Misconceptions of Karma

Karma… One of the biggest buzzwords in our culture these days is also one of the most misunderstood concepts. Honestly, it’s everywhere, and I thought I would comment on the subject. To begin, I’m going to start off with an allegorical example. It’s probably a tad bit far-fetched, but this is only for the sake of there being no misunderstandings. Philosophical discourse is full of overly exaggerated examples in order to show the depth of the point and with no confusion, so I am using this method.

Now, let’s say John is on his way to a very promising job interview, after having been unemployed for months, and having almost no money left in his account to pay his bills. En route to the office where the interview will take place, John notices a burning car on the side of the road. Not only that, he notices there are people inside, unconscious from the crash that must have just occurred. John rushes over, dragging out the members of the family one by one, starting with the children, and finally the parents. He was so wrapped up in his heroic effort, he completely forgot about the time and his interview.

He rushes across town, only to arrive and be regretfully informed that because he was late and missed the interview, the business is no longer interested in him as an employee. So John doesn’t get the job, misses his mortgage payment, and end up homeless and alone.

Does this sound like ‘Karma’ to you? Well, you may be surprised to learn that it IS. You see, Karma means nothing more than Action, and a ‘cause/effect’ relationship(but not a LAW of cause and effect). Anytime you use the word Karma, replace it with the word ‘action’ and see if it makes sense. If it doesn’t, you’re probably using the concept incorrectly.

The idea that Karma is some kind of cosmic retribution system, weighing the scales and keeping the universe in balance is simply false. That idea is nothing more than a Judeo-Christian interpretation of an Eastern concept, effectively putting a God where there wasn’t one. The interpretation doesn’t take into consideration the fact that in many Eastern systems of thought, the universe doesn’t have a cosmic judge, a God that punishes and rewards your merits. The Cosmic Retribution just doesn’t exist in the systems of thought, but it has been mistakenly interpreted as being so.

When we say something is our Karma, we are merely saying it is our own doing, our own action, the action that got us there. There is no such thing as ‘good karma’ or ‘bad karma’, everything just is, and was ultimately brought upon by your actions.

I have a friend who had his car stolen recently. He told me was mad when someone implied it was ‘his karma’ because he reasoned he hadn’t done anything wrong to deserve it. But he was misunderstanding it, because it isn’t about ‘deserving punishment’ or anything of the sort. The fact of the matter is he parked his car there that night. It was his action, and so it was his Karma. He parked his car there, and it was stolen, it was his Karma, but it doesn’t have anything to do with him stealing a car in the past, or stealing a horse and buggy in a past life, and now being punished for it. It was just the action he enacted, and he got the results that resulted.

There is no reason to believe we should be punished for what we’ve done, unless we truly believe we must be punished for it. There is nothing inherent in the universe that deems anything ‘bad’ or ‘good’. ‘Bad’ and ‘good’ are vantage points from our ego for means of protection; avoid the ‘bad’ and embrace the ‘good’, but the universe is not black and white.

Fact is, things like what I described in the example above literally happen every day, as well as the opposite happening; in one reality, John could have driven right by the family, leading to them all perishing in the fire—but he made it on time for his interview, nailed it, got the job, paid off his mortgage, and lived happily ever after until he retired with enough to support himself. Again, does this sound like Karma to you? Well, it is. It doesn’t have anything to do with what we ‘should’ do or ‘karma being a bitch(one of my absolute least favourite sayings)’ and ‘getting you what you deserve’.

This being said, I do have to touch on the side of Karma that DOES give us what we manifest. Let’s say you’re hanging out with your friend for the weekend, only you, and your friend, no one else over. Now your friend knows he had 100$ in a drawer in the kitchen. There’s no mistake, he literally checked just before you came over. Now let’s say before you leave when the weekend is over, you steal that 100$.

You friend has NO DOUBT it was you, because it couldn’t have been anyone else, no one else came over, and he had no intention or plans on moving it, so if it wasn’t there, it had to have been stolen, and you are the only one who could have done so. Now it’s extremely likely your friend will simply not invite you over anymore. Not only that, he may let all your other mutual friends know to be on alert, because you are a thief.

Soon, you realize none of your friends have invited you over for months. You obviously feel resentful, and so find company elsewhere, maybe down at the local bar. Turns out, this guy doesn’t think you’ve done anything wrong, even after you told him you stole 100$ from your friend. Well, this guy doesn’t seem so bad, maybe he’ll be a good buddy. So one weekend, after your new bar friend(just an example, not to say anything negative about bar patrons at all) is leaving your house, you find, low and behold, that some money you had stashed in a drawer is missing!

This was your Karma, but not because the universe felt it necessary to ‘punish you’ but because once you became a thief and your friends stopped hanging out with you, and then maybe the only people who DID want to hand out with you were also thieves and the like. This is the essence of the idea that gets misinterpreted to be a ‘cosmic retribution’. But it didn’t have any input from any cosmic force, it was literally ALL YOUR OWN ACTION, hence your Karma.

