I have heard it said that no one fully understands karma, so I start the conversation with that in mind. One of the definitions of karma that I am familiar with, is that it simply means action. We take an action, we think a thought. It has consequences. We may either feel the results of our action right away, later in this life time or in subsequent lives. And some may not share the belief in future or past lives. (That's another conversation!)
The karma that takes place in this life seems somewhat straight forward . I say some angry words to my neighbour. She says some back to me. Instant karma. (Tastes as bad as most instant things I've had.) But then the karma gets more complex and harder to trace. My neighbour now harbours a grudge against me. She says something unpleasant about me to a new neighbour. Now that person regards me with suspicion. And so my single angry sentence has carried itself into the future having more unpleasant "karmic " consequences. I feel bad now. My experience of my neighbourhood feels a little less friendly and on and on, in ripples that I may not even see.
The comment about karma I made to Peter was in regard to his experience of his inner critic that seemed so strong. My understanding was that he could see that he reacted strongly to a reasonably innocent comment by someone. And yet there it was.... I always remember my Zen teacher saying, "when you have a reaction to something or someone that seems beyond logical explanation (it could be good or bad), it is probably karmic." .... In other words when something rouses us in this way , we have probably been dealing with this "issue" (or person) for more than this lifetime. Hence it's industrial sized strength. It's fairly accepted that we carry around things that we have been dealing with since we were children. We can see the strength of that. So it is an easy leap for me to make, to feel that those things that make me really crazy, come from even farther back than this lifetime. While I have no logical proof of this, it feels true. One of my irrational trigger points revolves around feeling left out. Someone will do something that brings on this feeling or no one will do anything and the feeling will arise. The same event might not even register on your radar but for me it create anguish. I have a friend who, if you are the least bit late, begins to think you are not coming. She knows it's irrational and yet there it is. It's what comes up for her.
I can't deny those strong feelings when they are stirred , nor can I explain them fully. Sometimes they linger for days, like someone's unwanted cigarette smoke, clinging to my coat (quick, call in the karmic dry cleaner). Somehow in the middle of the pain, I take solace in the fact that it is something old arising, that I have no control over. I have also heard it said that you never know when old karma will come to greet you.
And with our willingness to just be with this karma, it is my understanding that something is happening. It is discharging for lack of a better word, burning up like a flares in the oil patch. We spend time with the pain and it passes. We don't run off and create new karma by saying something unpleasant (although that's a possibility too!). And it's not on our terms as to when the pain subsides. Of course we do our part to let it go and not add to the suffering. We don't drown or wallow but as Peter so wonderfully described we get on with life. We do the next thing that needs to be done.
There are so many aspects of karma. My partner and I were talking about the good karma that has allowed us to find and participate in a life of practice. This is truly good fortune. To have a human life, as the Dalai Lama points out in his poem, "This Precious Human Life," this too is good fortune. .... an opportunity to study the Dharma and work with our karma. (Please ignore the fact that this rhymes. We are not going there. I may be guilty of many things but, No bad Zen poetry here.)
And finally just a comment from Uchiyama's book called "Opening the Hand of Thought" that I am reading these days. He is talking about choice and how he chose in this life time to be a monk. Even though it is my choice, he asks, where does that choice come from? What makes one of us become a murderer, another a human rights advocate, someone else a doctor. Is that our karma playing itself out?? And our thoughts. I always find this a scary one... that even what we think somehow gets accounted for in the karmic scheme of things. Nothing is without consequence, which is the good news and the bad news all rolled into one!