Even if we don’t exactly understand what it is, we all want to have good karma. The word, which simply means “action” in Hinduism and Buddhism, is frequently referenced in our culture when we want to explain why things happen a certain way for us. Maybe the idea of karma in reincarnation is too much for you. But, taken more practically, it’s a good way of understanding cause and effect.
Here are a few observations on what has worked for me to clean up my karma—or, in plainer language, to feel a more positive sense of control over my life.
Notice patterns. Is there a problem you have again and again at work with different colleagues? An issue you face with your current lover that feels eerily similar to the one that caused your last break up? It’s important to start asking these questions; in my experience, life will interject again and again until you learn the answer. Sometimes I just want to bang my head into the wall because I get so sick of being reminded that I can’t control other people. I have to tell myself that this conflict continues to come up because there is something I need to learn about myself and my role in the world. If you slip into a “why me” victim mode, then the lesson is lost. As you begin this practice of noticing, don’t get too caught up in trying to fix the problem. Awareness of our actions leads to a sense of responsibility, which is much more empowering than feeling life is conspiring against us.
See yourself in the world. Once you have a sense of what you are working on, have a quiet, honest moment with yourself whenever that issue or person starts to irk you. Most importantly, it’s good to have the courage to say, “Yeah, sometimes I kinda do that, too.” A few months ago, I got very worked up after spending Sunday dinner with my dad. In my opinion, he doesn’t listen to me very well. On the ride home, my boyfriend began to tell me a story. After awhile, I realized I hadn’t been listening to my boyfriend at all because instead I was getting upset about my dad not listening to me. The irony was so strong that I had to laugh at myself. Since noticing that, I am a lot more compassionate when I notice my dad getting distracted. My advice is to start doing this with acquaintances, and when you are ready for advanced studies in karma, move on to your partner or your parents. Sit with their most annoying qualities and ask yourself very honestly if you’re not also guilty of the same habits.
Watch your thoughts. To be ready for these humble openings, we need to make some space in our brains. Until we know what it feels like to be in balance, we won’t notice what it feels like to spiral out. Meditation is good for us, but it’s never going to work unless we actually do it. I talked about doing meditation for years, but only in this past year did I start my daily practice. Actually meditating is much harder and more awesome than talking about doing it. Start today. Set a timer for five minutes and watch your breath in and your breath out. If you get distracted, no big deal. Notice where you mind went and come back to the breath. As you do this for longer, you’ll notice the awe-inspiring busyness of your mind and the sweet spaces of quiet that we can cultivate, just by sitting there and listening.
Cultivate positive thoughts. When we start to engage in these everyday practices, we eventually find there is no true or false, right or wrong—it’s just our perceptions. And the good news is that our perceptions can be the most malleable parts of our being. Social researcher Brene Brown has spent years interviewing people about shame and fear. From that data she unearthed a special brand of people that she refers to as “wholehearted,” people who have an abundance of love in their lives and feel lots of genuine appreciation for what they have going on in life. After years of this research, she found the one and only thing that set wholehearted people apart is the belief that they are worthy of love. That’s it—just one paper-thin thought is the most important indicator in how valuable we feel in the world. Since thoughts lead to actions, which lead to reactions (i.e. karma), then it makes sense to start with cleaning up your thinking. Start by noticing what thoughts tear you down inside. When you find one that strikes a chord, pay attention and see if you can cultivate a positive opposition. “I’m not qualified to be here” can turn into “I don’t have to be perfect at this.” This is an important yogic technique called pratipaksha bhavanam that has been practiced for thousands of years. Like all these estoteric yogic and Buddhist ideas, I believe they are still used today because they make a lot of sense and actually work. We just have to do them.