(Note: This is an attempt to pair the concept of karma with a purely scientific worldview. Many topics here – like the definition of biological essentialism – are difficult to pin down. I have done my best to explore the nuance in these broad ideas, but they are, well, broad.)
In the Western world, few things are as cherished as our animal instincts. Food, shelter, pleasure, sex, kin and procreation; these animal pursuits are often thought of as the goal of our lives, the ultimate objects for which we toil, earn and strive for.
However, such a materialistic outlook often turns out to be profoundly unsatisfying. We run from one instinct, one pleasure, to the next, expecting a transcendental taste of life’s bounty (this is what we mean when we say that a certain dish is ’to die for,’ for example). Invariably, though, we are unable to find lasting, permanent satisfaction in anything, ending up proverbially fat and sunburned.
How can we escape this loop? What can we do differently?
I believe that we can find an excellent answer in that most ancient of concepts, karma. However, in order to bring karma into the 21st century, we need to understand it from a scientific perspective. Before exploring what we can do differently, though, we must understand how we got here.
More than Molecules
Underlying much of modern-day discourse about man’s nature and purpose is an unquestioned biological essentialism, an understanding of the human condition as simply a byproduct of a series of evolutionary mechanisms. This belief system, which emerged the second half of the 20th century and is often associated with Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, concludes that everything we think, feel, do, and want is simply a product of our genetic, Darwinian journey from amoeba to ape.
Such an approach is intuitive when it comes to behaviors like eating and sex, but biological essentialism views all behaviors as having a purely evolutionary and material cause. Altruism, for example, is conceived of as merely a mechanism for replicating genes that are similar to our own, or an ‘honest signal’ to prospective mates that we have enough resources to provide for any offspring.
It is important to understand that this form of biological/material essentialism is not a hard, scientific fact. It is, like every other interpretation of that most mysterious phenomenon, the human experience, a belief system, replete with unprovable statements like ‘everything that exists is simply a product of the material world.’ While such a statement possesses a certain logic insofar as it grows out of – but is not proved by! – concrete scientific findings, it is not ultimately provable or disprovable via conventional analysis. For example, this view dismisses the possibility that consciousness is a key component of existence as we define it.
In fact, it can be readily argued that biological essentialism, as a belief system, trends towards a fundamentally limited understanding of the human experience. The argument goes something like this: because there’s nothing greater out there than the impulses hardcoded in our DNA, we should just enjoy those impulses as much as we can, and (if we decide to have them) leave something behind for our kids. This school of thought, when followed on a societal level, promotes a lifestyle and practice that encourage the fulfillment of our most stimulating biological desires above other aspects of life.
This worldview, while pleasurable in a material sense, leaves little room for art or wonder, to say nothing of the inner journey that is at the heart of every mystical tradition on the planet. As Donald Symons puts it, “the anthropomorphism of genes…obscures the deepest mystery in the life sciences: the origin and nature of mind.”
On a much more immediate level, though, it’s a boring way to go through life.
How is it boring? Take the example of our sense of sight: our eyes are these amazing organs that are constantly processing an uncountable number of minute sensations in every given moment. When we still our minds and look without focusing or discriminating, we are capable of non-conceptually seeing ten thousand things at once, experiencing a marvelous display of light and movement in every moment we live.
However, chasing after whatever instinctive desire currently possesses our mind, our field of focus narrows, and we only perceive one or two things at once, like the cake we are eating or the painting on the wall. Transcendental wonder – the one thing that truly separates man from other animals – is traded for our next dopamine hit.
Don’t Blame the Genes
Why has modern Western society embraced a worldview, an ideology, that is clearly limiting in terms of an individual’s cognitive and experiential potential? More importantly, how can we understand our biological hardwiring in more liberating terms?
