In this episode, we talk about the cause and effect of Karma and how to free yourself from past Karma. Our Spiritual Principles of the Wisdom Traditions series continues with a discussion on the term “Karma” and some of the misconceptions about how it rules your life.
How You Can Be Free of Past Karma
Welcome to Soul Sessions with CreativeMind with Debra Berndt Maldonado and Dr. Rob Maldonado of CreativeMind. Join us each week for inspiring conversation about personal development based on Jungian philosophy, Eastern spirituality, and social neuroscience. Spend each week with us to explore deep topics in a practical way. Let's begin.
Debra Maldonado 00:30
Hello, welcome to another episode of Soul Sessions with Debra and Rob Maldonado, founders of CreativeMind, and we are so excited to continue our spiritual principles of wisdom traditions series. Today we're talking about how to free yourself from past karma. How can you do that? A lot of people say “It's my karma. Karma is gonna get you.”
Robert Maldonado 00:59
Good karma, bad karma. It's an important topic because it has entered not only our vocabulary, but our conceptual understanding of spiritual practices now. It's a good idea to think what are we talking about when we say karma.
Debra Maldonado 01:21
I hear a lot of my clients and students ask me “Why is this person getting away with all these bad things they are doing? I thought your thoughts create your life, if they're negative, and they're bad, how can they get away with everything?" It feels like this idea of justice or injustice. Karma is often used as a way to find justice in the world. I'm going to start with a little story. Are you ready for story time?
Robert Maldonado 01:52
Can I just add something about our approach? Many people take these ideas very seriously, they're practicing Buddhism, or Vedanta, or some type of spirituality that talks about karma or includes karma in their theology. We're approaching it from a psychological coaching perspective, not religious. Our interpretation is meant to be taken as just that: our own interpretation in the psychological sense.
Debra Maldonado 02:35
There was a man who lived in a village. He had a wonderful experience, a son was born. Everyone in the village came to his house and said “You are so lucky, you have a son, it is so exciting. You must be a lucky person.” That farmer said “It could be good, it could be bad.” A couple years later, the son grew up and started working on the farm. He made a little error, he opened the gate and let the horses they had on the farm out, they escaped. Everyone in the village came to the farmer and said “What bad luck, your son let those horses go. Now you don't have the animal power to do your farming, such bad luck.” He said “Could be good, could be bad.” A couple days later, those horses brought back a bunch of wild horses, they all went back into the corral. Now he had three times as many horses because of that experience. Again, the townspeople came and said “You're so lucky. That's such a lucky thing that happened to you.” He said “It could be good, it could be bad.” Then the son tries to tame these wild horses, and one of the horses bucks him, he breaks his leg. The village says “What bad luck. Now your son can't farm for you, you lost a working hand.” The farmer said “Could be good, could be bad.” Then the army came, there was a war, and they were gathering up young, able-bodied men to go and fight the war. They couldn't take the son because he had broken his leg, he wasn't able to fight. The people said “What a good luck”, and he said “Could be good, could be bad.” The story demonstrates that we don't know from one event or one experience whether something is good or bad. If it plays out, things could be good or bad. That's really the subject of what karma is, this idea of good or bad karma.
Robert Maldonado 05:01
Ultimately, all karma — and this is our interpretation of the way it's explained in the Gita, in the Upanishads — all karma is neutral, there is no good karma and bad karma. The good and bad is a subjective interpretation, meaning the individual says “This is good for me or bad for me.” Like in your story of the farmer, the ordinary person believes in good or bad. The goodness or badness of things are in the situations themselves.
Debra Maldonado 05:44
When you see the situation, you're making an assumption from past experience of how to judge that situation.
Robert Maldonado 05:51
In reality, there is no good or bad. The proper interpretation, from our perspective, is that karma is neither good nor bad. It's an important element because the Gita explains that karma, or understanding karma is really understanding the secret of action, what is going on when we take action in the world.
Debra Maldonado 06:16
When we do our trainings, we talk about the person taking an action, then we judge the results from the ego’s perspective as positive or negative. Like anything else, if something's pleasurable, we're going to store that, if it's negative, we're going to store that in our conditioning, so we know how to predict the next time it happens. That is classic conditioning, but also karma. We are creating our own karma by our judgment of things.
