Summer at the amusement park: unrelenting, humid, hot, hot heat. You find yourself in a line of sweaty bodies, too close for comfort, snaking half a mile through a hot indoor maze. Fans drone from the corners, their sad, smelly breeze offering a brief moment of sparse relief. You feel ripe, over-damp from sweat and over-stimulated by the crowds and poor nutritional choices you made earlier in the day. Maybe you don’t really want to be in this line. How can a 10 minute ride be worth this 30 minute wait? Your eyes are on the crumpled plastic Coke bottle in the corner, which has become a symbol for how slowly you are moving, and a metaphor for everything about this experience that you despise. In another five minutes, you think, I’ll be past the Coke bottle. Perhaps you plan to pick it up and recycle it, in a quiet show of self-righteous dignity. Before you is a family that you have come to know too well during your time there. You think critical thoughts about hygiene, discipline, and the poor manners of other people’s children. Your judgment turns inward: Stop being so mean. Why did you do this to yourself? There’s NO WAY this is worth it.
But- great joy!- finally, you’re a few steps from the gate. The family in front of you- minutes before, downtrodden and miserable- is transformed as they squeeze through the turnstile into a bouncing, joyful photo opportunity. “I’m in the front!” one shouts with glee. A benevolent fondness toward them warms your heart, knowing you will never, ever have to see them again. And it’s almost your turn! In a few minutes, you’ll be on the ride. You feel lighter, excited, the previous hour’s suffering forgotten. A bored teenager waves you into your seat and you strap in for the exhilarating rush of emotions.
In ten minutes- probably more like five- it’s over. As you disembark, heart still pounding, dejection has set in, and you’re already planning the next ride. How many times have you done this? How many times will you do it again? As many times as you can. Even when the pain of the line no longer outweighs the joy of the ride, maybe you will keep going- it’s the thing that you’ve always done.
A friend’s recent assertion that karma is all “bullshit” felt like a challenge to me, and I’ve been thinking about how I can share some of my (really limited) understanding with you to de-mystify the concept a bit. This week, I want to look at one aspect of karma: the cyclical energy that drives us to repeat the same actions again and again.
While I have not been to an amusement park this summer, I have been doing a lot of meditation and working with my understanding of karma- and the roller-coaster metaphor really worked for me.
Let’s say you have a bad habit. Okay, let’s say I do (cause I do). When I am feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, or otherwise emotional, I eat. Actually, I binge. The formula is simple:
Stress Occurs -> I Eat Too Much -> I Feel Awful Cause I Ate Too Much
Every time that this happens, I am creating more karma that makes it likely that I will do the same thing again in the future. This makes sense, right? From a neuroscience point of view, every time I repeat an action, I strengthen the connection between the neurons in my brain so that it becomes easier and easier to do it again in the future. And because I’ve always done it, it feels “good”- even when it feels super awful.
Pema Chodron, in No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, speaks directly to this:
“The…fault of the kleshas (afflictive emotions) is that we welcome them. They’re familiar. They give us something to hold on to, and they set off a predictable chain reaction that we find irresistible…. Each of us has our own personal ways of welcoming and encouraging the kleshas. Being attentive to this is the first and crucial step. We can’t be naive. If we like our kleshas, we will never be motivated to interrupt their seductiveness; we’ll always be too complacent and accommodating… It is just as difficult to detox from emotions as it is to recover from heavy drugs or alcohol. However, when we see that this addiction is clearly ruining our life, we become highly motivated.”
As I look back at my life, at my sense of who I am, I can see that I am a collection of habits: given certain situations, I am likely to react in a certain way. As in the ride at the amusement park, the habitual rush of emotions is familiar, comfortable, even stimulating. But there’s suffering afterward, and suffering again leading up to the next “ride.”
Pema Chodron is often quoted as saying, “Nothing goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” This is true, in my experience: we will be presented with similar situations again and again. Each time, we can make a choice to react in the same way we’ve done before (because that’s our brain’s pattern, or, if you will, the karma you’ve created for yourself)- or, you we can try to make a different choice, creating a new habit. Better karma.
When I encountered this Sharon Gannon quote earlier this week, it really clicked for me. Of course! I’ve had a lifetime of being Laura, of reacting in predictable ways, but there’s no reason that I can’t be a different collection of habits. There’s no reason I can’t create good karma for myself. Get out of line for the roller-coaster.
Here’s why it’s not so simple: it is hard work creating new habits. It’s hard work even noticing the old ones. But, through meditation, some space has opened around my habitual reactions so that I can see more clearly.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s Turning Confusion Into Clarity puts it this way:
“With shamatha practice, we learn to detect impulses in their early stages. We can check an impulse toward anger before exploding like a volcano. If we do not recognize that impulse, then the repetition of angry outbursts strengthens the tendency toward anger and creates its own karmic energy, its own propensity for reoccurrence. Recognition allows us to disrupt the habitual identification that we have with the impulse, and therefore to separate from it.”
I’m going to go ahead and give a testimonial here. Meditation has helped me to handle some of the biggest challenges of my life in a way I didn’t know was possible. The type of meditation practice my teacher mentions above- shamatha- is a simple technique that is easy to practice and completely forgiving. I cannot recommend it enough. You can learn more about this style of meditation at the Tergar website (this is Mingyur Rinpoche’s online community). You can even participate in a free Introduction to Meditation course that is really fantastic.
Yes, it’s work. Hard work! It’s not always easy to make the time to meditate, and it’s really, really uncomfortable to clearly see your own negative patterns. It takes time and patience and a big amount of kindness. So you can start small, with a few minutes a day, and gradually build up.
The alternative? Well, I could keep doing the same things, I guess, couldn’t I? I could spend the next half of my life repeating the choices I made earlier. But I’d rather not suffer in those particular ways anymore, and a lot of the choices I made caused suffering for other people, too. Once I saw that, I couldn’t consciously go on without at least trying to change my patterns.
Happy Labor Day Weekend, and good luck with your habitual patterns (and wish me luck with mine- I need it)! I’ll leave you with a picture of Stanley, me, and one of my favorite karma shirts.