What is Karma?

“Dear karma, I have a list of people you missed.” -Anonymous

When we talk about karma we tend to talk about it as a punishment. This is true for many of the clients I see in my Denver practice. We think of karma as some kind of cosmic spanking. When something bad happens we wonder what we did to deserve that karma. Or we anticipate what might happen as a result of all of the good karma we will get by being nice to someone.

I have heard students of Buddhism and skeptics of Buddhist practice alike say that karma no sense. It makes no sense, they say, that a child dies of cancer. But I don’t think karma is meant to explain why children die or bad things happen to good people. Karma is the wrong tool for that job. It’s primary purpose is to help us learn how to be happy.

Different spiritual traditions define karma in different ways. From the Buddhist perspective karma isn’t punishment or reward. It’s more like a reaction that comes after an action. If I drop a pencil it will fall to the floor. The conditions on this planet are such that gravity will pull it down until something stops it. That’s karma. Another example is anger. If I spend my day thinking about something someone did to me, there will be some very tangible karmic result. I’ll be in a bad mood or I might even get a headache. Karma isn’t magic and it’s not punishment, it’s the results of what came before. Good karma is less a reward and more a fruit from a tree that you planted and cared for.

Karma is a concept that, if we understand it, can be profoundly empowering. Understanding karma allows us to see with clarity that what we do now determines what happens in our future. We are constantly building our future selves in the present moment. We don’t have control over what happens in the future, but we do have influence. Understanding karma is understanding that we are driving the bus and that we have been driving it all along. We are largely responsible for our quality of life. Understanding karma is taking personal responsibility, which allows us to make better choices that lead to better results.

If we think karma is just a spanking or a pat on the back from the universe then we are really missing out.