Karmic downgrades and upgrades

By Emanuel Derman
August 6, 2011

About once a year I end up writing something about karma, and, in these uninspiring times,  this is one of those days.

According to Wikipedia:

“Karma is not punishment or retribution but simply an extended expression or consequence of natural acts. Karma … names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction that governs all life. The effects experienced are also able to be mitigated by actions and are not necessarily fated … it is not a simple, one-to-one correspondence of reward or punishment. Karma is not fate, for humans act with free will creating their own destiny … The conquest of karma lies in intelligent action and dispassionate response.”

I have another definition, which I believe I once read somewhere:

“Karma is the mechanical expiation of sin.”

I always seem to remember that I saw it attributed to Tolstoy, whom it seems as though it suits, especially the older Tolstoy. I quoted it in my book “My Life as a Quant.” But when I google this quote, all I ever find is my own attribution of it, so I must be wrong. Anyhow, I like it. I take it to mean that the universe wants you to stop behaving mechanically in relation to the things you do that are wrong; if you don’t cease by voluntary expiation and repair things yourself,  then the universe will mechanically grind away at your vanities until you submit — involuntary expiation, an unpleasant prospect.

I often feel that this is what is happening to the U.S. these past few years: involuntary expiation. If you won’t change from inside then the universe works to change you from outside. From inside is better than from outside. Changes are called for, and no one with power and influence wants to re-examine their behavior and cease behaving mechanically. As it says in Wikipedia, the conquest of karma lies in intelligent action and dispassionate response. More prosaically, karma is what happens when you kick the can down the road.

I write about this a little in the book I’m completing, Models.Behaving.Badly. What’s miraculous is that occasionally, rarely, there are people like Mandela and de Klerk, or Gorbachev, who stop behaving like programmed machines, and break the cycle of karma. In the US we’re still waiting for someone like that. One has to beware of charismatic leaders, especially in periods of mass unhappiness, but we need some nonmechanical person to look up to and change the status quo.

27 comments

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[...] Emanuel Derman, “Karma is what happens when you kick the can down the road.”  (Reuters) [...]

What you mean with ‘karma’ is violence. To stop the cycle of violence you need, as you say, a non-mechanical approach. That’s what I call ‘asymmetric politics’. In my original work set forth in globdemons.com and politimagni.com I also explain what sort of behavior is anti-violent (or anti-karma).

Jerry Lee

Posted by jerrylee1 | Report as abusive

Mail from India –
Yesterday’s karma decides todays’s destiny – and today’s karma decides tom’s destiny, so does past birth exist ?this life time is based on the karma of the past birth .. so can karma path be alteres substantially….

Posted by gauravrao | Report as abusive

What a great comment, and definition of Karma: “If you won’t change from inside then the universe works to change you from outside.” Thank you Emanuel! I knew both Nelson Mandela and FW deKlerk while working in a transforming South Africa and watching how two individuals could change a nation and impact the world. President Mandela once told me how he learnt in prison that the only person he could change was himself, and the only thing he could retain while there was his own dignity. Dignity, he said, meant “treating others with dignity…even my jailers.” He saw the power to change others by changing himself and used that power later to transform a nation.

David Lapin
Author: LEad By Greatness
http://LeadByGreatness.com

Posted by DavidLapin | Report as abusive

Exactly right Mr. Derman. Thank you. When I voted for President Obama the last cycle, it was with the hope that he would be that person who could break from the social surds that enmesh our society and politics. It was not to be. It is easy enough for me to track my transition from that initial hope, to bewilderment, to realization, to disappointment, and to cynicism.

Unsure of my attribution (as you are with Tolstoy), I think it was Siddartha Guatama, or perhaps the Dalai Lama, that said “All disappointment exists in the gulf between what is expected, and what is.” (I note the title of your book, in your profile, “Why Confusing Illusion with Reality Can Lead to Disasters.”)

At the risk of sounding like I’m now shifting to nihilism (and perhaps I am), I know I had no right to expect the changes I had hoped for. Those changes will occur or they will not. If they do not come, there will be a very large segment of our society who will find the gulf between expectations and reality vast indeed.

Posted by BowMtnSpirit | Report as abusive

Yes, current conditions are the result of action, or lack of it, in the past. And our powerful continue to park themselves atop the heap with a sense of entitlement that almost guarantees that change must involve actors other than them. As a country, we have become occupied by the type of pro status quo ante aristocrat that has always managed to make change from below happen, usually explosively.

