“That’s bad karma.”
Karma is often summarized as “what goes around, comes around” or “someday, they’ll get theirs.” These interpretations are based on justice and vengeance, which add baggage and mystique that are irrelevant to such a basic process. More importantly, they imply that we can’t watch karma unfold directly, let alone produce and experience karmic changes now.
Neither assumption is true.
To illustrate: one way we self-sabotage is through a pair of cycles that appear to actually reward our own dread.
In the inner cycle, we anticipate a stressful event and picture how we’ll feel when it happens. “Can I handle this? Will I be ok?” Our irrational fears paint worst-case scenarios in a misguided attempt to “be prepared.” Our subconscious mind and body do not distinguish imagination from reality; they react as if this nightmare is really happening. These physical and emotional signals form a feedback loop and mistakenly “confirm” for each other that we are facing an actual, immediate threat. What happens next?
Instead of finding a comforting answer to “will I be ok,” we trigger our fight-or-flight response. Sound familiar?
To relieve that turmoil, we do the worst possible thing: we REPEAT the process, hoping we’ll get a more reassuring answer “this time.” Unfortunately, the anxiety caused by each trip through this cycle snowballs into the next, and we dig ourselves in deeper. Lather, rinse, repeat. It doesn’t even matter how the event actually unfolds (or the fact that it rarely matches our relentless dread-filled rehearsals); our thoughts, actions, and relationships have been infused with our self-induced suffering all this time.
After experiencing this cycle enough times, we see it’s ridiculous and we stop needlessly worrying about things. Right?
Yeah, not so much.
Rather than dropping this thought pattern, our fear develops another cycle (lovely, no?). This outer cycle is based on faulty logic: “I always worry about events, and then they turn out fine, so if I just keep worrying, I should be ok.” (This is a classic “correlation does not imply causation” scenario.) As noted above, the inner cycle’s physical and emotional signals “confirm” an immediate threat; similarly, because actual events don’t live up to our worst-case scenarios, the outer cycle always sees “positive” results from perpetuating the inner cycle. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Wait, are we still talking about karma? How does all this relate?
We plant the seeds of our own suffering and nurture their growth. Such seeds can only bear bitter fruit, whose own seeds start the cycle anew. In our attempt to “be ok,” we ironically cultivate a garden of misery.
That is karma. It’s not off in the future; it’s the way we experience our lives RIGHT NOW as a result of our own intentions and actions (including how we use thought). It’s not cosmic justice; it’s basic cause and effect. It’s less “what goes around comes around” and more “if we do what we’ve always done, we get what we’ve always gotten.”
There are at least two great things about this. First, each person’s karma is their own business. We only have to deal with our own; by definition, we can’t affect anyone else’s. Second, making small changes at any given moment can improve our karma here and now. Mindfulness and insight meditation allow us to observe our unskillful patterns — and their immediate results — in real-time. This paves the way for developing skillful intentions and actions based on clear seeing. Oh, we still prepare for upcoming events; but we do so without causing stress and suffering for ourselves and others.
The process of observation and insight builds upon itself and becomes our new cycle. A sustainable cycle.
Now that’s good karma.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Recommended further reading: We Are Not One by Thanissaro Bhikkhu