One of the kindest, gentlest, brightest people I have ever known has a serious illness.

I've often questioned the fairness of that. It can be hard to make sense of such ordeals, and misunderstandings of karma doesn't help the matter. The word karma means action, not retribution.

Karma Does Not Equal Punishment

Contrary to popular belief, karma is not a system of retribution. It is not a tit-for-tat tally that disciplines anyone who leaves a lousy tip at a restaurant or cuts in line at the coffee shop. This notion of karma comes from the narrow view that justice is a system by which one gets what he or she has coming. Our notions of justice are frequently punitive, considering it a way to right wrongs and reassign suffering.

So What Actually is Karma?

Karma is the natural law that states that actions have effects. All of our actions are connected to one another, and, short of moksha (meaning liberation/enlightenment), there is no way out of the web of karma. Even our inaction is action, and thus will bear karmic fruit.

In order to avoid getting sucked back into the karma-as-cosmic-justice myth, it is important to realize that karma transcends human lifetimes. Just as the natural world in which we live does not cease to exist when we die, neither do the consequences of our actions.

From our limited perspective, we can’t see all that there is. We often don’t know the repercussions of our choices, be they big or small. It’s easy to imagine circumstances in which something we do has a ripple effect that extends far into the future.

Karma, in essence, describes the fact that we live in a world of our own making. Our experience of existence is not determined by what happens to us, but by what happens within our own minds.

Where Does Karma Come From?

Every expression of our will, whether we chose to 'do' something or not to 'do' something is an action, and thus bears karmic fruit.

Even our thoughts bear karmic fruit—from the yogic perspective, our thoughts are actions.

Consider a person who is very stingy. Such a person, through every choice to not to be generous, is experiencing lack. No matter how much that person has, he or she doesn’t feel it to be enough. That person might also live with the belief that there isn’t enough, and so he never gives anything away in the fear that there may be no way to get it back if he himself needs it in the future.

There is no need for a punishment for that person’s lack of generosity—he is living the punishment already. Such a mindset is a circumstance created within that individual, not outside factors.

In that example, cause and effect are easy to see, but this isn’t always the case. Our karma is the accumulated effects of our past actions, some of which have not yet come to be. We can improve our karma by engaging in good acts. Although, ironically, such purification doesn’t really work if our aim is to benefit ourselves. Spiritual selfishness is still selfishness.

Circumstances are Products of Karma

Most of us take things personally. Learning to understand circumstances as products of karma rather than something being done to us, can help us begin to take responsibility for our own lives.

Karma is not a comparison or a ranking. We each live circumstances that enable us to learn and evolve; to see the world and ourselves more clearly. Each situation offers us a chance to act. It doesn’t mean that we’ll like the situation. People who’ve lived good lives filled with decency don’t always recover from illness, and sometimes others, who make one harmful choice after another, seem to run away with the cake.

Find Freedom From Attachment to Outcomes

Suppose that one person commits a generous act and believes no one else to saw it, while another does a kindness, say washes the dishes, but expects his or her partner to reciprocate. How would you compare these two acts?

Living for our actions chosen rather than their expected outcomes grants us freedom. True acts of kindness, of creativity, and of social justice are done for their own sake. As the Bhagavad Gita teaches, to act and surrender the outcomes of our actions is yoga. When we are able to do it, we move closer to the state in which our joy is not contingent.

The End of Karma

It is said that one, who has attained ultimate liberation, has exhausted her karma, and that her remaining actions in this life do not accumulate karma. According to the Bhagavad Gita, there are three paths to reach liberation:

  • Karma Marga -- As described above, this is the path of action without selfish motives. It is also called Karma Yoga. This is the path often followed by those seeking salvation while also living an ordinary life.
  • Jnana Yoga -- This is considered the most direct path to self-realization, but also the most difficult. It is the path of pursuing knowledge and truth. It may involve study of scriptures and mediation.
  • Bhakti Yoga -- This is the path of love and devotion. The intention is to devote one's self to the Divine. It is motivated by the love of God instead of the fear of punishment.

It is further said that we all have the potential to reach this state if freedom and liberation in this one lifetime.