In the law of karma motivation is front line and center. Do you do for yourself, your own wealth, success and fortune? Do you do it out of compassion, because you know that person can use the help?
It’s the most basic psychological process: our motivation, why we do what we do. The hard part is that usually we have all kinds of reasons for doing things. You take care of yourself when you’re not feeling well, not only because it makes you feel better, but also in order to be able to go to work tomorrow. That work serves the people who depend on it.
You might be a volunteer in a retirement home because you need something to do, to have some company, but also because you care for the inmates.
Tibetan Buddhist teachers stress that you can rejoice in all the positive things you do, including the positive motivation you feel. That rejoicing is a sort of motivation in hindsight.
Similarly, the karmic consequences are, so it’s said, less of you honestly regret doing a negative action.
It makes sense: if you rejoice in the positive things you’ve done, chances are you’ll do them again. If you regret stealing something, chances are you won’t steal again (or as often).
In reverse: If you regret every little bit of generosity you display, chances are next time you won’t give as much.
The point is to get clear what your motivation is – the layers of your motivation. Not in order to beat yourself up over every time you put your own needs first, but in order to be realistic. Realistic enough to take care of yourself and avoid overwork, for instance. Realistic enough to give that dollar to that beggar this time around.
A version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.