Robert Maldonado 06:48
It's closer to what in psychology is called operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is considered a little bit more of association, like the things that are in the environment, when you get that reward or that punishment are pre-recorded as part of that negative or positive reaction.
Debra Maldonado 07:16
Isn't it a combination of both?
Robert Maldonado 07:18
Most things are, but operant conditioning is very similar to what the Gita describes as that conditioning effect that inaction has on you.
Debra Maldonado 07:31
It's really like an emotion, a pleasurable emotion or repulsion. We're working with attraction/repulsion balance all the time. We're taught, or we teach ourselves by early interaction of life what's pleasurable, what's not. As human beings, we have the same makeup biologically. Many of us have the assumption that fire feels hot, getting physically harmed is painful. We all share those things. But there's another element to what meaning we put behind it beyond just whether it's pleasurable or not.
Robert Maldonado 08:10
The meaning of it and the attachment that we have to things. Attachment plays into conditioning because it is our desire to get a certain result from the action.
Debra Maldonado 08:26
A pleasurable result?
Robert Maldonado 08:29
Most of the time but not always. Sometimes we take action just out of necessity, out of habit. But even when we take those actions and are attached to their result, they're having an impact on us. You can think of it as that action leaving a residue in your mind body that is stored. In Buddhism, they talk about how past karma begins to ripen at a certain time, it starts to play out in your life. It's very similar to that because if you think “All the actions I've taken in the past have left a residue in my mind body”, what happens is that I start to see the world through that lens, I start to act through those karmic imprints.
Debra Maldonado 09:32
Your ego’s assuming what to expect based on the past, then you're actually stepping into it. It's like you get what you expect or what you fear.
Robert Maldonado 09:41
Very similar to that because we know that past conditioning becomes a way of doing things, a way of acting in the world in this automatic way, because we never question it. We never become aware of what was my conditioning in the past, we simply assume that's the way things should be for us. If we think about potential, if you never work on your karma, if you never burn up that karma, if you never examined it, never bring it to awareness, you're essentially acting out of the limitations of your past, whatever you experienced in the past, the conditioning, whether it be for you, whether it be good, bad, or somewhere in between. The sum total of that is what you're going to bring into the present moment.
Debra Maldonado 10:50
Would it also be what you think about the action, not only what you do, but the constant thought? Let's say you're always having this thought “I'm afraid of people criticizing me, I don't want to put myself out there.” Then you post something on Instagram, and guess what? People criticize you because it's like you planted the seed, or you're maybe seeing that part of your mind reflected back. It's basically your karma, you've created that experience in a way. Or maybe you have hundred people say “What a great post”, and one person says “What a terrible post”, you're basically conditioned, the ego looks for one thing that it's afraid of. Is that a way of explaining it a little bit more?
Robert Maldonado 11:39
The proper understanding that we have of consciousness now is that we create our reality based on our language structure. We use language to structure the meaning of our reality, not only that, the actual code of events and the things that we pay attention to. But there is a whole lot of unspoken assumptions about who we are and what we can expect from the world that is coming from conditioning. That's our past karma. Therefore, those unconscious assumptions about who I am and what's possible for me become a reality.
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Debra Maldonado 13:20
What you worry about, you're basically seeing that reality a lot more than if you didn't worry about something. The worrying creates a karma. We're taught and conditioned to worry about certain things that our parents worried about, or what an event created that made us worry. That becomes basically a part of our conditioning to worry about something.
Robert Maldonado 13:55
Let's simplify it because it is an important fact to know about karma and action. Let's say you're a B student most of your life, in school, in college, on and on. All those actions you were taking, taking the test, getting feedback from your teachers, presenting your report cards to your parents, getting feedback from them. All of those actions are stored in your mind body as “I am a B student”. Which means there are deep seated assumptions about who I am and what I can expect from the world.
Debra Maldonado 14:51
You never expect to excel, you expect to do a little better than most people but not superstar good.
