that happens we experience feeling of “awakening”- it seems to us that we suddenly discovered some “occult”- hidden part of reality. This is a direct experience of expansion in our reality tunnel. However sometimes even after moving to another place or changing our friends circle we somehow end up attracting people and places that resemble what we have just abandoned. Many people experience something similar with personal relationships -you have a new date and after couple of months you realise that they resemble your ex.
How does it happen? The answer is quite simple- we feel attracted to what we feel familiar with. The more variety you experience the wider you range of “familiar things“ will become. This is where concept of karma strikes really hard- the less flexible your mind is the more limited your possibilities for change are. Most people feel scared of things that seem unknown/strange and they avoid them at all costs. If they move to the new town they’ll be subconsciously looking for people who resemble they’re old friends. If they meet a new date they’ll be attracted to someone who resembles their ex. You might not be consciously aware of this process, you might feel fed up with your old friends and partners. It’s just that your subconscious will filter out everything that is different to what you already know. To accept a new possibility equals admitting that what we might have been wrong about something. Most people don’t like that. So if you’re one of those rare people who likes “strangeness” and mystery you should consider yourself lucky- by definition your reality tunnel will make the world more interesting for you. If you grew up in a small tight environment surrounded by people who shared your live views you may spend all your life barely learning anything new. This is why I believe we shouldn’t resent closed minded people. Even though they can make our lives really difficult at times, they are already “punished” for who they are. The world of endless possibilities is inaccessible to them. All they will ever see is a tiny chunk of reality they believe to be the whole world.
Buddhist believe that we may need many incarnations before we experience enough different visions of reality to finally realise how much correlation there is between our mind state and the outside world. Their final wisdom is that the world is a constant movement and therefore our mind should also be constantly in movement. Theoretically if we achieved this mind set we could change into something different every second of our live. More positive thinking mystics believe that we will all achieve that state at some point after many incarnations. Others believe that only small fraction of human kind will ever get there. Since I am only dealing with karma of one lifetime here I predict that only tiny percent of us will achieve that state. One life time is simply not long enough to allow such a vast evolution of mind. We might be able to speed up this process if we consciously dedicate our lives to the expansion of our reality tunnels. Some mystics, magicians, artists and scientists are in this group. If you feel like one of them/us- nice to meet you. We are probably less than 1% of the whole population!