It’s a super rainy day here, and I came to my office by myself to listen to vinyl records and do some writing. I sat for a while before opening my computer in anticipation of the barrage of notifications and distractions I would have to wade through on my way to this blank screen. It seems there are so many forces out there constantly taking us out of the present moment and transporting our minds to distant conflicts. I often admire my little dog Frankie because he lives right behind his eyeballs. Constantly present. Here I am already distracted thinking that I need to cancel a meeting I had planned to go down to the marina and measure the depths of the boat slips at low tide. It’s pouring down rain on a Sunday. That’s done, and now I’m back here. Small distractions everywhere.
One of the ideas that has been sitting with me is the interplay between our ego, our personality, and our karma. I often hear a lot about these topics individually, but I do not very often here about them being talked about together. So what is the relationship between our ego and our Karma? To me it seems like one creates the other, much like the ancient image of the snake eating its tail.
There was a spiritual master from Brazil who lived from the late 1800s until 1971. His name was Mestre Irineu, and from the time he was very young, he had dreams of a celestial mother who would keep her eye on him. If he did something wrong, she would come in his dreams and punish him. She would roll him in the hot sand or in the mud of a rice paddy with sharp rice shoots pointing up. It was not for him to steal or take advantage.
Mestre Irineu has many hymns that he used to sing that talk about his mother is always watching him. I used to think that meant that there was a benevolent supernatural force that kept track of him and made sure no harm would befall him–kind of like a guardian angel queen of the forest. But when I heard the story of the mother that would appear in his dreams, I knew it was much more than this. She would watch his every step and hold him to account. There was no escaping her watchful eye.
This is like our Karma. We can never get away from it. We often try, as they say, we do our tricks down low, thinking that the master does not know. But of course he does. Everything is recorded in the record of our own karma, because our karma is our own conscience. We can deny the truth, we can avoid the consequences of our actions, we can hope that nobody finds out the truth, but there is no escaping our own conscience. We might fool even ourselves, but never our karma.
Let’s say for instance that we tell a little lie to someone and make up an excuse for not doing something that we did not want to do. We may very well have been justified in just being upfront and saying, for instance, I know we had plans for dinner tonight, but I’m feeling tired and would rather not go. But instead we say we had a headache and could not go. It’s probably not even morally wrong to do that because it really does not cause any harm to anyone, but what does it do to us?
The psychology of this is very interesting. The next time someone tells us they cannot do something because they have a headache, we will doubt them. We will wonder what the real reason is. Because we ourselves told a little lie to smooth out a social awkwardness, then we will see this in the world. This of course happens all the time. Do you not frequently receive excuses that you know are not true in the absolute sense? “I’m sorry I was late, you know, traffic.” Like you did not know there would be traffic in Miami at 5:00 on a Friday? Ok sure.
But we can also let this go right? Do I really care if someone has a doctor appointment or if they just don’t want to go to lunch that day? Does it matter? The important information, that I’m glad to receive in time to change my own plans, is that for some reason that my friend does not want to explain, lunch is not going to happen. Maybe they have to go do something else that they don’t want to talk about. Maybe they have a job interview and don’t want to tell anyone that they are searching for a job. It really does not matter to me personally what the reason is, the simple fact is I need to make new plans for lunch.
But the point is that we record our own actions in our own memory, and this becomes the lens through which we see the world. If we steal from our neighbors, then we expect our neighbors to steal from us. If we hate other people because of their race, we will be afraid when we walk past people of that race, because we will see them as feeling the same towards us. If we cheat in our relationships, we will be unable to trust. Our actions become our Karma in this way. It’s the collection of our past actions that is stored in our conscience and frames our perspective on the world.
This in turn, becomes our ego. It becomes who we think we are. It becomes how we see the world. The ego is a very illusive being that lives inside our conscience. It wants recognition, approval, acceptance, and to be admired. But it also knows the truth about what we deserve and what we have earned. So, often, what we want and what we deserve do not really align, and we experience distress. And it is this distress that often leads us to seek a solution.
And so it is that the ego is the patient that shows up at the door of a therapist, it is the initiate who starts a 10 day vipasaana, the ego is the seeker who holds its first cup of ayahuasca, it is the lonely soul that starts the Camino de Santiago. And the first thing the ego bumps into on this path of self discovery an objection to the notion that we are receiving just what we deserve. We don’t like this medicine very much. We often want to point to other reasons for our failures in business, in relationships, in school, in overcoming addictions, in whatever we are failing at. We don’t like to think that we deserve what we get. But the ancient wisdom is unrelenting. You reap what you sow, and that is what we all deserve.
The first lesson in all of these paths is to learn to examine your own conscience. It is all written there just as clear as a book, for those who want to see. But we usually don’t see it. And this is where good friends really come in handy, because they usually see things from a little different perspective. Sure our friends have their own distortions in their own lenses, but it’s not the same distortion as the one we have, and so another perspective can help us to see the truth. If we want to.
