In Science there exists the idea of “cause and effect” which basically means that everything that we see, everything that happens, everything in totality is caused by something previously. Various religions around the world also believe in a similar notion – in Buddhism and Hinduism there is the well known concept of Karma, and in Heathenism there is the concept of Wyrd. In this post we shall explore these concepts and what they might have to say to us today as Naturalistic Pantheists, as well as how an understanding of Neuroplasticity might help us in the way we interact with the world.
The word Karma is an ancient Indian Sanskrit word meaning “action.” It is not the “fruit” of action as many people assume, it is the action or law itself. Karma is a moral law hardwired into the universe that says that for every event that occurs, there will follow another event whose existence was caused by the first. This second event may be pleasant or unpleasant depending on whether its cause was skillful or unskillful. Whatever you do, say or think is like a seed that you plant into your consciousness and that will bear fruit similar to that seed. The argument is that whatever happens to you is ultimately down to your own past actions. It says that we create our own life experiences through our actions, speech and mind. While this idea does promote taking responsibility for our lives and living in a moral way, there are a few problems with this idea for Naturalistic Pantheists – firstly is the lack of scientific evidence for the existence of this law, second is that other people can affect our world without us causing it and finally, unless you also accept the idea of rebirth, if a child is born disabled, how is that caused by their own actions? (This final argument could arguably be overcome by saying we all start with a clean slate at birth.) However, there are clearly examples where Karma seems to be true – The Buddhists are right to say that every action we do, every word we speak will have consequences – on ourselves and on the world around us. If we lie often, we are not only likely to get into trouble, but people will refuse to trust us and that will have negative consequences for us. If we hit someone we will probably get hit back or get in trouble with the law. At the very least we will feel guilty over things we have done and if we do it too much, may lose our sense of conscience when we do wrong. If we treat people well and we are generous and compassionate, we will earn respect, have lots of friends and people will treat us well in return. So there are elements of Karma that are correct and there are elements which are more problematic. Within Buddhism there is another teaching – that all things are interconnected and interdependent, that nothing has its own “self existence” but exists because of other things. When we see this, we see that all our actions have consequences, but they are not just limited to ourselves, they ripple out into the world around us too.
Heathenism has a concept called “Wyrd” which means “to turn” or “to become.” This is the idea that there is a force that connects everything in the universe. In other words, like in Buddhism, everything is interconnected. The difference between Wyrd and Karma is that while Karma can be seen as something linear, Wyrd is more of an interconnected web that is constantly being weaved. As we do or say things, we weave new threads in this web which link with other threads in an ever expanding network. All our actions have far reaching consequences throughout the web because when we do something it affects the web which is joined to every other person, event and atom in the universe. This web extends both into the past and into the future with who we are and what we do today being dependent on our past actions, and the actions of others. It also means that who we become and what we do in the future is affected by the choices we make now. Wyrd is not quite fate because it is constantly being weaved and updated in the present, but it does tell us that the future is shaped to a very large extent by what has been weaved in the past. In other words, everything happening now is an effect caused by what happened in the past. Wyrd is the pattern of actions created by you and others in our culture in the past. It flows like a river, the layers of past actions creating paths of least resistance in deciding how the future will flow. Each new action we take builds upon the past web and adds to the pattern. When things happen, our reaction is then limited by the patterns weaved in our own personal wyrd up to that point. This has a profound implication – if we are interconnected to everybody else, if all our past actions lead to our present situation, then we have a huge responsibility. Everything we do matters – it affects us and it affects others, it affects our future and it affects others’ future. There are also some things that are fixed in our “fate” that are part of the Wyrd, and this is seen in the Heathen concepts of Orlagu and Ordael. Orlagu means “that layed down before” and hints at primal law – the laws of the universe and our genetics e.g. we will all age and die. Ordael is the idea of the hand dealt to us, the consequences incurred by past actions which is similar to the idea of Karma, but perhaps focuses more on the wider impact of the culture e.g. we may be born into a culture where everyone is a Christian and we are therefore likely to end up Christian too.
At the cutting edge of science today are studies into Neuroscience. Within this field there is a lot of research being done on Neuroplasticity. This is the idea that our brains are not fixed but are constantly being shaped and molded by our experiences and choices. In other words, it’s not who we are, but who we are becoming. One of the most exciting discoveries is that through consistent training of the mind, we can shape the brain and build within ourselves the habits, character and ideals that we want to see. Evidence from studies on meditation and compassion have shown that it is possible even in a short period of regular meditation to become a much more compassionate person which has visible and testable results in our actions. There is a saying “neurons that fire together, wire together.” If we look at this idea from the view of Karma and Wyrd, we can see that each time we do something, it creates or strengthens neurons and connections in our brains that will affect how we act in future and they type of people we become. We create our fate through the actions we do now because they affect not only external circumstances, but also affect us internally and dictate the person we will become in the next moment and the moments many years hence. Karma is not a metaphysical force keeping track of us but a physical one – affecting us by affecting who we become. We don’t get “punished” for our sins, but by them. What we do affects who we are inside and who we become – the good creating better character and making us better people which will likely make our lives better, the bad having the opposite affect. And as we act in each moment, we change ourselves, we build upon our past actions to strengthen the neurons in our brains making us into a particular person. A person whose decisions have wide reaching consequences throughout the world around us and beyond through Wyrd. And if we change ourselves, we change the world.