Karma means action, work or deed; it also refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and happier rebirths, while bad intent and bad deeds contribute to bad karma and bad rebirths.– Wikipedia article on Karma
The modern western understanding of karma is that we do something, and we reap the consequences in this life or the next.
This can happen in a few different ways.
There is a form of instant and inevitable karma. If I blindly fuel and act on anger, I inevitably suffer. If I am able to notice, allow, and rest with the anger, and perhaps notice the fear and the fearful thoughts it’s rooted in, there is more peace.
And the same goes for anything triggered in me. Any stressful thoughts. Any uncomfortable emotions or feelings. When I get caught in it and act on it, I suffer. When I am able to notice, allow, rest with it, and see what’s behind it (usually a wound, trauma, fear), there is more peace.
Whatever I do is strengthened as a pattern or habit. If there is reactivity in me, and I am able to notice, take a step back, allow, relate to it more consciously, and not act on it, that pattern is slightly strengthened. If I instead act on it blindly, that pattern is strengthened. This is one form of karma. And it applies to whatever I do in mind or action.
Along the same lines, there are the “inner” causes and consequences. If I am more authentic with myself and others, I am more likely to feel centered, grounded, and content. (Although it may also bring some temporary discomfort when I go against what others expect or want from me.) If I cultivate a habit of genuine gratitude, I am more likely to feel content, grateful, and at peace. If I cultivate a habit of complaining and blame, I am more likely to create an inner atmosphere of unease, restlessness, and discomfort.
There are causes and consequences for my life in the world. If I smile and am genuinely friendly to others, that’s what I am more likely to receive in return.
And then there is the idea of consequences for future lives. I don’t know if this is accurate or not. (I only know what some people say about it but don’t have personal experiences to support it.)
What I do know is that this idea has been used – by some cultures, traditions, and teachers – to guide people to more kind behavior. And it has also been used to justify unjust social structures and control people and keep them “in their place”. (The Indian caste system.)
I also know that if we have many lives, and there is this form of inter-life karma, we all have (just about) infinite amounts of all kinds of karma. We are all in, more or less, the same boat. Whatever happens to ripen right now is just the tiniest piece of it.
What’s common for all these forms of karma is feedback. Karma is another word for feedback. It’s an opportunity to notice and learn. It’s an opportunity to invite in healing. And ultimately, karma leads to awakening.