Saturday, June 6, 2009

Karma, Fate and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

A while back I heard a fascinating radio documentary about how the events of our childhood influence the development of our nervous system. Basically, it suggested that our patterns of behaviour---both psychological and physiological---are shaped by the experiences that we have from infancy up until young adulthood. The science of this is pretty well established and includes both statistical studies of human beings and animal model studies with rats and monkeys.

I can attest to this fact by my own experience.

I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and was in therapy for years to deal with it. In my case, the most obvious symptoms it manifested were wild re-occurring nightmares (which did cease after treatment.) Unfortunately, there are other, more subtle symptoms, which will probably be with me as long as I live. These include a propensity to having a volcanic temper (it may just be aging, but I think that this is also subsiding) and a significant, pervasive distrust of both other people and the future in general.

Just to give you a flavour of what it is like, it involves things like feeling very weird to sit in a strange room with my back to the door. It also involves constantly thinking that a new acquaintance is trying to "pull a fast one" one way or another. I also get the "creeps" whenever I am too physically close to another person (when I go shopping at the Farmer's Market I usually have a strong urge to run out of the place as quickly as possible.) One final thing, I never seem able to take anything in the physical world for granted: I am always afraid that when I do home renovation that the wiring will burn the house down, the pipes will leak or the building will collapse.

The people who were quoted on the radio documentary made the point that these "symptoms" shouldn't be viewed as some sort of "illness", but instead as "adaptation strategies" that may not be appropriate in our context. If someone grows up in a chaotic society where it really isn't a good idea to trust strangers---let's say Somalia---then my "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" would help me survive. But for someone living in the "peaceable kingdom" of Canada, it means that I am constantly putting people "off" and missing opportunities that fall into my lap.

If the radio documentary is right, these secondary symptoms will stick with me because they are not something that has been done to my mind, but rather are intrinsic to the way my brain developed. Post-traumatic stress disorder is not like the wound that is caused when an axe hits a tree, it is more like what happens to a tree when it grows bent over because a heavy object is holding it down. Patch a wound in the bark, and it will eventually heal. Take away the weight holding a full-grown tree bent over, and it will never straighten up.

While contemplating my personal experience plus the evidence from scientific research, I was drawn into thinking about what all of this has to say about the ideas of karma and fate.

Most people are vaguely aware of the idea of karma. Usually folks think that it refers to the idea that when we do something bad we will be punished for it in the future. The reason we have the poor and suffering is because they did evil in a previous life.

My reading in Buddhism tells me that this is a misunderstanding of a subtle idea. As I understand it, that religion teaches that the actions of our life puts into play certain chains of causality which spread out through the universe and continue past our individual deaths. Since Buddhists do not believe that there are such things as souls or even egos, (the doctrine of anatta), they do not believe that individual people are "reincarnated" into bodies after death. Instead, chains of causality flow around the universe and continue to do so through future generations. (This idea is encapsulated in the metaphor of "Indra's Net".) In a way, what this is saying is "our deeds live long after us", and, "the sins of the fathers will afflict their children unto several generations".

"Karma", therefore, is not so much a question of people doing "good" and "evil", and therefore being sentences to "punishment" and "reward", as more of a scientific principle that each and every act carries with it a set of consequences. These consequences carry on from generation to generation, and they in turn set the stage for even more acts that in turn have consequences that set the stage for future actions. For the Buddhist, therefore, one of the points of a religious life is to try and sever the chains of negative karma. This isn't so much to make life better for the specific individual, but rather to make life better for the entire universe. As such, it fits into the Mahayana concept of the Bodhisattva---a being who will not be enlightened until all of the universe is also enlightened at the same time.

(Of course, there are a lot of contradictions in all of this. For example, how can there be a Bodhisattva in the first place if there are no souls because of anatta? My feeling is that this lack of consistency is an artifact of having to use a language that is based on a different understanding of human psychology and metaphysics.)

Daoists have been influenced by Buddhist teachings, which is why you will sometimes find a Daoist figure talking about karma and rebirth. I think, however, that it is more accurate in Daoism to talk about "fate" rather than karma.

"Fate" is a complex concept in that it holds various meanings that have to be teased out before we can understand the term. For example, some people believe that it means that a person simply cannot escape some sort of determined event no matter what he does. In a sense, therefore, my post traumatic stress disorder is something that happened to me and no matter how much I try, I can never erase its effects. Obviously there are things in life that are like this.

Another type of fate comes from accepting the specific viewpoint that we bring to the table of life. We do have some control over our long-term development, such as deciding to join the army instead of going to college. But the decisions we make are strongly coloured by the experience we had as children. So, it might be that we want to join the army because we cannot stand our parents and it is the easiest and quickest way to be free of them. By the time we gain enough insight to be able to pick and choose the best course of action, our lives are usually more than half over, many life choices have already been made, and our personality has set itself pretty firmly in one particular direction.

The idea that people are governed by their fate is alien to the spirit of the Western world. But from the perspective of Daoism, I think that it makes sense of a lot of the craziness I see around me. The Dao consists of a very large number of people---all of whom are doomed to pursue the path that fate has given them. The realized man understands this fact and ceases to judge other people because he understands that they only have a very limited ability to change the course of their behaviour.

Oddly enough, what limited freedom the realized man has comes from admitting that people (including himself) have these constraints on their freedom. The Daoist doesn't believe that freedom comes from fighting against fate, but rather by going along with it and taking advantage of the opportunities it offers instead of trying to create ones that never can be. The Daoist surfs on the crest of waves without trying to fight against them.