One way to lighten the burden of karma – the law of cause and effect – is simply to step out of its radius.
This may be a big step, a small step, or several steps. If it took only one step to get into a shadow, it may well take only one step to get out of it.
Such action suggests that we accept karma as our own doing, not limiting it to long-term penalties for actions long past.
The statement, “As we sow, so shall we reap,” may be more appropriate, for this metaphor implies that there is a growing season, a cycle, between cause and effect. No doubt there are such delayed effects, some of which we may not have foreseen.
However, there are also immediate effects; karma also occurs now.
Karma is what we are doing to ourselves right now—whatever is promoting or stunting our growth, creating harmony or unnecessary burdens of suffering.
For example, if we close a door, we cannot enter through it until it is opened again. If we fall down, we can only crawl until we stand up again. To pound on the door, or to bemoan crawling, not only misses the point; it means we are accepting results (karma) that are not mandatory. We need not endure this discomfort.
Our religious tradition has been rather heavy-handed regarding sin, a word that has a surprising scriptural background.
In Jewish scripture the Hebrew word chet comes from archery and means missing the mark, or (by metaphoric extension) falling short, not coming up to specifications in some way. In Christian scripture the Greek word hamartia also comes from archery and has the same meanings. In English scripture these words are occasionally translated as fault or offense, but most often as sin.
The hundreds of references to sin, sinner, and sinning almost exclusively originate from these roots that mean missing the mark.
In a similar way, words whose roots relate to wandering are translated error. In both cases the connotation of the source words is failure in relation to some purpose, rather than a violation that calls for extraneous penalties. The penalties for error are its built-in results, the inescapable effects of a cause.
Sin and failure are emotionally loaded words in our present culture.
We brand someone a failure, not necessarily in terms of its purpose, but in terms of our own purposes that we expect of it.
We impute guilt, rather than merely error, to a failure or a sinner.
Our society strongly emphasises guilt. Some applications of psychoanalysis demand acceptance of guilt for one’s childhood emotions. Some religious “conversions,” in recognising the importance of accepting divine grace and guidance, ask postulants first to accept their own guilt, even to magnify it. The theological doctrine of original sin implies that human error, failure, and guilt are inescapable.
We have been on the way to becoming a guilt-ridden society.
Feeling guilt, then, is one aspect of immediate karma; it is something in which we indulge that causes present suffering as well as present and future limitations. It cripples us like a stone in our shoe.
But it is not so easy to lay aside this burden once we have taken it up. For one thing, we do not want to think of ourselves in the same class as those we would perceive as emotionless, those who seem to feel no reservation or guilt in what they do.
But until we can, with compassion and humility, forgive ourselves for missing the mark or falling short or our purpose and ideals, we continue to limp, thus compounding our suffering.
A useful exercise at the close of each day is to review the day’s events, particularly those in which you took some action or made a decision—or in which you could have done so, but did not.
It will be encouraging to recall that you handled some situations pretty well. But in others you fell short. What could you have done better, more in line with your overall purpose and ideals?
Such review is not meant to castigate yourself for your errors, but to anticipate how to do better the next time. We learn from our shortcomings only when we recognise them as shortcomings; and that in itself is the principal ingredient of atonement.
Atonement, which means putting ourselves right, is not the same as punishment. What about those errors or offences of which we are not aware? We are not immune from their results.
The ancient idea of a sin offering was not meant as reparation, but as a token of acknowledgment that we have other shortcomings of which we are not aware, and also that redress has not always been possible for those we are aware of.
In fact, we do not perceive fully the divine law of cause and effect—what we call karma. Acknowledging this is the first step in asking for more enlightenment.
It is not our further responsibility to punish ourselves – that has been decreed otherwise:
“Retribution (not vengeance) is mine, saith the Lord”
That is to say that retribution is built into the cosmic system.
Atonement, when we have harmed or offended someone, depends on redress or restitution to them, or alternative deeds of merit that can balance the scales to some extent. Asking further that our errors (sins) be remitted to us—be handed back to us-is not asking for punishment in kind, but rather that we may have opportunity to do it over, this time correctly, or to make adequate amends.
This is fulfilling the law.
There are other ways in which we stand in our own light, or stand in shadow when we could be in the sun.
These ways are plenty in number, but it may help to point out one rather common element.
We have had a tradition of self-denial, of foregoing things, we want and especially things that are pleasurable. This was fostered in pioneer communities where life conditions were more austere. But it has also been fostered in other circumstances as self-discipline.
On the plus side, at least in theory, self-denial compels people to reshuffle their priorities and discover what is most important and most enduring. But it has also been used as punishment, and it can become a fetish.
Most of us have done without something when we could not afford it. But other things we do without by choice or omit intentionally, not knowing what we are missing.
Negative thinking shuts many doors to us that positive thinking would open.
True, we are beset by a barrage of negative expectations-as to health hazards, inflation, corruption in high places, and so on. But by not exercising whatever spiritual competence we have, and not counteracting such negative expectations, only leaves us in want, not enjoying the available cosmic benefits of health, happiness, and achievement.
If we stand in the shadow, how can we be warmed by the sun? If we turn away from the fountain, how can we quench our thirst?
In these ways, unwittingly, we create somber karma now, while brighter karma is only a step away.
Adaptation of ‘Unnecessary Burdens” by Edgar Wirt, PhD, from the Rosicrucian Digest, March 1982.