Working with Karma
Inheriting My Own Life in Post-Awakening
There is a circular phenomenon that occurs in addiction. One of the best comments on it can be found in “The Doctor’s Opinion” section of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Doctor Silkworth writes:
Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one. They are restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks—drinks which they see others taking with impunity. After they have succumbed to the desire again, as so many do, and the phenomenon of craving develops, they pass through the well-known stages of a spree, emerging remorseful, with a firm resolution not to drink again. This is repeated over and over, and unless this person can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his recovery.
Page 3, Alcoholics Anonymous
What the good doctor is describing is a blind, or unconscious pattern. It’s a default conditioning, just like when I start up my computer and Windows, The Weather Channel, and my anti-virus software all open up. That will continue to happen until I either change the prompts or the computer dies.
They have a saying in recovery that runs, “If you sober up a horse thief, you’ll have yourself a sober horse thief.” In other words, you may have removed the crazy juice from that body, but you haven’t removed the crazy thinking from that brain. That takes time.
Those of you who are already awake as you read this will know that neither the unit nor the personality wake up in a so-called awakening. Awakeness wakes up to itself. Given that the character-unit doesn’t wake up, guess what? It keeps doing much of what it was doing before it woke up!
We call this “dancing out the dance.” The unit will do what it does until it does something else. We wake up to the dream, but we do not wake up from the dream. Once awakening occurs, however, we can begin to witness our life patterns. Some will be skillful, many will not be.
But by witnessing these patterns, by simply noticing them and being willing to be other than the way we are (this is often the hardest part), these patterns will begin to fade. Once we fully penetrate a pattern, seeing absolutely clearly that this is no longer beneficial, then that pattern will drop you. You don’t drop it, it drops you. This can take some repetition. Go easy on yourself during this phase. I’m 8+ years in, and I’m still in this phase. It’s all a matter of degree.
We could call these patterns karma. We could in fact call DNA itself karma. It’s the residual stuff that somehow moves up the unit line. We know it does, because we can trace every single one of our DNA lines back to Africa thousands of years ago. And what is DNA? A collection of patterns.
Ramana Maharshi said, and of course he had the Sanskrit names for them, which I do not, that there are three types of karma in post-awakening. The first is “carved-in-stone” karma, meaning that this karma is already cast, and it’s going to play out in the world, enlightenment or no, and that is that.
For example, you’ve been speeding down the same road, 60 mph in a 35 zone, for the last five years of your pre-awakening. On Monday you wake up, everything is perfect, and then you skid out in the rain, hit a tree, and go visit the intensive care ward for a while. Oops.
The second type of karma is what I call “modified” karma. This means that some lines of karma are still going to play out in the world, but due to awakening having occurred, these lines don’t play out with the full force that they would have had the being they are playing through not been awakened.
You’re on the same road, and you’re still speeding, only you are clearer than you used to be, and you’re starting to recognize that this is an unskillful pattern. So you slow down from 60 to 45 and only get a $100 traffic ticket for driving too fast for conditions.
The third type of karma is “negated” karma. You get in the car, but when your foot hits the pedal, it pushes the car to 35 instead of 60. You notice, “Wow, I’m driving much slower. I notice I feel calmer. I notice the neighbors do, too. Cool.”
We typically notice negated karma by its absence rather than its presence. Conscious Awakeness has simply restructured the unit in some basic, beneficial ways. As J. Krishnamurti used to say about his headaches, “They’re re-wiring me.”
So this is the way Conscious Awakeness can affect a so-called individual’s past karma going forward from vertical awakening. (Horizontal awakening includes all of pre-awakening, and post-awakening process. Vertical awakening refers to the event aspect, which most, but not all, will experience.)
Of course karma is only something we can talk about in regard to the relative plane. Seen from the nondual view, there’s no individual, and thus no karma is actually possible, but tell that to the cops when they’re hauling you off to jail for something Mr. Doesn’t Exist did some years back.
We will now move from the hypothetical to the empirical: my life, my karma.
So what do you do when you’re carrying a particularly heavy load from the past? Bring your helmet and skis, you’re going for quite a ride. One of the reasons I couldn’t quit drinking was that every time I quit I discovered that I was inheriting my own traumatized life. It felt like that life was such that anyone would have to drink over it, so it was back to the races.
Finally things got so bad that I had no choice. I wouldn’t have quit drinking if I could have kept drinking, but I couldn’t. I had shown a huge capacity for pain, but ultimately even I was surrendered. Being surrendered is when you tell yourself the truth: there’s no way out. I couldn’t drink successfully, and I couldn’t quit trying to drink successfully.
This “I’m completely screwed and there’s nothing I can do about it” moment is charmingly called surrender. But it’s not something we do. It’s something that happens automatically in response to truth. With the collapse of the ego, there is finally room for something new to come in, for the blind pattern to be broken, and for something fresh in the way of change to arise.
