Have you ever wondered where your thoughts actually come from? Sounds like a weird question, I know. But bear with me. Take a moment and try to think of nothing at all. Just empty your mind. And hang in there for a second.

Go on. Do it right now. I’ll wait.

That was a bit awkward, wasn’t it? Because, if you actually tried, you’ll have noticed something interesting and at the same time slightly disturbing: When your mind is not actively doing anything—solving a math problem, say, or remembering a specific place or event—it will, all on its own, come up with somethinganything—to think of. But “you”, the alleged owner of that mind, didn’t command it to think of that thing at this time, did you? Turns out, “you” are not quite as much in charge of which thoughts come up or don’t come up as you might have hoped. In my case, for example, I’ve just now been thinking of lunch, politics, running shoes, work, lunch (again), this blog post, the book on Afghanistan I’m currently reading, about whether or not to travel to India later this year, an unpleasant exchange I’ve had with a colleague the other day, and, once again, lunch. All within maybe a minute or so. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, this would be a very familiar experience. But even if not, this simple realization begs an interesting and quite fundamental moral question: If you’re not the sole author of your thoughts, who is? Where do they come from? And are “you” morally (and ultimately legally) responsible for them?

Western philosophy, sadly, has had surprisingly little to say on that topic. Despite our efforts to codify sophisticated ethical rules over the last few millennia, we’ve somehow overlooked the basics: We’ve not examined how the human mind actually works. Instead, societies influenced by any one of the Abrahamic religions1 where fumbling with misguided moral precepts, most of which rooted in bronze age public health concerns: What type of animal can or can’t you eat? Which piece of your private parts must you cut off to please some God or other? How long is a woman unclean after having given birth? And, seemingly on top of everyone’s mind all the time: What’s the best way to punish those who dare to look, think, or speak different than we do? On the other hand, Buddhism (and other East Asian traditions) have tried to grapple with morality basically form first principles upward: They gained insights by observing the workings of one’s own mind (primarily through insight meditation), and constructed a whole universe of epistemology and ethics based on what they learned. A major reason why this produced actionable, helpful results lies in their focus on contemplative practice, rather than (mono-)theistic dogma. Because, as you’ve seen in your own tiny experiment before, meditation inevitably brings up these questions and, moreover, puts one on a path toward reasonable, logical responses to them.

So, what does that look like in practice? For instance, once you’ve come to terms with the fact that “you” are not really in control of “your” thoughts, it makes no sense anymore to make “you” morally responsible for them. But this is in no way a “get out of jail free” card. Instead, Buddhist moral philosophy emphasizes one’s actions. After all, that’s what “you” have considerable control over. Take for example, the closing paragraph of the Buddha’s “Five Remembrances":

I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.

During meditation, you see first handedly that thoughts are futile. They arise and fade away, quite on their own. But despite my inability to fully control my thoughts, I nevertheless am the owner of my actions. The intention to punch that guy in the face simply arises in consciousness, totally unbidden. I’m not (directly) responsible for that. But I have the choice and the responsibility for whether or not I act based on that intention. And if I chose to do so, then I will fall heir to the consequences of that action, be they good or bad. That’s essentially what Buddhists mean when they talk about karma. Despite its wobbly, “new age” connotation, karma is not some esoteric, cosmic, or godly force that rewards or punishes one by means of magical powers. Quite the contrary, karma is the basic law of causes and their effects. Whatever I do will have consequences. These can be beneficial or harmful, lead to pleasure or suffering, make the world a tiny bit better or a great deal worse. And whenever I consciously chose one action over another, I set myself up for facing its consequences—and therefore take on full moral responsibility.

Nevertheless, there’s an added layer of complexity to the question of culpability that also emerges from contemplation and connects back to the idea of karma: As we’ve seen, you can’t really control which kinds of thoughts arise in your mind from moment to moment. But you can consciously chose actions right in each present moment that will have an influence over which thoughts your subconscious will bring up in the future.

Consider, for example, a person who chooses to indulge in alt-right news outlets. And plays a lot of violent video games. And engages on social media in conspiracy theories about how the Jews, or the Blacks, or the foreigners are out to get them. And doesn’t spend any face-time with members of these groups they’re apparently so scared of. Let that person’s mind dwell in such such an bleak environment for years and years, and… Well, it wouldn’t be a surprise if that mind was more likely to raise with hateful, sectarian, violent, or otherwise unwholesome thoughts. Now, the individual person might not be directly responsible for each particular thought that entered their mind at any moment. However, they are totally responsible for the actions they chose previously which led to their subconscious making it more likely to create that kind of thoughts. That, again, is karma at work.

But let me close this off on a positive note: Consider the exact opposite of the case described before: In Buddhism, one is not only encouraged to engage in insight or mindfulness meditation, but also to try and cultivate compassion and “loving kindness”—for all sentient beings, if you’re willing to go that far. There’s a specific meditative practice, called Metta, during which you consciously concentrate on wishing positive things, first to yourself, then to someone you love, then someone neutral, then someone “difficult”, and, ultimately, to every sentient being in the universe. This sounds totally cheesy, I know. But if you actually do that for a while—say, for five minutes every day over the course of a few months—you’ll notice that, sometimes, the thoughts that arise in your mind take on a slightly more sunny connotation than before. Say, for example, someone cuts you off in traffic. Maybe your first thought in the past would have been along the lines of “Fuck that person! What an idiot! I hope you crash into the next lamppost!” But after a few months of cultivating compassion, your reaction might be a tiny bit closer to something along the lines of “Hmmm. That was close. Good thing I was able to respond so quickly. I do wonder why that person is in such a hurry. Maybe they’re rushing someone to the hospital? Well, in any case, I wish they get wherever they’re going safely and without causing anyone any harm…”

  1. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. ↩︎