Karma and Reincarnation – Are They Real?


“You may not always end up where you thought you were going, but you’ll always end up where you meant to be…”

This is not only a very common, but a very soothing belief. It creates acceptance of our circumstances, so that we focus on making them better rather than fighting them. In many cases, acceptance is both the wiser and healthier choice. It is a way of thinking that is called many things, reincarnation, karma, fate, predestination, Divine will, trust in God, or predetermination. It fulfills important human needs for security, acceptance, and meaning.

If you are looking for a story that explains your life, who you are, why you are the way you are, and how you came to be like you are, reincarnation is for you. Consequently, reincarnation fills an important void for many people who either are not happy with the path set for them by their parents, teachers, and society, or who have walked that path and found it bankrupt. They wonder where to find a sense of life purpose and direction. Karma is the East Indian doctrine of personal cause and effect, as exemplified by the sign often found in metaphysical bookstores: “Shoplifting is bad karma.” Karma is valuable for those who are defending their family, beliefs, culture, or nation from the attacks of others, because it provides a  rationale and justification for the existence and maintenance of the status quo, whatever it is.

I was first exposed to reincarnation and karma when I was thirteen, through the Edgar Cayce readings. I met a number of doctors, therapists, lawyers, and business people who meditated, worked on dreams, and believed in reincarnation and karma. In my adolescence I read Noel Langley’s Edgar Cayce and Reincarnation, which explored in depth how both worked. I had dreams with reincarnation themes over the years and I also received psychic readings where I was told about past lives. In college I studied comparative religion, among other things, and learned the Hindu and Buddhist doctrinal roots and socio-cultural contexts from which current Western ideas about reincarnation and karma sprung. I learned about how each future Dalai Lama, as a young boy, recognizes and accurately picks out personal possessions from his past life. I read Ian Stevenson’s Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, and taught the concepts of karma and reincarnation in my early twenties. Both concepts were fundamental components of my belief system from the age of thirteen until I was in my late twenties. Therefore, I do not approach these words, concepts, and beliefs as an outsider or as someone who does not have a personal experience with their usefulness or a healthy respect for their benefits.

From about three until the mid-twenties, learning to take responsibility is a core skill we must acquire if we  want to live a happy life. Learning to be on time, to keep your word, obligations, and promises, to be accountable, and to accept responsibility for your actions is not only a critical element of character, but a fundamental signpost of maturity. If you don’t do these things, you have not developed a healthy waking identity, and of course many people never learn personal responsibility or apply it only in limited ways.  Reincarnation, karma, fate, predestination, and Divine will make you responsible for everything that happens to you: it is all happening because you “created” it, if not by your present choices, then by something you did in a distant past existence. Get robbed? You were probably a robber in your past life. Lose a child to cancer? This is a lesson you needed to learn in order to burn off karma from past lives and to grow in peace, forgiveness, and mercy. Contact an incurable disease? You are burning off even more karma. Do you find yourself in an unequal society, in which people discriminate against you and avenues to better yourself are closed to you and your children? No problem! You are exactly where you chose to be! You are where you need to be in order to grow most quickly, because everything is in divine order.

If you are irresponsible and need to learn to be more responsible, the concept of karma is invaluable, because it makes you responsible for everything that happens to you. Because we all start out self-centered and irresponsible, birth is constantly generating people who can benefit from the concept of karma, with reincarnation there to fill in the details. Therefore, to the extent that the concept of “karma” helps people to be more responsible, it is an important and beneficial aspect of waking up. It is quite helpful for the attainment of those stages of enlightenment that are associated with building a strong, stable sense of who you are, which means the three pre-personal stages and the first two personal stages.  Since competency at these stages, including a strong ability to be responsible is a pre-requisite for higher stage advancement, a strong case can be made of the absolute necessity for a belief in some mythology, meaning “system of truth,” like the dharma/karma/reincarnation constellation.

In addition, a cultural belief in reincarnation provides a powerful context for even young children to learn to take personal responsibility for their actions, thoughts, and feelings. Many of the hurdles and obstacles of early development can be minimized or avoided simply by having the good fortune to grow up in a cultural context where the withdrawing of projections and instead assuming personal responsibility is the expected, assumed, default cultural context.

While having a strong sense of self generally translates into competency within the expectations and demands of your family, work, and society, enlightenment past the development of a strong, healthy sense of self involves the deconstruction of that self. This does not mean that you get rid of your identity, but that you develop objectivity about it and toward it; it no longer defines who you are but rather serves as a useful set of tools for addressing the issues of the day. This is a huge difference, because before you thought you were that responsible self. When you objectify it, that self no longer controls you through its structures, roles, and definitions of appropriate and inappropriate behavior, truth, and reality. You still possess your ability to be responsible, but it is no longer validated or justified by a responsible self or necessarily maintained by a metaphysical rationalization for why you need to be responsible. Instead, responsibility springs from a growing desire to get out of one’s own way so that life can express itself more fully through you.

