Everything we do matters. I’ve given this a lot of thought lately. It may seem like a strong statement, but it is not meant in a rigid kind of way. Nevertheless, the more I contemplate it, the more it rings true to me. Every single thing we do in our life, every moment, it all matters. Now obviously killing someone is different than throwing garbage on the street. But even the simple stuff like going for a walk or cooking dinner, or reading the news matters. What do I mean by matters? I mean that it all adds up, all of our actions have an effect on our state of mind now and in the future.
When the ’08 presidential election was happening, I read a lot of news, I became a sort of Obamaholic, wanting to read anything about the inspiring man and his plans. A month after the election is over, I’m in retreat, not thinking about Obama or politics at all and a few times I’ve woken up in the morning having dreamed about him and petty political scenarios. Something is going on here, obviously all the news reading had some sort of lasting effect on my mind, otherwise I wouldn’t be processing it in my sleep.
Powerful movies and video games also seem to have this hang-over affect on the mind. Sometimes after watching a movie, I’ll go to bed and the whole dream world will be filled with the theme of that movie. The same occurs when I work many hours on the computer just before going to bed. My dreams are often a strange version of the computer world.
All of these examples are to illustrate that all of our actions in fact have an effect down the road. These are strong examples, but it can also be quite subtle as well.
Even everything we think matters. When I first heard this taught in a Buddhist course, I’m not sure I believed it, but I was shocked at the idea of it. Now, years latter, after having pondered it, I believe it to be true.
Extreme examples always popup, so lets address one. If the thought of killing someone arises, does that matter? Should I be afraid of my thoughts? No, not really. I think the main point is that thinking in certain ways for prolonged periods of time can actually change our way of being. The more emotionally charged these thoughts, and the longer periods of time, the stronger the effect.
An example, I do a lot of work for non-profit groups. In the beginning of projects I often think, ‘how wonderful I am helping out this great group’ but there is also another thought, ‘oh and I’m making an income as well.’ The project begins with joy, but as my mind dwells again and again on the money I’m making, near the end of the project I sometimes think, ‘I’ve worked so hard on this, and got paid so little.’ What happened was that over time, I unconsciously cultivated the selfish thought about money over and over again, subtly. In the end my altruistic attitude changed to a selfish one solely due to this seemingly innocent thought.
What are we in the moment other than a culmination of everything we’ve ever done and thought.
The more we do or think something, the more we are creating the momentum for that to happen again in the future. It is subtle, but over time it is surely true. I think we can all accept this as true, the more I am an angry person, in time, I just become more and more like that. This is true for all states of mind. The momentum does not stop on its own, it is a never ending cycle that fuels itself. When things get too hot, or a catastrophe occurs, only then do we change our ways.
Do we start with a fresh slate when were born and does all of this end when we die? The Buddhist would say no; there is some continuity of mind between each lifetime we live. Does that mean we have a soul, that ‘I’ am going to come back? Not really, the teachings say that it is just the moment to moment stream of consciousness that continues, and in that contains all our habitual tendencies. (There is no enduring self that continues or fundamentally exists. But it is not a nothingness either, as there is this clarity of awareness always with us.)
It took me many years to come to terms with believing in reincarnation, and it was only through the scientific evidence by Prof. Ian Stevenson that I now lean towards it being true. He documented thousands of cases around the world of young children who remember past lives. Some of the most striking evidence involve children with birth marks that match the death wounds of the previous incarnation. In another article I’ll go into depth on this subject.
The above description of the continuity of mind between lives I can begin to understand and accept-if I’m a very desirous person in this life, then I shall be as well in the next, or at least choose parents that have that trait which then reinforce it in me over time.
What I have had a difficult time accepting is the Buddhist idea of karma where something that happens to me in this lifetime is the result of something I did many lifetimes ago. Notwithstanding the potential social misunderstandings of this teaching, (i.e. being poor or sick is one’s own fault because of something one did in a past life) I still could not understand exactly where those actions are stored. None of the descriptions made any sense to me. The teachings say they are kept in the store-house consciousness, the eight consciousness, well where exactly is that?
Only after having my world view shaken by a number of ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru did I begin to get a glimpse of what it might all be about. The most profound experiences, and the most transformative are largely beyond words. But they led me to start to trust that everything is a divine unity. Time, which seems linear to us now is in fact not linear, rather it is merely an appearance, illusory.
These experiences, or glimpses into the nature of reality, are just that, glimpses. During these times, one is in an intense state of hyper-awareness, there can be an overwhelming amount of energy in the body and in the world. One has trouble staying focused on one thing as these overwhelming energies push us around like a ball on an open ocean. But in this experience, there can be vivid glimpses into the multi-dimensional nature of reality: that all things are made of vibrating energy, that all things are in fact a great perfection, that there is a spirit world filled with divine entities. There is more too, but much of what is experienced is forgotten, as it is just too much to bring back. The term Great Mystery is quite apt for this experience. (Granted, this only happens one in every ten ceremonies, it’s not always that intense.)
If time is just an appearance, not solid like we experience it, then the greatest problem in accepting past life karma is gone. There is no need for a place to store the karma if time is illusory. We do actions, and these actions have an result, a fruition. For us in the illusion of time it can seem like much later, but as things are a unity, it is much simpler. An action causes an effect which may seem like it is in the future, but when looked at as a unity, it is all just happening in the radical now.
This fundamentally different view of existence might also explain how fortune tellers can predict the future. But never 100% as we still have free choice in every moment.
Do we always have to experience the results of our actions? The teachings say that if we remain ignorant, then yes, but through practice these past seeds can be purified. I have also experienced powerful energetic purging in ayahuasca, which seems to be a similar thing. Many people have reported that after a powerful purge, they are free of something they did not even know they were holding on to.
Over the years having studies many Buddhist teachings, I have never believed any of them until I had the experience or evidence that it was true. That has made things hard, and progress slow for a while, but in the end, every single thing that I doubted has shown itself to be true to me. There are still a few more left that I continue to doubt-all in the esoteric tantric teachings-but I’m staying open.
So everything we do matters, whether moment to moment, day to day, after many years or even over lifetimes. This is the basic teaching of karma, and I encourage everyone to look and see if it is true.