When we think of Buddhism, we think of Karma. When we think of Karma, we often link it to the old adage, "What goes around comes around", and for most people, that is precisely what they believe Karma is.
Karma, however, is more than a cosmic justice system or a reason to feel bad about one's life ("I've got such bad karma, no wonder these bad things keep happening..."). It's also not the feel-good fix-all that you can throw out to make yourself feel better about someone else's misfortune either ("I knew that karma would bite them in the arse eventually).
Karma is a Sanskrit word meaning "action" or "deed". Karma is the action that sets in motion the wheels of cause and effect, and was originally a tennet of the Hindu faith. (It's also a common idea shared in Jainism, Sikhism and even the Falun Gong. Although, if you are familiar with anything new-agey, you'll be familiar with karma too.)
Tied in with Karma is the concept of reincarnation* and the idea that our past actions - stretching back over many life times - all have some sort of impact on the life we are living right now. There are some schools of thought that one has to reincarnate many times in order to transform one's karma and reach Nirvana. There are other schools, like Nichiren Buddhism, who believe that one can transform karma right now, in this very lifetime.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
Karma is created through cause and effect. We create causes all day long, we just don't pay much attention to it. An easy example to illustrate this would be my dad. My dad smoked 60 cigarettes a day for most of his life. (The Cause) He died as a result of complications arising from emphysema, a direct result of smoking 60 cigarettes a day for most of his life (The Effect). We can create helpful causes (quitting smoking or not smoking at all) or unhelpful causes (smoking 60 cigarettes a day). These produce helpful effects (better health) or unhelpful effects (slow, painful illness culminating in death by heart attack or stroke). We get to choose.
Every moment of every day provides us with an opportunity to create helpful or unhelpful karma.** I can choose to donate money to the homeless guy in the street or not. If I choose to donate, I may want to examine my intentions: donating so I can boast to my friends how generous I am (less helpful) or donating because the poor guy looked hungry and could do with a plate of food (more helpful).
SO HOW DO I CHANGE MY KARMA IN DAILY LIFE?
1. First of all, take a look at your less helpful behaviours. This is not an easy or comfortable task, but it will assist you in finding some of the 'biggies' (and some of the biggies, when examined, are actually not that big). For example, mine include a bit of swearing at taxi drivers and getting stressed out and frustrated with people, some jealousy, some poor self esteem.
2. Live mindfully. Be aware of how your actions and words will influence the people around you. Are you saying or doing something out of revenge or spite or are you doing it because you truly are working towards finding the justice in a situation?
3. Gratitude is fantastic. Being grateful for what we have in the moment brings us back to the ever popular and sometimes elusive "now". Even the now is temporary and will change. Gratitude is a great way of releasing anger, frustration and jealousy.
4. Nichiren Buddhists believe that chanting Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo helps to polish one's karma. Meditation works on the same level.
5. Remember it's not all about you. And it is all about you. Your perception of the world is purely that: YOUR perception. To someone else you may seem like the bossy client, but to you, you may seem like someone who knows what she wants and the service providor may appear to be an idiot. Which of these is true? Both. And neither. It's all about how YOU perceive a given situation.
6. Karma isn't a bitch. Your own actions - cause and effect - created the situation you're in. Accept responsibility for your part in your psychodrama and realistically set about rectifying or improving on it.
Your karma is your own responsibility. It's not something that happens to you. It's not a punishment from God, Buddha or the Great Cosmic Joker. Karma holds YOU accountable for your thoughts and actions within your own life. There's no blaming the bunny, or the devil. The only one doing the living in your life is you.
The idea of Karma being my own responsibility is both liberating and sobering. How I treat others and myself will determine my Karma. I am not interested in transforming the karmic backlog of however many lifetimes. I am certain that some things have already been dealt with, or have manifested in this current life to be dealt with now. I only have this moment to polish the mirror in which my karma is reflected. So do you.
*Incidentally, early Christians believed in the concept of reincarnation too, but the idea was one of those that got ditched at the first Vatican Council. The Gnostics and Cathars, however, continued preaching reincarnation until they were all summarily murdered by the Church as heretics and witches
** I prefer the terms 'helpful' and 'unhelpful' when it comes to describing karma, as 'good' and 'bad' don't seem to include our own accountability and responsibility.