An Introduction to Karma: How it Actually Works, and Why it Matters

“You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” – The Buddha

We’ve all found comfort in knowing that karma will eventually bring justice to those who have done wrong. We think that if you cheat on someone, you will get cheated on. Or that if you steal, you will be stolen from. That’s just karma.

But what if we’re entirely wrong about how karma works?

What if karma isn’t your reactive and defensive sidekick that “sticks it to the man” on your behalf? What if karma is actually far more profound and simple than that?

In Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday describes the tale of a successful Hollywood man who has been ruthless, egotistical and despicable. Despite his machiavellian ways of attaining success, he is not met with failure or hostility; in fact, he is admired and unimaginably wealthy.

The man’s fame and fortune seems to defy what we’ve learned about karma: that actually, even if you do tremendous harm to others, you may not fall to ruin. You may actually succeed.

Of course, this plays out in countless situations in life. Many “successful” people do horrendous things, and get away with it. Many people don’t get served karma the way we may expect.

Instead, this Hollywood mogul lives a life of quiet desperation:

The narrator catches a true glimpse into the man’s life—his lonely, empty marriage, his fear, his insecurity, his inability to be still even for a second. He realizes that the vengeance—the bad karma—he’d hoped for, for all the rules the man had broken, all the cheating ways he had gotten ahead, wasn’t coming. Because it was already there.

As he writes, “I had expected something conclusive and fatal and now I realized that what was coming to him was not a sudden pay-off but a process, a disease he had caught in the epidemic that swept over his birthplace like a plague; a cancer that was slowly eating him away, the symptoms developing and intensifying: success, loneliness, fear…that would spring up to harass him, to threaten him and finally overtake him”.

– Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday, P. 214-215

The reality of karma is that it does not punish you in some distant future. The reality of karma is that it is a direct reflection of the state of your own mind: a state which you create by every action you perpetrate, and every thought you think.

What karma truly means is that you suffer your own sickness—you suffer the psychological consequences of your own choices. If you choose to do harm to others, that is a psychological infection that you have released within your own mind. The mind thrives on peace, harmony and metta (an intention of wellbeing for others). When we act in accordance to peace for others and ourselves, we have excellent karma. Our mind is clean and free from suffering. When we act contrary to kindness, we suffer the wrath of the war within our own minds.

Does karma manifest outwardly? And if so, how?

Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

– Galatians 6:7

Karma—both positive and negative— manifests in situations and circumstances simply because what happens to you is first what happens inside you.

Your internal state is a culmination of all of your thoughts and past actions. So, while it may seem that karma acts as an external agent to serve you the “justice” you deserve (whether good or bad), it is actually the natural outgrowth of your own state of mind.

You cannot act in a way that defies the state of your mind. If you are at peace, you will act peacefully in the world, and barring some unexpected event, you will find yourself in more peaceful circumstances.

Likewise, if you simmer in hostility, you will act out anger, hatred, and malice. And what do you expect to experience in your life?

He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the world.

– Marcus Aurelius

Have you experienced karma working in your own life? Let us know in the comments below↓

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