Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Karma's Kool

I was in the shower the other morning, and I started...pondering. (The acoustics in the shower are great and it's easier to hear my mind think.)

I was thinking about karma. I'm not Buddhist and don't really know much about karma other than what I imagine most people know casually. What goes around comes around; do unto others – that sort of thing. I suppose my definition of karma is along those lines. When I'm contemplating doing or saying something I'm not sure I want to do or say, I work it through my mind by asking myself how it could potentially come back and bite me in my ass.

What I ended up musing about in the shower was motivation. What is my usual motivation for doing the right thing? And are those motives pure or self-serving? I mean, from a karmic standpoint, am I doing something good because I'm just a nice guy? Or do I do the right thing because I just don't want something bad to happen to me later?

Looking back, a lot of my thinking about karma started when I began to learn about religion. And before anyone gets their hackles up, this isn't about to turn into a rant about religion. I do have my problems with certain organized faiths, but this ain't about that. What it is about is reward-based good works. How many people do stuff so they can get stuff in return? From what I've learned, many religious belief systems are based on retribution for not doing what we're told. If you don't believe this or believe that; do this or do that, you're going to hell. Well then, of course you're going to do what you're told. Who wants to spend eternity in eternal damnation? But is doing the right thing for the wrong reason – or out of fear – still the right thing? Does the end justify the means? "Yeah, yeah, I'll volunteer at the soup kitchen, but only because I don't wanna go downstairs when I die."

I'm still not clear on my reasoning for doing the right thing sometimes. When I find myself questioning my motivation, one thing I do is try to figure out how I can help someone without their knowing it. It's not easy. More often than not, I think most of us expect – or at least hope – for some recognition or acknowledgement when we do something for someone. But what if we did someone a favor behind their back? What if we borrowed a friend's car and filled up the gas tank and got a car wash and didn't tell them? (Call that one carma.) Would we be pissed if they didn't thank us? Would we be disappointed if they didn't notice? Well, yes and yes. But should we be? Shouldn't the self-gratification of doing something nice be enough reward in and of itself? Should we really need a pat on the back for doing what's right anyway?

I say yes. Sort of. Being grateful to ourselves for doing the right thing is self-rewarding. But those we help should express their gratitude to us as well. In my little Steven World, that's karma. When you do unto others, they'd better thank you for it, dammit!

However, there are times when a tiny kindness perpetrated on an unsuspecting neighbor can inoffensively go unacknowledged. Grab your buddy's trash when you're taking your own out to the Dumpster; hang the new phone book delivery bag on her doorknob because you know she has trouble bending over.

So karma's cool. It keeps me honest. On those occasions when I'm not sure what I should do, karma helps me decide. I figure if I spend half my time doing the right thing simply because it's the right thing do, and the other half doing the right thing because I don't want a karmic slap in the face, I'm doing okay. Ultimately, I believe the ends do justify the means, regardless of motivation. If I help someone out of altruism or fear, in the end, that person's still been helped.

Thank you still makes it go down easier, though.