Monday, September 22, 2008

Spirituality: Balm or Bludgeon

Last week I wrote about the challenges of going with the ebb. On a related note, the belief system we carry with us into that ebb will help determine our experience while there.

One of the many imports from Eastern religious traditions is the concept of karma, the law of cause and effect applied on a grand, soul~development scale. Obviously, this notion is quite helpful in encouraging us toward a larger vision. However, the way this theory is applied can often perpetuate harm.

The inspiration for this essay was the half~joking comment made by a friend of mine this morning, referring to some unknown bad karma as the cause of her ongoing and expensive troubles with a lemon of a car she bought a year or two ago. However, bad karma has also been used to explain experiences of rape and childhood abuse, starvation and poverty, and incarnation into an ethnicity, country, or religion that is subjected to war and genocide.

We humans are meaning~making creatures. We want things to make sense, since the only thing worse than suffering is to suffer without meaning. And so the idea of cause and effect is beneficial as it shores up our belief that life, which may often seem capricious and incomprehensible, is playing by the rules, some rules anyway. If a situation seems terribly unfair and just plain wrong, we can rest more easily knowing that an explanation can be found in an individual’s actions, whether several months or years ago, or during a former, albeit unremembered, life.

Now, let me clearly state what should be obvious: I know not the mind of God or the vast workings of the Cosmos. Perhaps it really is that simple. As with most spiritual concepts, however, my guess is that we humans pare down the notion of karma into a form the Angels would hardly recognize. How could we not, as our wee brains grapple with the Infinite? What I’m interested in exploring here, though, is how our simplistic explanations affect the victims of atrocities and the ones who watch from the sidelines.

First, the victims. I have spent years working with trauma survivors who have taught me how the hate and disrespect inflicted by their abusers becomes internalized. Abusers, who don’t allow authentic guilt to dissuade them from their actions, seem to transfer to their victims both their unclaimed shame and the malice and disregard that propels their behavior.

This dynamic is most clearly seen in instances of sexual and physical abuse, in which there seems to be an almost energetic transmission of shame and loathing. The abuser walks away, and the victim carries the disgrace for him. This shame then weaves its way throughout her psyche, and pops up in some unexpected ways that seem, at first glance, removed from the original experience.

The same can be true for any group that is subjected to mass abuse and disrespect. We humans are social creatures. What that means is that we are open to one another; our boundaries are permeable. Hate gets in. And once in, its corrosive effect travels throughout our beings and molds us in ways we cannot always see.

An application of the concept of karma to explain harmful situations in life is, therefore, something that requires a clear~eyed examination. If someone chooses to believe that being born into an abusive family is a karmic reaction to past wrong behavior, that’s fine. But not until he spends some time examining that belief for evidence of good old fashioned victim~blaming.

Now what about the folks who attribute difficulties in the lives of others to karma? While I understand the relief gained in finding an explanation for injustice, personally I find it troubling. A belief that a victim in any way karmically ‘deserves’ her difficulty makes an authentically compassionate response less likely. It also heaps additional burdens on a person who is trying to heal, as well as strengthens a climate in which overt blame can take root.

In the case of societal abuse, the concept of karma tempts us to not actively challenge systems that give privilege to some at the expense of others. A clear link can usually be found between systemic oppression and economic and political policies that support it, and anything that makes that truth easier to ignore, rather than actively oppose, is dangerous. We risk becoming passive bystanders who accept the unacceptable from a position of a rather smug detachment. And that attitude will, if there is any truth to this theory at all, certainly set in motion a negative future karmic reaction.

An assumption of responsibility, without specific evidence, is a form of judgment, no matter what spiritual terms are used. And we need to tread cautiously when we approach that path.

So, what is a helpful and spiritually nurturing reaction to injustice? For me, it is to respond with an active form of compassion. When confronted by the pain of others, I need to respond from the awareness that we are all linked, and harm to one is harm to us all. That requires that I then do what I can, that I do what is mine to do to ameliorate the harm. Depending on the situation, it may be to listen with an open heart as private horrors are shared. Perhaps I’ll need to pray with my feet by working for a certain political candidate who has the best chance of redressing wrongs. It may mean holding a person or situation in my heart during meditation, or sending money to support a particular cause. It does, I feel, require doing something.

And, what attitude is best to bring with us into our own personal ebb tides? The very same~~an active compassion. We can hold ourselves gently while doing what is ours to do. We can also allow our pain to connect us with the pain of others, to grow the boundaries of our hearts so that we break free of isolation and become softer toward ourselves and others in this challenging experience of being human.

If there are lessons to be learned from difficulties~~and I believe there always are, regardless of whether responsibility is ascribed~~we will learn those lessons so much better within a supportive context. This is true for our children in school. It is equally true for all of us here in Earth School as well.  And with active compassion as our approach, our spirituality becomes a balm for what ails us.

So, I wish you success in bringing an active compassion to your own tender places and difficult times, as well as to those of others.


Loanne Marie

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