Karma is a word that gets thrown around a lot in popular culture. I hear people say it all the time, and considering less than 1% of Americans are Buddhist, you've gotta figure it's treated more as slang than sacrosanctity.
There's actually a slippery misunderstanding about what karma is, and it's an easy one to make. I am currently reading a terrific book called "Dharma Road", penned by a Buddhist cab driver from Austin, TX (how's that for genetic gumbo?). His name is Brian Haycock and he does a terrific job of tying a lot of the tenants of his beliefs into the metaphor of cab driving, the open road, and his daily, fleeting encounters with people from all walks of life. It's a satisfying read and worthy of your time if such things are on your radar.
He reminded me that karma isn't about winning the lottery because you did nice things for people in your day-to-day life, nor is it the universe conspiring against you if you've done something against its moral code. There's really no 'other' in karma, it's just you. It's the cyclic set of dominoes you tip that come back around to you.
Here's what Brian says in his book:
Karma is not "a cosmic system of rewards and punishments, meted out by some ultimate power far beyond our understanding...Karma is simply the law of cause and effect. Karma has been compared to planting seeds. If you plant an acorn, an oak tree will grow. If you plant a garden in the spring, you'll be eating fresh vegetables in the summer. If you plant seeds of hate, hate will be the result. If you plant seeds of loving-kindness, loving-kindness will grow within you.
On a personal level, karma is psychology. Our personalities are formed by karma. Our thoughts and our moods are impermanent, but they don't just vanish. Other thoughts and moods arise from them. Over time, our thoughts form a pattern, and this pattern guides our thoughts. We fall into habits. We think a certain way...and before long, it's the only way."
That's it. The way we behave and react starts a course into action, and that course comes back around to us - not because God deems it, or the universe has subjective sway in teaching us a lesson - it happens because we created the track. We paved the road for it to go a certain way.
When I was a kid, I was briefly fascinated with those chapter books where you chose your own adventure. " Turn to page 13 if you want to go into the haunted cave, turn to page 24 if - instead - you want to climb over the cave and onto the 1200 foot high narrow ridge." Thankfully, none of these books really had unhappy endings. You never made a choice that took you to, "So, you chose not to save Jenny and now her blood is on your hands. Live with that, Skippy." or "Well, way to go, now you and your friends are dead. Nice going, Dr. Livingston."
But in real life, karma is much like these books, and the results can sometimes be much more painful than the dalliances with death in those adolescent reads. When we cut someone off in traffic and give them the finger, karma doesn't pay us back with a random wreck down the road. Karma gets us when we carry that unchecked anger forward to the next intersection, into the office, or our family dinner table. Karma sneaks up on us when we realize that the person in the parking lot with their hood up isn't going to scam us out of money, or toss us into their trunk. They just need a jump start. You give them one, you turn down their kind offer to give you $10, and you go on your way, with a heart more open and trusting as a result of your good deed. You got someone else back on the Dharma Road. And you start finding ways to do these kinds of things more often, because it feels too good not to.
When we gossip, it's not that the person we gossip about cosmically hears it and decides to sabotage us within our own social circles. No, it's more insidious. We find if we can bad mouth someone a little bit, we can do it a lot. It becomes easier, and they - inexplicably - become more distant to us. Then we realize we never meant for there to be a wall between us. If we're enlightened enough, we realize the wall in question was something we built, and we work to bring it down. If not, it just gets higher, and we find ways to build more in other relationships.
I am much closer to being a candidate for Attention Deficit Disorder than I was ten years ago because I choose flit from Facebook to Twitter to email forty times a day to break up my work day. That's karma. Not Mark Zuckerberg's karma, but my own. If I opt to just focus more, or maybe meditate, rather than surf, I start the process of reversing that karma.
Karma is just the stupid and/or cool shit we do everyday that boomerangs back because that's what boomerangs do.
So, when John famously sang, "Instand Karma's gonna get'cha", he wasn't offering up a curse or a blessing, just the pragmatic human equation that what we do, say, and think stays with us. As Jason Robards said in "Magnolia", "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us." That's karma. We can put it behind us, but a cause set in motion has to complete itself, and sometimes - if that cause was a negative one - we have to work extra hard to stop those dominos from tumbling and set them right again.
The best I can surmise from teachings and personal experience, the best way to keep karma in check is simple Awareness.
Awareness allows us to minimize that karmic damage, and maximize the good. Awareness is the key to making sure the seeds we're planting are the right kind. Awareness is there to assure that, like John also sang, that "we all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun".
So be careful out there on that Dharma Road. Check your rearview and keep another eye on the road ahead. Both hands on the wheel, and remember, each turn we make is our own decision.