Last night in the monthly dojo (teaching hall) meeting I hold with Reiki practitioners I’ve trained, the subject of karma came up. Karma, like some other key words and teachings from the world’s wisdom traditions is misunderstood and bastardized.

Today we have ‘gurus’ and ‘pandits’ in every field, especially technology. Karma is mentioned on a popular bumper sticker, and used loosely in everyday conversation. It’s a complicated and complex subject.

I’ve found the following from one of the most respected Buddhist teachers dispensing dharma (look it up!) today, Pema Chödrön, to be very helpful. It avoids some of the more esoteric aspects of this involved teaching and presents a practical approach.

Please let me know how it has put things into perspective for you in comments below. (The bold sections are my highlighting.)

When something happens to us that we find really painful—an insult, a physical ailment, the loss of someone we love dearly—the Buddhist teachings train us to understand that we have just been given an opportunity to repay a karmic debt…The karmic understanding need not be religious nor an occasion for guilt. In fact, it can allow us to act without being guilt-ridden. Anything I cause someone else to feel, either pleasant or unpleasant, resulting from my words, actions, and activities, I myself will feel sooner or later. What goes around comes around. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it comes back in the same form, but somehow anything I’ve caused someone else to feel, I will feel at some point in the future. This system applies to good feelings as well, but my focus here is on the karmic repercussions that cause us to settle the score.


Therefore, when something unpleasant happens to me, I know it is a debt coming back. I have no idea what I did, so it’s not something I have to feel guilty about…I have no need to go into the history of how I got here. I just say, “I am feeling this.” At this point, I have a chance for the buck to stop here. This stimulus does not need to be the cause of evening the score in the usual pain-causing way.


Instead, at this point you can apply a meditation method that would circumvent the habitual score settling. Whatever practice you use, the point is to stay with the underlying uneasiness and lean into it. Connect with the natural openness of your mind. You can feel at this point that “this debt has just been paid.” At that point, there isn’t going to be any further debt to somebody else or to yourself, no further repercussions from this exchange except further awakening, further connecting with the natural openness and intelligence of mind, further connecting with warmth and loving-kindness toward yourself, further connecting with compassion and love for other beings. Those are the kind of results that our uncomfortable situations could give birth to…


Many people have stories like this. They put someone through something and then they experience it themselves, and somehow they know that they are paying back a debt. It has nothing whatsoever to do with punishment. It’s more like a law of physics. There’s no one punishing you. There is no master planner making sure you get it. There is no vengeance. It is just a principle that you sooner or later start to feel in your bones.


This approach to settling the score is that whenever something bad comes your way, it is always an opportunity for further healing. When things happen to you that you don’t like, you can either open the wound further or you can heal the wound. Instead of getting strongly hooked into thoughts like “I don’t like,” “I don’t want,” “It isn’t fair,” “How could they do this to me?,” “I don’t deserve this, or “They should know better,” it’s possible that you could train yourself so that the natural intelligence becomes stronger than your reactivity.


For most of us most of the time, our emotional reactivity obscures our natural intelligence. But if we become motivated to start contemplating the approach of seeing pain and discomfort as opportunities for healing—for becoming “one-with” and bringing people closer rather than splitting—our intelligence actually will get stronger than our emotional reactivity. If we take those opportunities for healing, the momentum of the intelligence will gradually start to outweigh the momentum of the reactivity…We’re not talking getting rid of the experience of getting hooked. We’re talking about when you get hooked, what do you do next? There’s a choice. The Buddha teaches us that we are always at a crossroads, moment by moment. We have the intelligence to make a choice, so let’s educate ourselves about what the implications of our choices are…We could choose to open the wound further, creating more suffering for ourselves and others, or we can choose to heal the wound.


The question we usually ask ourselves at this crossroads is, What will soothe me in this moment? The habitual response is that what will soothe me is to get what I want, to have my needs met, to get even, to straighten this all out so I come out with what I need. But we have seen what this choice leads to. We need to cultivate that other choice.


The choice I have been talking about doesn’t preclude resolving conflicts where parties have been in the wrong…Unfortunately when we see all this suffering we want fast results. Once again we might act on impulse and out of emotional reactivity, but if we look at the many examples of people trying to heal and settle the score in the intelligent way, we see that it takes time. The results are slow in coming, but from the larger perspective of natural intelligence and openness and warmth, the process is as important as the result. You are creating the future of the planet by how you work with injustice. You may not see it before your eyes immediately, but you are repaying a karmic debt…All you need to know is that the future is wide open and you are about to create it by what you do…

Practical karma

5 thoughts on “Practical karma

  • 08/12/2009 at 6:24 AM


    Thanks for this post. It comes at the right time for me, as I am going through a difficult family situation that is causing me great pain. I am at a crossroads right now, wavering between being “hooked” into feeling sorry for myself and being in pain, and wondering what to do about it. This has really given me some guidance. This post relates to forgiveness as well, which is an important element in the next step in this process. <3…Krishna

  • 08/12/2009 at 12:04 PM

    Thanks for sharing this. Pema Chodron truly is a gift of a teacher, and this passage is wonderful. I agree that the word ‘karma’ is represented lots of different ways these days, and she cuts right through it here, to what is truly useful for us. Too see difficulties as opportunities for healing is so powerful, because then there is no more fighting against things. – Lisa
    .-= Lisa (mommymystic)´s last blog ..An Interview with Gangaji =-.

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  • 07/07/2011 at 5:31 PM

    Thank you so much for sharing this regarding Karma. It does make a lot of sense. I feel I have come a long way about how I have been reacting to unfortunate situations in my life but this has definitely brought the awareness that I was still lacking. This is so powerful… just to be able to turn an unfortunate situation into a healing one and closing a painful chapter in one’s life is an amazing way of moving forward into a peaceful and rewarding life. Again, thanks for sharing. Barbara

    • 07/07/2011 at 6:05 PM

      ‘Lack’ is a tough word. It’s self-perpetuating. Instead, simply continue in the way you’ve found. Go in the direction of healing and closure. When all the lessons are ripened, it will end, naturally.

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