There are a lot of misconceptions about karma floating around. Karma isn’t some spiritual debit and credit system that most people think about. You can’t create a bank account of goodness to make withdrawals. Certainly negative actions can create a debt of sorts but that isn’t karma. Karma also isn’t some type of cosmic justice system. Karma is just another name for plain old cause and effect.
There are 2 main types of karma. What I call direct karma and indirect karma. Direct karma is when your actions directly create an effect that, well, effects you. I decide to get angry at my computer and kick it. My big toe snaps on the computer’s wrath. That is direct karma. Indirect karma is when someone else’s actions affect you. A drunk driver smashes into your car, or your spouse decides to cheat on you. Both of those are indirect karma. You don’t have an immediate influence on the consequence.
As Isaac Newton pointed out: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Karma becomes complicated when indirect and direct karma intertwine. Often it is difficult to judge if something you said or did caused the effect or if it was purely indirect. Purely direct or indirect karma are rare. Most of the time they are intertwined. Your actions affect both yourself and the people around you. Likewise their actions effect you in one form or another. There are times when effects become causes and causes swap to effects. For example, you and your spouse have a series of arguments. Those arguments are decisions to behave in poor thoughts toward each other. The effect leads to further negative behavior, which causes more arguments. Most situations are chains of events that are determined by your thoughts and reactions to each event. Karma is that chain of continual cause and effect.
While we have focused our examples on negative things, karma is neutral. Chains of cause and effect can be positive; negative chains just draw our attention more. That attention is why most people consider karma a negative debt. At times even doing a 180 won’t break a chain of karma until it plays itself out. Switching your thoughts and behavior can keep cause and effect from propagating however. For example, my grandfather died in the beginning of 2010. On the surface it is a “bad” event. I will certainly miss him. However, it was really a good event for me because it caused me to shift my thoughts in ways that keep me happy, compassionate, and motivated. It gave me a better appreciation for life. Likewise it did the same for my grandmother and other family members. While his death is unfortunate in its inevitability, the karma that propagated was beneficial because of the positive ways of viewing it.
It is a misconception that karma is out of our control. Karma is based on how we think. Thoughts are the causes of your actions. Actions determine consequence. Consequence is ultimately unavoidable. How you think determines the consequences of a given situation. Certainly some consequences must play themselves out. A murderer will face prison. However, you can shift your thoughts at any moment to prevent further chaining. Repentance is always possible.
Karma explains why bad things happen to good people. First, good and bad are simply labels we assign neutral events. All events are neutral of themselves. Good people make poor decisions and are effected by the poor decisions of others. Cosmic justice is just a human explanation that results from a misunderstanding of cause and effect. Cause and effect don’t care about the labels we assign to people. They simply play out based upon the decision you and others make. Non-action is of itself a decision. All sentient beings generate a web of cause and effect by their simple existence. The trick is making that karma positive by cultivating thoughts of compassion instead of hatred and judgment.
The major religions all speak of karma in some way. In Christianity heaven and hell are the ultimate consequences of compassion and poor thinking. They are thought of as a deferred justice. That interpretation can be comforting, but it is a warning for us. Karma is unavoidable in this life. It is an underlying law of the universe. Heaven or hell exists as the sum of humanity’s decisions.