Ellen Langer

Karma and personal control ·

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I was driving with a friend, Shannon, in a part of town unfamiliar to me when I finally realized she was looking for a parking space. She announced that she has “bad parking space Karma.” I didn’t know what that meant in any deep way but I knew I usually get a space when I need one so I did my job and a space opened up for us almost immediately. What kind of life does one have to live to increase their Karma for getting mundane needs met? I do not know. I do know that mindful living may be an alternative route.

Believing that parking spaces open up for me, I stay attentive to many cues in the environment that my friend has no reason to notice, given her belief that it is “always” hard for her to find a space. I see someone walking out of a building and then put his hands in his pocket. Perhaps, I think to myself, he is reaching for his car keys. I see a well dressed woman carrying heavy bags and think she is not likely to want to go too far with such cumbersome packages. It’s 1 PM and I reason that someone may soon leave the restaurant nearby. In Harvard Square, it is next to impossible to get a parking space at noon. So, when I can, I plan to be there at 11:40, and lo and behold, a space awaits my arrival. Most people don’t stay too long at the Post Office so waiting on that block pays off as well. Finally, when the movie ends people will leave and spaces that are unavailable five minutes earlier will suddenly, surprisingly open up.

We don’t see if we don’t look and we don’t look if we believe we won’t find what we are looking for. Parking spaces are occupied by people. People, like us have other places they want to get to. There is a larger point here than finding a parking space, which for some is aggravating enough to warrant this column. Many of us too often approach the world as if the objects it holds, like parking spaces, machines, towns or buildings, for example, came into being on there on, rather than that they were fashioned by people. The difference in belief is often the difference in meeting our needs or feeling thwarted because we have “bad Karma.”

Sometimes we can figure out how something works, for example, by remembering that a person with needs much like ours created it. How would we have made it? Would we have put the light switch half way down the dark staircase, risking a fall each time we needed to use it or would we have opted for a place more convenient? Where should we look to find the butcher recommended to us. If we owned a butcher store, would we have located it near the library or on a lonely street or near other stores where people could easily find it? Often the person part of the equation is hidden from us. The store displays the tube of shampoo lying on its side. In the shower it seems to take forever for the little that remains in the tube to reach the opening for use. Why not rest it straight up on its cap so it is ready for use? We’re often mindless to simple mindful solutions like this because we don’t consider that the item was made by a person who had a particular context in mind—emptying a tube that is full, when it was made—versus the ease of removing the shampoo when the tube is half empty. The store that is displaying the shampoo is concerned with yet other perspectives–space and attractiveness. I don’t know if anyone believes they have bad “tube Karma,” but I’m sure several have frustrating days in the shower when they can’t get the last of the shampoo out.

We talk of man-made vs. machine-made error. By forgetting how the machine was made, we get caught off guard when the machine fails us. Could a person create something that is error free? To do so would require that its use was restricted to just a few perspectives by people who were relatively homogeneous. If my fingers are very large, hitting the right buttons on “the” machine is going to result in much “man-made” error. Over time, the “machine”-made error may increase as the components have been worked in ways not according to the original plan. If the machine had been constructed with fat fingers in mind, this machine-made error would be less likely. Should we blame the person or, if we wanted to reduce the error should we look for ways to change the machine?

There is much to be gained from realizing that the inanimate objects we use were people constructed. It may keep us from thinking we have bad Karma. Eastern concepts like Karma are useful if they lead us to exert more control over our lives, not, I believe, if they justify giving up.

For me, rather than concern myself with Karma, I often appeal to the east when I use what I call the /Guru Test/, to help me deal with frustrations. If someone does something thoughtless and I’m tempted to respond in kind, rather than be reactive I ask myself what I would do if I were fully evolved. What do I think some guru would do if in my shoes at the time? This helps me be my best self. I may even let the person who cut me off take that parking space that was mine.