How to Understand Your Karma

(Photo: Anton Repponen on
(Photo: Anton Repponen on

It isn’t always easy to understand our karma – the patterns of the past that have imprinted themselves on our present life. They are far too complex to be read easily, like writing on a scroll. And that’s unfortunate, because our suffering in this life is entirely the result of our actions in the past – actions that are now keeping us in exile from our true home, in God’s eternal bliss.

Over the years, Swami Kriyananda would repeatedly make a statement that I found mildly unsettling: “After all our many, many lifetimes of striving and effort and aspiration and involvement and disappointment and fulfillment, all of our karma in the end must come back to zero.”

Whenever he would say it, I found it so depressing that I would do my best to forget what he had said.

And then, unfortunately, he would say it again, even more forcefully: “It all comes back to zero!!”

My first impulse was to think that maybe I should just stay in bed, if all my striving was bound to add up to zero. Maybe if I did nothing, I could hasten the arrival of the Big Zero!

I saw it as a simple problem of mathematics – if I have so many happy days, I’ll have to have an equal number of unhappy days to balance my karma.

But the trouble with that kind of thinking is that it can make wary of the good things in our lives. It means that if you find yourself enjoying something, or if your life seems to be going well, you’d better watch out, because it will all just have to be wiped out in the end and come back to zero.

But if that’s the case – if it’s the right, spiritual way to think about our karma – who would even want to enter the spiritual path? You’d have to be truly stupid to embrace such a depressing philosophy! But we aren’t stupid, and the Masters certainly aren’t stupid, so there must be a better way to think about it. Because the end of the story – the Great Zero – is not sadness, but unimaginable bliss. And the quintessential quality of those who’ve advanced on the path is not discouragement, but a completely positive, enthusiastic, optimistic attitude such as we see in the saints, and that we saw in Swami Kriyananda. And it all points to the fact that we need to dig a little deeper in our philosophy, if we want to understand our karma in the right way.

I remember a talk that Swamiji gave in India toward the end of his life. He said that because this creation is so complex, we imagine that its source must be the most complex Being imaginable. But he said that the apparent complexity is just an illusion, created by the dualistic vibrations of Maya, and that all of the complexity is emanating from a single source. And this is the fundamental truth of the path – that this entire manifested cosmos has emerged from a single point in Spirit.

Swami continued, “And the closer you get to the source, the smaller the arc of movement becomes, and the simpler everything gets, because it’s all very close together, and ultimately it doesn’t move at all.”

Jesus said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” He didn’t say, “Suffer the great scholars to come unto me, because they have the most complex information, and of such is the nature of creation.”

And what is the nature of a child? It’s very simple. Small children don’t have a lot of mental complexity – they have intelligence and consciousness, but there’s a great deal of simplicity in the way they view the world. And Jesus was trying to tell us that this is how the saints see the world as well, just like little children, but from a higher level of understanding.

Swamiji made those statements during an evening satsang, and at breakfast the next morning, he said, “I wonder how many people appreciated how vitally important what I was saying last night was.”

Swami Kriyananda in India
Swami Kriyananda in India

And then he said it again, and he addressed his words to me. And as I began to ponder the meaning of what he was saying, I could see that even though it’s true that our karma must ultimately be reduced to zero, he was saying it in a way that was much more life-affirming and uplifting than the rather depressing thought that no matter what I’m enjoying, I’m sooner or later going to lose it.

It’s not that you have to wake up thinking, “I wonder which part of everything I love that God is going to take away from me today.” Because coming back to zero means coming back to a bliss that is infinitely more fulfilling than any of the lesser fulfillments we’ve been seeking.

And this is why we reaffirm this truth every Sunday in our Festival of Light – that God has sent us out on a mission to be fruitful and multiply, and that He wants us to share that which we have received, because our divinely appointed goal is to expand our awareness until we can merge our consciousness with the Giver.

And we might as well come right out and ask the unspoken question: “Whatever made God think that it was a good idea to send us out on this mission in the first place?”

