Karma – a psychological understanding

Karma is not fate, or revenge. It is the possibility of transforming suffering through good action. Photo by Rui Xu on Unsplash

Karma is the idea that past actions may affect future actions.  Roughly speaking, if we have done harmful things in the past, then harmful consequences may result for us now or in the future.  Equally, if we open ourselves to helping others, then it makes a chain of good things possible.

Karma incorporate a sense of cause and effect, but also a sense that our intentional action matters.  It is not just that we are trapped in a cycle of fate that cannot be changed.  We can affect what happens next.

Psychologically, then, the idea of karma should not have us resigned to fate, simply believing that we are stuck with things as they are, and can do nothing.  On the contrary , the idea of karma is intimately linked with the development of patterns of thought and behaviour that help others and ourselves.

One of the most powerful meditations related to karma is to transform our own suffering into good acts, by relating that suffering to something we could do for others.  It is powerful because it helps us to escape selfishness, resentment and blame, which can be great causes of mental ill-health.


This is how it works.

  1. Have a look at how you are feeling right now.  If you are calm and have no thoughts, that’s great.  Wait a while.  See if anything comes up for you that makes you uncomfortable, maybe an anxiety.  What’s the story there?  Are you feeling pressurised?  Hurt?
  2. Try to define that feeling, to isolate it and explain it.  Bring it out a little more clearly.  Are you feeling neglected, left out?  Are you worried about money?  Do you feel ignored, or insulted, or  lonely?  Pick one aspect of how you feel, and clearly articulate the story.
  3. Now here’s the tough part.  I’d like you to imagine you live in a world where you feel as you feel because, in the past, you have put others in a similar position.  Instead of being a helpless victim, therefore, you were a powerful perpetrator, responsible for others’ suffering.
  4. What might you have done?  Perhaps, if you are feeling neglected, you can think of times when you may have neglected others.  If you are feeling poor, then perhaps you can think of times when you have deprived others of money.  If you feel insulted, then perhaps you can think of times when you have insulted others, or let them feel insulted.
  5. Next, you make a renewed resolution to apply the opposite towards others, to right the wrong, to counteract the suffering.  Perhaps you can get in touch with someone you may be neglecting.  Maybe you can help someone else financially, in however small a way.  Perhaps you can say some words of respect to someone who may be suffering a sense of insult.
  6. Once you have done this, you may begin to feel a sense of relief.  You have converted a sense of ‘poor me suffering bad things’ into a sense of ‘powerful me doing good things’.  This doesn’t make sense to our vengeful self, the self that wants to make others suffer for the suffering they inflict on us.  But revenge doesn’t bring relief, only further suffering.  You have discovered the psychological truth that ‘the best revenge is not to avenge, but to live well’.


This exercise illustrates some key psychological benefits of a karmic approach to life.

  1. We can convert effect into cause, victimhood into power.
  2. We can create new possibilities ourselves.
  3. We become humble rather than aggressive (easier on the hormones).
  4. We use everything as a growth opportunity.
  5. We take responsibility for our own actions, instead of feeling helpless.
  6. We connect good results with things we can do.
  7. We gain intentional focus on good action.
  8. We learn to give resources and security to others (encouraging cooperation).
  9. We learn to live and act in the present, instead of resenting the past.
  10. We can break out of patterns of anxiety.
  11. We achieve consistency of good action, rather than being dragged into bad reactions.
  12. We live in a world of meaning and contribution to others.

You can read more about these twelve points here.


It seems a strange, unscientific view that our past actions meaningfully affect our current situations.  Life, in reality, seems more chaotic.  We are all familiar with unjust outcomes.  Life seems shockingly unfair sometimes.  Isn’t this enough to break the spell, and take us back into feeling that life is absurd at best, grossly unfair at worst?


I would not directly contradict people who argue in that way.  But, equally, I would invite them to try a karmic approach.  Consider it a use of the imagination, and see what happens.

I would also suggest that it is a way of harmlessly finding positive meaning in situations of suffering.  We become very good at processing difficult feelings into good action.  We can analyse our present feelings of suffering, and quickly convert them into positive action on our part.


I am not saying that, when bad things happen, we should ignore the responsibility of others for their actions.  We can still hold other people accountable where necessary.  We can draw boundaries, and be clear what we expect from those around us.

But we are more likely to act with compassion and wisdom, if we eliminate resentment and revenge.  It is very dangerous to blame others, without considering our own responsibilities.  It limits our personal growth, and can make us miserable and depressed.  A karmic approach can keep us balanced, so that we can stay psychologically healthy in adverse situations.