I had a profound teaching from my Buddhist teacher Ponlop Rinpoche recently, given to me in just five words: “That’s their karma; not yours.” That was all Rinpoche said on the subject, and I was left to contemplate what he meant. I found that Rinpoche’s words had deep resonance not only for me personally, but also in my work as a Buddhist, cognitive and existential psychotherapist.
We misunderstand the word karma in the West. Based on the traditional theistic upbringings of many of us, we think karma means fate or predestination. However, the Sanskrit word karma means action. Contemplating what Rinpoche had said, and looking deeply at the meaning of the Sanskrit term, I came to deeply understand the true meaning of karma: We are constantly presented with causes and conditions, and we choose our actions in response to what has arisen, moment by moment. Each action we choose to take results in the arising of the next cause and condition.
When we are mindful, we can choose the most beneficial action, so that the consequence (that is, the next cause and condition) will be a positive one, and will be of benefit to ourselves and others. As humans, we of course do not always choose the most beneficial action. This could be the result of years of conditioning, habitual tendencies, or not being mindful. However, this does not mean we are doomed when we make a less than beneficial choice. After all, we are perfectly imperfect humans, and we do make mistakes.
The good news is that we constantly have the chance to course-correct, moment to moment. We may have a tendency to say “that’s just my karma.” Well, that’s just a cop out. Yes, we all have challenging and difficult situations in our lives. However, that does not mean we are doomed. We have the chance to overcome our inherited imprints and unconscious habitual tendencies.
Mindful speech and action are the keys to developing “good karma” moment by moment. This entails pausing before immediately responding. Take a breath and ask yourself, “will what I am about to say or do be beneficial?” We often simply react, subjectively rather than objectively, based on our perceptions and projections. Taking this pause will help us look mindfully and with a discerning eye at what is really going on. This will lessen all those years of conditioning and habitual tendencies and relieve our and others’ suffering.
In contemplating Rinpoche’s words “That’s their karma; not yours” further, I realized that it is futile to get caught up in the web of anyone else’s karma. This does not mean that we are not interconnected and that we do not have concern for others’ welfare. In fact, in his new book, Karma: What it Is, What it Isn’t and Why it Matters, the late Buddhist teacher Traleg Rinpoche says “[Karma] relates directly to human nature and how we should interact with other human beings” (p. 108). Our choices need to be made mindfully, with a sense of morality, ethical conduct, responsibility and respect for our and the other person’s boundaries. We can be of support to others and act and talk in a beneficial way, modeling good behavior and aspiring that others do the same. However, in the end, we have no control over anyone else’s choices and karma.
This realization was tremendously freeing for me. I am responsible for my own choices, and not for anyone else’s choices. I can be there in a supportive way, but not get caught in the web of anyone else’s actions – good or bad. Knowing that we are free to choose our actions, and then take responsibility for the consequences of our actions, is the key to well-being and healthy relationships.
Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche (2015). Karma: What It Is, What It Isn’t, Why It Matters. Boston: Shambhala Publications.