Friday, January 4, 2013

Habitual Karmic Sensations

If we say, “I had the thought that…” or “It occurred to me that…” there’s a strong, implied, usually unexamined assumption that there’s a “someone” who is doing that. If we stopped and considered, the language could give us a hint that what we think is happening is not what’s happening. “It just came to me…” could be an even bigger clue as to what’s actually happening, especially if it’s phrased, “It suddenly came to me that…” But we fail to get the clues.

We often hear in practice “What came up for me…” in response to what another person offered. This is always a bit troubling for me; I am unable to hear it without a vague since of having ingested something that didn’t agree with the system, as in “losing one’s lunch.”

Lately we’ve moved to “It just dropped in…” to describe the experience of insight arriving from beyond the realm of “my doing.” We use this expression to acknowledge the fact that “this information simply appeared in my conscious awareness, and my only role was to be present as it arrived.” I didn’t think of it. I wasn’t the creator of this insight. I didn’t generate it out of my own, personal brilliance.

This is a very good thing to notice all the time, since that’s what’s happening all the time. What “I” can contribute is an endless repetition of previous repetitions. The new stuff, the awarenesses, the insights, the “ah ha’s” and “oh, I see’s” come from the intelligence that animates and do not belong in any degree to ego-identity. Standing near an artist creating a masterpiece doesn’t give me claim to the creation!

In an exchange with someone recently, I heard myself refer to “anxiety” as “habitual karmic sensations.” (You can see now why the previous exploration of how information comes to us.) It occurred to me that (a la the description above) that way of labeling the experience previously called “anxiety” could be helpful.

Once we get enough associations around a label, such as anxiety or depression or panic attack, the label itself can produce the dreaded effects and, worse still, we stop paying attention to what’s actually happening.

Years ago, I met a former carpenter who was a former carpenter because he’d cut off three fingers with a circular saw. He told me that every time he heard a power tool his remaining fingers began to crawl toward his armpits. That seems to me a perfect description of “habitual karmic sensations.”

Something happens. A person is upset, traumatized even. The body registers those sensations. At some point those sensations cease to be associated with a memory of a trauma and become the harbinger of a trauma. Soon the sensations themselves are the producer of the trauma and a person is living in fear of sensations that produce a fear of sensations.

Now, the above insight just dropped in. I have no proof there’s any validity to it, but it certainly has a ring of truth, doesn’t it? And, definitely worth putting to the test of scrutiny through the attentive, curious attention we call “the spirit of inquiry.”

According to a recent survey, one in five people in the U.S. is taking a drug for conditions such as depression, attention “deficit,” and anxiety. Perhaps those numbers wouldn’t be so high if we were encouraged to drop labels and have a present moment relationship with the sensations in the body rather than being thrown off into terrifying stories of what those sensations mean.

In gassho,


  1. I really liked the point you made. Thank you. My New Year's resolution is to learn to let things be what they are supposed to be and not expend so much energy trying to make them otherwise (always to no avail.) I am running around trying it on everything, and this fits.
    --Have a happy new year.

  2. Compelling point that the sensation loses its association with the incident that originally caused it. It would seem that apparently it has it's own "existence" now and causes the sensation on it's own, so to speak. I.e. it is not triggered. So no need to trace back where it came from. Like you say, something to be attentive to in the spirit of inquiry.

    Should be fun!

  3. Hi there.

    First off, let me thank you for your reply to my "In what way is the Ego an Illusion?". Please excuse me if again I go off topic on a tangent here but this seems to be the only viable way to ask you a follow up question.

    You say there is nothing wrong with us. That is a bold extraordinary statement. Usually I find it's useful to put this kind of extraordinary statements through the trials of extraordinary test cases. here it goes.

    If there is nothing wrong with us is there anything wrong with, say, a serial child molester?

    Thanks for your time and patience.

    All the best,