I tend to view karma through my Zen Buddhist lineage. I was born into a Zen Buddhist community, and grew up around that culture, so most of my thoughts on karma come from that exposure.
I also think people throw the word karma around a bit willy-nilly these days, and most of us in the United States and other Western cultures tend to wildly oversimplify and misinterpret the concept of karma. The teachings around karma are so rich, deep and nuanced, and the culture it originates from is so completely different from our own, that we are probably nearly incapable of truly understanding it.
I started noticing recently that even my kids have picked up on some Western ways of talking about karma lately. I’m not even sure where they learned words like karma, but I’ve noticed that when one of my kids will hit the other, and then end up hurting their hand in the process, or tripping and bumping into the wall, one of them will inevitably say something like, “that’s karma!” or “karma sucks!”. I find myself automatically saying, “you know, that’s not actually what that means”, because I feel it’s my responsibility as a parent to not allow my children to continue this sort of cultural appropriation where they’re throwing around words like “karma” without understanding at all the history, cultural significance, and complexity involved.
I think everyone has the same responsibility to their peers, friends, and followers as well – to help educate whenever appropriate to do so. Therefore, I want to speak to this misinterpretation a bit, and hopefully provide some better context around how to talk about and incorporate the concept of karma into one’s life.
That said, people ask me about ‘changing our karma’ somewhat frequently, and this is at least part of my response – for what it’s worth.
The masculine and the feminine of karma
Karma is literally the continuation of energy – any energy at all. In the Soto Zen Buddhist lineage, the intention is to cease the continuation or the creation of energy at all. This is a fairly masculine perspective – to desire the cessation of all life-ing. I believe that if any of us could follow our bloodlines and our spiritual lineages back far enough, we could find where it shifted or changed, and we would begin to find where there’s actual true honoring of the divine feminine, the divine masculine, and the interplay of two. However, we cannot pretend that every nearly all spiritual traditions today have come through patriarchy at this point. So in that way, karma and other cultural elements of Buddhism have come down through the over-emphasized masculine side of our lineages, through the patriarchy, and therefore the feminine aspects of Zen Buddhism on this base level have been largely lost in Western understandings of the culture.
Even the idea of not wanting to be reincarnated I think comes from the masculine; it’s not male per se, but it is from the masculine self within us, which we all have. It’s this broader piece of our lives, this need to keep the wheel of arising and cessation going in any way shape or form, which people never really talk about. The way that karma is truly taught, is actually that we should practice for the cessation of all karma. It’s not about trying to keep the good karma going and make the bad karma go away.
When we look at it using this terminology, the question people are really asking when they ask how to ‘change their karma?’ is: “how do I shift patterns within myself?”
We need to stop thinking of our karma and its effect in our lives as a linear relationship.
I don’t really think karma represents a linear relationship – in my opinion, that’s just not how the universe works. It’s not like we do good and therefore good happens to us. For those of us in the Western world, that mentality indicates a lot of our puritanical lineage coming through and transmitting itself into our understanding of this concept.
This idea is so pervasive in the new age of spiritual growth; I think that at its core, it’s really a desire for control.
It’s like we’re all thinking, if I just make myself pure enough, or if I have enough good practices, if I eat well enough, if I clear my karmic patterns, then good will happen to me. And then when good inevitably does not happen – we get sick, we lose a job, we suffer financial losses – then we wonder what kind of karma did we have to bring this upon ourselves?
This mentality puts us into the unhealthy headspace that these things are punishments, that we must have done something bad. As a result, we start to wonder what is wrong with us that has made bad things happen to us. And, equally toxic, is the unsaid undercurrent that if something bad happens to someone else – if they become ill, aren’t achieving ‘success’, or experience some loss – they must have brought it upon themselves, or deserve it.
The punishment mentality drives many of our insecurities in relationships
I’ve heard countless people tell me that they feel insecure in their relationships, and they wonder if their bad relationship luck is because of something fundamentally wrong with them. So many people ask themselves questions like, “What is it about me? Why do I keep attracting narcissistic people?” or following similar lines of thought. We need to recognize that it’s not ALL about us – yes, we all have faults and things we can work on to be better partners, but someone else’s behaviour is never your fault. Just because something showed up in your life doesn’t mean you attracted it, or that you wanted it.