When that ton of bricks known as acknowledged alcoholism hit me, I stayed down. I stayed cooperative. In fact, I moved from cooperative to aggressively seeking change, and I was willing to go to any lengths to get it. I could smell a rat in the house, and he was wearing my shoes.
So as I trod the boards of my karma’s detritus, I took no shortcuts. If the only venue where I could still play was recovery, then I would at least be a winner there. I would out-spiritualize the competition and rise to the level of sainthood, which is when I hoped the women and money would start showing up.
But a funny thing happened as I was taking all this action. As I moved from intellectual spirituality to experiential spirituality, I actually changed. I became a whole new human, just like they’d told me you could. I never really believed it could happen to someone who’d been a homeless drunk and an utter ne’er do well, but it did anyway.
I was so happy that I figured my new halo and wings would be noticed by everybody. They weren’t. People in recovery could see sweeping changes taking place, but people in my life saw the same guy with the same hair who walked the same and talked with an unchanged accent. This points to the tremendous benefit and power of a healing community.
They couldn’t see that I was a new guy, and I get that. I’d been a “new guy” before and then fallen back in with the devil, so to speak. And let’s recall that if I could have avoided becoming a new guy and just drunk myself to death, I would have done just that–so I’m not crowing for credit. But I really was completely changed by the action steps of recovery–somewhat against my egoic will.
Of course I still had some faults that were only slightly smaller than the one they call San Andreas, but the great news is that you can’t see all that when you’re making progress. Recovery’s greatest line is, “We are not saints. We claim spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.”
When I took all that spiritual progress out into the world, I found a whole lot of closed doors. Prospective employers, banks, neighbors, and family were all looking at one thing: the ugly pumpkin that was the walking, talking testimony of my ruinous and ruined life.
I didn’t get it. I was a very popular guy in recovery. People loved, respected, and trusted me. Finally I figured out why that was the case. In recovery, especially in early recovery, people were looking for and at the beautiful light that was shining through the ugly jack o’lantern. The rest of the world was still looking at the pumpkin.
Light will shine through any empty pumpkin you put it in, and I had become an empty pumpkin. And I was making a difference. From a homeless drunk to a contributing citizen. What a miracle. I can’t tell you how big that was for me. So I let the “normies,” as we sometimes called them, think what they wanted to think and did my own thing. They were going to think what they thought anyway, and there was no point in my suffering over it.
Six years after I sobered up, I woke up. I didn’t earn it, unless you count suffering as earning, and if you do, then I earned it many times over. No one earns awakening; it doesn’t work anything at all like that. And the Light of Truth, just like the light of recovery, will shine through any old empty pumpkin it lands in. It has its own rules of efficiency, and it could not care less about ours.
A flower will grow out of a littered Coca-Cola can or up through the cracks in a sidewalk. Birds will build a nest of trash. Life has no pride. It simply has a job to do, and it does it. It is beyond our opinions about it.
Now, I’m the first to agree, that I’ve got myself an ugly pumpkin. I cleaned it up as much as I could, but as I used to tell people in recovery, “If you start in a hole as deep as the one I started climbing out of, then it takes a long time just to get up to ground level.”
I didn’t say that out of modesty. I wouldn’t know modesty if it hit me in the face with a shovel. I said it out of accuracy. But I had a spade in my hand when I said it, and I was steadily filling up the terrible sinkhole that was my life.
After I woke up, I found out that I identified much more strongly with the nondual crowd than I did the recovery crowd. I stayed in recovery and basically translated nondual teaching into recovery speech, but there came a time when I simply had to declare loyalties, and I chose this path over that one.
So when I started teaching openly, I once again let the “normies” think what they wanted to think. I was busy waking people up. I was wearing a GPS monitor, and waking people up. It’s a little incongruous, don’t you think?
Yet the people I worked with didn’t give a damn about my monitor. They didn’t give a damn about the ugly pumpkin. They were only interested in the Light. And they woke up.
When I got off of probation in 2011, I had already been teaching Nonduality here, in an informal fashion, with the few people I could find around here, and had been doing so for nearly a year. Once I was free to do as I pleased on the Internet, I started the original Awakening Clarity. I’d been restricted for a long time, and now I wanted to be involved.
A lot of people thought I was a nut. A good number of people have always thought I was a nut. Perhaps I am a nut. But I am a nut with a mission: I plan to live this life as happily and engaged as I can, regardless of its contents and conditions. Or, more properly, I plan to be as absent as I can so that Tao can live my life with the least amount of resistance possible.
So when I moved my teaching from my living room to the Internet, it never once occurred to me to get up there and announce what a shitty looking pumpkin I was. I talked about the Light that was shining through it. I figured that was what everyone wanted. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and my words never hurt anybody.
