04 April 2011

Ian Gawler blog: KARMA – is it all in the mind?

Next week I am in Brisbane for a series of talks; (see the details on the website or click on this page), but this week, the topic is karma.

In simple terms, karma is a concept that directly links cause and effect. Karma says things happen for a reason; that the things that occur in our life have a cause.

So, is karma the reason I got cancer? Is karma the reason one person lives and another dies when both are faced with similar circumstances?

Karma does respond to these challenging questions, and says that in life there is a rhyme and a reason. So what can we know about karma? And how relevant is it to this life of ours? And those around about us?

This is the third blog dipping into these questions and the comments on last week’s topic on reincarnation have been very interesting. If you are new to blogging like I was when I started this blog 6 months ago, you click on COMMENTS below any blog and then you can read comments made, or add your own. You probably know that. It was news to me!

The word karma comes from the sanskrit language and commonly is translated to mean “action”; sometimes as “effect” or “fate”. The Oxford defines karma as the sum of a person’s actions; especially the intentional actions; and karma is regarded as determining that person’s future states of existence. The Oxford also speaks of the fate or destiny that follows as effect from cause.

We can certainly see evidence of cause and effect in many aspects of our lives. Drink too much alcohol and we are highly likely to become drunk. Be drunk and drive, we are highly likely to have an accident. Alcohol and accident; cause and effect.

But if we look into the circumstances or the states of mind behind why someone gets drunk, and then drives while drunk, it rapidly becomes very complex.

What is that? Drinking and driving? When I was young, it was just what we did. Talk about good karma; it is a miracle some of my old friends are still alive. And why was I never attracted to becoming drunk and some of my friends were into it? And today? With all the education around drinking and not driving, what is the state of mind; what can we say is the cause for someone who does?

Karma is the spiritual law that says our actions have consequence. There are different types of karma.

1. Immediate: like drink too much and have an accident. Hit someone and get hit back. Exercise more and lose weight. Immediate cause and effect.

2. Delayed: this is where the timeframe is extended and maybe even includes reincarnation. Maybe a lot of effort went into learning to play a piano in one lifetime, then Mozart pops up and writes his first symphony before he is ten.

3. Metaphorical: maybe someone does not want to see the difficulties around them, and while in this life we may say they are blind to someone else’s need, in the next life they are literally blind.

4. Educational: this is my term for how we progress and learn in life. So maybe in this life we were really hard on someone in a particular way. Next lifetime, the situation is reversed. We now get to experience the impact of that difficulty in our own life.

Now this aspect of karma could be viewed as being rather punitive, but it is more useful to see it as a learning opportunity. We get to experience why that past action was so unkind, and we get to learn, we get to experience why it makes sense to function more lovingly, more constructively.

Who’s Karma?

Some say karma is entirely personal and that whatever happens to you is entirely of your own doing. Everything in your life is caused, is created by your own karma.

This view seems particularly prevalent in New Age circles where the individual is given great prominence. But think of this. Consider how much your circumstances are affected by the family that you are in, the friends you have, the tribe or community you belong to, the culture, the race you happen to be a part of, the nation you live in. Just the fact that you are a member of the human family, rather than being a dog or a cat is pretty significant!

Being born into a wealthy Melbourne family compared to a poor family in the Gaza strip seems to be extraordinarily different. Whether one is good or bad, better or worse; it is unwise to say, but it certainly is different.

Karma then is complex. For me, it speaks of starting points and tendencies.

It may seem good karma to be born into a wealthy family, but maybe one individual squanders the opportunities and becomes a drug addict. Maybe the brother or sister becomes a world leader or a major philanthropist. Maybe the kids in the Gaza strip family do something similar; one becomes a suicide bomber, another a peace activist.

While the Dalai Lama loves science and is a great scholar, he says that in life there are two things that are not worth spending a lot of time pondering because they are so complex. One is karma and the other is past lives.

However, he also quotes the Buddha who did say that if you seek to understand your past, look at your present circumstances. If you seek to understand your future, look at your present actions, and particularly the motivation and attitude that accompanies those actions.

What this implies is that the circumstances we find ourselves in now, along with the potential those circumstances hold, is the sum total of our past. There is a cause behind our current conditions and it lies in our past actions. What is also being said is that what we do today, why we do it, and how we do it, will have consequence for the future. What we do does make a difference.

So even though karma is complex and has some air of mystery about it, here is why I like it:

1. It helps to make sense of life. It informs my View.

2. It provides personal accountability. What you think and do, good or bad comes back to you and shapes your future. You may cheat the law, but not your karma.

3. It offers real hope. What we do today can lead to a better tomorrow.

4. No effort is wasted. If we do the best that we can in this life, even if we die before seeing any benefits, in the next life we may well be the better for it and so will those around us.

May your karma include a long and happy life.




The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: Sogyal Rinpoche. Excellent elaboration of reincarnation and karma.

The Dragon’s Blessing: Guy Allenby. My biography that recounts how my own View emerged and developed, how it informed the tough times and the bountiful ones.

You Can Conquer Cancer: Ian Gawler. For the chapters on death and dying and philosophy.

Coping With Grief: Mal McKissock. Very useful and succinct manual on grief. A must read as a life skill.


Understanding Death, Helping the Dying: Ian Gawler. Good to listen to with those you are really close to and use as a focus for discussion.

Counselling and Groups

NALAG National Association for Loss and Grief


  1. Great difficult topic to address. Thanks for giving it a go and getting some perspective into the preoccupation we have with good and bad, and what we understand by lucky.

  2. When I was diagnosed with cancer I was angry and confused. The why me question was really big. There were all these other people eating badly, smoking and abusing themselves and other people, yet they were OK and I was really sick. Reading You Can Conquer Cancer helped widen my horizons, so thanks Ian for these articles too. They help to make me feel like there is some sense to it and that I can do something about the mess I am in

  3. After doing alot of soul searching I was able to see clearly how my past actions explained my challenging present situation and now I feel empowered and relieved to know that my actions from one moment to the next can and will form my future.I had never thought of this in the context of karma.It makes complete sense to me.It also makes each moment for me from now on so relevant and so precious.Thankyou for your insight. Madelene