The kids were slow and grumpy getting out of bed and now you’re late for work. It was extremely frustrating getting them ready for school and tempers flared. As a result of leaving the house late you find yourself stuck in traffic and then just as the road begins to clear a bit, boom, a tire blows out. You pull over and begin the dirty process of changing the tire in your good work clothes. Loosen the lugs, jack up the car, grab the spare only to find that it too is flat. At this point you’ve had enough and blindly fling the lug wrench in rage only to find it has gone through the rear window of your car.
We like to label the things that happen to us in our life as either good karma or bad karma. So most of us would probably label that little scenario as bad karma. The reality is that it is all simply karma and whether it is good or bad depends on how we perceive and then react to it. Good or bad are just convenient labels. The Tibetan word for karma is, lé, and literally means ‘action’ or ‘doing’. The karma we experience is the result of our actions, which include our thoughts, words and deeds.
Nothing good has ever come from getting angry. It is when we are angry that we plant the seeds for more negative things to arise in our life. A Tibetan Lama once told me that anger is like a hot coal that you throw at the object of your anger. You may or may not hit the object, but you will always get burned.
In the above example the anger and frustration did not come from the children, the traffic or the tires. It came from our own mind and how we perceived the situation and then chose to act. Grasping so strongly to our intent on getting out the door to school and work there was no pause to breathe, look at the moment, and consider the many choices and their possible outcomes. It could be that the kids were slow because there was something going on at school they didn’t want to face, or something as simple as needing a little one-on-one time with you. Then again, they may have stayed up too late with Snapchat. Anger is a choice and like every choice we make, there are always consequences.
It is said that our actions create an imprint on our mind stream that follows us through life, or if you subscribe to reincarnation, from lifetime to lifetime. The wonderful thing about understanding karma is realizing it is impersonal. Karma is not out to get you. It is not vindictive, nor does it have a mind of its own. Your karma is your creation. It is a very mechanical thing which operates in the basic principal of cause and effect. When we accept the things that happen to us in our life as the karmic results of our actions, we can then begin to fix them.
It is easy to feel that the hard challenges in life keep repeating themselves and that nothing ever seems to go right. Feeling like a victim we look for causes outside of ourselves to blame for our misfortunes and ask the question, “Why me”? The answer, that we don’t want to hear, will come back resoundingly clear. Why not you? It was you who created this mess. It’s your karma so it’s up to you to clean it up. When your karma breaks down, you have to fix it yourself.
It must be in our nature to focus on the negative. So, let’s switch our gears a bit and look at the positive side of karma. If we follow things logically and mechanically as karma does, just as we can create bad karma we also have the ability to create good karma. This is the part I find really empowering in changing our lives; not only can we create good karma we have the capacity to eliminate or as the Buddhist’s say, purify the negative karma. It takes some effort and although no one can do it for us we can help each other along the way. We have to be vigilant and watch our mind, speech and our actions.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about mindfulness, but what exactly does that mean and how is it helpful? Simply put, mindfulness is being aware of how you feel and your emotions to the world around you at any given moment. It gives you pause before taking action. When the spare tire is flat, mindfulness provides you time to check up on yourself and choose how to respond. Instead of raw emotions controlling you, you will have control over them. Throw the lug wrench in anger or not, it will be your choice made with the full awareness of cause and effect. Mindfulness does not resolve the issues we face in life, but it does provide the space to deal with them and react in a more positive and productive manner.
With the awareness you gain from developing mindfulness you will soon find a sense of calm in the midst of chaos and as you project that calmness of spirit, those around you will pick up on it and mirror it back to you. As a Captain in the fire service I saw this time and again. We would arrive on a scene whether it be a serious car accident, fire, or a cardiac arrest. The people involved were often panicked and in a high state of anxiety. You could see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices. As orders were given and the crew set about their tasks with a cool and deliberate confidence, those involved were often able to ratchet down their extreme anxiety. I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention the men and women I worked with for so many years in the fire department. We were like family and as in any family we didn’t always see eye-to-eye but when it came to doing the job, all that was put aside. They were an amazingly dedicated group of folks then and today, but I digress.
My very dear friend and teacher Geshe Tsulga was a Lama from Tibet (the title Lama in the Tibetan traditions is a teacher of the Dharma). His deep understanding of karma allowed him to approach those things in life from a different point of view. He was able to take what most of us would call bad karma and turn it into good. When he had a cold or a headache he would not complain and get angry about his bad karma ripening, he would laugh and accept it as an opportunity to purify. This is a very simply example until you consider how he applied it to everything in his life. The suffering he endured for months escaping over the Himalayas into exile in India as his country was being invaded by the Chinese is beyond imaginable. With all that he had endured at the hands of the Chinese he held a very deep compassion for them. He was very quick to say that the Chinese were one of his greatest teachers.
As we travel down life’s highway we will be met with countless instances where our karma breaks down. Some may be small while others may be hugely traumatic. A little understanding of karma’s mechanics and developing mindfulness will not bring back a loved one or heal a wound; it will however, provide a starting place so that when your karma breaks down you have the means to fix it yourself.
Acknowledgements: Singer Songwriter Mike Cross, My Karma Broke Down
William C. Judge 2018