Since we will not be led into the future, we will be blasted there.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

For more then a century the 5% or so of Earth’s population lucky enough to have made it to these united States has consumed more than 25% of the world’s resources. Its not quite that high today because the market distortions caused by World War II have been largely erased. First world economies in Europe and Asia have not only caught up with US but in some cases “barrow, consume and spend” more than we do.

The WElite10 consumes 3 or 4 times more then everyone else and there in lies the real problem facing this “Western World.” Raising humanity’s living standard to ours is not a realistic choice. Even with all the advances in efficiency and technology every person on this planet cannot have thousands of square feet of heated and cooled living space, a pool, three TVs … and two 8 mpg Hummers. Not that they don’t want to live like that but increasing worldwide consumer production by a factor of five in a century is not realistic and trying to do it in a decade or two simply absurd.

Likewise the continued use of British/US economic and military aggression to force the majority HaveNots to live like sardines in sweatshop hell holes around world breathing and drinking the toxic wastes we export even faster than those cherished blue collar jobs is neither fair nor reasonable and with the advent of the WWW/Internet it has become a political impossibility.

The only way out is through the bottom of a depression that wipes out the current economy and clears away all the rot and stinking malinvestments made since 1913. That is what happened to East Germany, Russia and the Soviet Block in the 90′s. Now its our turn. There are two ways to remove a band aid. One is quick and very painful the other extended torture. Our elected ones believe that just covering the infection with a larger bandage will somehow cure the disease.

Posted by GLsword | Report as abusive

Here and now more so it is spin and hype that defines norm and reality.All to the extent that it distorts our reasoning and makes us believe in,what its not and seek meaning in absurdity.

Posted by schadha100 | Report as abusive

It is true that we have to be careful who we choose to follow especially in periods of mass unhappiness. Perhaps that is what has brought us here.

Posted by m2u | Report as abusive

Laws of Karma are well defined and their working are time-immemorial -

Sanchit – store of karmic impressions of the past
Prarabha – fruictification of past impression in the present
Kriyamana – current actions with impression potential based on attachment

The external-change (in your terminology) is automatic as driven by the karmic laws.

The internal change simply needs be driven toward somewhat unselfish and balanced toward the common good of all beings at large. This will sustain for the long-term.

Alternatively, self-serving moves (by corporations at large driven by some individuals) will get what they want and more, in a short time as well, but will not sustainable for the long term. Here is a quote of some that pursued this path -

“It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten.”

There is no escape on this path and the current manifestation is some indication what’s ahead, only more grave.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

bad karma is killing US jobs for cheap Asian im
ported goods… :)

Posted by robb1 | Report as abusive

One more time for the Americans to pass on the beating to cheap goods and services from India and China

Better luck next time since you may not be around to see the mantle of global leadership passing to the Asian region – although could be chaotic

Posted by mouli | Report as abusive

We can get out of the ‘act of karma’.

Posted by rajeshkjag | Report as abusive

Well I ain’t no great writer of words or thinker of thoughts, so I just wanna say whenever we have the chance to do something great and change our ways to live in a better world, we always punk out and dumb down. 9/11 was a perfect opportunity to turn things around for the United States when the whole World sympathized and would have jumped on the bandwagon, but what did we do? We took it out on Taliban (whom we were “friends” of only months before) and an elected President (admittedly, cruel and dictator) of a totally unrelated country, after which time we drained our own treasury and commited financial suicide (for why?). The housing market and recession was also another great chance to turn things around. The bail-out money was flowing and the morale of the people was up for re-building the Country and we did was go out and buy beer and cheese curls. Who is to blame? Well in a representative democracy the only one to blame is ourselves (all of us). This is the saddest commentary on divisive politics and religions.

Posted by nieldevi | Report as abusive

What the author seems to miss is that karma is the essence of Hindu Mythology, eventually preaching submission to God (Nature) by disbanding ego. So long as conflicting actions are taken, natural justice will follow; sooner than later.

Posted by Kraj | Report as abusive

When people make predictions about other peoples Karma, they incur a large debt upon their own Karma.

Live your life. Respect your fellow man. Protect yourself. And let god make the final judgement.

