Karma is a complex idea. Ask a Buddhist monk or a dedicated yogi to explain it to you and they will sigh deeply and start brewing a hi-octane French roast. Our colloquial, pop-cultural understanding of karma is somewhat less complex, however, and can be boiled down to the catchphrase, “karma is a bitch.” Add “and so am I,” or “LOL,” and you have the bumper sticker or Facebook status of everyone who got dumped ever.
This idea of karma as a sort of magical universal force that deals out punishments to the wicked and rewards to the virtuous smacks of Judeo-Christian bias. It’s our yoga-fied interpretation of the angry Old Testament God. And while I personally love the idea of swarms of bees attacking, say, Mario Batali for stealing money from his employees, that’s just not how karma works.
Karma is actually a neutral force in the universe. It can be defined simply as cause and effect. It’s not a conscious, judicious entity. It’s more like physics. It’s a law that says if something happens, something else that is basically equal will happen in response. In other words, no one can escape karma, but it’s not out to get you, either.
I have a story to tell about karma. And it’s a terrible one, so if you’re squeamish you might want to just watch the trailer for Maleficent instead. Otherwise, here goes.
On New Years Day, my girlfriend and I stopped at Hank’s Super Market in the Marigny to pick up some cheap champagne for a celebratory dinner. In the parking lot were some very drunk and probably very high street kids arguing about something that was completely incomprehensible to outsiders.
One of the kids had a pitbull tied up with rope to a bench. The other kid had a small grey and white kitten mewing loudly from the shoulder of his leather jacket. As the kids got closer to each other, the pitbull strained and pulled against the bench and the kitten’s cries became more panicked.
The boys swung at each other. There was a fight. The kitten got caught between the boys. Someone threw a punch and the kitten was crushed.
The other boy jumped on the boy who killed the kitten and beat him until he was unconscious. He kicked him a few last times for good measure, and then walked off with his dog, leaving the unconscious boy and the dead kitten lying on the asphalt in the parking lot entrance.
I thought, “Things die when we allow our actions to be ruled by anger.”
Not just any things, but soft sweet innocent living things like kittens.
I saw the boy who killed the kitten wandering drunk down Frenchman a few hours later. He looked like the most lost person in the world. He looked like he had been crying. He looked like he wanted to die. And even though I was pretty sure he was a terrible person, I felt a little tiny bit of compassion for him.
Our pop-cultural interpretation of karma tells us that boys who kill kittens, however accidentally, deserve to have their asses kicked and to be left for dead in the middle of the road. They deserve to feel lost and sad and lonely and unloved. If they don't die immediately, they at least deserve to want to die.
And it is so unbelievably easy to give in to that line of thinking that I can actually feel my brainwaves magnetized in that direction.
But that, my friends, is not what karma means. Karma does not mean: I think you are a bad person and so you deserve it when bad things happen to you. In fact, I don’t get to know what you deserve and what you don’t. Buddhists say that only the omniscient mind of a Buddha can comprehend the intricacies of the play of karma.
So, as easy and fun as it would be for me to sit back on my yoga mat and judge gutter punks, that’s not my place. My job is to try to figure out what my karma has to do with this situation. Why was I the witness to this? Why me? What did I do in the past to belong in this equation?
I was haunted by images of this beaten boy and this dead kitten for weeks. I felt completely overwhelmed by the sadness of this animal life lost, this human life broken. Bloody memories crept into my meditations, my yoga practice, my daily life. I was traumatized.
Finally, I talked to another teacher about it. He said, “Maybe you were meant to see it so that there would be someone to say a prayer for that boy and that kitten. Maybe you were there to see it so that someone would be there to spiritually digest this event and bring it meaning. Maybe you were there to do the spiritual work that the boy isn’t able to do.”
Maybe he was right.
I don’t understand the intricacies of how my karma brought me to bear witness to that event. I don't know if my deep spiritual work allowed me to be present or if it's some other kind of lesson. I don't even know if me being there is a cause or an effect. But I don't really need to know the answers to those questions.
It’s what I do in response that’s important. I am in control of the karma that I create as a result of being a witness. And it is my job to make sure that I use that experience to expand my consciousness.
My initial response was to feel traumatized and powerless, as though I am the victim of world I can’t control. But since I’ve had a bit more time to digest, being the witness to this violent but probably fairly common event has made me think a lot more carefully about my actions.
When I feel angry, I think, “Things die when we allow our actions to be ruled by anger.”
When I see street kids with kittens, I practice compassion. (Maybe not with a great deal of dexterity, but I'm working on it.)
Seeing what seemed like a textbook rendering of karma at work has forced me to think in a more sophisticated way about the whole idea of karma, how we think it works, and how it actually works. It has made me more attentive to the possible effects of my actions, not just on myself, but on the sweet fluffy world around me.