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Karma in tradition and modernity

{written by : Ian Heath}

Article word count : 2434 -- Article Id : 1303
Article active date : 2008-12-20 -- Article views : 8291

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Traditional moral teachings represent karma as being linear. Because the great ascetic teachers such as Buddha and Jesus were in the world but not of the world ...

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Under-valuing Social Needs

Traditional moral teachings represent karma as being linear. Because the great ascetic teachers such as Buddha and Jesus were in the world but not of the world (that is, in society but not of society) they had no understanding of dialectical karma. The concept of dialectics did not then exist, and so all interpretations of justice had to be constructed within the confines of moral karma.

In my view, there are two forms of karma, which I call moral (or linear) karma, and dialectical (or psychological ) karma. I define the two forms, as outlined in the previous article Dialectics and Karma.
a). Linear causality means that there is continuity between the cause and the effect. One cause can only produce one kind of effect. This form of causality emphasises moral effects, so I also call it ‘moral causality ’.

b). A dialectical causal pattern is different, since the thesis is opposite in kind (or nature) to the antithesis. Hence dialectical causality produces two kinds of effect. For example, an insight into a psychological problem causes the abreaction of guilt. [¹]. In the sequence of the abreaction, the catharsis and the resentment that follows it are opposite kinds of effects. Because this form of causality emphasises psychological effects, so I also call it ‘psychological causality ’.

I use the term ‘dialectics’ in the Hegelian sense. It represents a movement of thought through three stages. First there is the opening idea, the thesis ; then thought switches to the opposite conception, the antithesis. Finally both stages are blended together in the third stage, the synthesis. In moral ideas, if the thesis is a concept of goodness then the antithesis is a concept of badness. If the thesis represents some badness, the antithesis is that of some goodness. The synthesis is the resolution of the conflict.

The early teachers knew that spiritual training produces big mood swings (because they knew that any good belief is associated with its opposite belief), but the reason for this state of affairs was not known.

The teachers did not see that linear karma was inadequate to social needs, though it was sufficient for the needs of the individual meditator or mystic in their solitude.

The ascetic tradition made linear karma primary, and developed ideas of good and evil from it. Here the nature of the effect determines whether the cause is good or bad ; if I do an act which leads me to experience unhappiness, then that act must be bad. This way of thinking produces a moral attitude. Hence good and evil arise from a psychic understanding of what happens to a person. Goodness becomes translated into the emphasis on positive thinking, the assumption being that good states of mind produce a good life. This outlook is suitable for a low-stress society, a society where social change is slow.

However, when social upheaval is the norm, a higher understanding is required. What the ascetic teachers never realised is that within the realm of dialectical karma the priorities are reversed.

In this realm, concepts of good and evil determine karma.

The nature of the cause determines whether the effects are good or bad. By labelling the cause good or bad I set the scene for future abreaction. By labelling the cause good or bad I produce dialectical karma. This way of thinking requires a psychological attitude. This is a reversal of values, and fits in with the way that the subconscious mind usually has the reverse values of the conscious mind, as demonstrated during catharsis.

A low-stress society can be a moral one. But a high-stress society has to be a psychological one if it is to function harmoniously.

Will and Emotion

The difference between the two forms of causality reflect the difference between will (or will power) and emotion. Linear karma functions at the moral level and primarily affects the will and conscious beliefs – it is the significant form of karma for the meditator in his solitude. Whereas dialectical karma functions at the psychological level and primarily affects the emotions and subconscious beliefs – it is the dominant form of karma within a social setting. The solitary meditator can function on will, but the ordinary person requires the social expression of emotion.

I illustrate the difference between the two attitudes.

Suppose that a mother brings up a child in a strictly moral fashion. Being moralistic she cannot freely give affection to the child (she prefers to function on will rather than on emotion). She rationalises this lack as being helpful for the child to acquire his own sense of independence. Since she does not tie the child to her in an emotional way so he usually develops strong will power in order to hide his emotional emptiness. The effect is good, since the child develops his will power ; therefore the cause must be good as well. This is the moral mentality.

However, if the child chooses not to absorb the mother’s moralistic framework, another reaction can happen. Now he centres on the lack of emotional closeness to the mother. The development of will power is no substitute for emotional harmony. So once the child becomes an adult he seeks for ways of experiencing emotional fulfilment rather than for ways of expressing his will power. He now blames the mother’s frigidity for his own frigidity. He labels the cause as being bad, so the effect is also bad. This is the psychological mentality.

Karma in Operation

Linear karma is quite simple : like attracts like. A good cause produces a good effect ; a bad cause produces a bad effect. It is assumed that what happens to a person – physically, materially, psychologically – is a result of what he does. For example, if a person consistently thinks harmful thoughts then he is likely to develop harmful effects in his body (psycho-somatic illness). So the concept of linear karma generates morality.

Dialectical karma is far more complicated. A dialectical cause gives rise to two kinds of effects, a thesis and an antithesis, which then have to be synthesised. In other words, a dialectical cause produces two effects, one being good and the other being bad. Therefore a good cause gives rise to both a good effect and a bad one. A bad cause gives rise to both a bad effect and a good one. The effect that is the antithesis is not always noticed since it begins at the subconscious level of mind.

For example, consider a person alone.

Suppose that the person concentrates on a good maxim (as a means of guiding his behaviour). This will produce a good effect at the conscious level of his mind and a bad effect at the subconscious level. Now if another person concentrates on a bad thought, this will give rise to a bad effect at the conscious level and a good effect at the subconscious level.