Frankly, I think it’s tiresome to ask questions that we really have no way of answering. So let’s just start with the simple fact that this is where we find ourselves, at this point on our journey back to God, and that He has given us a very interesting job to do.

We’re ambassadors of our Heavenly Father, who has given us a great mission to share with others, even as He has shared with us. And as we share with others all of the good things we’ve received, we can look back with gratitude to our Heavenly Father and Divine Mother who are their source, and we can be justly proud that we’re carrying out our mission.

But then what happens is that, as the Festival so elegantly puts it, it begins to be kind of fun to be gathering stuff and giving it away. And then we begin to think a little more about gathering stuff for ourselves, because we forget where it’s coming from. And so we forget our divine mission, and we become entranced with the adventure of being ourselves.

“I may be the offspring of Divinity, but I’m also me! And I enjoy being me! It’s so wonderful being me, and being the one who gathers and sometimes gives, and sometimes doesn’t, and sometimes gets to keep it all for myself – because, after all, the more I have, the more I am!”

We’re so excited by the adventure that we begin to forget the source. And the Festival describes how at that point we enter the stage called the revolt.

We begin to feel annoyed that instead of letting myself feel wonderful and important, I’m supposed to forget myself and remember that I’m just a tiny part of everything it is. And I find that a great part of everything that is, is icky. I don’t like you as much as I like me, and I don’t enjoy your happiness as much as I enjoy my own. And what we’re rebelling against is the most fundamental and central fact of our existence: that we are part of the Heavenly Father and Divine Mother, and we are inextricably a part of everything.

We protest, “No, I’m not! – I’m part of my own little system, and I’m going to get what I want and keep it for myself and enjoy it!”

So we try, again and again, to make this world work for us, because it seems like such a wonderful thing to do.

People praise me, and they think I’m wonderful. But some people fear me, and I can use them to get what I want. I find that I can indulge my impulses, and I think that maybe I can get away with it. And why should I pay attention to the old rules?

So we try it for a long time – as the Festival says, “even though repeatedly the little bird lost everything he had.”

And that is pretty much our story, isn’t it?” We persist in thinking that if I can get my life lined up just right, I’ll get to keep it all this time. And maybe no one will betray me, and this time no one that I love will die. This time, perhaps I won’t die, and maybe I won’t age, and maybe the ones that I hoped would love me, will love me. And if they don’t love me, I’ll punish them, and that will be equally satisfying.

So we keep trying. We declare our allegiance to our own little system, and to the world according to me. And then we repeatedly lose it all. And Yogananda puts it in a way that may sound a little odd, but that perfectly describes our situation: “Reincarnation is not created.” In other words, reincarnation isn’t a fixed and inevitable fact that God has put in place, and that we can never escape from.

If everything goes horribly wrong, why would I want to come back and do it all over again? But Yogananda said that the reason we keep coming back is that this world “almost works.”

It’s so close to working that we imagine that if we make just one more tiny adjustment, it will all come out perfectly well. And God is extremely subtle – when He created this world, He wasn’t stupid, and He made it so that it looks like there’s a way to make it work.

If only we hadn’t had that argument. If only I had gotten there in time. If only I had kept my mouth shut. And it’s our longing for perfection, and our regrets over having missed the mark by such a tiny amount in the past, that keeps us coming back again and again.

We regret something, we long for something, and we come back full of enthusiasm for trying to make it right. And what finally happens is that we begin to remember, and we begin to suspect, by a subtle intuition that whispers to us from the depths of our soul, that maybe none of it was intended to work in the first place. And whether we remember our past lives, or if it’s simply a subtle inner feeling, we begin to suspect that it has never worked, and it never will.

I’m sure that many of you have had the experience that I had as a little child, of imagining that someday the adults would clue me in on the Big Secret, and that I would break through and understand.

I remember my mother yelling at me for something my brother and I were doing in the backseat of the car. There were no seatbelts at the time, and she would separate us by putting my brother on the seat, and I would be on the floor, and my sister would go up on the back shelf by the window. And the rule was that you weren’t supposed to touch anybody.

