What Is Karma?

Karma refers to the mental impulses – based on our previous behavioral patterns – that drive us to act, speak, and think the way we do. Our habits pave neural pathways in our brains that, when triggered by the right circumstances, cause us to repeat our ordinary patterns of behavior. Simply put, we feel like doing something, and then we compulsively do it.

Karma is often misunderstood as fate or predestination. When someone is injured or loses a lot of money, people might say, “Well, tough luck, that’s their karma.” This is akin to the idea of God’s will – something we can’t understand or have any control over. That’s not the Buddhist idea of karma at all. Karma refers to the mental impulses that either make us yell at someone when they annoy us, or wait patiently until we’re calm enough to address the problem [Follow a guided meditation: Calming Down]. It also refers to the impulses that either lead us to habitually twist our ankle as we walk down the stairs, or to habitually walk down them carefully.

Smoking is a good example of how karma works, because whenever we have a cigarette, it acts as a potential for smoking another. The more we smoke, the stronger the tendency to carry on smoking becomes until, without even thinking, karmic impulses compulsively draw us into lighting up. Karma explains where the feeling and impulse to smoke come from – namely, from the previously built-up habit. Smoking creates not only the impulse to repeat the action, but also influences the physical potentials within the body, for example, to get cancer from smoking. Here, both the impulse and the coming down with cancer are results of our previous compulsive actions and are known as the “ripening of karma.”

Changing Our Habits

Karma makes sense because it explains where our feelings and impulses come from, and why we sometimes feel happy and sometimes unhappy. All of it arises as a result of our own behavioral patterns. Therefore, what we do and what happens to us are not predetermined. There is no fate or destiny.

“Karma” is a term of active force, which indicates that future events are within your hands. – The 14th Dalai Lama

While it often feels like we’re a slave to our habits – after all, our habitual behavior is based on well-established neural pathways – Buddhism says that it’s possible to overcome them. We have the ability to change and forge brand new neural pathways, throughout our life.

When a feeling comes to our minds to do something, there’s a space before the karmic impulse drives us to act. We don’t immediately act out whatever feeling arises – we did learn to be toilet trained, after all! In the same way, when the feeling to say something hurtful arises, we can choose, “Shall I say it, or not?” We might feel momentary relief at expressing our annoyance by yelling at someone, but being in the habit of yelling at others is an unhappy state of mind. We all know that resolving conflict through dialogue is a much happier, more peaceful state. This ability to discriminate between constructive and destructive action is what really distinguishes humans from animals – that is our great advantage.

Having said that, it’s not always easy to choose to refrain from destructive actions. It becomes easier when we have enough space in our heads to be mindful of the feelings that come up, which is why Buddhist training encourages us to develop mindfulness [See: What is Meditation?]. As we slow down, we become much more aware of what we’re thinking and what we’re about to say or do. We start to observe, “I feel like saying something that will hurt someone. If I say it, it will cause difficulties. So, I will not say it.” In this way, we can choose. When we’re not mindful, we usually have such a rush of thoughts and feelings that we compulsively act on whatever comes to our heads, causing us no end of trouble.

Predict Your Future

We can predict what we might experience in the future based on our previous and present karmic behavior. In the long term, constructive actions bring happy results, while destructive ones bring undesired consequences.

How a specific karmic action ripens depends on many factors and conditions. When we throw a ball up in the air, we can predict that it will fall to the ground. If, however, we catch the ball, it doesn’t. Likewise, while we can predict from previous actions what will come in the future, it is not absolute, fated, or carved in stone. Other tendencies, actions and circumstances influence the ripening of karma. If we’re obese and continue to eat huge amounts of unhealthy food, we can predict a high probability of diabetes in the future, but if we go on a strict diet and lose a lot of weight, we might not get sick at all.

When we bang our foot, we don’t need to believe in karma or cause and effect to experience the pain – it just naturally occurs. If we change our habits and build up beneficial ones, the outcome will be positive regardless of our beliefs.