There are no shortcuts to the transpersonal. Before you can be nobody, you have to first become somebody. You have to build a competent, confident, responsible, sense of self before you can objectify yourself from it. Those who think they can bypass this process by going straight into the ashram or meditating for hours a day, becoming psychic, learning energy healing, or becoming a lucid dreamer are actually extending their developmental process by postponing the creation of a strong, autonomous sense of self.

It was not until my thirties that it dawned on me just how grandiose my belief in my personal responsibility for my experience was. Was I really that powerful? If I was so knowledgeable before I was born, why did I not have the foresight to see major ways I would complicate my life unnecessarily and consequently structure a future that could avoid such unnecessary misery? Did I really want to believe that children “chose” to be born to child molesters? Are children “meant” to die from cancer? Are people born and raised in poverty, like those born into the sudra caste in India, where they were “meant” to be? For a while I decided that the pre-existent self must simply be so eager to incarnate, and take a perspective similar to someone on a mountain, for whom the lands below look flat and the way ahead clear, because the swamps, alligators, pythons, and mosquitoes are invisible from such a height. However, in time it dawned on me that my challenges in life must then not be due to karma, but to my stupidity and ignorance. Past lives and karma no longer worked to explain how I was now viewing life. However, I still knew the evidence for reincarnation, and I had no better explanation.

How does karma, a concept that is supportive of waking up and personal development in the prepersonal through early personal stages of development, become less conducive to enlightenment the farther you go past the achievement of a competent social self? India, where the doctrine of karma is still pervasive to this day, since it is a foundational element of Hinduism, provides a massive, multi-millennial demonstration of the dangers of taking on too much responsibility, due to the pervasive cultural adoption of the concept of karma. It is this belief that created an extremely stable and compliant Indian society, in which each person was locked into the profession of his father or mother and whose choice of life partner was determined by his parents, as part of the karma he or she had chosen. The result was highly adaptive: India has one of the most stable and impervious societies man has ever created, one that has withstood the invasions of Mughals, British colonialists, and capitalists. It even survived where and when Buddhism did not and could not. The fortitude of Hinduism is a powerful example of the extraordinary ability of the doctrine of karma to support individuals and societies at levels of development that require stability and security. It provides the freedom for those who have raised families to even drop out of society, become hermits, and focus on their own liberation. Karma may, in fact, be the best cognitive structure devised to date by humans for providing cultural stability and security, as well as teaching and maintaining a personal sense of responsibility.

However, what happens when the focus of development shifts from security, stability, and personal responsibility to issues of mid to late personal developmental levels, such as guaranteeing human rights and egalitarianism? At this point you have a massive, unavoidable cultural collision between karma, on the one hand, and discrimination and injustice, on the other. What is responsible on some levels of development is not responsible on other, higher levels. Karma not only explains, but actually provides for religious and divinely-sanctioned social injustice and deprivation of human rights, all in the name of personal, social, and dharmic  responsibility. In the late 1940’s India addressed this inconsistency with laws that outlawed the caste system. However, because you cannot outlaw the doctrine of karma, the caste system remains alive and well in India, and with it massive discrimination and injustice. Whether you can have the doctrine of karma without generating social injustice is a very real, important, and unresolved issue.

Just as you do not have to be Hindu or Buddhist to believe in karma, you do not have to be an Indian in order to be damaged by its implications for your development. One Muslim wrote, “In Islam, (believing you are where you were meant to be) is not a defeatist attitude or leaving all to fate.. We are to endeavour to do our very best.. and then leave it to our creator to decide (our fate). It is rather magical really… As our creator is the biggest planner… We plan but our creator decides what is best for us.”  This is exactly the point: karma involves beliefs that are largely magical and pre- personal. One doesn’t have to be religious to believe in some version of this idea; you will find it in atheists and spiritual new agers. You routinely find it in people who justify their mistakes or ill-treatment as a child or by a previous partner by saying, “If that hadn’t happenied, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” with the implication being that some injustice, abuse, suffering, disease, loss, or accident was necessary, justified, “right,” and pre-determined. What this overlooks is that if you had a different past you would indeed be a different person today, and who is to say that person would not be healthier, more balanced, and more capable of generating benefits to society than who you are today?

When you are told that you are responsible for how people treat you, that you get as good as you give, and that you are where your choices have placed you in life, what are the functions of such statements? On the one hand, the message is, “make the best of your circumstances.” On the other it is, “You are so powerful you control how other people think about you and act toward you.” It is also, “Don’t rock the boat.” “Everything is in divine order; accept your fate!” If you sit down and shut up, you will make life easier for others and therefore for yourself. Is this true? Is it good advice?

