Karmic Growth and Collateral Damage


I think a lot about karma. How our past choices, our past relationships, draw us together and apart, create dynamics that can cause joy and suffering. Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, you can easily see and grasp the most elemental concept karma on the short-term level. Well, I told a lie, and now the lie was found out, and I need to suffer the consequences. As you sow, so shall you reap.

I’m especially interested in karmic relationships- in the idea that we meet others, are drawn into complex dynamics with them because we have something to work out together. Perhaps (as I believe), it’s because you have karma from a past life together. Or maybe (as others believe), it’s simply that they are part of a divine plan for you to learn something.

Sally Kempton’s article “Seeds of Change” offers a fantastic summary of the situation that I often find helpful:

Question: What is a karmic relationship? How do I know I’m in one?

Answer: In one sense, everyone who comes into your life is someone you have karma with. But a truly karmic relationship is one in which you have a powerful, almost fated sense of connection with another person. You may feel you know the other person well—even if you’ve just met. You know you’re in a karmic relationship when you feel obligated toward someone or inexplicably drawn to them, when a person has a powerful influence in your life, or when you try to extract yourself from a relationship and find you can’t….Another sign of a karmic relationship is a natural feeling of obligation. Sometimes you feel as if you owe something to the other person. At other times, you feel that the person is obligated to you. One of the old definitions of the word karma is “debt.” Something is owed.

When I first encountered this concept a few years ago, I immediately felt a sense of recognition and relief. There are in my life a few relationships (“good”, “bad”, romantic and platonic) that seem to have more complex dynamics beneath the surface- a web of emotional ties that feel hauntingly familiar, like an echo in my soul. Sometimes these are painful, or frustrating- other times it’s a source of great joy to have so much closeness. Sometimes they’re all these things at once.

I believe that these karmic relationships are in play in our lives in order to highlight our samskaras, or karmic imprints. You might think of these as grooves worn into your life- a way of doing things habitually, again and again. that will continue to create similar results. Samskaras can also be a lesson to be learned, if I’m lucky.

I often find at the end of a week, when I sort of look back and review what’s happened recently, that I’ve been presented with the tools from various parts of my life to learn such a lesson. Sometimes the tools come from funny places. This week I saw (maybe you did too!) this Louis CK video. You might enjoy watching it, because he is both hilarious and wise in this clip, suggesting that we hide behind our smart phones to avoid feeling sadness in our lives- but what I really took away from it was this sound bite, in which he is explaining to Conan why he won’t let his kids have a smart phone:

“Kids are mean. They’re trying it out. They look at a kid and go, ‘You’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘ooo, that doesn’t feel good, to make a person do that.’…  But when they write (on their smartphone) ‘You’re fat,’ they just go, ‘mmm, that was fun.'”

In one of my interactions this week, I chose to communicate with someone by email, rather than in person. This was a poor choice, as it turns out. My email caused this person great distress. I was fortunate enough, through a series of complex misunderstandings with another friend (crazy karma at work), to find out accidentally that I had made this person feel really, really crappy.

As soon as I found out, I called the person and spoke to them honestly, but the damage had been done. I felt really lousy, of course. And then I realized: That lousy feeling? That’s karma at work. I have the opportunity to learn from this situation, to feel, as Louis CK mimes on the video clip, that icky stomach feeling.

Oh, it sucked all right, but it was only the prelude to bigger pain. Later in the week, I was presented with an opportunity to learn a much bigger life lesson- one I have been presented with many, many times in my life.


It’s not a coincidence, I firmly believe, that recently Facebook has reconnected me with some of my earlier karmic relationships. I’ve been working through some memories, and having conversations with these old friends about how we interacted together 20 years ago.

So as the needle dropped into the groove with this most recent karmic relationship, I had a little more awareness. I saw my pattern clearly. I even narrated the pattern to myself, shared with my closest friends- “Look, I think this thing is happening again.” I felt the witness in the back of my head saying, “You know this isn’t a good idea.”

But oh, this samskara was deep, and I wasn’t done learning my lesson. I had to live through it again, I had to cause myself pain, and watch another’s pain, and this time I saw the face and I thought clearly of Louis CK’s child and thought, “Let this be the last time.”

Please, may I not cause any more suffering in this way.

After the first lesson, I noted to myself that it was a real shame when my life lessons come at someone else’s expense. Karma Collateral Damage, I thought. But then I remembered a famous dharma talk given by Khandro Rinpoche when a mouse was found dead at the Mindrolling Lotus Garden in 2006:

“For the mouse, itself, this death may be a good thing. It may be its first encounter with Dharma. This mouse could have been born on the adjoining land, or in town, or across the street. Instead it just happened to be born on this particular spot, with the causes and conditions for becoming the basis of a Dharma discourse that enables more than a hundred people to better understand karma. That is a lot of karmic fruition.

Maybe this mouse was a bodhisattva, born for this particular activity. One never knows. It could have been the Buddha sitting in that field—because of which we’re talking about karma. If its death becomes the basis of a hundred practitioners understanding karma and having a moment of genuine compassion, what greater merit could a being accumulate?”

A karmic relationship takes two people. As painful as it is, when I hurt someone else, when I see their face scrunch up because I have done something stupid to them, I can only be responsible for my future actions. They’re living their own karma, too.

Listen: I don’t take this as license to be an asshole. I am growing up more every year, and learning to be less of a fumbling moron of a human being. But my job is not to take on someone else’s pain- that’s theirs. I’ve got my own karma to learn from.

My dear friend and fellow teacher Jaye shared this with me and I think I’ve shared it with you before, but here it is again- Melody Beattie, from The Language of Letting Go: 

“We are each in our present circumstances for a reason. There is a lesson, a valuable lesson, that must be learned before we can move forward. Something important is being worked out in us, and in those arond us. We may not be able to identify it today, but we can know that it is important. We can know that it is good….We must go through it until we learn, until we accept, until we become grateful, until we are set free.” 

When I spoke to my first Karma Collateral Damage victim this week, I said to her: “Tell me what I can do or say to you that will make this better- that will help you to understand how much I value you, and how little I meant to hurt you.”

“There’s nothing,” she said. And I remembered: I used to try to apologize to my ex-husband for the mean things I’d say to him, for the way I often made him feel. My apologies were useless- he didn’t want to hear it. “Just don’t do it again,” he’d say. “If you do it again, then I know you’re not really sorry.”

I hear you, Karma. I think I’ve got a chance this time. May I become grateful. May I become free.

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