This concept of karma explains what Freud termed the ‘counter-will ’. It means that any strong desire affects both the person’s identities (that is, the person"s sense of having a social identity as well as an identity based on his individuality). If the good maxim is a social one then the good effect arises from the social identity, and the bad one from the individual identity. Here the individual identity attempts to repudiate the influence of the social identity. If the good maxim is centred on one’s self then the good effect arises from the individual identity and the bad one from the social identity. Now the social identity is attempting to negate the influence of the individual identity. The counter-will arises from whichever identity is currently subconscious, and its effects are often antithetical thoughts.

These ideas explain why, when I used to settle myself ready for meditation I sometimes perversely called up unpleasant thoughts (from my social identity) so as to make meditation difficult (for my individual identity).

A deduction from these ideas is that, whilst living an Earth life, no person can be completely good or completely bad.

For another example, consider the social effects of what a person does. Good actions will produce both good and bad social effects. Similarly for bad actions. The person who tries to do good will sooner or later find himself subject to ridicule as people belittle his intentions, and the person who performs bad actions will find admirers.

Consider the effects of watching violence (real or play-acting) on television. My conscious mind will reject the violence, but my subconscious mind accepts it. This is the reason why regular viewing of television violence (including news broadcasts which feature violence) increases the person’s degree of internal violence, or conditions him to accept violence as an unavoidable part of social life.

Consider the over-exposure of sexual themes in society. If we consciously like it, the subconscious mind will reject it. The conflict may lead to sexual interests in forbidden delights, such as pornography. Whereas, if we consciously dislike it, the subconscious mind will like it. Hence destructive forms of sex such as sado-masochism may become the norm for us.

What these examples attempt to illustrate is that the subconscious mind usually has the reverse values of the conscious mind. This is why psychological karma is different from moral karma.

Corruption of Religions

Abreaction centres on concepts of good and evil. So does morality. Therefore the real effects of a social morality are usually dialectical and not linear. Social conditioning is derived from a social morality, and mixes up good and evil. When a person acts from that conditioning or from any social morality he experiences both good and bad effects, no matter what he does.

Morality not only produces good consequences, but it always generates bad consequences too. The bad parts of the historical record of the Christian Church are not simply a blemish on a fine teaching, but an inevitable outcome of a doctrine that does not understand the relationship of good to evil.

A more accurate perception is that when a social morality is kept low-key, such as Confucianism, the bad effects are not visible. But when a church adopts a crusading role then the internal antagonisms become highlighted. This is why, when a church is given political power, then that church will become corrupted by the use of that power during times of high stress or rapid social change.

For example : even during the Dark Ages, when there were times of low social stress, the Catholic Church was still maintained in a state of high stress ; this was because of the conflict between popes and kings over which of them were more divine, which of them had more ultimate power. Hence the process of corruption in the Catholic Church hardly ever ceased.

The irony of religion in times of comparatively high-stress is that traditional churches will almost always fail, but such times are ideal for the creation of new sects and churches. The new religious forms that thrive will automatically have different values from the old ones.

Personal Evolution

The effects of karma on society depend on the state of that society, whether it is fairly quiet or whether it is changing. The state of society determines which component of karma is more powerful in its functioning. In times of social stasis the dialectical functioning of karma is not usually evident – the bad effects of doing good are not seen since the subconscious mind is not under great stress. Whence the concept of linear karma dominates the foreground of ethics.

However, in times of social upheaval and rapid social change the dialectical nature of karma comes into the ascendant as the subconscious mind exerts powerful control over weak parts of the personality. In this situation, linear karma has little effect since rules are being questioned, and even repudiated.

In practical terms, in an era of social stasis, personal evolution occurs through the development of individual identity, using the concept of linear karma. But times of social upheaval usually prevent this : the problems of the individual in society are too great, so that only social identity can be developed. Whence the need for a social morality.

However, the advances in psychology over the past hundred years or more means that a different strategy can be adopted. Instead of concentrating only on morality with all its limitations the seeker can develop faster by centring himself on psychology – this is the only way to master social abreaction, which is a psychological process. By going beyond morality, by going beyond good and evil, the person goes beyond dialectical karma.

When a seeker is constrained to live and work within society, and solitude is not possible, he has to learn to handle desire wisely. Desires are dialectical. Hence the seeker has to experience both sides of all his desires, both the good and the bad in them.

Life does not get better automatically the more moral that one becomes, that is, each succeeding incarnation on Earth is not always better than the preceding ones. However, life does get harder the more moral one becomes, as the bad effects of one’s good actions get more difficult to handle.

The path of morality can produce a monist evolution, that is, the person focuses his life on just one goal, one reality, and sees his life as a steady progression towards it. Whereas psychological development requires an oscillation between binary (or complementary) states of mind, since psychological development is dialectical. A modern person needs more than one goal – ideally, one goal should be attainable by his individual identity, and the other goal by his social identity.

When a person oscillates between binary goals, personal evolution can be moderately fast. When this is not the case, where some form of monism is predominant, evolution is very slow.

Some examples of slow, monist evolution :

In a society where all aspects of life (cultural, political, spiritual) are subsumed within a monolithic religious world view. The confusion here is that religion is taken to mean the same thing as spirituality ; whereas, any religion is actually an ideology and therefore limited in its understanding of reality.

The same criticism applies to a monolithic economic reality, such as free-market liberalism. Change is not identical to evolution ; a monist economic reality can produce fast change but only slow evolution.
Finally, and in fact first of all, the traditional Eastern practice of meditation and contemplation performed in solitude is a monolithic psychic world view, and is just as slow as other monist forms.

The new Age of Aquarius will be the age of psychology,
and therefore
personal evolution is changing into higher gear.

Author Bio :
Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath, owner of a map of psychological spirituality suitable for modern times.

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