I personally cannot subscribe to the idea that something ‘you’ have don’t in a past life, ‘You’(you a capital Y) must now pay for, and there are many spiritualists and philosophers(Alan Watts, Osho, among MANY others) that believe that notion is absolutely absurd. Again, it appeals to the people who like to think there is a cosmic judge that will ‘get you yours’(even if it takes lifetimes), but has almost no place in the conventions of thought that this concept came from. You are no more identified with a past life, than you are identified with your mailman, and only very VERY marginally can his Karma do anything to interact with you(of course, your Karma(remember, this is only action) could be getting his Karma involved with you). Often when people have problem accepting this, it’s because they are far too concerned with OTHER PEOPLE’s Karma and punishment. This is truely none of your concern. You can only experience your own Karma.

Finally, Karma isn’t some kind of ‘residue’ that stays with you and follows you until it runs it’s natural course, BUT the ways we live do make it seem that way. We naturally have to follow through with jobs, friends, and family life, as well as obligations we’ve made, and all kinds of other vices and desires, but these only stay with us as long as we let them. At any moment, we can literally wipe away much of our Karma, and we do so fairly often, like when we practice forgiveness towards someone; we are redefining the action that has occurred in the past, and liberating ourselves from being further ‘stuck’ by it. If you felt grudgingly towards someone, and felt like it would never let up, this is your Karma, your action, and you will live it this way. If you spontaneously woke up one morning, and decided you would not let yourself be stuck, and you could forgive them and let it go, that is also your Karma, but you’re freeing future Karma(future action, like resenting, brooding, dwelling or whatever on this scenario) from this scenario. Ram Dass spoke often about his Guru taking the Karma of devotees, and freeing them from many burdens they felt.

Despite being a pessimistic view, I really believe this is very optimistic; we lead ourselves into our own situations, and we don’t have to worry about if out past lives were bad and that why we’re experiencing hardships. We can decide, however, that our hardship will be something that strengthens us, and not breaks us down. Only if it is your Karma, of course.


About OneBreathMeditation

I have been meditating for 8 years, and while I don't consider myself an expert, I know I'm knowledgeable about the subject, and can possibly provide help to others who want to experience the enriching benefits of meditation.
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10 Responses to Misconceptions of Karma

  1. zen city says:

    well done!

  2. Thank you for the post, I think you covered every angle. Anybody thats ever spoke of ‘karma’ to me has used the word it in a way I felt was incorrect. As you also stated, I don’t believe in universal ‘puishment’. We create our reality. It’s simply our actions as you said. I personally believe its also our words, our thoughts and our prayers. I believe if people only realized the power they have over their own lives, and took responsibility for themselves fully, they would begin consciously creating their reality.

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    I look forward to reading more on your blog.
    ~ Paul

  4. I printed this out for future reference. Great post.

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  6. Francesca Dee says:

    Well said.

  7. Ian Wardell says:

    I’m just reading a book called “the myth of an afterlife”. Each chapter is written by a differing author. One of the chapters is called:

    Objections to Karma and Rebirth
    Ingrid Hansen Smythe

    All of the following is what I said on facebook earlier today before reading your blog entry:

    Without having started the chapter yet, what avail is it to object to Karma since rebirth doesn’t entail karma?

    She says:

    “Let us begin this investigation of the twin concepts of karma and rebirth by imagining the following scene, in which a man named Lenny is visiting his friend Pedro in the hospital after discovering that
    Pedro has recently been run over by a bus.

    “Wow, that looks incredibly painful,” says Lenny, setting a basket of fruit on the bedside table. “You’ve got sixteen broken bones, damage to your internal organs, and look at those battery acid
    burns all over your face. That must hurt like the dickens.”

    “I never knew this kind of agony was possible,” groans Pedro.

    “Oh yes, and worse besides,” says Lenny, pausing for a moment’s reflection. “Of course you deserve it, after what you did.”

    “What?” Pedro replies. “What did I do to deserve this?”

    “I don’t know, but look at the state of you! You’re a complete mess! You must have done something really awful, you scoundrel. Or maybe you had some really depraved thoughts, or you said some
    wicked and sinful words. Or maybe you did a whole bunch of bad little deeds over countless lives and the consequences have accumulated and now—bingo—it’s payback time.”

    My Response:
    What a ludicrous interpretation of Karma. Surely people don’t think karma can subvert physical laws?

    I see Karma as not being rewarded or punished for our actions. First of all we do many good things because it serves our self-interests. The good actions (and indeed bad actions) have to come from the heart, one’s essence. And one wouldn’t be rewarded or punished, rather what we do from the heart is a reflection of our essence, and our essence will gravitate us to good or bad environments, or good or bad circumstances.

    I confess I know nothing about karma, but surely it can’t mean punishment, least of all getting knocked over! What happens to physical laws etc?

    Most of the authors of this book are off their heads!

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