January 3, 2023

Understanding Karma.

Karma is in every action.

We act motivated by the accumulation of our past actions and will act in the future according to how we act in the present.

If we ask ourselves, “Why did I do such and such a thing?” it is because we are predisposed to act based on the way we acted throughout our lives.

Each action creates karma to act in an equivalent way in circumstances that are similar. These “karmas” accumulate until we meet conditions that evoke us to act. For example, we may rarely become angry, but certain things will make us angry. The greater the events that evoke our anger and the more frequently we respond without checking ourselves, the bigger our anger becomes until we have an “anger problem.”

The good news is that karma is tied to intention. Following the above example, if, when we see events forming that will evoke our anger and we feel anger arising, we intentionally remove ourselves from the situation, or remain silent, then, in the future we will be more likely to act the same, and eventually overcome the propensity toward anger.

The key to understanding karma is understanding its relationship to intention. Intention is the control valve that can adjust the amount of negativity that accompanies an action. Gradually, negative actions are reduced and even the propensity toward them dissolves. The same is true of positive actions. If we resist doing positive things like giving to charity, avoiding lustful behavior, speaking disparagingly of others, and so forth, and see the resistance toward good is purely due to our failure to listen to inner promptings, we can set our intention to be a better listener to the voice that encourages righteousness, and we can give more freely, love less lustfully, and speak more kindly.

The principle reason we act without wisdom is because when driven by emotions, we often act without intention. In other words, we act first and only later say, “Oh, I should have known better.” This is because we left no space between the disposition to act and the action, a space intention would have happily slipped into if we allowed it.

Creating a space for intention to slip into is the key to mindful action that in turn will enable us to direct the flow of karma in a positive direction.

We control our own destiny. But, it depends completely on developing mindfulness, without which we will be controlled by circumstances.

We need to pause and think before we act and create karma. The moment we pause, intention has an opportunity to formulate our thought to act one way or the other.

Mindfulness is the rudder and intention is the ship’s captain directing it through the currents of life. Both are necessary.

The nature of karma, intention,  and mindfulness are different. Karma is fixed and chained to action. Intention is malleable and guided by stupidity or wisdom, and mindfulness is either present or absent. Obviously, it is mindfulness that is king, for it is mindfulness that we can develop and master, which when highly developed guides our intention, which in turn will determine the kind of karma we create—good, bad, or neutral.

If we think in terms of “consequences,” it may be simpler. Every action has a consequence. We would be driven mad if we always paused to think before each act, and we certainly would not get a lot done.

For the most part, our actions are simple and can be engaged in without thought or deliberation. Brushing our teeth, opening the car door, taking the trash out, setting the table to eat, washing the dishes, and so forth, are actions we do guided by habit and are neutral actions, unless we have formed bad habits, and that is a big “if.”

But, assuming we have good habits, the better part of our day goes by in neutral karma territory. However, in any given day “tests” will appear when circumstances do not fit in the cubbyhole of what is expected, and we have to pause and consider the right way to act. It is here that we create positive and negative karma and must be mindful to exercise our intention in a manner that generates “good karma.”

“Good karma” is just karma that perpetuates goodness, while “bad karma” depletes goodness already within us. It seems like the choice is straightforward enough, but in practice it is not because of the momentum of accumulated past karma.

Because our human condition is governed by desire, it is more likely that our actions have been self-centered and therefore actions that block higher awareness, and in this sense negative.

Only those who have practiced the dharma diligently may have accumulated enough positive action to enjoy a momentum that leans more toward righteousness than selfishness. I have met Tibetans who keep a pocket full of white pebbles and black pebbles. Throughout the day, they will move a pebble to the other pocket, a white pebble for a good action and a black pebble for a negative action, and later in the day, count the black pebbles and white pebbles.

How we keep track is a matter of choice, but reflection on our actions throughout the day, and keeping track of generating positive or negative consequences, will help us be motivated to end the day with a greater accumulation of white actions than black actions.

An adjunctive benefit of keeping track is that doing so takes advantage of our inherent wish to win, and when we win we want to win more often, and when we lose we want to lose less often. It is just good psychology.

So maybe we should pay more attention to the Northern Nomads; they may be on to something. 


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