Karma: The Law of Empathy and Ethical Causation

Harold Copping, “The Widows Mite”

EVER mounting research reveals that you cannot separate your health from your emotions, explains Dr. Joseph Mercola, a prominent alternative medicine advocate.

“Numerous studies support the idea that having an upbeat and positive perspective,” he says, “can translate into living a longer healthier life.” This view aligns exactly with that of Theosophy.

Manifesting positive emotions and happiness “is perhaps one of the greatest gifts you have been given as a human being,” Mercola writes, “but to some extent, being happy is a choice you need to make.”

“Much like choosing to exercise or eat right. Happiness comes from within — it’s not meted out by circumstance alone.”

The Sanskrit word Karma has many meanings, and has a special aspect for almost every one of its manifestations according to Theosophy. As a synonym of sin, an action for the attainment of personal selfish desire, “it cannot fail to be hurtful” to almost everyone. 


Yet karma is also “the law of ethical causation,” Theosophical Pioneer William Q. Judge wrote. The effect of an act produced egotistically, against the great law of harmony, as opposed to that initiated by altruism instead of selfishness, cannot fail to be destructive.

In reality the condition is not inevitable. “No one has a right to say that he can do nothing for others, on any pretext whatever,” Theosophical pioneer H. P. Blavatsky explains in her Key to Theosophy. The poor widow in the Synoptic Gospels gives everything she had, she points out, while others give only a small portion of their own wealth: “A cup of cold water given in time to a thirsty wayfarer

“is a nobler duty and more worth than a dozen dinners given away, out of season, to men who can afford to pay for them.”


Cold Water

Following Mme. Blavatsky’s death in 1891, an editorial published in the New York Daily Tribune (founded by Horace Greeley) said of her life and work: “Madame Blavatsky held that the regeneration of mankind must be based upon the development of altruism.”

“In this she was at one with the greatest thinkers, not alone of the present day, but of all time,” the Editorial acknowledged.

“And, it is becoming more and more apparent, at one with the strongest spiritual tendencies of the age. This alone would entitle her teachings to the candid and serious consideration of all who respect the influences that make for righteousness.”

Brené Brown on Empathy

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor and best-selling author of “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead” (Penguin Portfolio, 2013). She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. What is the best way to ease someone’s pain and suffering? In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathetic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragility:

Theosophy on Ethics

“The Ethics of Theosophy are more important than any divulgement of psychic laws and facts. The latter relate wholly to the material and evanescent part of man

“but the Ethics sink into and take hold of the real — the reincarnating Ego.”

“We are outwardly creatures of but a day,” she wrote, “within we are eternal. Learn, then, well the doctrines of Karma and Reincarnation, and teach, practice, promulgate that system of life and thought which alone can save the coming races.” (H. P. Blavatsky to the American Conventions, Letter III.)


Additionally, some of the clearest statements of Mme.Blavatsky’s ethical views, are in The Key to Theosophy (Section 12), where she insists that “altruism is an integral part of self-development.” It is man’s duty “to give all that which is wholly his own and can benefit no one but himself, if he selfishly keeps it from others.”

“DUTY is that which is due to Humanity, to our fellow-men, neighbours, family, and especially that which we owe to all those who are poorer and more helpless than we are ourselves.”

“This is a debt which, if left unpaid during life, leaves us spiritually insolvent and moral bankrupts in our next incarnation. Theosophy is the quintessence of duty.

Asked how a person could achieve such an elevated state, her reply focused on four overarching aspects: “By the use of our higher reason, spiritual intuition and moral sense, and by following the dictates of what we call ‘the still small voice’ of our conscience —

“…and which speaks louder in us than the earthquakes and the thunders of Jehovah.”

Saintly Macaques

Following is a clip from the radio interview that Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan did to promote their book Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors in the early 1990’s. In this clip they discuss how some animals, in this case macaque monkeys, show better ethical behavior than humans. They compare the results with with the shocking “Milgram Experiment” on humans.

Thought Matters

Blavatsky further raised the bar on ethics, emphasizing altruistic thinking. “There are persons who never think with the higher faculties of their mind at all,” she wrote, and “those who do so are the minority and are thus, in a way, beyond, if not above, the average of human kind.”

Altruistic works would be natural for them because, she says “they will think even upon ordinary matters on that higher plane.”

A key problem in Darwin’s theory of evolution was the existence of altruism. Early scholars sought to understand how selfless helping could have evolved. Primarily, evolutionists are confused by the existence of altruism. The belief that humans and other animals engage in altruistic acts (e.g. risking one’s own life to help another) is paradoxical in light of neo-Darwinist theory.

The Milgram Study

Stanley Milgram, a Harvard PhD, designed a series of studies on obedience to authority, using a “teacher” and a “learner.” The “teacher” is supposed to shock the “learner” if an answer is incorrect, starting at 15 volts and going up to 450 volts, increasing the shock each time the “learner” misses a word in the list.

Ultimately 65% of all of the “teachers” punished the “learners” to the maximum 450 volts. Obviously the still small voice of conscience and altruism did not speak loud enough in most the “teachers” to stop them.

Optimism vs Pessimism

It is the “idiosyncrasy of the person” that determines which layer of the spectrum of consciousness we call ‘mind’ is activated. And this “determines in which ‘principle’ of the mind the thinking is done,” Blavatsky says. Both our physical heredity and our ingrained tendencies from prior lifetimes comes into play.

