What is karmic habits and how does it differ from Karma?

Karmic habits

While the concept of karmic habits remains relatively unknown in the West, it is a very important concept in Korean spiritual circles, including Korean Zen Buddhism.

Many Korean Zen practitioners put in much effort to cleanse and eradicate their karmic habits in order to move upward on their spiritual paths, because they believe that these karmic forces are a major obstacle in their spiritual illumination. For Korean Zen practitioners, cleansing and eradicating karmic habits is actually more important than cleansing karma. So what exactly is the karmic habits?

Karmic habits refers to habits and patterns we have acquired in the course of our various incarnations or in the course of our present lifetime. They also include our mental attitudes, tendencies and inner filters through which we interpret our life experiences.

During a lifetime, we mold certain patterns and habits that become firmly embedded in us. Most of us know how hard it is to change what we have become accustomed to. The habits and patterns we continuously cultivate are registered in our energetic fields, so to speak, and we are born with these habits that we developed in our past incarnations.

For example, if we cultivated intense anger in our past lives, anger may have been firmed up as our karmic habit. In that case, we are born with latent anger. As we grow older, we will increasingly encounter situations that provoke fierce anger in us. If we fostered the karmic habit of a compulsive drinker in our past lives, we would be born with a latent penchant for alcohol.

As we grow older, we will crave for alcohol. If we were a man in our past lives and cultivated the strong karmic habit of lust, we would be born with a latent sexual desire for women. As we grow older, we will feel sexually attracted to women even if we are born female.

Karmic habits

Impact of karmic habits

The idea that karmic habits have powerful control over our lives may make many of you feel uncomfortable. However, keep in mind that all of our karmic habits are not necessarily bad.

Some of our karmic habits could be discipline, strong work ethics, generosity, or kindheartedness and some of us could possess these qualities as karmic habits. Besides, if all of these habits vanished today, we would have to relearn all of those things that we do naturally, which would create a lot of problems.

Nevertheless, karmic habits are generally considered as a major obstacle for those who seek spiritual illumination. These habits make us lead a habitual existence. They keep us unconscious. They continuously direct our attention to the physical world by constantly generating earthly desires and cravings. They make us do things against our will.

Even what you would consider to be positive habits are no exception to this. For example, there are genuinely nice people who dislike their niceness and want to be less nice to others. But if niceness is their karmic habit, it would be very hard for them to be upfront or rude to others even if they want to.

Let’s take another example. There are also workaholics who hope to be able to relax and enjoy life more. However, if strong work ethics and discipline are their karmic habits, they will constantly push themselves and try to be productive as much as possible, even if they internally wish that they could relax and have fun. 

How to break free from karmic forces

Now here comes the most important question. If these habits wield powerful control — whether good or bad — over our thoughts, emotions, and actions, how do we break free from them? How do we take the helm of our lives and fully exercise our free will without being affected by karmic forces?

The practice of mindfulness is the key. When we are conscious, karmic forces lose power, which means that our karmic habits lose power when we live in the present moment and are mindful of what we are doing from moment to moment.

Think of harmful karmic habits as arrows that are heading toward you. When you are fully mindful and remain conscious, you are basically shielding yourself from the arrows.

Karmic habits cannot manipulate you when you remain fully conscious in your mind and in your body. If we want to liberate ourselves from the bondage of these habits, we have to practice mindfulness in our daily lives and lead a conscious life. It actually takes strict discipline and many years of mind training to be able to live a mindful, conscious life. However, this is how we vanquish our karmic habits.

Many people believe that the practice of mindfulness, Vipassana meditation for example, is just for peace of mind and inner healing. However, the practice of mindfulness offers much greater benefits at a spiritual level, given that, if practiced correctly and consistently, it liberates us from the control of our karmic habits and our karma in general. That is why the practice of mindfulness is so valued in the Eastern spiritual tradition.

Remember that our moment-to-moment awareness and our presence in the moment will not only reduce the power of karmic forces, but also gradually eradicate our karmic habits one by one.  

Korean Zen