If society is able to convince you that your concerns, such as a lack of opportunity for education or employment, are all about your karma and not about social policy or employers, then you will go away and leave politicians and bosses alone. It will never cross your mind to demand that abuse stop, because after all, it’s your karma. You will not require respectful communication because obviously the disrespect involves lessons that you have attracted that you need to learn. You will never contemplate company reforms that respect both workers and the environment, because the owners of the company are working out their karma, just as you are. You will forget about expecting anything of politicians because, after all, if they are incompetent, it is only because that is where their karma put them. It is not your job to hold them accountable, or to expect them to be honest, responsible, and courageous. Your job is to be accountable, honest, responsible, and courageous, in submission to your karma. If you do, you will get your reward in future lives and those corrupt politicians will get theirs. In the meantime, accept your victimization with equanimity. If people don’t treat you with respect, it’s your problem, not theirs, because you attracted this treatment as your karma.

Looked at from such a perspective, the doctrine of karma is the Drama Triangle on steroids. Karma is your rescuer because it teaches you to be responsible and to live a life that is in alignment with your dharma, or your divinely-directed life path to liberation. However, because it makes everything your responsibility, karma turns you into the victim of the decisions of others, such as your parents and the culture in which you are embedded. Consequently, you are blind to the chronic persecution and abuse that you choose to carry as a mark of your superior character.

Sometimes I look at the injustice that reincarnation causes people to accept in the world and I am stunned. Sometimes I look at the unnecessary limitations that people impose on themselves, because they believe in karma and I am appalled. Sometimes I look at the bright minds and good-hearted people who not only believe in reincarnation and karma but teach them and I wonder if I have entered the Twilight Zone. How could it be that I so believed in and taught these ideas for so many years of my life?

Nevertheless, my present stance is that perhaps reincarnation is true. It certainly seems to be true in at least some cases for at least some individuals, and if it is, then the doctrine of karma must have some reality as well. In addition, I would like to be able to set a clear intention to come back and complete the work I have started, or at least kick the IDL ball a little farther down the field, closer to the goal posts. And because I have no certainty about what is or is not true, I will continue to set a clear intention about coming back and continuing my work.

However, I neither understand reincarnation and karma in the context of justice or enlightenment, nor do I on the whole, find their benefits as outweighing the obstacles they create for development. So it probably sounds contradictory that I do not consider either karma or reincarnation to be, in the balance, helpful, even if they are somehow or other true for some people. It would be easy for me to dismiss my stance as immaturity, by patronizingly telling myself, “Don’t worry! If you just meditate enough you will mature into a full understanding of the rightness and correctness of karma and reincarnation! You just aren’t there yet.”

That may indeed be true, and in the meantime the personal and social damage these beliefs can inflict is too important to blithely ignore. If you look at how these beliefs actually affect lives, you find that they often keep people trapped in stories about some past that no longer exists and in a sense of personal responsibility that is grandiose. I am reminded of a very credible account of a boy who remembered being a fighter pilot shot down in the Pacific in World War II. He knew enough that historical facts could be tracked down and the identity of that pilot discovered and the engagement in which he was shot down identified. Once one gets past the “gee whiz” factor of such a story, questions arise. What does that life have to do with this one? What do those memories have to do with understanding and resolving the challenges of one’s present life circumstances? What does the belief that one is a soul that does not die and has lived before generate in consciousness today? Are we responsible for memories of acts in past lives? Are the results of such memories positive or negative or indefinite? Is this information helpful or harmful? Is it relevant or not? Once one accepts such a story is true, so what? What’s next?

Integral Deep Listening treats such memories the same way it treats dreams and real life events: as wake-up calls to be interviewed and respectfully listened to. Such listening requires a phenomenological approach, which involves the suspending of as many assumptions as possible for the duration of the interview, including belief and disbelief in such things as karma and reincarnation. You simply suspend your assumptions about such things and give priority to clear, respectful, deep listening to whatever is being interviewed. In this case, it could be the Corsair, the type of fighter plane that this boy remembers flying, it could be the rounds that hit his engine and blew up his plane, or it could be the fire that resulted and probably caused the fear that contributed to the childhood nightmare remembrances.

What such interviews tend to disclose is an awareness that you are simply not as responsible for who you are and what has happened to you as the doctrine of karma insists that you are. Society, culture, your parents, your teachers are primarily responsible for how you think, feel, and act, and what you believe. That’s a fact. If you had been born to different parents, in another culture, and were brought up speaking a different language, you would largely be a different person. Memories become a broader, largely unseen and under-appreciated context within which the need to adapt to the realities of one’s present circumstances become the overpowering formative factor. People often fight hard to separate the uniqueness of their identity from their culture and familial scripting, because they want to assert their uniqueness and fight cultural determinism. However, with karma and reincarnation they replace one form of predetermination and fate with another.

