As a card-carrying Buddhist (ok, I don’t actually have a card. But that doesn’t mean I won’t make one. And carry it.), whenever I hear about “karma,” the hairs on the back of my neck start to itch and I have to resist the urge to start running around the house and howling. What started as a simple head-shaking “Oh, silly people” has now – with each misuse of the word – become a full on mental anaphylactic reaction. My brain shuts down and goes into full on thought-spasm until I can focus on something, anything else every time I hear/see a variation of the following scenario:

“That guy was such a total jerk to me. But I’m not going to do anything. I’m just going to let karma get him.”

“My ex just got hot sauce thrown in his eyes by an angry chihuahua.* Karma’s such a bitch.”

“I found $20 in my pants! KARMA!”

Guys. Guys. Guys. Guysguysguysguysguys. No. Just. No.

The biggest misunderstanding I’ve seen about karma is that karma is when good stuff happens to you and bad things happen to people that hurt you. And… well… it’s just not that simple.

See, karma is the system of linked actions. Everything you do influences everything that happens in return. Good or bad. There are no independent actions. Nothing you do is without consequence. You can go all the way back forever back to the actions in your past lives, if you roll that way. Or you can focus solely on this life, but in any case, your karma is not reset with each action. It’s cumulative. And this is about to lead to a realization that you’re probably not going to like:

Karma is also why that bad thing happened to you.

You’ve seen it at some point “You can’t escape your karma!” usually said by someone who is experience extreme schadenfreude or is looking for an emotional salve for some kind of betrayal. But… the problem here… is neither can you.

I had this hit me like a freight train when I was going through my divorce. It was at that point that I returned to Buddhism after spending most of my early adulthood in a sort of spiritual tourism. I had been raised as a Buddhist and it was the return to trying to attain peace above all things and staying in the present moment that kept me together. Odd, you’d think in that situation most people would want to escape the present moment, but staying in it and feeling that grief to its core is how I made it through. In any case, while I was trying to just let myself feel what I was feeling, I’d find myself fantasizing about how karma was going to get my ex. How his life was going to go to hell for how much I hurt.

And then I realized… this hurt? This was my karma. I couldn’t escape it either.

Which brings us to the other thing about karma: there is no justice. There is no right and wrong. There is no cosmic judge sitting in a cloud saying “This is good.” “This is bad.” There are just… things. Actions. And consequences.

Bad things happen because events set them into motion. It’s not because you were bad. It’s not because you deserved it. It’s just how the actions played out. Heartache doesn’t mean you’ve been a bad person. If good thing happens… you’re not necessarily being rewarded either. It’s just life playing out. Sometimes good things happen to “bad” people and bad things happen to “good” people and it’s just the wheel of karma, turning. It will all come back around…and around… and around…

So, you’re right that you can’t escape karma. But you’re wrong to think that karma is some kind of cosmic justice. It’s not. The universe isn’t set up to be fair. It’s just set up to be.

*Ok, made this up, but it sounds like a very satisfying scenario as schadenfreude goes.