How Your Actions Shape Your Life

Your karma determines your incarnations and the experiences you will have.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.13

The word ‘karma’ has become part of the common parlance of the modern world, but its meaning is often misunderstood.

The Sanskrit word karma literally means action.

The law of karma refers to the fact that actions have consequences.

All action sows a seed for the future that corresponds with the intention with which it is offered; this means the effect pre-exists in the cause.

The law of karma suggests that we are continuously creating our life through our actions.

Action means not only our deeds but also our words and our thoughts.

Every action plants a seed for the future.

The sum total of all the seeds we plant with our thoughts, words, and deeds, create the person we become and everything we experience.

The law of karma is consistent with what Jesus said in the bible, namely, that we reap what we sow.

If we sow a seed today, for example, of rising early and exercising or meditating, that seed makes it a little easier to do it again tomorrow.

Each morning, we either help or hinder the growth of that seed.

When we rise early, we water the seed of our morning routine habit, inspired by our higher mind, and we nourish our life.

When we sleep in instead, despite our intention, we water the seeds of our lower self, which is primarily interested in comfort, ease, and pleasure.

Verse 16.7 of the Bhagavad Gita says:

Those trapped in avidya (ignorance) do things they should refrain from, and do not do the things they should do that would help them. They stray from the truth and proper conduct.

Allowing the lower self to dictate our actions ultimately holds us back and produces ever increasing suffering.

It is critical then, not to allow the lower self to dictate our actions and instead have the discipline to do what we know is truly good and nourishing for us.

The planting and watering of seeds is occurring all day, every day, in all areas of our life, with everything we do.

Each of our actions is a vote, so to speak, in favour of who we want to become in the future.

In order to comprehend the law of karma, one must understand what is right action and what is wrong action.

Says the Bhagavad Gita in verse 4.17

Right action is action that flows from the true Self or Soul, rather than the lower ego self, and is designed to serve yourself and others.

It is action that recognises the interconnectivity of all existence and has respect, honour, and consideration for all beings, and life at its foundation.

Martin Luther King Jnr said:

“In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… This is the interrelated structure of reality”.

Right action is action that accords with our dharma, our duty, our purpose.

According to yoga we should fulfil our dharma above all, and we should put all our heart, soul and effort into it.

Wrong action, conversely, is action motivated by the egoic lower self, that believes it is separate from everything else.

This lower self is only interested in ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘mine’,

And in self-gain, without regard to the impact on others.

Wrong action is action in violation of our dharma, our duty, our purpose.

According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, wrong action is a product of the following 5 factors:

  1. Ignorance – defined as lack of knowledge and incorrect knowledge, is said to be the source of the other 4 afflictions that disturb the mind.
  2. Ego – which leads to egoic pride and putting yourself above others.
  3. Attraction – leading to infatuation, lust and greed.
  4. Aversion and
  5. Fear – both of which leads to anger, resentment and hate.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali verse 2.12 says:

When we act based on our mental afflictions (ignorance, ego, attraction, aversion and fear) we create karma.

A common misapprehension about karma in popular culture is that it is a punishment and reward scheme; it is not.

We are not punished for our errors, nor are we rewarded for our right action.

We simply receive the consequences of our actions, as the effects are pre-baked into the cause.

Ultimately, you could say that karma is a weighing system.

Our individual karma and the outcomes in our life are a product of the totality of our action… and remember our words and thoughts are included.  

The more we live in right action guided by the Soul, the more liberated we become personally, and the more we contribute to everyone around us.

On the other hand, when we fail to live well, entangled in wrong action driven by our lower egoic self, we become dragged down personally, and drag others down with us.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali verse 4.8 it says:

When karma is created, an impression is left behind (samskara), which will manifest when conditions are favourable.

When we act from our lower self, we create karma, and an energetic residue of our actions remains with us. This residue is called a samskara in Sanskrit. This residue is easy to recognise in the emotions that linger within us after a negative encounter.

When this residue, and the issues that caused them, remain unresolved, gradually over time they weigh us down and affect our lives.

Our karma and samskaras are designed to show us what issues are unresolved within us, and what we still have to deal with.

They highlight and bring to our attention what we have yet to understand adequately and what we still have to learn in order to grow and move forward.

The consequences of our actions provide feedback and teach us lessons on how to live well, what to do, what works, what not to do, and what doesn’t work.

As a result of our karma we attract into our life what we need to face in order to continue to grow and evolve into a fully actualised being.

Karma can be seen then as our unfinished business.

It’s life’s way of giving us another shot at completing a particular episode or life lesson that is not complete.

Seen in this light, every experience is an opportunity for awakening.

It is wise therefore to pay attention and attempt to learn and grow from everything that occurs in our life.

If you think you can avoid your karma, think again! Buddha said,

“You can try to hide in skies, or the bowels of the earth; but the law of karma will find you.”

One of my teachers Dr John Demartini put it this way,

“What you run from, you run into, and what you run from, runs your life.”

This means that we cannot avoid the consequences of our actions.

We cannot outrun our karma. We carry it with us.

Our lessons follow us wherever we go, and they will dominate our life by coming up over and over again until they are addressed and transcended.

Yoga goes as far as saying that our karma remains with us from one life to the next. So according to this philosophy, not even death will interrupt having to one day deal with our unfinished business.

This being the case the only sane solution is to deal with all that arises as best we can.

The Rolling Stones summed it up perfectly with this line: you can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need!

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali verse 2.16 says:

Future karma and suffering can be avoided.

In the Yoga Vashishta it is said that karma can be intercepted by working on the self.

If we are committed to working on ourselves and looking for what we haven’t yet dealt with, we can voluntarily learn the lessons from our past and heal ourselves.

Doing this deep inner work dissolves our karma and circumvents the need to revisit that experience, thereby avoiding lessons repeating, and the corresponding suffering that causes.

How do we avoid creating karma in the first place you might ask?

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali verse 4.7 says

When your mind is in a state of yoga (yoga meaning union, integration and mental equilibrium) you do not create karma.

This means, when your mind is balanced, centred and open you do not create new karma.

When higher mind and the Soul have control of the reigns within, we act in harmony with life, we remember that we are part of an interconnect whole, we have love and compassion for all beings and all existence, we live up to our highest inner ideal and we live out the best version of ourselves.

In so doing, our action is stainless, without residue, and without karma.

On the other hand, when the lower self and ego override the higher mind and Soul, we are taken off course by reacting to the outer world.

We misperceive things, we are overcome by irrational emotions, we judge and react in ways we later regret and have to correct.

We fail to live to up to our highest vision and ideal and fail to live out the best version of ourselves.

In so doing, our actions are stained, they leave residue, and create karma we will have to resolve later.

Verse 2.67-68 of the Bhagavad Gita says:

When you allow your mind to be carried away by the senses, it takes with it your good judgement, just as a storm drives a boat off course. Therefore, go beyond attraction and aversion and abide in the wisdom of the Self.

Aim then to live in alignment with your higher mind and Soul in every moment and to live in a balanced mental state of yoga.