Karma may be one of the most colloquialized expressions from the yogic tradition, and unfortunately it’s also one of the most misunderstood. It originally comes from the Sanskrit word “karman,” whose root “kri” means simply “to do” – no morality or ethics implied. In fact, Karma itself is usually just translated as “to act.” But we tend to think of it as having more significant undertones, with god or fate in there as a mediator between action and consequence. And this is actually not so close to the original meaning, which is much more straightforward.
Maren Showkeir, who co-authored the book Yoga Wisdom at Work, points out how misinterpreted the word often can often be today. “I think people get really confused about Karma,” she says. “Many people have the misconception that it’s about the Universe or the Cosmos or even god rewarding/punishing based on actions we take.” It’s not about this at all, she says, and there’s no third party judging or orchestrating the actions we do.
Karma is just about what happens in the world after we take action of any kind – and the fact that our actions do have consequences, though we may not always be aware of what they are. “It’s nothing more than the connection between action and consequence,” she says. “That is always neutral. It’s our perceptions and judgments that label ‘good and bad.’” Some have pointed out that it’s really just as basic as Newton’s third law of motion (“for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”). And if we can get on board with this simplicity, we’ll understand the essence of Karma pretty well.
The problem is that we’re not always aware of how our actions will affect others, so there’s always some element of unknowing – and this can give way to the feeling that there must be another force at play. “We can’t really shape karma because we can never know the consequences of our actions,” says Showkeir, “which may be why people want to chalk it up to ‘the universe.’ However, we can be mindful about the actions we take.”
In other words, it’s about keeping intention, rather than consequence, in mind as we decide on our actions. There’s no guarantee, of course, but we can hope that decisions that come from a place of kindness will – in most cases – end in positive results. Showkeir agrees that for her, “the challenge is to try not to get too hung up on the potential consequences. If I act with the assumption/expectation that if I do X, we’ll get Y positive result, I am setting myself up for disappointment. The thing that drives my actions is my intention, and that is where the focus belongs. It is a fine distinction, but in my mind, an essential one.”
Acting from a place of intention frees you up to make better decisions, because you’re not overwhelmed – or worse, paralyzed – by all the potential outcomes. In those cases, like Showkeir says, your brain sort of shuts down because it’s impossible to predict the future. But acting with the assumption that good intentions usually lead to good outcomes is a lot more logical and a lot more liberating. “We can recognize that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions,” says Showkeir. “And that will lead to more peace.”
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.