Karma Bites

They say, ”What goes around comes around.” Kind of an odd phrase, but strangely, people seem to know what it means. Apparently, it is about karma. The popular understanding is that when you do something bad, it will come back and “bite you in the butt.” It seems the common understanding of this principle is that God or the universe is keeping score, and the books will balance in the end. If you do evil, you can expect that you will suffer equivalent pain sometime down the line. Quite clearly, this doesn’t always happen within some people’s lifetimes, so in order for the principle to hold up, there must be either Hell or reincarnation. Otherwise the system is crazy and too depressing to think about.

All that aside, we know our actions have consequences. Sometimes when we do bad things, they do come back to haunt us. You do the crime and then you do the time, or sometimes, you get away with it. What is most true though is that our actions may have effects on others and that often the effects are unintended and unforeseen. They might have been foreseeable, had we been wiser. This might be a good definition of wisdom: the ability to anticipate the consequences of actions.

That our self-serving acts have unintended consequences is the stuff of tragedy. In The Iliad, Paris took the married Helen of Troy for himself and set off a chain of events that led to a devastating war, that ended in the destruction of his family and his city state. Not only did his lustful action lead to his own death, but it ruined everything he cared about. He didn’t see that coming when he chose to scratch the itch that tormented him.

In the ensuing two and a half millennia, authors and playwrights have continued to mine this same theme: acting selfishly, the character unleashes tragedy. Acting unwisely, he or she rips the fabric of social norms and lets out a monster that is the effect of his or her behavior. In literature, it is often the hero’s job to put things right. Sometimes it is the sinner who is transformed into the hero in the process.

We are entertained by these stories, because we live this same story. The effects of our errors may not have epic sweep, but we know that a lie, a theft, a betrayal, an act of neglect can have consequences we can’t imagine. We each are the way we are in part because of the good and bad acts of our ancestors and their leaders. Our children are the beneficiaries of our good and bad choices. What we do, or do not do, doesn’t just come back to bite us. It bites those around us—the people we love. Or it might bite strangers. We don’t know.

The suffering we bestow on others is often caused by self-cherishing. We act out of ego-centric thinking that says we must protect ourselves or give ourselves some reward. We put ourselves first. We fail to predict consequences that may fall on us or on others, or we discount them. Consequences are in the future and gratification is in the present. We become vulnerable to bad behavior because we let ourselves slip into mental states of passion or fear that cloud our judgment.

Living skillfully, we can reduce our likelihood of creating suffering by managing our mental states. By learning to calm ourselves, by choosing wisely where to place our attention, and by being mindful we can protect ourselves from being swept away by our lower impulses. By cultivating compassion we may be more heedful of the consequences of our behavior on others.

May we grow yet wiser.
May we learn to practice a peacefulness that leads us away from addiction and selfishness.
May we nurture our minds by feeding them beneficial thoughts and avoiding unwholesomeness.
May we care for our bodies, so that we are not overrun with stimulants and sedatives.
May we practice mindfulness, so that we know who we are and what we are doing.
May we develop vision to see the probable effects of our acts in the future, so that we can avoid creating suffering.
May we gain compassion, so that we desire to protect others from suffering as we protect ourselves.

To the Meditation Archive Menu

To the current Meditation of the Week


© 2010 Tom Barrett