“Karma's a bitch.”
This sums up the way most people seem to understand and talk about karma.
For starters I find it kind of funny because based on this definition of karma, the potential bad karma incurred by making such a statement is completely lost on the person saying it.
Karma is not some divine form of reward and punishment that gives us an excuse to judge the behavior of others based on their current circumstances. We shouldn't go around with the idea that we know what's "good karma" or "bad karma". One man could be a paraplegic living on public assistance without a friend or family member around him. Another man could also be a paraplegic but also a millionaire with a nice supportive family around him. Yet both of them are still paraplegics.
The Buddha essentially described karma as action and result, or cause and effect. We have intentions and thoughts that evolve into behavioral patterns and actions. We are then left with a particular kind of experience that is the result of our previous intentions, behavior patterns, and actions. That’s all.
He even said that not everything we experience can be explained by karma, that there are other factors involved that are more physical/chemical/situational in nature. So it's pointless to attribute every single little thing that happens on a given day to how “good” or “bad” we were in some past moment.
So often we think that if someone does something we find hurtful or offensive, we can take comfort in the fact that “they’ll get there's.” Inherent in that kind of thinking is an underlying desire to see someone else suffer because we felt hurt by them in some way. Cultivating within ourselves a desire to see others suffer causes ourselves to suffer more, and by extension we cause more suffering for others.
Everything that happens around us is a reflection of our mind at that moment. So if we feel upset or angered or joyful or bored or content or offended, that experience is the result of whatever we’d been cultivating other consciously or not, starting with our mind. And those thoughts we harbor that generate feelings are like seeds we are planting for future outcomes, whether we realize this or not. The things that go on around us aren’t to blame or thank for our current experience: we are.
How we keep our mind at all times is crucial. We need to be aware of what kinds of thoughts we nurture with our time and attention. Noticing what kinds of thoughts we tend to entertain is the best way to gauge what our karma will or won’t be at some future date.
From the Dhammapada:
1. All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
2. All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.