Bad Karma, Abuse and Trauma

Here’s the latest from Practicing Mental Illness:

There is an extraordinary amount of hubris walking around these days. Self-assurance and self-importance have pushed aside all sense of doubt, contemplation and understanding in so many people. It’s a ripe time to consider karma.

If you define karma as a moral law of cause and effect at work in the world you can see right away where it’s the perfect antidote for hubris. A certain leader recently came down with a disease, the effects of which he had been minimizing for months. Some people see this leader as a bad person. Many proclaimed that karma was collecting its due.

I objected. I wrote “if you're thinking that it's karma when a bad thing happens to someone you think is a bad person, please consider how you feel about karma when a bad thing happens to someone you think is a good person” on Facebook and it turns out lots of people liked it.

Then this leader, who some think is a bad person, didn’t really suffer at all. The testimonies to karma suddenly fell flat.

The concept of karma is alien to many of us who grew up in the Judeo/Christian/ Islamic traditions. Turns out it was sort of alien to the Buddha, too. In the Pali Canon, the historical teachings of the Buddha, he barely mentions it. When he does it’s just to tell his followers not to bother with the idea at all. He said something akin to, “you’ll never know whether it really exists or not, so spend your time on more reasonable pursuits.”

Karma is oversimplified, and when misinformed people in the west try to explain or adhere to the idea I think they do a lot of damage. Karma, when carried out to its logical conclusion, is a system designed to blame the victim.

Consider where the belief comes from. In South Asia there has always been a strong caste system, and there has always been a political incentive to keep people in their place. Imagine the genius of the person who convinced people to not only accept their fate, even if it’s miserable, but to actually believe they deserve it.

Today in the west karma can lead to equally dangerous places. A victim of abuse or trauma, subjected to the concept of karma, is sickenly forced to accept that some previous action of theirs or, God forbid, some action from some past life, contributes to the responsibility for the abuse or trauma through which they had to, and from which they continue to, suffer.

If you are the victim of abuse or trauma, do not in any way, shape or form blame yourself for what happened. And do not follow or accept any spiritual leaders or groups that will saddle you or your actions with that blame.

One of the biggest contributors to mental illness in victims of abuse or trauma is the mind’s tremendous capacity to blame itself. Therapy seeks to overcome this. Systems of belief, especially those poorly understood and poorly translated into an unprepared culture, a culture that frankly knows better, should never obstruct efforts to overcome self-blame and heal.


A formal period of meditation can be used for a time of contemplation. Just encounter an idea and sit with it. It helps if the idea is provocative and challenging, especially to things you feel you are sure of. This short clip from Stephen Batchelor, who I traveled with my friend Scott to study with days before Covid-19 shut everything down, fits the bill:

And finally, a thought on karma so deep it requires two bass players to fathom it: