The real meaning of karma.

I assume that when the ancients came up with the idea of karma they meant: ‘How you act in life will affect the quality of the life you lead.’ But in a sad case of ‘Chinese Whispers’, some New-Age dills have missed the nuances of that message and scrambled it into absurdities. Those New-Agers seem to think that good things happen to you when you do good things, and bad things happen to you when you do bad things. 
 And, the ones who believe in reincarnation might say that if you are good in this life you will fare well in the next. Or vice-versa.

What rubbish.

Here are some examples of what I suspect the wise ancients meant by the term:

When we learn to deal with our anger appropriately we become less stressed than someone who doesn’t allow themselves to get angry. That’s because we aren’t afraid of our anger; we know we can handle it.
No one likes conflict, but when we have the capacity to meet it head on and deal with it constructively, problems get solved and we get over the discomfort.
So, by having the ability to deal with anger appropriately we are rewarded. An ancient would consider that good karma.

Conversely, if we don’t learn how to express our anger in a healthy, constructive manner we might develop a short fuse and explode inappropriately, and make life hard for ourselves and others.
Or, we become a doormat. Doormats let people walk over them because they’re fearful of how they might behave if they stood up for themselves; they are fearful of losing control, or of being seen as weak, or bad. So, they put their own needs aside and spoil their relationships in the process. And, because they are in denial about how they are treated they lose a big part of themselves. They exert no real influence in their relationships, and feel powerless. That leads to anxiety.
So, by being unable to deal with anger constructively we suffer. An ancient would call that bad karma.

Other examples?

When we admit to making a mistake we will not be rewarded with good luck for being so gallant. That’s not how karma works. But we do benefit. By admitting to our mistakes we come to realise that we can cope with the consequences of making mistakes, and so we develop the courage to try new things. And, by accepting our own fallibility we come to realise we are not diminished by it. We become less harsh with ourselves, and replace self-blame with self-acceptance.

Further, the more often we admit to being wrong, the more open-minded we become.

And, we become less likely to make the same mistake again, which means we develop competence and confidence. We come to trust our own judgments, because we know our opinion is not based on protecting our ego, but on seeking the truth.

The bonus: we earn the trust and respect of other people, because when we admit our mistakes we display integrity.

In short, by admitting to our mistakes we grow. That’s our reward. That’s karma.

When we don’t admit to our mistakes we don’t get all those benefits. Instead, we look like a goose, and we keep making the same mistake over and over, with unwanted results. That’s bad karma.

When we don’t lie we are rewarded. Not by karma, but by the consequences of being forced to see the truth. By facing the truth head-on we lose our fear of it, and spend less energy hiding the truth from ourselves and from others. We begin to relax and go easy on ourselves. Further, we know that what we say has substance, because it’s the truth, and so we feel that we ourselves have substance. We know that what we say counts, that it matters. And so, in that unassailable position, we feel safer in the world.

Plus, being truthful with others, about what we think and what we feel, helps us to be aware of what we really do think and really do feel. That understanding grounds us. Instead of becoming a composite of lies and mixed messages, we become consistent, stable, and self-knowing.
When an ancient explained the benefits of not lying, they might have used the the words ‘good karma’.

Conversely, if we lie regularly we will get good at it, and lose sight of the boundaries of when it is alright to lie, and when it isn’t. Then we end up living on the surface of life, skimming from one lie to the next, with our life lacking substance.
Even close relationships become shallow, because lies eat away at trust and intimacy.
Lies disconnect us from humanity. They violate us.
And, the more we lie, the more anxious we become of being found out, and of looking stupid. Then we begin to believe our own lies, and begin to look like a goose.

When we lie, we drift through life, only dimly aware of what matters and what doesn’t. When we don’t acknowledge the truth and confront it, we can’t grow. The philosopher Robert Tilley said that ‘when we lie we apprehend the ghostly, the void . . . we sense the abyss.’ He’s right. We can feel the violation when we lie. We know that each time we lie we create discord within us, and we like ourselves less.

They are the disadvantages of not regularly telling the truth. An ancient would call that ‘bad karma’.

Don’t cheat. Don’t be dishonest. If your own moral compass is unbreakable you come to feel powerful, because you know you can rely on yourself to do the right thing in any circumstance.

A strength like that would spread to other areas of your life: you would trust yourself and your decisions, because your direction would be clear to you. Yes, in life we make mistakes, we say the wrong thing, we make bad decisions – but you would know that beneath those blunders, those awkward words, those poor choices, there was a moral compass steering you in the right direction towards that ultimate goal you have set for yourself: to build yourself a person.

To live an honest life means resisting the easy way, the tempting way, and that in turn builds in us a capacity to choose the right path for our life, irrespective of how tempting the other path is. If things are too easy we don’t get good at doing the hard stuff, and it’s the hard stuff which is the most rewarding.

We are all subject to conflicting desires. If we could only act upon our strongest desire we would have little control over how we lived our lives, and we’d go through life with our destiny determined not by ourselves, but by the influences thrust upon us. But, by practising honesty we develop a mental toughness and the capacity to say no. That’s important. The resilience we develop, and the self discipline we gain, both add to our inner authority, that feeling of being able handle anything which comes our way. That feeling is gold.

Further, to be honest with someone is to tell that person we care about them. That strengthens the connection we have with them. The added bonus: the more honest we are with people the more likely we are to attract the right people – the ones who want to see us flourish. We gain the trust of perceptive people, and more importantly, we come to know that we can trust ourselves. And when we trust ourselves it becomes easier to trust others, and our relationships strengthen further. With those strengthened connections we satisfy our deep need to belong.