This is where we can start shifting the dynamics and patterns of our tendencies. The part of you that thinks, “well, some part of me must want this” is actually only going to serve to invite more of that unhealthy dynamic into your life. It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong, or unconsciously brought something into your life that’s causing damage, but setting boundaries and shifting the patterns around that unhealthy dynamic will help you maintain a better distance – which, in turn, does actually shift your relationships!
So again, I think this cyclical thinking pattern of always looking for the best in things while simultaneously blaming ourselves for all of the bad is indicative of a need to shift our patterns, shift our perspectives, and put some clearer boundaries in place.
Looking for silver linings
These boundaries or shifts in patterns could look like searching for silver linings – and acknowledging them as such, rather than trying to find completely sunny days and punishing ourselves when it’s cloudy. This means saying things like, “this isn’t the best thing that could have happened, but it is happening and we will make the best of it” (as Nisha Moodley said of the pandemic) rather than “I guess this is what had to happen” or “if it’s happening, it must be for the best!”
When something or someone we don’t like comes into our space, or our lives, and we say, “I guess this is what’s meant to happen,” that’s a little bit like inviting it in for tea, or giving it a place to stay. Another possibility would be to say, “no thank you,” and move on. Of course, there are certain things we can’t really get out of, like if we get in a car crash, we can’t not be in that car crash at that moment; we can’t “think” our way out of it. All we can do is take responsibility for anything we actually did to cause a situation, but not take over-responsibility for how a scenario showed up in our lives or goes on to affect our lives. It’s about asking, “what can I learn from this?” rather than, “If I’d done everything right, this wouldn’t have happened.”
This is how we change: Respond differently.
If you want to call it karma or call it patterns, either way: we do this through self-awareness, the willingness to learn, and actively choosing to respond differently.
Now, it’s not like something comes our way and we respond differently and then ta-da, that thing never appears in our life again. Rather, it’s that the next time it shows up, we respond differently again. And we respond differently again. And eventually, that thing stops happening, because we’ve found the right way to stop it from entering our space and our lives. Or responding in this new way becomes easeful, and we don’t waste any time wondering what we did wrong that had that thing, or person, show up in our life.
The thing about shifting our responses in this way is that we don’t necessarily always get to say
what it gets shifted to. That’s why responding differently can be so challenging; we’re stepping into the unknown. In shifting a particular dynamic that we may have with our mother (partner, lover, friend, child, etc…), first we have to shift the pattern itself, within ourselves. And we don’t always know what’s going to show up in its place, so that unknown is part of what’s challenging. We have to continue on through that fear of the unknown and trust that the other side, even if it isn’t perfect the first time, or the second time, or the eighth time, will eventually be right.
Part of this is getting really honest and nuanced with ourselves about the consistent ways that we respond to patterns that arise in our lives and that we don’t want anymore, as well as how we respond to patterns that we do like. Those patterns are the ‘karma’ that we want to keep going, that we feel good about and we feel authentic in the presence of them. Understanding the different ways in which we respond to wanted and unwanted situations will help us learn which responses are most useful in limiting our contact with undesirable scenarios.
The myth of authenticity
The other piece I want to say about making different choices in the face of an unpleasant situation, or responding differently to unwanted scenarios, is that we often have a habitual gesture or response that we always default to. But there are also a million other potential responses we could use, and some of them might be better for different scenarios than our habitual response. We never try any of those other responses because we’re comfortable with the one we always use. We call these responses ‘authentic’, and the uncomfortable ones ‘not me’.
I’ve talked about this concept before, and it’s what I call the myth of authenticity.
The idea is that, of those million potential responses to any given situation, thousands of them are probably just as authentic as our default, habitual response. We tend to choose the one that has the deepest groove, that’s our habit, and we call that authenticity; however, any of those other responses could be just as authentic.
We have no hope of accessing that full breadth of authenticity unless we are willing to break ourselves out of our habits and allow ourselves to respond differently – even sometimes in ways that seem ‘inauthentic’!
So what if you put in the work, undid your habits, and actually committed to showing up like that? To me, that’s how we change our karma.