Have you ever had a friend who complains about the same thing over and over? Another lousy job? Another lousy boyfriend? Another excuse for why they did whatever they always do? Continuations of self defeating behavior? A good friend can hold the light on what we don’t want to see, but it’s up to us to open our eyes.
Our egos hold onto wounds and resentments like little treasures. These are little treasured bits of evidence that prove that the world is unfair and out to get us. They are the stories we tell to ourselves, and to anyone who will listen, that justify us. These stories paint us in favorable light. How could we have been expected to do better given the awful circumstances? Of course we could not. These become the stories about who we are.
And so it is that our actions, in this life and in others, are recorded in our conscience, and this becomes the lens through which we see the world, and this forms our ego. And our ego then manifests itself as our personality. The personality is how this complex presents itself to others in the outside world. Karma is our history, ego is the result, and personality is the display.
We come into this world already with a Karma from our previous lives, or at least that’s what the ancient wisdom traditions of the east tell us. We come into this incarnation with the karmic baggage from our previous incarnations. We continue to play those same stores out in this life time, until we dissolve these karmic blocks through the process of forgiveness. Forgiveness was preached by the spiritual master known as Christ in the Judeo christian frame of reference. It comes as compassion and non-attachment from the east. All of the true wisdom traditions have the same prescription, even if the colorful stories are different. It does not much matter whether you believe in a god with an elephant head and a human body, or a god in the form of a man who was born of a human woman through immaculate conception. Stories of God coming into human form exist in all wisdom traditions, and the most important message they bring is the message of forgiveness.
This was a difficult topic for me initially when I started my spiritual path. I was super angry and feeling the victim. I was feeling misunderstood, and I thought the treatment I was receiving was unjust. And so when the notion of forgiveness was laid at my feet I initially did not understand. Why forgive people who continue to do me wrong? Turn the cheek so you can slap me again? That sounds like a sucker to me. But here in the battle, it is the sword of forgiveness that cuts the most.
Forgiveness is simply the ability to leave behind the treasures of resentment that the ego holds onto. It is the release of the stories about how we were wronged and did not get what we deserved. It is abandonment of the idea that we live in an unfair world that is out to get us. It is simply the determination that we accept the world and our role in it, and we are not going to carry around all this baggage anymore.
My favorite teacher of this is an imaginary baboon that is a friend of mine. This baboon friend is ornery. He lives in a tree and shouts insults at any who walk by, and if you stop to take issue with his insults, he will bombard you with monkey poo from the top of his tree. You can stand at the bottom of the tree and point your finger and yell, while he throws monkey poo down upon you. You can walk off and tell your friends about what a bad monkey my baboon friend is. You can hold onto your resentment, and you can judge other baboons to be the same way, and maybe some of them are. But really, would you argue with the baboon? Would you want to hold on to resentment?
It’s easy to say “no, of course I’m not going to hold resentment towards a baboon.” We can all see that there is no point in expecting the baboon to behave any differently. Baboon gonna do what baboon gonna do. But what about your coworker who routinely fails to show up and leaves you holding their shift? What then? Well “what then” is you tell your boss that your coworker’s delinquency is not your responsibility, and you don’t take their shift. And you smile and go home.
See this dynamic? If you stay and take the shift for your delinquent coworker, your boss might be happy, and your coworker will thank you and give you a great story for why this time was different, cause their phone was not charged and their car died. You will be left holding the bag of resentment with a story of how you are the victim. But it is your own action that causes you to suffer. Or maybe, having embraced your power, you might choose to take the shift, for time and a half. Your choice. No resentment.
Let’s say you were looking forward to seeing someone, and they stand you up. Ok that’s a bummer right? Your lunch did not go as expected. If you are quick, you can still make the best of it, but let’s grant that it’s a disappointment. But the next time, bring a book. Because if they stand you up again, it’s your own fault if you are disappointed. Forgive but don’t be a victim. We all have this power, but most of us don’t see or appreciate it.
So if we examine our conscience, we will see how we sowed the seeds of our own harvest. We can forgive the rolls others have played in bringing them to pass, and we can modify our own actions in the future. We can plant new seeds next time.
And so through a process of self examination and forgiveness, we can clean our conscience and release our karma. It’s as easy as that. And as we relax our karma and let go of our collections of resentments, as we clean the lens through which we see the world, we get lighter and lighter. We expect peace, harmony, love, truth and justice in the world, and we receive it.
And after practicing this for years and years, we can start to get a little quicker. When someone cancels on us with a flimsy excuse, we don’t dwell on it. We just bask in the divine love of the sun that is always there for all of us. May the sun shine down on you.