Understanding Karma – Cause and Effect
Meditation on karma, motivation and result
Karma is something that’s often totally misunderstood. When most people hear the word karma, they associate it with the idea of fate: “It’s your karma. There’s nothing you can do about it.” But the true sense of karma is exactly the opposite. Karma can change. If we want to improve our lives and the situations of everyone around us, we need to understand how karma works.
The word karma simply means action. It has to do with cause and effect—the law of karma is actually very scientific. In the physical world, it’s easy to understand: you put your finger on the hot stove, it immediately hurts, right? In the world of the mind, karma works exactly the same way. It’s the same kind of cause and effect, but because it’s less tangible, it’s harder to understand. There is also a time delay for mental effects to ripen in our mindstream.
Everything is interrelated in terms of these movements of cause and effect: what we put into our mind has a huge effect—on what? On everything. It’s like food. We all know that if you put bad food in your body, you don’t feel good. Similarly, if you entertain negative thoughts, you don’t feel good. But good food and good thoughts are a different story and lead to a different outcome.
In many ways, cause and effect in terms of the mind are based on motivation. Because of this, when we think, speak or act, our intention is the most critical thing; our motivation determines what’s ultimately going to happen. Everything starts with mind—a physical action never precedes a mental event. There’s a thought, your mind becomes active and your body moves afterward. If your deep wish is to graduate from high school and become an auto mechanic, you’re not motivated to go to college. Or if you go to college and you study business, you’re not going to magically become a brain surgeon, right? It’s simple: motivation both leads to a result and limits the result.
In a very simple sense, in our minds cause and effect are grouped into positive motivations or thoughts and negative motivations or thoughts. A positive thought is something that relates to others, something that’s beneficial, like generosity, kindness and wanting to help. It’s about not being absorbed in the self. But negative thoughts and emotions are inherently self-centered. Anger, greed, jealousy, competitiveness, any kind of focus on oneself, thinking exclusively about one’s own happiness and wanting to eliminate one’s own suffering, period, is the opposite of wanting to be of benefit to others. And as it happens, the more we indulge and engage in selfish thoughts and emotions and reinforce the motivation behind them, the more effort we put into securing our own benefit, the less happy we are. Working hard for the benefit of others is where genuine happiness lies.
That’s the right view of karma: a beneficial motivation leads to positive actions—whether they’re thoughts or activities—and these lead to happiness. Self-centered or aggressive motivations lead to suffering. Once we’ve begun to grasp the truth of this, we can begin to figure out how to actually work with the mind and shape our karma.
In my experience, the key is meditation: looking at the mind during meditation practice. If we look very carefully at our state of mind during practice, we can actually see the very moment we have that positive thought. There’s a little seed of happiness. Likewise, we can actually catch the very moment a negative thought arises. There’s this little seed of suffering. This is the very definition of karma; the effect inevitably follows the cause.
For example, sometimes when you burst out at someone and you yell at them, there may be a feeling of relief or revenge and you kind of get off on it; you feel pumped in a way. But there’s still this nagging feeling that doesn’t feel very good—maybe we call that conscience. And conversely, when we’re generous and we give to others, there’s a natural feeling of goodness and well-being that we connect with in that moment. The seed of the future result is there from that very moment.
We can begin to see this as we work with our minds through meditation practice. When we sit and meditate and bring the mind back to the breath, all kinds of things arise in our minds. As we begin to replay negative events, positive events and emotions, we begin to see the patterns. These patterns are described in detail in the Buddhist teaching on dependent origination. And this is what leads to freedom. The key point of karma is actually freedom: freedom from being subjected to the habitual patterns of our own minds.
If we’re unaware of the workings of the mind, we have no chance to catch the movements of mind, no chance to change things, no chance to turn thought patterns into something positive. In that sense, without awareness we’re “fated” to experience the result of those negative thoughts. But in meditation practice we become aware of our thoughts, patterns, and emotions and we can actually choose to do something about them. We can change how we react in the very moment. This is the key to freedom; this is where karma is the opposite of fate. Meditation practice is about learning to free our minds from the patterns that lead to unhappiness and embrace the ones that lead to happiness, for ourselves and others. Understanding karma is understanding how mind works in terms of cause and effect.