An ancient would tell a person, “if you are honest you will be rewarded.” We can see they’re right. But they’re not saying ‘good things will happen to an honest person’. That’s not what ‘good karma’ means.

Conversely, someone who is dishonest can’t fully develop trust and intimacy with others, knowing that they themselves can’t be trusted. Can a thief, who views people as a resource, ever fully connect with another person? No, and that’s the bad karma.

Don’t be a regular complainer. Someone who complains a lot becomes adept at finding the world consistently faulty. They find faults with grammar, with people, with life, with themselves . . . What a drab way to live. Pretty soon they find themselves living in a world they perceive to be always defective.

But when we are out of the habit of making idle complaints we see far fewer faults in people, and in life. We might even find that our powers of insight turn to finding strengths in people. Can you imagine how uplifting that would be? For ourselves and for the other person?

Most importantly, when we become lousy at finding faults with people, and with life, we become easygoing. And when something unwanted does happen in life, we’re not fazed. We can handle it. We are resilient. We have created for ourselves good karma.

“Being generous” the New-Agers might suggest, “brings good karma”. That’s true, but not because Fate will reward us. 
By regularly being generous we foster within ourselves the capacity to willingly part with our possessions, our money, our time . . . and as a result we become confident we could handle any material loss in our life. We don’t just lose our fear of losing our possessions, we also lose the fear of being diminished. When we learn we can handle not having those things, we find we have substance. And it’s a substance we like.

I’m not suggesting you give your possessions away. But by fostering generosity we become less fearful of losing what we have. Plus, it builds a connection between you and the recipient, and therefore, with humanity itself. It helps satisfy our need for connection, our deep need to belong.

Further, once we learn it’s okay to give, that we won’t bleed away, that we won’t be diminished, we can become more generous of ourselves. By that I mean: we become more open with our feelings and thoughts when speaking with people, and become more trusting of them. In turn, people become more trusting of us. So, again we add to that feeling of being connected, that deep need to belong.

An ancient would consider all those benefits to be good karma. She wouldn’t mean: if you’re generous to others, others will be generous to you. That’s a gross misunderstanding of the word ‘karma’


Judging others.

There is good karma in letting go of our judgments of others, but not because we will be rewarded in some way, but because we reward ourselves. For example, when we let go of our judgments of others we also begin to let go of the judgments we have of ourselves. We become easy going, and more accepting of ourselves.

We make easy judgments to keep us comfortable, but we are better off embracing the uncertainty that comes with not making judgments. Then we discover that we can handle uncertainty, and feel more confident as a result.

And, by letting go of our expectations of others we feel less pressure to conform to their expectations.

Further, we become open to the complex nuances of people’s personalities, and gain a deeper understanding of people, and of humanity. We feel connected with them, and again satisfy our ‘deep need to belong’.

Just as importantly, without our quick judgments we can resist society’s paradigms and stereotypes, and build a capacity to think for ourselves. So, we gain a more accurate perspective of the world. Life runs more smoothly.

Even our image improves. Instead of looking like a dill, we appear easygoing, tolerant and mature. Someone who can be relied upon. More importantly, we don’t just appear to be that person, we become that person.

In short, when we let go of our judgments we are rewarded, but not by some ‘karmic destiny’ but by the benefits of doing so. We create the ‘good karma’ that we experience.

Thanking people creates good karma. Why? Because in order to thank someone we first have to notice our good fortune. The more often we thank people, the more we realise how fortunate we are. That’s an immediate good karma feedback.

The ones who are grateful, who thank the taxi driver, who thank the shopkeeper when they are handed the change, who thank the flight attendant, who thank and thank and thank, keep noticing their good fortune, and keep refreshing the connection they have with humanity.

To thank people is much more than just being polite; we are actually shaping our view of the world to one in which we feel connected.

Thank people and make your own good karma.

The people who don’t thank others take things for granted. They live a bland, grey life. Everything is the same to them: flat. They live a flat life. They miss out on the good karma.

In summary, karma has nothing to do with Fate rewarding you for doing good things, or punishing you for doing bad things. Good karma simply means that by doing good things, you build yourself a person who is capable, confident and relaxed. And as a result, you enjoy your life. That’s your reward. That’s your karma.

‘I was told that if I kill a spider I will get bad karma, and if I spare its life, I will get good karma. How would you respond to that?’
To take a life, even just a spider’s, is to give yourself the message that a life is not precious. You give yourself the message that your own life may not be that precious. When we don’t treasure another’s life, we find it a little harder to treasure our own.

And, when we kill, we disconnect ourselves from the idea that we are ‘all in this together’. We no longer feel as though we are part of ‘one big family’. We have severed the bond we have with other living things, and on some level we feel that disconnection.

But when we spare a life we foster a feeling of togetherness, a feeling that we all matter. That feeling extends to ourselves: that we matter.

Some people love cute animals, and protest bitterly when a cute animal is cruelly treated. But when we can feel that way for ALL the creatures on the planet, cute or creepy, then we feel a part of everything. We feel connected. We see that life is precious, and the world, beautiful. That’s good karma!

‘Do you kill creatures?’

I spare nearly all creatures. When I find a spider I try hard to put it outside. When I do kill, I feel the violation.

‘What about people who kill for a living? Farmers? Slaughterhouse workers?’
I don’t know. Perhaps we can become inured to the violation of killing and it ceases to be a violation. And therefore, we can regain the connections we have with living things. I don’t know.