I can clearly remember being on the floor of the car, being scolded by my mother, and having my feelings hurt. Not that I didn’t deserve to be scolded, but my feelings were hurt, and I vividly remember thinking that if I could just go deep enough in myself, I would find a place where the hurt would no longer exist. I remember putting my ear to the floor where I could hear the wheels and the roar of the road, and listening to that sound and going to the place where the hurt didn’t exist anymore. And I’m sure that all of you can remember thinking that there must be a place where you could go and not be hurt.

After losing everything countless times, it finally dawns on us that maybe we don’t know what’s going on. And humility is the beginning of wisdom.

Swami said, “We go on the quest, and the quest is the divine quest for the Holy Grail, for what we know really belongs to us, and we very, very faintly remember that at some point we were manifested from Infinity.”

We’ve started our journey, and we find that it isn’t working so well, and we begin to ask a very simple question: What is really going on? Where does my happiness really come from?

And what we need to understand is that it isn’t that there is no joy in this world, because clearly there’s an enormous amount of joy in a great many things here: our love for each other, our love for our children, the joy of artistic creation, and intellectual adventure, foreign travel, and beautiful scenery.

There are so many beautiful things in our lives that it doesn’t serve us to turn up our noses and call it ugly. Because, after all, this is God’s creation. But the question we find ourselves dealing with, after coming this far, is an internal one: are we going to keep trying to get away from the center point of stillness and unity with Spirit? Or are we going to spend our time trying to live in that single point of stillness?

God it was who sent us here, and I like to think of it this way: that it’s a question of choosing between freedom and compulsion.

It’s not so much about what we’re doing, but whether we’re choosing it out of freedom, or whether we’re simply being compelled by a terrible anxiety that we will never be happy and fulfilled until we get what we want.

When I look back at the decisions I’ve made, I see that I’ve made some of them in freedom, but that many were made because I was compelled. “I’d like to think that I would do whatever God might ask of me, but at this particular point in time, I’m going to assume that what He wants is what I’m doing.”

I’ve made a number of very important decisions in my life, in all honesty, not really knowing if it was actually what God wanted. But I didn’t have the capacity to make any other choice at the time, because I was compelled. I was compelled by the feeling of revolt in me – the power of delusion that compelled me to believe, as we hear in the Festival: “What else is wisdom, if not to take what is mine for myself?”

And so we rebel, over and over, until we return to the zero-point, where we finally understand what a great delusion it was to imagine that anything outside of us could ever give us lasting joy.

It doesn’t mean that we can’t experience joy in outward ways. But we must ultimately come back, slowly and gradually, to the simple point where we know beyond any possibility of doubt that all our joys are expressions of Divine Mother’s presence in us, and that it’s God’s joy alone that I can to bring into my family life and my career, or that I can express through art and music. And whatever I can experience of joy will always be born of the stillness at the zero point.

That was why Swami’s creative output was no less than astonishing. He was so prodigious in his creativity, to an extent that it was impossible to explain in a human way. And, of course, he never explained it in a human way.

I’ll come back to that thought. But I’m remembering a novel that I read, The House of Fulfillment. It was published roughly a hundred years ago, and it’s about some English people who traveled to India and went up into the mountains and met a master.

There’s a character in the book who became a famous sculptor. She explained that what she had received from her master in the Himalayas was a divine experience of Infinity, and that she had a responsibility to share that experience, but that she didn’t know what form her sharing should take. Should she write poetry, or be a musician, or a dancer? And then she started making marble statues, while standing in her consciousness at the point of her relationship with Infinity. And she knew that it made no difference what form the sculpture might take, because it would express the consciousness of Infinity.

And that was exactly what Swami did. He would say, “I’m not a musician. I’m not a writer. I’m not an artist of any kind. I’m a disciple of a great master, with a commission from him to carry his teachings to all who will receive them.”

I remember how he started taking photographs. He said, “I took photographs because we needed photographs, and no one else was taking any that I felt really represented Ananda at the time.” So he took photographs all around the world, and he used them to share his Guru’s consciousness.