Posted by Parker1227 | Report as abusive

Profound. Whether people agree or not with your line of argument, you, at least, have set right the popularly misunderstood meaning of ‘karma’. In the Zen Buddhist way of understanding, our daily practise of Zazen (‘just sitting’ or roughly, ‘meditation’)allows us to act overtime, if we are lucky, with ‘skillful means’ (similar to what you quote Wikipedia as saying “intelligent action and dispassionate response”). The ground from which such action arises is when our center has shifted from ‘self-centeredness) or only in the moment when the ‘self’ has dissolved. Thank you for writing this piece.

Posted by reality3 | Report as abusive

Parker1227: I wasn’t making predictions, just looking back, and I was talking about mine too. God does indeed,

Posted by EmanuelDerman | Report as abusive

It is funny and a bit surreal to have people like yourself talking about karma, whilst at the same time ‘engineering’ and fueling a continuous wave of reckless greed from both companies headquarters and universities, Mr. Derman.

You should probably pray so that all these mediocre reflections on karma do not apply to yourself. Good try to sell us another book. There are a number of your ‘fans’ trying to take advantage of the comments to sell theirs too. Good luck

Posted by itsallgreed | Report as abusive

You should have checked the quote BEFORE you wrote it into your book and published it.

Such carelessness and arrogance will catch up with you.

A minor detail? I’m sure you think so. But it’s a fact you reported but didn’t bother to check. That will catch up with you in non-fiction writing.

And in your life too.

Posted by NewsLady | Report as abusive

The USA is not at all “united” and, in fact, has little desire to be. Emphasis on “united” usually means that whoever disagrees with the speaker needs to shut the **** up and do as they are told. The people who make the decisions are few and intentionally disconnected from the rest of us.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Fascinating piece, offering much to consider …

In the present context karma is defined as something rather negative. But what about “good” karma, which could involve kicking a good can down a good road? Instead of individuals that stop behaving like programmed machines, what about societies that choose to cease functioning as machinery. Isn’t karma at least as much involved with the ocean as in the fish which inhabit the ocean?

As for notions of expiation and sin, those would have been the fairly purificationist christian preoccupations that the later Tolstoy obsessed over. Tolstoy would have also been steeped in the great man theory of history, as was Dostoyevsky. Gandhi would perhaps have been a better authority on karma than his correspondent, Lev.

Posted by TimothyB | Report as abusive

I enjoyed the blog although it is definitely a westernized version of Karma being described here. And for the record, it wouldn’t take Tolstoy or Gandhi or even an IQ above 90 to have seen this all coming. Let’s hope the USA can learn from it’s mistakes but judging from current events, probably not. Thanks for teaching me the word “expiation”.

Posted by LadyDove | Report as abusive

Well I am no great thinker, and certainly have of no books to boast.Nor,will I attack the author for his own self promotion, he is my brother and I should treat him as such.I will however advise him to be careful when promoting self when writing on the topic of selfishness. I say this because it is my belief that our bad karma is a result of the enormous amount of selfishness that persists among our people. What he has written is plain truth and many whom have followed have added to that truth. What is important here is that there is great evil at work within our society and we have lended a blind eye to this evil for far too long. From the economy and the division among our political leaders to the numerous natuaral disasters occuring across our lands, those of us who practice faith clearly see signs pointing to a need to humble ourselves before God. This is a country founded with a principle of one nation under God that has become so comfortable in it’s blessings that to many hold the misguided belief that we have absolute control. This is not a time to wait for one great leader to carry the torch, it is a time for all humanity to open their eyes and take responsiblity for their individual inaction by taking actions in ways that are pleasing to God. What will you do for your fellow man beyond written word? It is refreshing to read words such as these instead of the negativity that many of our news agency fuel today.

Posted by J_Careful | Report as abusive

Thank you, Professor Derman, for saying publicly some things that have long needed to be said in this country.

And that needed to be said to me personally, too.

Posted by Zenstitcher | Report as abusive

Don’t be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams. – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Posted by kidgarden | Report as abusive

I teach my students the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated.

Posted by kidgarden | Report as abusive

I think socieities find themselves locked into something like a Nash equilibrium where rational parties get stuck into a ‘sub-optimal’ equilibrium which needs to be broken by some ‘irrational’ or ‘good’ actors that show the way to a new better place.

That applies to racist and corrupt societies, which find themselves locked in their own wrong headed logic. It also applies to the odd corrupt industry or market I suppose ; )

Posted by mmport80 | Report as abusive