Robert Maldonado 14:57
Good enough, pretty good. Nobody's going to call you out. If you're a B student, you’re doing okay, but you're not the best. All those assumptions, there's nothing wrong with them, but they're going to limit your adult life. Because you've never examined, is that true? Are those assumptions real? Or are they just effects of my conditioning, of my past actions? If they are, which, most of the time they are, that means your job and the money you will making as an adult will essentially reflect that B student status.
Debra Maldonado 15:45
The same thing with relationships, we always get the relationship that we've been conditioned to have. If you've had a critical parent, or never felt like you fit in, you go out and try to meet people, it's going to be the same experience, because that's your karma. I think one of the big misconceptions about karma is some force out there is giving you this karma. You have to live it out, it’s this external force. But it's basically created because most of us, as younger people, are just absorbing the world. We don't have that discernment yet. We're absorbing and creating our karma early in life. That's why we need to examine it so we can be free. There's some schools that say, there's this scoreboard in the sky, it's like you did this and this, we're going to measure you. There's some other force judging you, but it's actually your own self that's doing the judgment.
Robert Maldonado 16:47
It's an interaction between you and the environment, both social environment, physical environment, everything, because where does action take place for human beings? It takes place in a physical environment. But what's important to us is that social environment, we're always very conscious of how I am going to appear to others, how my actions are going to appear to others. We become very focused on getting certain results that help us adapt, that help us be promoted in school, for example, the aim is to get the A, or please the parents and please the teachers, so that those attachments then play into how we read the results that we get from the actions. That becomes attachment, of course, we're attached to getting certain results. Then we read those results as either negative or positive. They're positive if they're helping us move towards the A, they're negative if they're pulling us towards the C, based on our subjective experience.
Debra Maldonado 18:01
Another level of that, when you say we identify with the external as personal, an event happens, we think “I'm bad because this happened, or I'm a failure”, because we start identifying with the results in life as our self concept. That reinforces that self concept and how we see the world almost through that filter of who we think we are. On a human level, we think we're this little tiny being in this big, crazy, wild world, we're trying to survive. Then there's this karma that's dictating our life. But if we can start seeing that we're the ones who can create their own experience and break free. Before we go into how we free ourselves, just quickly, why would we have karma? What's the benefit of having conditioning? I always say, wouldn't it be nice to not have to learn how to tie your shoes every day, or get up every morning, or remember people's faces. Karma, or that conditioning, is all about helping us do the same things over and over. We learn how to drive, we learn how to ride a bike, all that stored. There's a benefit in knowing what to be afraid of. We don't have to keep relearning what we should fear.
Robert Maldonado 19:18
That's a big part of it. There are a lot of ideas out there around the sense of justice, if you do bad things, you're going to be punished, and if you do good things, you're going to be rewarded. But karma doesn't work that way. It's neutral. You're simply reaping what you sow, whatever you're attached to, whatever you're focusing on when you are taking action, becomes part of your mind body. That becomes the way you see things and the things you expect to see in reality.
Debra Maldonado 20:01
It's like a bubble, like you said, we're in this bubble of our own judgments and our own fears, we can't see outside of it in the beginning, until we examine it.
Robert Maldonado 20:12
Which means, and this is an important point, that you will not be able to see opportunities that are there present in your environment, because you're in that bubble of “just good enough", like in the example of a B student, you're caught up in that just good enough bubble, you think that's as good as it gets.
Debra Maldonado 20:38
This is all I'm capable of. This is why people settle in life. They settle for the boring job, because they're like “This is as good as it gets”, or “I have to be responsible”, or “I'm not smart enough to do something else. I'm not talented enough to do something else.” Then it feeds back to us. “I'm not thrifty enough to to create my own business. I'm just gonna stay in my little bubble.”
Robert Maldonado 21:07
If you've ever wondered why it's so difficult to change status and position in life, it’s precisely because of conditioning, or your karmic past.
Debra Maldonado 21:21
How can we be free? Let's talk about burning karma. It’s like getting a letter in writing and burning it.
Robert Maldonado 21:31
Why does it exist, you hit the nail on the head. If our mind body learns from every action that we take, it learns what to expect and how to do it. We don't have to think through every new situation, we’re using that stored up karma, that learning from past experiences, to understand the present situation. The only problem with that, of course, is that we're sleepwalking through life because our mind, our brain body is essentially acting out its karmic past, instead of really experiencing the moment in this fresh, new way.