The materialistically inclined person is genuinely handicapped because, through disuse, she says, “the metaphysical portion” of their brain is “almost atrophied.”  


“Connections between your nervous system and immune system allow for crosstalk between them. The science that studies this is psychoneuroimmunology,” Dr. Mercola notes. “Pessimism promotes ill health and can shave years off your life; the tendency to always expect the worst has been linked to a 25 percent higher risk of dying before the age of 65.”

“Sociable, outgoing people tend to have stronger immune function, and happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, and other positive psychological attributes are associated with a lower risk of heart disease,” recent studies strongly suggest.


H. P. Blavatsky explains this phenomenon citing occult psychology. “The plastic power of the imagination is much stronger in some persons than in others,” she says in the article Studies in Occultism. “The mind is dual in its potentiality: it is physical and metaphysical.”

“The higher part of the mind is connected with the spiritual soul or Buddhi, the lower with the animal soul, the Kama [Desire] principle.”

‘There are persons who never think with the higher faculties of their minds at all. Those who do so are the minority and are thus, in a way, beyond, if not above, the average of human kind. These will think even upon ordinary matters on that higher plane.



“The idiosyncrasy of the person determines in which ‘principle’ of the mind the thinking is done, as also the faculties of a preceding life, and sometimes the heredity of the physical.”

“This is why it is so very difficult for a materialist — the metaphysical portion of whose brain is almost atrophied — to raise himself, or for one who is naturally spiritually-minded to descend to the level of the matter-of-fact vulgar thought. Optimism and pessimism depend on it also in a great measure.” [Studies in Occultism]

Destroying the Earth for financial gain.

It is just as difficult for such a materially focused person to raise himself higher, as it is for a naturally spiritually minded person “to descend to the level of the matter-of-fact vulgar thought.”

The twin human features of optimism and pessimism “depend on it also in a large measure,” Blavatsky adds.


Getting Unstuck

Alison Ledgerwood joined the Department of Psychology at UC Davis in 2008 after completing her PhD in social psychology at New York University. She is interested in understanding how people think, and how they can think better. Her research, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, investigates how certain ways of thinking about an issue tend to stick in people’s heads. Her classes on social psychology focus on understanding the way people think and behave in social situations, and how to harness that knowledge to potentially improve the social world in which we all live.

An Early Start

“A proper and sane system of education should produce the most vigorous and liberal mind,” Blavatsky maintains [Key, Sect. 13], “strictly trained in logical and accurate thought, and not in blind faith.”

“Children should above all be taught self-reliance, love for all men, altruism, mutual charity, and more than anything else, to think and reason for themselves.”


“How can you ever expect good results,” she asks, “while you pervert the reasoning faculty of your children by bidding them believe in the miracles of the Bible on Sunday, while for the six other days of the week you teach them that such things are scientifically impossible?



The Mission of The Meditation Initiative is to, in their own words: “provide free meditation classes and training for children, adults and seniors to help prevent stress and anxiety, improve focus and attention, and share tools for anger management while improving overall mental and emotional health and well-being.”

Free & Unselfish

“We would reduce the purely mechanical work of the memory to an absolute minimum, and devote the time to the development and training of the inner senses, faculties and latent capacities,” Blavatsky wrote.

“We should aim at creating free men and women, free intellectually, free morally, unprejudiced in all respects, and above all things, unselfish.”

“We would endeavour to deal with each child as a unit,” Mme. Blavatsky wrote, “and to educate it so as to produce the most harmonious and equal unfoldment of its powers, in order that its special aptitudes should find their full natural development.”

Caring for Nature

Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA, which happens to be one of the world’s hotspots for marine mammal strandings, is also the home of IFAW’s International headquarters. IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue team responds to hundreds of calls of animals in trouble. “It seems Cape Cod’s shallow water and extreme tides can be especially difficult for dolphins to navigate.”

Moral Foundation

Unselfishness, we would argue, seems to be the necessary moral platform for the building of altruism and empathy. The scaffolding upon which is molded the good, the kind and the generous.

“Humanity is the highest manifestation on earth of the Unseen Supreme Deity,” says Blavatsky, “and each man an incarnation of his God.”

“To become a genuine spiritual entity … man must first create himself anew, so to speak, i.e., thoroughly eliminate from his mind and spirit, not only the dominating influence of selfishness and other impurity, but also the infection of superstition and prejudice.”

The Empathy Circuit

In the book, entitled “Zero Degrees of Empathy” in Britain, and “The Science of Evil” in the United States, Simon Baron-Cohen seeks to pick apart and define components of empathy — including hormones, genes, environment, nurture, and early childhood experiences.

Citing decades of scientific research, he says there are at least 10 regions of the brain which make up what he calls the “empathy circuit.”

“When people hurt others, either systematically or fleetingly, parts of that circuit are malfunctioning.”



“The aim is to produce children who trust that the world is a safe place — not children who grow up unable to trust adults because they have been beaten or because there is no predictability about then they are next going to see their parent. Those children experience lack of safety and lack of routine in their early environment

“…are the ones who may end up with life-long issues around trust in relationships, and an inability to get close to other people.”

“Some of them will end up zero negative, damaged and potentially dangerous.”  (Liz Else, NewScientist, 9 April 2011)

Read More:

The Center for Building
a Culture of Empathy


“When I talk or think about altruism, I am often in tears. Why? Because it is really precious and wonderful…”

The Dali Lama


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