Q: Will you explain what is meant by “the wheel of karma”? What is it and how does it affect our lives?

A: Each of our actions—physical, mental, or verbal—creates an impression in the mind. Everything we do is stored in the mind in the form of subtle impressions, or samskaras. We perform our actions under the spell of these subtle impressions, and in turn our actions reinforce these subtle impressions. Subtle impressions engender roaming tendencies, and these roaming tendencies in turn strengthen the subtle impressions. This process is known as karma chakra, the wheel of karma. Once in motion, this wheel revolves at an ever-increasing velocity.

Each of our actions creates an impression in the mind.

The wheel of karma has three distinct components: the thought (vritti) that propels the action; the impression (samskara) created by that thought and the ensuing action; and the next round (chakra) of action propelled by the samskara. Thus, another name for the wheel of karma is vritti samskara chakra. This concept is the ground for understanding the law of karma. If we take a closer look at how we create our personal wheel of karma, we will begin to see what a profound effect it has on all aspects of our lives.

Our actions are propelled primarily by our desires—the stronger the desire, the more intense the action arising from it. The intensity of the action and the number of times it is repeated determine the strength of the subtle impression. As time passes, the subtle impressions of our actions become strong enough to manifest as habits. For example, we receive a box of Belgian chocolates and, as we rarely eat sweets, we decide to have only one piece every night after dinner. By the time the box is empty, several weeks later, we have begun to look forward to a sweet treat after dinner, so we buy another box of fancy chocolates, but now two pieces at a time seems more reasonable. By the end of the second box, the desire to have something sweet after dinner has become strong enough that we buy a carton of ice cream (and an extra one, just in case!). Before we know it, dinner doesn’t seem complete without dessert, and we have a new sugar habit.

As we reinforce our habits through repeated action they become even stronger—veiling our intelligence, dulling our power of discrimination, and heavily influencing our comprehension. As our habits mature, they dominate our decision-making ability; our actions are now driven by our habits. As this process is repeated, our habits are strengthened and deepened until they become so powerful that they drive our thoughts, speech, and actions from deep within. At this point the subtle impression becomes a samskara.

Samskaras are habits embedded so deeply in our mind that they shape our inner world and mold our personality. We all have numberless samskaras—some are strong, others relatively weak. The strongest samskaras dominate our mind, influencing and shaping our power of discernment from deep within. These defining attributes of our personality affect our judgment, molding our concepts of right and wrong, good and bad. The term for the most powerful samskaras is vasana, a potent subtle impression that colors the mind. We see reality through the lens of our vasanas. This lens distorts our perception of others and ourselves. Thus, the mind is no longer in control—we see only what our vasanas allow us to see.

At this point, the mind has turned into a warehouse of samskaras and vasanas, which are pleasant in part and unpleasant in part, a mixture of desirable and undesirable. The mind now thinks and acts in conformity with our samskaras and vasanas. This kind of mind has no mastery over its own thought processes. Our samskaras and vasanas make the decisions about what to think and how to think.

Smeared as it is with these powerful subtle impressions, the mind is unaware of what is going on deep inside and has little control over stopping or changing the direction of its thoughts. Agitating thoughts make it agitated. Confusing and stupefying thoughts make it confused and stupefied. Put simply, the mind has become the slave of its own creations. This cycle (chakra) from thought process to the formation of subtle impressions and from subtle impressions back to thoughts is the wheel of karma.

This vicious cycle veils the innate luminosity of our mind but does not destroy its inherent power. Using the inherent power of the mind to intervene and stop this vicious cycle is our birthright. Yoga is the method that allows us to claim and exercise this birthright.

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Inner Quest: Seeker’s Q&A