06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is Tipping Good for Your Karma?

No one knows who the first barista was to post the sign at the cash register, but we've seen it plenty of times. That innocuous and cute memento of café life -- tipping is good for your karma -- points at a generally accepted notion that has deeper roots in an American upbringing than in the yoga discipline: do good, and much good will be returned to you.

This message is rather universal, usually appended by a disclaimer: not that you should do it only for the outcome. In general, the sentiment goes something like, "You should always do good unto others for the sake of doing good. Oh, and then good will come back to you." If you practice Wicca, it comes back threefold; well, at least that's the degree of which evil boomerangs, so I'm guessing good is of equal worth.

It's the disclaimer that's really interesting -- not that you should do good only for the outcome. Yet that extra incentive is treated as a cosmic promise, a certain assurance that by dropping a dollar into the bucket, three or more will magically appear in your wallet at some future time (and the sooner, the better). This all sounds familiar: do good in life, and your promotion into heaven is guaranteed. Should it really surprise that we treat karma like all of our other habits?

We were taught early on this form of cause and effect. Do well in grade school to get into high school, do well there to secure a good college, which leads to a great career in, well, whatever offers the best 401k and enough money to put a mortgage on...oh wait, maybe those things are not as stable as we thought. All those years, doing good for the outcome, while the outcome was being bet against by the people selling it to you.

The word karma comes from karman, which means -- and only means -- "action." The three types of karma are discussed in the Bhagavad Gita, essentially the first reference point for westerners of the concept. First is sattvika-karman, actions performed without attachment after the fruit, or phala, the "moral reward" or "karmic payoff" of the action; second, rajasa-karman, action performed from ego specifically for pleasure; third, tamasa-karman, performed by a confused or deluded individual with no concern for moral or spiritual consequences of the action (see Goldman Sachs).

Karma is the moral force behind one's intentions and actions. It's important to recognize that intentions are involved, because they are the seed of the action. If the seed is poisoned, so will be the fruit that grows from it, which is why the entire idea of doing good for the outcome is a skewed ideology. Doing good to get "somewhere" after death, for example, is more an example of someone scared of life than someone looking to fully live it. Instead of seeing the beauty around you, you keep praying it's right off that yonder hill. At the very least, American are publicly witnessing that karmic bank busting.

Flipping through Georg Feuerstein's The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, I came across an interesting perspective. Very often translations of languages, especially one such as Sanskrit, which was never in daily use, arrive into English ears tainted by what the translator wants to get across, not necessarily what the text actually states. Feuerstein did a brilliant job at making his translation as non-dogmatic as possible. Still, a little commentary is necessary, especially for this particular passage.

For Sutra II.37, asteya-pratishayam sarva-ratna-upasthanam -- a sutra focused on the restraint of non-stealing, an important yogic principle -- he writes, "When grounded in non-stealing, all [kinds of] jewels appear [for him]." At first glance, it appears similar to the karmic notion described above. Only Feuerstein borrows from I.K. Taimni in his commentary, that this "does not mean that precious stones begin to fly through the air and fall at his feet. It is a way of saying that he becomes aware of all kinds of treasures in his vicinity."

What a beautiful idea. Instead of waiting for the interest to grow, you take a look around and see the treasures you already have. Some would argue that all you really need for such a perspective is a heartbeat and the heart that beats it. It's the craving and clinging -- not to mention the disappointment that follows the tragedy of our desires -- that destroy us. Taking a pause to look around can sometimes change everything, and in times like this, change is a great thing.