Debra Maldonado 22:24
We don't even stop to question things, that's bad, that’s good. We just have a reaction to it emotionally, either we're attracted or repulsed, or have fear around certain situations, instead of opening it up and questioning “What am I really experiencing here?” Like the farmer, “I had a son”, that seems like a great thing. But he wasn't attached that this is going to be the greatest thing in my life, and only good things can come out of having a son.
Robert Maldonado 22:54
If you're not seeing reality, you're not seeing the moment, you're essentially bringing all past karma into the present moment. That's the karma ripening essentially, that you're bringing past conditioning into the current moment, and therefore you're always getting the same results. That's why people get the same results. Because you look at the world the same way. It doesn't matter what the opportunity is, if you are entering that space as “this is who I am, this is what's possible for me” from past conditioning. That's what you're going to do with the current situation. That's why people repeat these patterns over and over. But the good news is that we can change and the change comes through that metaphor of we have to burn up this past karma, we have to free ourselves from past conditioning.
Debra Maldonado 23:58
So how do we burn it? Basically, when you say burn, it's like energy.
Robert Maldonado 24:06
It is a fuel. If you think about it, your mind body is storing all this up, its potential, its energy within you.
Debra Maldonado 24:18
It's unexpressed potential.
Robert Maldonado 24:21
Most of the time, people are using it simply at the survival level. It’s operating intuitively, they just go through life sleepwalking, but the Gita says, higher knowledge, knowledge of what the true nature of the mind is, what the true nature of reality is, and most importantly, who the self that is experiencing all this is, these things we call the world, that kind of knowledge burns up karma.
Debra Maldonado 25:00
It's a light inside of higher knowledge, Divine Wisdom in us shines the light on the misperception. We start to see things as they truly are versus what our past assumptions say they are. We start to see the opportunity in everything and keeping it open, like he said “Could be good, could be bad.” That's the attitude, you have to keep it open. Because if you shut it down and say “This is bad, there's no potential there.” And if you shut it down and say “This is good”, again, you're attached. Be open, maybe let's see what an opportunity is, have more openness to responding to life circumstances.
Robert Maldonado 25:51
There's a couple of really interesting ideas in the Gita around how we work with karma, how we burn it up. One of them is the idea of yoga. Not in the sense of just asanas, as we consider them in the West. Yoga is a mental and spiritual discipline, a psycho-spiritual discipline. The Gita talks about four different approaches in yoga. One of them is devotion, we cultivate a sense of loving our spiritual essence and devoting ourselves to it and devoting to a higher purpose.
Debra Maldonado 26:45
I want to have a romantic relationship and a partnership. I want to experience that. But I also want to dedicate that to my higher purpose, it also serves a higher purpose. I want to be successful because it also serves a higher purpose versus it's feeding my ego.
Robert Maldonado 27:00
The second one is Karma Yoga, meaning, selfless action for the sake of the benefit of others. That's a way of working a yoga of action. Think in these terms, if karma, meaning action or work, is the conditioning effect on you, with selfless action, you're essentially leaving the “you” out of it. The I, the ego, therefore, the action is performed for the sake of others.
Debra Maldonado 27:45
It's not selfish. It's hard to do a selfless action. But it takes practice. The way to begin to do that is to let go of the attachment through the result. Because in the action itself, you might not be conscious of that intention, unconsciously. But you can test yourself. If you say “I want to help others. I want to share love and wisdom in the world, I want to share my love with someone else”, and then that person doesn't call you back, or you post something online and they give you criticism, it’s a real test to see how attached you are. Are you really attached to the ego feeling better because they have that result? Or are you're doing it for the action itself, regardless if it's good or bad, positive or negative?
Robert Maldonado 28:34
The third one is Raja Yoga, which is meditation. Contemplation, meditation, introversion, introspection, looking inward. And developing, cultivating these mental states, where you're free from the ego sense.
Debra Maldonado 28:55
You start to become more of the witness versus the thinker and the feeler, the mind body processes, you get to that higher awareness, meta awareness.
Robert Maldonado 29:07
The fourth one is Gyana yoga. Gyana yoga is wisdom, higher knowledge, and understanding. Not only the intellectual understanding, but really knowing in a true sense of the spiritual principles.
