When Freud, Jung, Rogers, Perls and others developed analysis and therapy in the last century, so many of them–and their patients–lived in stable, safe, happy worlds. If they were personally unhappy, there was something wrong with them and they needed to change themselves. But what if our unhappiness comes not from something we need to fix in ourselves but from something that needs to be changed in the world? Here are some hints.
Your Problem Or The World’s Problem?
There is a concept in Buddhism called “karma.” In popular culture, karma is thought of as a kind of mystical retribution. If you do something bad, then something bad will happen to you–a kind of eastern version of the Christian idea that you will go to hell if you sin.
In fact, karma just means cause and effect. Karma is the word that describes the process that makes things we have done or experienced in the past affect our present. Or that makes things we do or experience in the present affect our future. If our mothers and fathers were abusive, for example, the effect on us today–our “karma”–may be that we are scared of intimacy. In such a case, we might go to therapy, for example, or develop a spiritual practice, and that might help us reverse the effects of our individual karma.
But what if we are suffering from the effects of world karma? That is, what if the psychological suffering we have does not come from some twist in our psyches but from a cause in the world that is affecting everybody and is outside our personal control? For example, you might try to meditate away your worry about climate change or race injustice or economic instability but, in my case, I don’t think I worry about these things because something is wrong with me. In fact, my worries–as long as they don’t paralyze me–kind of show something is right with me. It is an appropriate response.
The Habit Of Blaming Ourselves
But we have a tendency to blame ourselves for our unhappiness. Writing in the New York Times, therapist Richard Brouillette, writing about another world problem–workplace stress–says:
When people can’t live up to the increasingly taxing demands of the economy, they often blame themselves and then struggle to live with the guilt. You see this same tendency, of course, in a variety of contexts, from children of divorce who feel responsible for their parents’ separation to the “survivor guilt” of those who live through disasters. In situations that may seem impossible or unacceptable, guilt becomes a shield for the anger you otherwise would feel: The child may be angry with her parents for divorcing, the survivor may be angry with those who perished.
This is no different at the social level. When an economic system or government is responsible for personal harm, those affected can feel profoundly helpless, and cover that helplessness with self-criticism. Today, if you can’t become what the market wants, it can feel as if you are flawed and have no recourse except to be depressed…
… My sense is that psychotherapists are playing a significant role in directing this blame inward. Unfortunately, many therapists, because they have been trained not to discuss political issues in the consulting room, are part of the problem, implicitly reinforcing false assumptions about personal responsibility, isolation and the social status quo.
Brouillette writes about how his patients blame themselves for being unable to deal with issues in the workplace when, in fact, many workplaces have actually become too difficult for any individual to successfully negotiate. We need to change workplaces, not just individual coping strategies.
In terms of karma, I think of it this way: Sometimes our lives follow a path that we set (individual karma), like when we are driving a car and steer ourselves. But sometimes our lives follow the path that has been determined by other forces (world karma), like when we are riding a bus and someone else is steering. If you are riding a bus that isn’t safe, getting your own car brakes fixed will not help. Similarly, if you are suffering from world karma, fixing your individual karma won’t work.
What You Can Do
So what do we do? The answer is to change the bus and the path it follows–to work together with others to change world karma so that all of us can suffer less. The bad news is that we have few models for changing the world and its karma, as individuals. We are at a new point in history. We have to find new models for our roles as individuals. Many of us do not yet know how to affect world karma.
The good news is that, as we figure it out, we actually get to work together for our own good and for the good of all. We get to experience interconnection which is actually one of the goals of therapy and spiritual practice anyway.
So what do you do to gain comfort when obviously you cannot change world karma all by yourself?
The answer is fairly simple if not necessarily easy. It has the following steps:
- Define the world problem that makes you suffer: Look at what troubles you. Ask: Does it trouble you because some twist in your psyche (individual karma) or because of some twist in the world (world karma). If lots of people are suffering from the same thing in varying degrees (stress, lack of time, obesity, fear of losing job, frustration with the political system, fear of climate change), chances are it is a world problem.
- Look for other people who suffer from the same world problem: In some cases there will be groups that already exist. For example, if anxiety about climate change or racism troubles you, you might look at 350.org or Black Lives Matter. If your problem is too many working hours, you might seek out your trade union. But if you can find no group, then simply have a dinner or a gathering for people who are also suffering from the same world karma and start talking together about how you can change things.
- Take action: Most of us are unused to this kind of work but that doesn’t matter. Find small steps you can take. Sign petitions. Write to your congress person. Educate others. Join in with other people’s actions. Finding a path to changing world karma is something we are unused to.
- Realize this is making you happier: Just as taking steps to change your individual karma helps reduce your suffering so does taking steps to change your world karma. In fact, there are studies to prove it. Studies have shown a clear link between political activism and personal well-being. Taking action helps improve our sense of agency and our feelings of meaning and purpose.
- Read my book How To Be Alive: I don’t mean to advertise my own work here. But there is very little literature on how our own lives connect to and can affect the world and that also gives directions to follow. So if you want more direction, How To Be Alive is a good place to start.
Does any of this help? I hope so. Please let me know in the comments your thoughts about and experience with changing world karma to reduce the suffering of yourself and others.
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