Wouldn’t it be nice if people who seem awful to us got their “just” rewards? If bullies and thieves were stopped and punished and we got to see the punishment? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if narcissistic rulers who ripped off their nation and committed acts of inhumanity were taken from the White House to the jailhouse?
Oh, if only. But it’s obvious that it doesn’t always work that way, at least not in our personal timeline ⎼ except maybe in the section of our imagination reserved for wishes and dreams.
We observe our political reality today, with innocent children suffering at the border of the richest nation in the world, and we say, “where is the justice in this world?” Where is the accountability?
We might think that if there was Karma, and what goes around comes around, then if someone acts in an awful manner, we would witness awful consequences. If we hurt someone we will be hurt back.
Karma means something like cause and effect. But it cannot possibly mean that if we personally see someone do something awful, we will also see the consequences. There is no such guarantee proclaiming that observers of actions get to see all the effects of those actions.
There are at least these two different perspectives we can use to examine this question: the social-political and the “natural” ⎼ people with other people, and people with forests and oceans. We can’t mistake the failings of a political system for the collapse of cause and effect in the natural world. Although emotionally we might feel, “the world is falling apart,” the sun and moon still rise and fall each day. When we feel that the (political) world is falling apart, it is helpful to look to nature to help lessen our anxiety. And when we face a major weather event, we should consider how much political chaos is contributing to global warming.
Sometimes, we can clearly perceive the consequences of our own actions. There are times when we work hard, and our work gets acknowledged. Or we see one person attacking another and we call the police or call for help, or maybe we step in-between the attacker and attacked and stop the brutality.
However, usually cause and effect is more subtle, and complex. We get angry and imagine our anger is hurting the person we are angry at. But in truth, we are the one who suffers from the anger we carry around inside. Or if we tell ourselves our actions have no power, we feel powerless and do nothing.
If we research an issue, contemplate possible actions that might result in a good solution, and then act ⎼ we feel powerful and alive; we feel our actions and lives have meaning. Or we meditate to clear our heart and mind and the result is we are better able to perceive what others need so we can help them ⎼ or we notice a threatening situation before it becomes dangerous and we avoid it.
We might think our actions should be judged only by tangible results. But if we do so, ‘tangible’ might be mistaken for material, and we help others only if praise or money is involved.
In a philosophy class I taught a few years ago, we read sections of the Indian spiritual classic, the Bhagavad Gita. One passage in the Gita says:
“You have a right to your actions
But never to your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake.”
I asked my students what this passage meant to them. They had difficulty with it. “Why not be concerned with the fruits of our actions?” they asked. “If we do something well, we deserve praise.” “Don’t we want to foster a concern with the fruits of our actions, or at least the ethical consequences of our actions on the world?”
I asked: “What is meant by ‘the fruits’? Why do we act at all? Why fight against war or racism? Is our action worthy only if we’re successful?” If we center only on whether we are patted on the back or make the headlines or even stop the war, what happens when the war goes on longer than we expected? What happens when we have to face those who disagree with us or we face people we love but who don’t actively support our cause?
Maybe we should act not only with the possible consequences in mind but because the nature of the act itself is beautiful, worthy, and compassionate? And even if the world around us isn’t clearly changed, yet, maybe we can be changed? Maybe we can grow stronger?
So when it comes to figuring out what to do about global warming or the criminality of a politician, we can’t expect to always and immediately know what to do. Maybe we make phone calls or participate in a protest and yet the criminal ruler still rules. We don’t get to see what happens in the brain or heart of the criminal. All we can know is if we took action that seemed appropriate.
If we act in order to do the best we can in that moment, this changes how we face any adversity. If we inform ourselves and focus on the quality of the action itself, being as sincere, powerful and compassionate as we can, then our actions partake in that quality. Then we ourselves are transformed.
What goes around comes around. We listen better to what others have to say and we work not only with our viewpoint in mind but that of our friends and neighbors. We are less likely to be distracted or manipulated and our actions more easily combine with those of others and a movement grows.
Mahatma Gandhi said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” We, together with others, would change the human world (and maybe save the natural one, too). Or so I hope.
A Meditation on Taking Action
And when the rage and the fear and the tears about the state of the world breaks through, or when the despair threatens to overcome us, when we feel isolated (because fear is isolating), or want to run to a different universe, then we need to take a breath and step back from the emotion. Instead of hiding it away, we can notice it. Make it something to observe and learn from. Such fear is not a message to run away but to open up.
Close your eyes and notice how you are breathing. If you feel powerless, it is not a message about giving up but that you need to act. If you feel lacking in courage or you can’t imagine what to do, then imagine someone you know or have read about or wish to know who acted with courage. Someone compassionate and driven to act, or someone informed who knew and did what needed to be done. Maybe someone creative who thought of something no one else thought of.
Who was this person? Imagine her or him. Imagine what she looks like. What was it this person did? What do you think she felt when she did it? Or felt before she did it? Imagine the fear or self-doubt he might have felt? How did he act despite the fear? Imagine her feeling fear yet acting anyway.
How is this person just like you? Is her fear any different from yours?
Imagine him feeling he had to act. What have you done in your life that was helpful to someone else or creative? You and this person are not so different. You both feel fear. You both breathe in and out. You both notice what is happening.
So now let come to mind some situation you want to change, and you feel needs addressing. Let come to mind something you can do. And imagine doing it. Where do you start? Who can you talk to about it? Who would share your concern?
And what do you need to know? Where could you find that information? And what would the change look like?
What would it feel like to have taken these actions?
Take a breath in and out. How do you feel now?