Debra Maldonado 29:42
You always talk about the lower knowledge and higher knowledge. Lower knowledge is “I understand this concept, consciousness, we're all one, and karma.” That's lower knowledge. We just understand on an intellectual level, but higher knowledge is having a direct experience where it's not you believing it, but you know it. It's intellectual understanding, and then the higher understanding.
Robert Maldonado 30:12
What all these four yogas have in common is that they all address the question of the ego, the I, they all dissolve the I, and get it out of the way, so that the true self can emerge.
Debra Maldonado 30:32
I always say every problem we have in our life is because we believe we're the ego, we identify with our results, we identify with our actions, with this mind body character. We make it about ego personality versus this other part of ourselves that is not affected by anything this body does or says or thinks. But when we're caught up in that bubble, we only see this limited body in this separate world. The higher knowledge helps that. When we burn karma these four ways, what is a simple way to explain that? It's just bringing that light, whatever vehicle works for you to understand.
Robert Maldonado 31:16
I think it works at many levels. If you think about what prompts a person to seek higher knowledge, to seek out a yoga, for example, it is that pain, that suffering that comes from repeating the same process over and over and feeling that you're locked into this life, that you don't have a sense of agency, that you're not able to create and choose the things that you want to create. That prompts people to search, and therefore it leads them to higher knowledge.
Debra Maldonado 31:55
Just to start, one of the things you can do is start questioning your assumptions about an event, whether it's good or bad. Instead of immediately watch your mind judge everything, like the long line at the Starbucks, or someone cutting in front of you at the grocery, or being late for something, or someone not showing up for you in a certain way. If you can see everything as “It's not good or bad. Let me open it up to see what the opportunity is”, something fresh will emerge naturally, just from you having not just tunnel vision into that old pattern of thinking and seeing, but starting to see your life and things that show up differently. Even if it was always negative, let's make it positive to start. But you find that way to look in the neutrality. I think that's scary for people because we always want to be careful, we don't want to numb ourselves. But this isn't really numbing. It's more enlightening.
Robert Maldonado 32:59
The second interesting idea that emerges from understanding of action and karma is that there's no need to really work through all the karma. If you realize that there is no I, that there is no true sense of you as an ego, karma has nothing to hold on to. It's like you can be karma free. Because all the principles of karma explained in the Gita and the Upanishads only apply if there is an I.
Debra Maldonado 33:45
If you believe that the ego is real, and the I is real, and that's all you are.
Robert Maldonado 33:51
When you're acting and experiencing the world, and believing that you are this ego, this individual that is separate from everything else, that’s when the laws of karma apply.
Debra Maldonado 34:05
Only the ego actually can be triggered by life events, either positive or negative. Only the ego places that value on those things. Transcending the ego is about transcending the assumption of those values.
Robert Maldonado 34:22
There you see the beautiful logic and the depth of knowledge that's in the Gita or the Upanishads. There's nothing comparable in the West that explains it that clearly. There are people like Meister Eckhart, who was a Christian mystic, who perceived the same ideas through his experiences of God. But it's never presented in this very clear psychological way, as it is in the Gita and the Upanishads. You can be free of karma essentially, if you let go of this false identity of yourself as an ego, as an I.
Debra Maldonado 35:08
This is a juicy topic. We could talk for hours on this. Our next episode is about non-attachment. We'll go deeper into this. If you haven't listened to our previous episode on desire, which is the first part of the series, be sure to check that out. If you are on Youtube and want to subscribe to our channel, please click the button in the corner and subscribe. We also invite you, if you're listening to our podcast, to subscribe to our Soul Sessions with CreativeMind on Spotify, Apple, and all the other podcast apps that are out there. We hope to see you every week. We're really excited for this summer series to burn up our karma, free ourselves from ego desires and create something wonderful in our life.
Robert Maldonado 36:06
See you next time.
Debra Maldonado 36:07
Take care, everyone.
Debra Maldonado 36:09
Thank you for joining us, and don't forget to subscribe to CreativeMind Soul Sessions. Join us next week as we explore another deep topic where you can consciously create your life with CreativeMind Soul Sessions. See you next time.