Just about everyone's heard of karma. Ask anyone you meet and, the likelihood is, they know what karma is. At least, they think that they know...
Most people think karma is fate, or something closely tied to it. You've probably heard someone say "She must have some bad/good karma!" or something like it before. It's talked about as a sort of invisible currency. If you do the right thing, good things will come back to you as reward. If you do the wrong thing, bad things will come back to you as punishment.
It's also talked about as if this currency stays with you until things are "evened out". That is, negative karma stays with you no matter how much good you do until it takes its full effect. But neither of these things are karma. There's a mass misunderstanding about what karma really is. And this misunderstanding does us no good.
I love this simple and clear explanation of karma by Barbara O'Brien of the buddhism.about.com blog:
The word "karma" means "action," not "fate." In Buddhism, karma is an energy created by willful action, through thoughts, words and deeds. We are all creating karma every minute, and the karma we create affects us every minute.
It's common to think of "my karma" as something you did in your last life that seals your fate in this life, but this is not Buddhist understanding. Karma is an action, not a result. The future is not set in stone. You can change the course of your life right now by changing your volitional (intentional) acts and self-destructive patterns.
"Karma" is a Sanskrit word meaning literally "action", "word" or "deed". In Buddhism, karma refers to intentional thoughts, words, and actions and the energy created by those thoughts, words, and actions. The awareness of karma existed before the Buddha, but the Buddha is said to have clarified our overall understanding of it.
But as with a lot of Buddhist wisdom, due to its scripture originating in ancient and now essentially "dead" languages (Sanskrit and Pali), it's easily misunderstood. At least initially. And especially for someone who hasn't received formal teaching. This likely contributed to the widespread misunderstanding of karma. But there's more to it than just that.
While karma doesn't literally mean that if you do something good then good things will inevitably come back to you, like some invisible tracking system that links bad people to punishment and good people to rewards, it does mean that by seeking to do the right thing in any given situation you as well as those around will become conditioned for peace and happiness in a very real and concrete sense. Likewise, through negative actions you condition yourself as well as those around you for suffering now and in the future. Knowing this, we can see why karma could be easily misunderstood in this way.
Our wrong perceptions about what will bring us peace and happiness affect everything we do. This included. We think that we need a nice car, big house, a closet filled with designer clothing, and a personal staff ready to serve us to be our happiest. Or maybe we don't take it that far. Maybe we just think "I'd really like a house on the beach and a few simple things and I'm good!". But this is still falling into the same exact trap.
If we think we need -anything- outside of ourselves in order to be happy then we're misguided. It's because of this false view that we desire to transform karma into a sort of cash machine based on ethical and spiritual behavior. But if we arise at the understanding that all we really need is to live deeply in the present moment with mindfulness and discover our true nature in order to find the peace and joy we starve for then we'll be able to detach ourselves from this false view.
Karma is simply an energy. It's our own intentional thoughts and actions. It's the energy we generate with these actions which affect us now and in the future in a very real sense. It's not a system of reward and punishment and it doesn't doom us based on past mistakes. Karma is unbiased. It's impartial. And it's ours to control.
Watering the Garden of Your Mind: How to Use Karma as a Guiding Force for Personal and Spiritual Development
Think of karma as an energy that you're creating in every moment. Every intentional action and thought generates "karmic" energy, and this energy is felt by us every minute of every day. It's not housed for future rewards or punishment. By doing the wrong thing, you condition the mind for anger, discontent, dissatisfaction, and the like. By doing the right thing you condition the mind for peace, joy, harmony, and the like.
These qualities, typically referred to as "mental formations" in Buddhism, are like flowers and the seeds they sprout from. When we're born, anger, discontent, dissatisfaction, peace, joy, harmony, as well as dozens of other mental formations are born in us. See these mental formations- these future emotions, feelings, and qualities- as seeds.
Now imagine these seeds resting in the garden of your mind, your consciousness, constantly being either watered or neglected based on your intentional thoughts and actions. Depending on what thoughts, words, or actions you have, speak, or take you either water the bad seeds or you water the good ones.
These seeds eventually grow into buds. And each time you water one of these buds they grow. If you water one of these buds enough they'll blossom into a flower- a powerful positive or negative force in your life. But it also works the opposite way. If you neglect and refrain from watering a flower it will wilt and eventually shrink back to a bud. And as long as you don't water the bud, it won't grow. The energy we give to these flowers is our karmic energy.
By living with mindfulness we can observe this karmic energy which has conditioned our minds over the course of often many years and begin to change how we act and react in our daily lives. Mindfulness gives us the ability to choose which flowers we water and which we don't. Without mindfulness, we don't have the ability to see ourselves clearly enough to make these distinctions. Mindfulness shines a light on the garden of our mind and allows us to take hold of our lives.
So in order to use karma as a force for our own personal and spiritual development, a force for great good, you need only shine the light of mindfulness on your life in order to identify your karmic energy and work to heal any karmic energy holding you back.
In other words, karmic energy that holds you back can be false views, limiting beliefs, and deep-seeded negative emotions among other things. Any negative forces that you're creating through your intentional activity are creating negative karmic energy and need to be corrected in order to find peace and happiness.
If the seeds and various flowers are mental formations such as anger and joy, and the water is your thoughts, words, and actions, then by seeking to think, speak, and act in good, positive, or "right" ways and avoiding thinking, speaking, and acting in bad, negative or "wrong" ways you'll ultimately rid yourself of negative mental conditions and be able to find peace and joy in every moment of life.
By living in such a way, free from mental stresses, worries, and other mental "baggage", merely being alive and able to smell the fresh summer breeze or see the clear blue sky can be fulfilling.
Know that you have the ability to change your own life. Sure, there are factors outside of karma, outside of your own actions that affect your life. But if you deepen your understanding of what true peace and happiness is, you'll discover that no matter what's going on around you, you have the ability to experience life fully.
Karma shows us that we have the freedom to decide what happens to us. Karma isn't this ever-present force which punishes our wrong actions and rewards our good deeds with earthly pleasures. It's the very energy of intentional action in our lives which is wielded by us.
No matter what happened in the past, or what you're going through right now, you can change your life if you just decide to. You're free to experience the greatest things in life. But it's up to you to take action. You define you.