We cannot blame our evolutionary, genetic tendencies for this, per se. Many, many civilizations, both past and present, do not think of man’s animal proclivities in terms of impossible-to-overcome tendencies, or as the highest aim in life. A priest in medieval England, for example, would have considered such tendencies as part of the innate sinfulness of man, and may have dedicated his life to transcending them in the pursuit of God. While such a worldview can seem overly pessimistic in today’s society, it certainly demonstrates that we don’t have to think of our instinctive programming solely through the lens of scientific analysis.
To no small extent, it is actually science’s specific inability to offer an actionable path to cognitive growth and the eradication of our unhappiness that lies at the heart of our obsession with our baser impulses. We have split the atom and glimpsed the edge of the universe, but all the studies and scientists on the planet have yet to deliver a comprehensive account of how to just be happy all the time. In many ways, science has become too widespread and ill-defined to be a truly prescriptive force in our individual lives, leaving the organization of our worldview and wants to the capitalist. This has caused some serious problems, to put it mildly.
Karma for Scientists
Where to turn to, then, if not the scientists or the marketers? How do we come to a more productive understanding of our biological heritage, without rejecting the undeniable scientific findings (like DNA) that have revolutionized every aspect of our understanding?
On the face of it, turning to religious or spiritual sources – like the aforementioned English priest – seems doomed to failure, as science offers a much more verifiable and detailed explanation for our biological heritage than the ancient texts. There can be little doubt that our tendency to reproduce, for example, came from the primordial soup of early Earth, and not from the Garden of Eden.
On top of this, the two belief systems have been at war ever since the first distinction between theology and science was drawn. A careful examination of the conflict between science and religion reveals three primary dynamics:
- Religion denying science. This is typically willfully ignorant.
- Science denying religion. This is frequently correct, typically condescending, and occasionally every bit as ignorant as the reverse.
- Religion co-opting science. This is almost always inaccurate, and has led science and rationality to view any mention of the mystical path as a load of horseshit, even if it scientifically gives you superpowers.
What is missing here? Science co-opting religion. While there are a few promising examples, this hasn’t happened on a large scale for several reasons, chief among them science’s blanket dismissal of anything not peer reviewed, as well as the tendency of modern-day scientists to view themselves as not responsible for questions of morality. However, a religious understanding of scientific concepts has much to offer humanity; it acknowledges the astounding amount we’ve learned about the universe via the scientific method, while offering a path in life that goes beyond transitory material satisfaction and towards a deeper form of happiness.
It is in this framework that we come to the Vedic concept of karma.
Karma, in popular parlance, is a frequently misunderstood concept. Westerners often think of it as a kind of ‘cosmic justice,’ speaking of ‘good karma,’ and ‘bad karma.’ This is often paired with the concept of reincarnation, with the assumption being that ‘good karma’ will lead to a rebirth as, say, a prince, while people with ‘bad karma’ come back as cockroaches. While this is not technically wrong, it is fundamentally misleading and obscures the beauty of the concept of karma.
So, what is karma? Karma (at least to Hindus and Buddhists) can best be thought of as a version of the law of cause and effect that only applies to conscious actions. These actions are intentional, in that the actor is consciously looking to do something. If we act with a certain intention in mind (to help another person, for example), we create a cause that will eventually, through some mechanism or another, lead to a given effect (in this case, it may be someone helping us). This process has nothing to do with ‘good,’ or ‘bad’ – it is to be considered a natural law like any other.
What does this have to offer science? First, let us dig a little deeper into a few additional dynamics of karma:
- Karma is not an external agent; because it requires intentional consciousness, all karmic causes and effect are intrinsic to the conscious being creating the karma. Karma is not done to us; we create and are subject to our own karma. In the words of Jung, ‘when an inner situation is not made conscious, it manifests as fate.’
- In Buddhism, karma is caused by the Three Poisons, which are Ignorance, Anger, and Desire. These three dynamics, located at the center of the Wheel of Life, are considered the product of all our karmic tendencies. Ignorance of our true, nondual nature is the first cause, which leads to attraction (Desire) and aversion (Anger) to various phenomena we interact with, as we mistake them for being separate from ourselves.
