The way we use the word “karma” in the West has been diluted to the idea that what-goes-around-comes-around. While this is an over-simplification of a concept that has evolved over millennia (and gets a more in-depth treatment in our teacher training when we read the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita), I’ve found myself reflecting on the ways in which we reap what we sow.
In the world of marketing—admittedly a curious place to draw wisdom—there’s a snappy catchphrase “give to get.” It’s an idea that can be applied broadly. I’ve noticed that when we feel like we aren’t getting something we need—love, respect, support, appreciation, acceptance, the benefit of the doubt—it’s often because we’re not giving it.
In The Power Paradox, Dacher Keltner documents how we gain influence (or power) through our generous, pro-social behavior. The paradox part is that power also blunts our empathy and can then lead to anti-social behavior, which in turn diminishes our influence. Otherwise stated by Keltner: “we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst.”
This makes a powerful case for empathy: seeing other people’s humanity doesn’t make us weak, it makes us more responsive and alive. And acting from a place of open-heartedness and altruism doesn’t deplete our resources but rather strengthens them.
Of course, we don’t always see an exact return on what we put out into the world. I think of one of my oldest and dearest friends, who blasts so much love out into the universe that it’s hard to imagine her recouping it in equal measure. (I would also add that there’s a distinction to be made between generosity and martyrdom.)
This is not to say that if you feel unloved, you are acting unloving. Or that when you’ve been treated badly you somehow had it coming. Sometimes people are mean or thoughtless or prejudiced. But where there’s a recurrent sense of deficit, looking at what you express is a good place to start.