What is karma? Why some traditions say we have to pay karma?
Probably the most misinterpreted and misused concept in the spiritual dictionary other than the concept “I”.
Without getting overly analytical or complex about the mechanism of causality, the simple fact is that karma is a name for the law of “cause-and-effect”. It is not necessary to be a guru, a spiritual disciple or a scientist to understand what it means.
If you flick that switch on the wall (cause) the light goes on (effect). That is all that it means in essence.
Now, we can apply that concept to spirituality and what we can call “self”; again without going deeply into analyzing what “self” is. We are talking about whatever “self” is under the law of karma or cause-and-effect. The intrinsic reality of that self is not relevant to this discussion.
If I step on your foot it will hurt your foot, not mine, or hers. So my stepping on your foot causes your pain. I caused you pain. Let’s not get non-dual about this at this point.
Another scenario: I drop a heavy object over your foot. It may hurt it so much that you won’t be able to use your foot and you will need to have it in a cast and you won’t be able to walk for a month.
Well, that “cause” created a more serious “effect”. If you are a gardener you cannot work now. How are you going to pay your bills?
Now, what is difficult or impossible for most people to understand is how this law operates on the emotional level and its implications as it operates across lifetimes, because emotions are not a physical phenomenon and their influence reaches beyond the time of a single physical body and the physical plane.
Every action has a reaction. Most actions and reactions happen in a short period of time and the cause and effect are balanced in short order. For example:
You steal from someone and by doing that you decreased or destroyed certain possibilities in the victim’s life. Later on you may repent and decide to apologize and pay back. So you can go and return what you stole to the rightful owner. He/she forgives you, you forgive yourself, and the parties involved live happily thereafter holding no more accounts with one another.
If you don’t pay back you will feel you owe him/her and that feeling will not leave you. Guilt will plague you until it is paid. The payment can be made within one lifetime, as the example I just gave you. If not, it will come up in a future lifetime.
That is a law. Cause-and-effect operates though lifetimes.
The property you stole (cause) is returned in a future lifetime (effect). The crime (cause) creates guilt (effect). The payment (cause) creates opportunity (effect). Forgiveness (cause) creates peace (effect).
If karma of a high emotional intensity is not paid we cannot live in peace. The death of the physical body does not imply balancing of accounts. So, dying does not bring peace in this case. Writing RIP on a tombstone is sweet but futile to those who owe or feel they owe.
Karma implies spiritual work, not spiritual vacation. And in the presence of unpaid karma and the absence of spiritual work we basically live in hell and there is little or no progress.
If, for some miraculous reason, forgiveness is stronger than the hate generated by karma, those who transgressed are freed from payment on the spot. Think of Jesus on the cross saying “forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. No karma at all for JC. Pure Unconditional Love. So, yes, forgiveness is possible when deep emotional maturity, wisdom and non-attachment are present. Obviously, not very common though.
Forgiving oneself for our own transgressions is needed as well. Or else even if Jesus shows up and pat us on the back his forgiveness will be of no use and we will want to pay regardless of payment being demanded or not. So, it is possible to accrue and pay karma with oneself through extreme guilt.
Again, I am not talking about non-duality here, this is preparatory work, the foundation. And this is largely why most people do not experience awakening or realization in this lifetime. It is simply not possible under the weight of emotional onus, often unconscious.
Have you tried giving encouragement to someone with a strong chief feature of self-deprecation? It does not penetrate. He/she feels he/she is not deserving. So, in those cases a different process is needed for that karma to be resolved — it has nothing to do with others.
Extreme manifestations of false personality destroy opportunity for ourselves because extreme fear limits our actions and expressions in life. So, self-karma is created. Or paid, when false personality is neutralized and we live in Fearlessness and express our natural talents.
Cause-and-effect is not the only law in existence. Accidents can happen. Not everything is fated in the sense that there would be no creativity and improvisation by Fate. So, the frivolous statement that when shit happens to someone that means they are paying karma might well be right, but more often than not it is merely a frivolous statement with no foundation in understanding or awareness of the law being enacted.
Processing and digesting the suffering of false personality while understanding karma for what it is is in itself the cause of future effects. Being conscious of the character of our choices and how misaligned they can be with our True Nature and the mechanism of their operation enables the liberation from self-undoing. Without being conscious we are stuck in the dark. The mind must be known. That is what being conscious means. Being conscious is the beginning of the end of the spiritual path.