- The ignorance at the heart of karma is not caused by our rebirth and past lives. It’s a far deeper aspect of our being; in the words of the Lanka Sutra, it is ‘the habit-energy of erroneous discrimination and false reasoning that has been going on since beginningless time’.
- The path to happiness lies in getting rid of our karma.
How, exactly, can we frame these dynamics in a way that matches the tenants of biological essentialism? Like this:
Karma is any biochemical or psychological tendency that leads us to act as if there is any difference between ourselves and anything else. The highest happiness in life belongs to those who have transcended these tendencies.
None of these dynamics require any belief in the supernatural or reincarnation. Instead, they can be viewed as purely material phenomena occurring within one lifetime, as they are, in many ways, definitional aspects of all living beings. From the emergence of the first organisms all the way to the present day, every creature that has ever existed has sought out certain things and avoided others. These behaviors occur because life, unlike every other other phenomenon in the universe, is something that preserves, further, or reinforces its existence in a given situation.
In a nutshell, every living organism acts like it is separate from its environment, and is attracted and repelled to various things as a result. This can be considered a biological definition of karma. The unique gift that humans possess is the ability to overcome these dynamics.
Transcending the Instincts
Armed with this definition, we are now able to look at our modern, materialistic world afresh, and re-evaluate what, exactly, we should do the next time we find ourselves unsatisfied.
If we do decide we want a more lasting form of satisfaction and meaning in life, the answer is more or less the same as it was 4000 years ago: get rid of your karma. In terms of the above definition, this means that we seek to transcend our biological hardwiring that leads us to chase after cake and avoid brussel sprouts (assuming you like cake and don’t like brussel sprouts).
However, we should not jump to extremes and attempt to immediately jettison all of our instinctual programming. This is not just extremely difficult to do, but actually counterproductive. As Sadhguru puts it, “the desire to not want karma is in itself a big karma.” Westerners live in a world so full of pleasure and stimuli that, were we to leave all our instincts behind right away, we would irrevocably isolate ourselves. On top of that, we will have not learned how to actually overcome these tendencies in a sustainable and enjoyable way.
Instead, if we truly want to move towards a more contented, blissful state of mind – and life – we should simply, progressively learn to watch what our mind does: when our instinctual urges arise, how they cause us to act, and what happens after their completion. We will not be transformed in a day, or a week, but over time, we will come to understand how our biological wiring compels us to act, and how it ultimately leaves us always, always, wanting more.
This is not to say that we must renounce all of our material enjoyments and retreat to a cave in the mountains. Rather, it’s that we should gain a moment-to-moment awareness of our biological programming and understand it for the limited phenomenon it is. We can still eat ice cream (or pursue any other pleasurable activity), but we should be aware that eating ice cream will only bring a temporary reprieve and that chasing that feeling will ultimately be unfulfilling. In the words of the great Tibetan yogi Tilopa, “the problem is not enjoyment. The problem is attachment.”
It is very important to state that there is no one right way to develop this awareness. Humanity, throughout its long history, has come up with thousands of techniques to turn inward, and one of the blessings of the modern age is that we have access to (almost) all of them. In order to cultivate awareness of the mind and transcend our biological karma, we can:
- Download an app like Headspace or Calm and follow guided meditations
- Use the Vipassana technique of sitting and watching our breath
- Investigate a Zen Koan, like What is this?
- Try any one of Vajrayana’s insane visualizations
- Work with our body and mind through tai chi
- Repeat the name of the Creator like the Sufis
- Chant a mantra to focus the mind
- If we’re Christian, we can turn inwards and repeat the Jesus Prayer
- Stare into the horizon like a Hawaiian shaman
Whatever technique we choose, though, we must keep our goal in mind, which is to ultimately free ourselves from the bondage of our biological hardwiring, which keeps us chasing after temporary pleasures in a never-ending dualistic cycle. Even if the materialists are right and we, as humans, are nothing more than an aggregate of particles, we can still aspire to something higher than our next dopamine hit.