Now, in a life as active as Swami Kriyananda’s, where he touched hundreds of thousands of lives, he gave it all from the center point of his experience of Infinity.

Swami wasn’t moving – he was always putting out tremendous energy, but he never moved off the single center point of his life, in the consciousness that “I am a disciple of a great master, and I’m here to serve him.”

And this is the simplicity within the complexity of the lives that we’ve been called to live.

I’ll sometimes get up in the morning and come downstairs and clean the dishes and open the fridge, and maybe I’ll go to the grocery. These are the mundane facts of my life, and it’s all terribly complicated – the car needs gas, the battery isn’t working, I can’t find a shopping bag. And it isn’t even the big issues, but the just all of the trivial stuff that doesn’t really count, compared to the desperate longing of the heart for this or that fulfillment, and the terrible karmic confusion over these deep, unfulfilled longings.

This is why we keep coming back, because we spin out so far into the complexity. And then it isn’t easy to bring it all back to zero.

Swami Kriyananda was standing as close to zero in his consciousness as I can imagine. I can’t evaluate his consciousness because I’m not his equal. But from observing it as closely and continuously as I did, certainly I saw that he never acted from compulsion.

My inner tendencies will often jump ahead of my decision-making process, when I’m trying to make a decision, and my restless tendencies are getting there first. My karma compels me to do many things out of compulsion, and because of the reactive tendencies of my samskars – my karmic tendencies formed in the past. But I never saw Swami – never, ever, not once did I see him reacting to anything. He only responded.

He stood at zero, but my goodness, he was busy! And all of us who are made in the image of our masters have been given very busy lives. Master himself was busy all the time, always doing something. And it was because Babaji and the masters had commissioned him to do a great work for God.

If you check the calendar of the events in Yogananda’s life on, you’ll see how busy he was. How he was giving a month-long course in Chicago, and then he was giving a talk about immortality, and then he was talking about perfect marriage, and how to find your best career, and how to heal yourself.

He gave a class on healing where they published a big announcement: “Bring your sick friends and relatives, because Yogananda is going to heal them.” He stood in front of them doing these miraculous healings, because it was a way to attract thousands so that he could get them in the door and introduce them to the teachings.

He would call out, “Are there any doctors in the house?” He was so relaxed and easy, and they would come and examine him, and he would stop his pulse in one arm while letting it beat normally in the other. And it was child’s play for him to do these things with the material plane. But it was all coming from zero, because he never forgot that he was nothing but an expression of the Infinite.

We think that by our own actions we’ll be able to fulfill our longing for the things we so deeply crave. And then we have endless regrets – “But it seemed like such a good idea at the time!” “If I had known better, would I have done it?”

The reason we behave the way we do is simply because we’re stupid. There’s really no other word. But we are not un‑teachable, and that’s the good news – we are capable of learning. And we may be learning very slowly at this point, but still, we are learning. And the great lesson that we will learn in the end is that the way to have what we truly want is to live ever more in the simplicity of who we actually are.

Swami lived in the simplicity of discipleship. He told us how Master looked at Rajarsi, his most advanced disciple, who already had the infinite consciousness, and he said, “Don’t forget where your power comes from.” And Swami described how Rajarsi replied, just like a little child, “I know, Master. It comes from you.”

Master was telling us that in everything we’re doing, we need to bring it back to the original simplicity. We need to wipe away all of the contradictory thoughts and come to the point of zero, which the Indian scriptures call shunya – the zero that is Infinity. And as we learn to go more deeply in that simplicity, we will find that it is in everything.

And this is really the last word on the spiritual path – that every desire that we have, by divine law must be fulfilled. And not just our small, fleeting desires for ice cream and such-like trivial things, but the overwhelming, unquenchable desire to be loved, to be understood, to be known, to be respected, and to endure, which is to say, not to be lost. And that is the true desire that can only be fulfilled in the Infinite, when our consciousness comes back full circle to the great zero.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on November 27, 2016.)

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