Monday, August 17, 2015

Karma vs Dharma: the Importance of being Self-honest

When a devotee or yogi makes a life decision, how can he know whether he is impelled by past karma (including desires, fears, biases and the like) or whether it is truly the right thing (dharma) to do?

This is a difficult question to answer, especially when in the grip of emotions that surround the impulse to make an important decision. After all, a positive outlook, faith in God, and, indeed, good karma, can make a spiritual silk purse from a "sow's ear." We can find the good in anything that we do. But by the same token, we can also self-justify about anything we do from a spiritual perspective! We might fall back upon Krishna's promise in the Bhagavad Gita, to the devotee, "I will make good your deficiencies and render permanent your gains," to bail us out!

Yes, true enough: we can learn from our mistakes. Yes, we can use up some of our good karma as a devotee, too! But is it dharma to make spiritual mistakes? No, of course not. It is karma--obviously.

On the subject of karma, there's really no such thing as good or bad karma: only what we make of it. "All conditions are neutral," Paramhansa Yogananda, would is only our response to outward conditions that determines whether we grow spiritually (and work out karma in the process) or not.

For all of these reasons, therefore, it can be difficult to know karma from dharma. This is not an excuse, however, to do whatever one likes and call it "spiritual growth" or "my path" (which, of course, it also is). Having lived most of my adult life in one or the other Ananda intentional communities, I have seen my share of creative spiritual justifications for all sorts of behaviors.

It would be better, then, to calmly admit that one's desires or fears are compelling one to act a certain way rather than to imagine there's some deeper spiritual inspiration behind it. Yes, we'll be able to salvage some wisdom and grace from just about anything, but let's call it what it is.

Krishna explains to Arjuna (in the Bhagavad Gita) that it is very difficult to know what is right (dharmic) action. As Swami Kriyananda put it when the subject of whether a person should take one job or another, "God doesn't really care what you do. It's not WHAT you do but HOW (with what attitude) you do it!"

But again: do you see how tricky that can be? All I am saying, here, is that it is wiser (and more honest), to be calm enough to distinguish desire (or fear or bias) from inspiration or guidance. If your sincere attempt to do so fails to clearly yield an answer, well, fine: do the best you can. But you will grow in discernment immensely if, over time, you bring to bear the laser lens of introspection and intuition upon your actions and motives.

The big decisions are the ones I'm thinking about but, in truth, a million small ones are just as worthy of our attention --- short of being overly scrupulous. Discovering your desires and ego motivated actions isn't the end of the world: these are, in fact, our starting point. There are even times when it's simply easier to indulge than to make a big deal about it. But at least you do so consciously and in that, alone, you will gain the calmness and clarity that self-acceptance bestows. Acceptance can also help stave off the temptation to indulge first and then afterwards to wallow in guilt, thus imagining that guilt substitutes for reform and thus perpetuating a bad habit! (Furthermore and as a potential alternative, there's no point pointing out that suppression "availeth nothing," to quote Krishna.)

When more important issues are at stake, this habit of introspection and self-honesty might well "save" your spiritual life from a karmic bomb from which even lifetimes could be sacrificed before you pick up again spiritually where you left off. Paramhansa Yogananda said of a disciple who left the ashram after yielding to temptation when only one more day of resistance would have brought success, "It will take lifetimes" before he returns to the path.

Leaving the spiritual path to follow the will 'o the wisp of desires masquerading as inspiration is a tragedy all too commonly encountered. Abandoning dharma in the name of a "higher" but desire-driven karma is a self-delusion too easily and all too frequently indulged.

If you err and later discover your error, then, that's the time for making a silk purse out of the sow's ear.

As a spiritual counselor to others, I am tempted to add the advice to seek counsel from someone you trust and feel has your highest, spiritual interests in mind. But in my training from Swami Kriyananda in regards to counseling others, I am cautious about going beyond what I sense a person is open to hearing. I'd rather have the person himself express insight into the right action because it comes from the person himself. I can then add my support.

But if I feel a person isn't yet self-aware or self-honest enough to see how his desires are influencing his decision (and even the questions he asks), I might say nothing at all. Or, I might only hint though this carries the obvious risk that the person might not get the point at all. So while counseling is of course a good thing, we can only "hear" what we are ready from within to recognize. There's no substitute, in other words, for introspection, self-awareness, and the habit of self-honesty.

The ounce of prevention, then, that I wish to share is the suggestion to develop the practice of introspection in minor matters in order that when the big ones come you will have the tools to distinguish dharma from karma!


Nayaswami Hriman