Many people resist accepting that they could and would have been an entirely different person with different thoughts, interests, and beliefs, if they had been born to a different family, mostly because the idea is too threatening to their sense of who they are. As a result, they may cultivate belief in different forms of predestination, of which karma and reincarnation are merely one variety. Functionally, reincarnation and karma simply extend and expand our life script, the pre-determined story that we follow. In the karmic version, it is inescapable; you cannot escape your karmic scripting. This is another reason why I find karma and reincarnation on balance of the same reality unhelpful: predestination and pre-determination eliminate personal choice, and therefore relegate you to the position of victim in the Drama Triangle, with no escape.

Another reason I find reincarnation and karma problematic is the manifest evidence that humans can and do change their scripts, which implies that while predestination and all forms of determinism may make sense in theory, they can be effectively and productively ignored, neutralized, and overcome in practice. Your decisions can and do change your life scripting, and therefore impact all sorts of things with predictable outcomes. However, in order to do so, you first must become aware of the basic life decisions that you have made that determine who you are and how your life is supposed to turn out. If these come in the form of past life memories, fine! Interview them as wake-up calls! Learn why they have arisen and what you have to learn from them! Pay attention to the recommendations that come from the interview and act on them!

These are practical tools you have available to you to evaluate these assumptions, sort through them, and decide what is beneficial and what needs to be tossed in the dumpster. At this point you can set new goals for yourself that take your scripting into account, but are not thereby limited by it or to it. The problem is that who you think you are may be so caught up in your scripting that you are addicted to it; to get rid of it means you won’t know who you are any more, and that can be quite threatening. This is another basic reason why it often feels safer to stick with the grandiose limits imposed by belief in some form of predestination.

This is why IDL teaches script analysis and goal setting. It is another area in which IDL interviewing can be very helpful. Most of the emerging potentials you get to know could care less about karma, past lives, or reincarnation. Your inner compass, based on many interviews, probably will be found not to care about them either, viewing them as so many more dreams. Life itself, as revealed by IDL interviewing, does not seem to care. Only you do. Why might that be?

While IDL respects the amazing usefulness of karma, fate, and predestination for pre-personal levels of development, it believes questions about its reality are best subordinated to deep listening. What do such memories and beliefs have to say for themselves? The question is not what we or others think about karma and reincarnation, but what these memories and experiences associated with karma are saying to us. What do they convey when we suspend our beliefs and listen to them?

The more you outgrow your socially-contrived definition of who you are the more likely you are to develop the objectivity required to see that karma encourages the taking on of far too much responsibility while assuming far too much predestination. Are the problems you are encountering today really due to what you did in some past life? Are you actually that omniscient, powerful, and grandiose as to believe that you created your life conditions? Do you really believe you have that much control over the world, others, and yourself? How can it be that you are so all-knowing and all-powerful and yet you are not able to discipline yourself to meditate, exercise, or stop eating junk?

Few interviewed emerging potentials seem to believe in karma. If it is such an important, fundamental statement about the nature of reality, why not? Could it be that they have outgrown it? Could it be that as you practice identifying with their perspectives, that you will outgrow it as well? IDL predicts that you will, and that is a prediction that you can put to the test in your own life by doing interviews and applying in your life those recommendations that make sense to you.

What takes the place of karma? A deep appreciation of the interconnectedness, abundance, luminosity, and cosmic humor of life emerges. Reincarnation, fate, karma, and predestination support one of the six core qualities, acceptance. It creates both a sense of meaning for life and a way to stop fighting things that one is powerless to change so that energy can be focused on building who we are where we are. Because we all need acceptance, particularly as children, this way of thinking is useful, important, and valuable. However, acceptance is only one of the six core qualities, and the abuses and irrationality that accompany karma, fate, and predestination are an example of what happens when we emphasize one quality over the others.

In this regard, Integral Deep Listening provides an antidote to too much acceptance by also emphasizing wisdom and objectivity. As we develop these qualities we learn to think and question our beliefs; we see both their usefulness and their partiality; we learn why and how we need to supplement them with a balance of the other five core qualities.

What else can take the place of karma? How about internalizing the perspectives of interviewed emerging potentials that are more awake than you are? How about re-scripting your life using triangulation? How about moving beyond scripting, drama, and pre-destination by following the recommendations of your interviewed emerging potentials? How about living moment to moment within the span of each breath?

Posted in Essays, Freedom from Delusion

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