Karma and the Shadow of the Hat

"A man cannot jump over the shadow of his own hat."

A Koan

This rather puzzling statement posed by the 11th century master of Kashmir Shaivism, Abinavagupta, is like a koan to me, something I have mused over for quite a while. Of course we can jump over the shadow of our hat. As long as we are not wearing it!

I recently experienced a series of events that caused me to take a look at the hats I have been wearing and the shadows they cast. As well as understanding that in interactions with others we are often interacting with each others’ shadows rather than with what is the source of the shadow.

An anonymous letter came

It was delivered to my mailbox this week, typed, with no return address and no signatures. The letter stated that it was written by a “collective” of my neighbors who were complaining about the parking situation on our small court, claiming that my guests were commandeering too much of the precious curb space.

There was an implied threat in the letter that made me very uncomfortable. Having lived on this court for 26 years I was taken aback that none of my neighbors had spoken to me directly about this issue and that they had resorted to an anonymous “collective” to address their complaints.

I began to speculate

Who this collective might be comprised of? and why each of these people might be unhappy with me?

I had been feeling guilty about not being more friendly with my newest neighbors and figured that they might have labeled me unfriendly and therefore have it out for me.

Another neighbor is generally curmudgeonly and so would be a natural suspect. I was certain that a couple of the neighbors who I consider friends would not have participated in such a collective.

I sat with my speculations (i.e. projections) for a while and then wrote a very loving conciliatory response which I addressed to each of the six couples who live on my court. Within hours the neighbors were abuzz.

The Discovery

Turns out I was right about the 2 neighbors who are my friends, and those two, like me were certain that the next door neighbor and the curmudgeon were the culprits. We were entirely wrong. Those suspects both approached me to say that they knew nothing of the letter and they were very sympathetic toward me.

Turns out that a neighbor who my friends and I had not suspected confessed to being the sole author of the letter!

Now the rest of the neighbors are angry at him for implicating them in a “collective” they had not consented to. And I must confess that I felt reassured and a little vindicated.

If you have followed this story so far, perhaps you are already recognizing how all of us were making conclusions based on impressions that had little to do with the actual situation.

Perhaps I have not been the friendliest to the newest neighbors. That doesn’t make them want to threaten me. Perhaps we do have a neighborhood curmudgeon, but that doesn’t make him mad at me.

Those are my projections.

Perhaps it was also the projection of his own unacknowledged guilt or hubris which motivated the neighbor who himself owns 5 vehicles that take up much of the court parking space to blame me.

But again, perhaps this too is my own rationalized interpretation!

I can’t help but compare my little neighborhood drama to the greater political drama that is being played out in our country just now. How our assumptions about individuals and groups can lead us to perceive, like images in a magnifying mirror, that threats seem larger than they are.

How by making up narratives about others’ mistrust of us, our own mistrust can grow. How we can feel a call to arms in reaction to misperceived threats to our own cherished way of life.

When the shadow of my hat overlaps the shadow of yours and the shadows of all of our neighbors’ hats combine, that larger shadow can loom menacingly and dark. Such collective shadows can be a breeding ground for fear and hatred.

So this week I tried to take off the hat of my own perceptions and examine it closely to see if I still want to wear it.

This is where karma comes in.

In other words, it was time to look at how my own shadow was playing into the neighborhood drama and even how my own shadow can play into the collective shadow of world political events.

How do I, intentionally or unintentionally contribute to fear, partisan divisiveness and non-inclusion? How do I try to make myself and my kindred spirits the good guys as opposed to the others out there?

Thing is, I can choose to continue to espouse my personal narratives of my own purity and innocence in the face of the threats and victimization by the others of this world. Or, as in my neighborhood situation, I can acknowledge that when I have a number of people over for a day of meditation and Reiki practice that, in spite of the good energy we are trying to produce, our parked cars can still be an annoyance to the neighbors.

I can and will ask my friends to park more mindfully.

I can do this regardless of whether my neighbor’s son parks in front of my house all day and that the guy with five vehicles is taking up “my” space.

After all, it is all public space. And filling up public space with judgment, blame and self-righteousness only contributes to the development of a collective dark shadow. We all know the results of such dark shadows looming exponentially out of control in the world, as demonstrated by mass group hatred and genocide.

Looking closely at my role

As I attempted to look closely at my role in the conflict, I saw how I may have perpetuated something negative by attempting to gain my neighbors’ support.

Was my response an attempt to establish justice or a means by which I could get them on my side? Perhaps some of both. After all, I am still working on releasing my own narratives about how I am so loving and kind that no one should be against me.

In the process I sometimes ignore the possibility that others are responding to the shadows I unintentionally cast even as I am responding to theirs.

Jesus, the great one who likely cast no karmic shadows, still knew that not everyone was with him, that they still clung to their own karmic projections.

We humans truly all are works in progress.

I only ask the universe to assist in making my own progress intentional, mindful, loving and perhaps above all, vigorously honest. May I recognize my shadow and let go of the hat that is casting it.

Most of our karmic patterns, our values and beliefs, are etched deeply into our neuropathways. But we know through science that we can re-program our brains.

Yogis refer to deeply rooted karmic patterns as “samskaras” or impressions that are like lines carved in stone. We believe that through deep spiritual practice, those lines can be softened just as stone impressions are eroded by wind and water.

Practice to diminish samskaras

We believe that the more we practice, our samskaras eventually will become like lines drawn in sand, then in water, and eventually in air.

In other words, as we practice more and more deeply, our thoughts, words, and actions are filled with fewer projections, self-righteousness, judgment and attachment.

When we respond to the circumstances of life without a mass of charged emotions, fewer shadows are cast. If I set down my hat I can jump over its shadow.

As long as I am wearing it, the shadow will be cast.

When I take my hat off and stand directly in the light of the sun, there is no shadow at all.

Namaste, Kalisara (Joni)

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