We all want more joy and peace, more connection with loved ones, more moments of noticing the beauty around us. We’d all like a little less worry, less aggravation, less “oh no” moments. So how do we get those?
The Buddhist concept of karma has some answers. Because, no, karma is not just a b&*ch.
I dug into karma when I was doing my Meditation Teacher Training program. Often, when I would tell people I was studying Buddhist meditation, they’d say, “oh, stuff like karma?” And, I’d say, “yes, stuff like karma.’”And…that is where the conversation would end. I had the vague idea that karma means “you reap what you sow.” As in: you spend a lot of time gossiping? Watch out, somebody is probably whispering behind their hand about you right now. Maybe this is just my “glass is half empty” way of seeing the world, but karma seemed like a giant system of justice for when you do bad things. You’ll get what you’ll deserve -- and that’s a threat.
In his book, Indestructible Truth, Buddhist scholar Reggie Ray uses the phrase “what goes around comes around” to broadly define karma -- and that does sound more or less like “you reap what you sow.” However, as I read more, I realized that I was seeing karma through the lens of the secular Judeo-Christian culture in which I’d grown up. I saw karma as some sort of scorekeeping, done outside of us individual humans, which would decide if good or bad things happen to us. Maybe there was a God-like accountant up in the sky keeping track of any lies you told and making sure you’d be lied to in equal measure?
Well, it turns out, karma does not have an accountant in the sky. Karma is a mechanism that works within us. It gives us, ordinary people, a path for creating more joy, more peace, less anxiety, less anger. Karma can actually be empowering. While it is not so far away from Christianity’s Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” it does have a little bit of a different perspective.
Karma is the concept that all our actions, words, and thoughts, plant seeds for future actions, words and thoughts. So, if we gossip, we are sowing a field where there will be gossiping -- maybe we’ll be doing the future gossiping, because that is the habit we’re building. Or, maybe we’re creating a gossip-y environment, where there will be gossip about us. Either way, we’re planting “gossip seeds.” On the flip side, if we act with compassion and kindness, we are planting seeds for future compassion and kindness. We’re building our own kindness muscles, making kindness our habitual pattern. We’re creating a fertile environment for kindness in the world.
None of this is a one-to-one ratio. It is not that you do something kind and then you are “owed” a kindness. But, if we build the habit of being kind, we will find it easier and easier to see the world with kindness and compassion. We will also likely find more gentleness and understanding coming back to us as well. Or, if we realize we have the habit of gossiping, we can start to shift our karma by stopping ourselves from gossiping. Maybe we stay silent. Or maybe we even try to act with more compassion and understanding. As we shift our actions, we change our karma - we change what will come back to us, and the world, in the future.
Karma is a way of understanding how our current actions can set the stage, in small individual words, thoughts and actions, for the future. Meditation helps us be more mindful of what it is that we are sowing. As we are more aware and intentional, we can change our karma. As the saying goes, “what you water, grows.” Or, to quote this parable, which I love, attributed to the Cherokee nation:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."
May we all water the things that best nourish ourselves and the world.