When I moved from just running the website to teaching via Skype, I have to tell you, once again it never, for one second, occurred to me to hang a shingle on my site pointing toward the ugly pumpkin. Hell, I’d already been doing having to do that for five years, and to a lesser degree I would have to live with that shingle around my neck for the rest of life–or until I don’t, whichever comes first. Call me naïve, or call me a con man, as some have, but I thought it was the present light that was the important part of spirituality. I still do.
Most of my clients work with me for about 2.5 hours, and I never see them again, or maybe I see them a couple of more times and then they’re gone. Many of them drop me emails, but talking to me is not cheap, and the whole point of my teaching is not to create a dependency on me, it’s to set people free. This teaching is not about so-called individuals. It’s about an awakening Tao.
I simply don’t believe that I owe these pass-through clients anything more than what they pay for: which is the greatest clarity that I can muster here (meaning the thinnest appearance of Fredness), so that I can hopefully help them muster that same clarity over there. I didn’t choose to be a spiritual teacher. Spiritual teaching chose me. I’m doing the best I can, folks.
Granted, some of my clients use me as a clearing tool, and those who do talk to me regularly. Some feel that my crowd should be shocked and dismayed at their choice of pumpkins, but the funny thing is they’re not. My active, regular clients have been keenly supportive of me and this teaching, regardless. I have not lost a one.
A client in Germany, a publisher of nondual books in German, told me today, “What you are teaching is the very nectar of Nonduality.” I confess to having been really pleased by that. I realize I should be above all that, but I’m not.
I have no sangha, and I don’t want one. I’m not even sure they’re a great idea. Community, yes. Community based around a person? Not so much.
I don’t travel. I wouldn’t live in an ashram with “a flock” at the point of a gun. I’m a married hermit, and so is my wife. A big night for us is an hour of TV holding hands before she goes to sleep and I go read or write or meditate.
I do not see how this unit’s karma has the slightest thing to do with anything else I do. For thousands of years in the West we have hung, burned, stoned, and crucified pumpkins for their pumpkin sins. And we get to busily ignore the light they carry when we do so, which is, of course, the strategy. “Leave us in the dark. We can’t see because we don’t want to.”
Here’s a quote from a supportive email I got tonight from someone well-placed in the nondual community. “Your particular situation makes very little sense to me. The whole point of this is that it is all about transformation. You would think that people would see you as a poster child for that. I can’t understand the harsh feelings for something that happened so long ago, and pre-transformation, either.”
We point outward so that we don’t have to look inward. It’s popular, but I’m not sure it’s productive. We are, in effect, calling God on the carpet, correcting her errors of judgment in her timing and placement of lights, and telling her how things should be. Because we are the ultimate benchmarks of the world, and we know.
I just can’t get my mind around all of this. I have a job to do. I’m to wake people up until I don’t. I didn’t cause that, and I can’t stop it. I don’t think criticism can either. From homeless drunk to contributing citizen. Wow. I don’t think I’m everyone’s teacher, nor do I ever imply that. In recovery I used to tell freshly sobering drunks, “The bad news is that you’ve got to be pretty damn sick if I’m going to be the doctor. The good news is, you qualify!”
That same thing applies in this field. I may not be much of a pumpkin, but to the people who are tired, scared, confused, lonely and suffering–and who are paying more attention to the light rather than the jack o’lantern, I seem to be at least reasonably helpful.
I am not in any way suggesting here that we give spiritual teachers–or any other leaders–a blanket excuse to do whatever they feel like, while pretending to bask in some special glow. I don’t mean that at all. We should all be held accountable for our actions. The idea that the unit is somehow not responsible for its own acts, however much that might be true on some lofty level, is a Universalist cop-out, and I don’t subscribe. Mea kulpa.
Responsibility must be placed somewhere, and it falls squarely on the unit. This is why I say this is karma. In the way that it plays out on the relative plane, it is the unit’s responsibility, and thus it’s the unit’s job to square it up. This teaching has never been about dodging, excusing, or transcending everyday life. That is why, in the early days, in pre-awakening, I did precisely what I did: I attempted to make amends.
I stepped forward, accepted responsibility for my actions, and acknowledged my misdeeds publicly. I at least offered amends. Three times. I have an ongoing living amends, of which this whole thing–including this very post–is a part. I accepted my punishment. I paid my fees, I did my time, I walked an incredibly difficult line for five years, and to a lesser degree, I continue to walk it today.
It seems to me that at some point we have to put things behind us or we can never move forward. For good or ill, yesterday is yesterday, and I’ve tended my karma as well as I can. As Byron Katie says, “The best thing about the past is that it’s over.” I’m moving forward. I invite you to join me. Thank you to those of you who’ve been supportive. Best wishes to those of you who haven’t.
This is the last I plan to speak of this.