The popular understanding of karma is wrong. The majority of westerners believe it goes like this: If you do good things, good things will happen to you; and if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. There is even a television show based on this popular misunderstanding of karma, “My Name is Earl.”
This transactional understanding of karma supposes there is some being, element, force, or another omnipotent record-keeping system that keeps track of your actions and then makes things happen to you according to those actions. This is naturally the perspective of the westerner, as he is so used to ascribing reality to imaginary beings.
What is Karma?
Karma is, in reality, any action motivated by the incorrect belief in an individual/separate nature of the self. There is no “good” karma or “bad” karma – only karma. Every bit of you is, in reality, a part of everything all together (“everything all together” being God).
We simply would not exist if not for the physical pieces that make up our bodies, the world on which our bodies rely for survival, and the world of stimuli to observe with the body’s senses. If, however, like most people, you believe you are an independent entity, acting for and by yourself, you will run into conflicts in life based on that incorrect belief.
Every action one takes which is based on this false perspective of reality will cause problems, in much the same way that a poor person will face economic troubles if he attempts to spend money like a rich person.
Example of Karma
Let’s take an example: A fellow named, let’s say, Jeff, gives 5 dollars to a homeless person. After doing so, he smiles and thinks to himself, “I did a good thing. I am a good person and I just racked up some good karma.” The homeless person then spends the money on a knife which he uses to rob a liquor store, after which he drinks himself to death. Meanwhile, Jeff’s charitable action has made him believe even more strongly that he is a good individual – perhaps even better than those rich CEO’s who probably never give to charity. This belief will cause him to act even more selfishly in the future – “I give to the homeless,” he’ll say to himself to combat the guilt from a future selfish action, which will only further enforce his selfishness, “accumulating karma.” Feeling good about yourself for something you feel deserves “good karma” creates karma in the same way as doing something selfish – because it is all based on an incorrect understanding of the relationship between the individual the rest of existence.
To get rid of karma, then, requires an accurate understanding of the relationship between the self and reality – one that results in actions motivated by, for example, in Jeff’s situation, a self-identification as not only Jeff, but also the homeless person, as well as everything else that exists.