Karma crops up in a number of traditions. There’s reason to think the ancient Celts believed in reincarnation, and that debts could be repaid in future lives, but we don’t really know if they had the kinds of ideas that crop up in other cultures. We don’t have clear rules about how to feel and behave (maybe our ancestors did). This means that we don’t have a clear collective sense of what actions would constitute good or bad karma for a Druid.
Karma can be seen as a form of justice, repaying us for good work, punishing mistakes. That can be comforting if you get no justice in this life. It can encourage us not to seek justice, and to blame victims (it only happened to you because you have bad karma). I do not like that attitude. If we mistake material success for spiritual reward, we’re on a very slippery slope, with those who have money and power effectively getting some kind of divine endorsement to do as they please, and no responsibility for those less well off. If poverty is proof you were a ‘bad person’ in a former life, there are problems for your whole culture, and there will be no compassion.
I happen to think compassion is a good thing.
I’m troubled by the idea of karma as some sort of points system, a bit like a store loyalty cards, where you save up good karma for a reward. It tends to suppose that someone or something is keeping score, and that there are mechanisms by which this can occur. It seems a rather restrictive way of thinking about existence, and not actually helpful. Especially given we don’t know what the rules are.
Tentative forays into Jainism presented me with some interesting ideas. Jains view karma as being more like a substance, or set of substances, that stick to you as a result of your actions. So, do good things, get good karma sticking to you. No external judgement is required, it’s a simple mechanism akin to eat more chocolate, gain more weight. Interestingly Jains don’t see good karma as an entirely good thing. Any karma ties you into the cycle of death and rebirth, the aim is to escape from karma. So, while good karma is better than bad karma, the idea is to step out of life and not have any karma at all. For a Druid whose path very much affirms being in the world, this is not a perspective I can work with. Nonetheless, it is an interesting idea to consider.
The more science is able to tell us about structures in the body and the way the mind functions, the clearer it becomes that what we do shapes who we are. How we think forms pathways in the brain. What we think forms habits, paths we quickly and easily walk. Our lifestyles shape our bodies, in all kinds of ways. We are what we eat, what we drink, what we breathe. We are how much exercise we get. We are our stress and fear, our hope and delight. It all contributes to us as corporeal beings. Mind, emotion and body are not separate things, but part of the same system.
For me, karma is what we do to ourselves. It is the bodily legacy of our own choices. That doesn’t mean the shit that comes into our lives is deserved and of our making. It means that how we react to the crap, and to the good stuff, is who we are, and that’s our karma. I don’t know if we take that with us beyond death or not, but there’s plenty enough to be going along with in this life.
I perceive the world as fearful, hostile and unkind. Often I find that the word is a scary, hostile, unkind sort of place. How much of this is to do with how I choose to make sense of my experiences, how I choose to live what happens to me? Could I choose differently? I talked recently about choosing innocence. Could I go further and choose not to be afraid, even as alarming things bear down on me? And if I could change that, would I not have changed my karma?
Pagan ethics generally are, as Christine Hoff Kraemer has identified, largely virtue ethics. In cultivating personal virtues, we shape our paths and ourselves. I am increasingly of the opinion that I want courage as a personal virtue. The only way to get it is by cultivating it. Courage fits well with what I know of the Celts, it strikes me as being a good, Druidic virtue to aspire to. I want to believe I can survive and thrive. I want not to be afraid anymore. I do not want to feel that all the bad stuff in my life is somehow of my making.