by Sally Kempton
In my late 20s, as a recovering existentialist in the midst of a life-crisis, I came across he Bhagavad Gita, and read for the first time Krishna’s wordson dharma. You probably remember the situation: the warrior-prince Arjuna, paralyzed by confusion at the prospect of having to kill his kinsmen in a war, begs his friend and teacher, Krishna, for help. Though Krishna’s response touches on every essential aspect of the inner life, from how to meditate to what to expect when we die, the lines that struck me were these: “You are a warrior,” Krishna tells his pupil, “your svadharma, your personal duty, is to fight. Therefore, stand up and do battle. Better your own dharma badly performed than the dharma of another done perfectly.”
Is it possible to read that sentence without asking yourself the question “What is my dharma?” I felt that I’d suddenly found words for a question I’d been trying to formulate my whole life. I made my living as a writer—was that my dharma? I’d just begun serious spiritual practice—was that my dharma? I had a life-long aversion to the conventional rules of society—was that a sign that I was out of line with dharma, or simply that I followed a dharma that was uniquely mine? Was there really, as Krishna’s words seemed to imply, a blueprint for right action, perhaps lodged in my DNA, that could provide my own personal path to truth? Was that the clue to the question that had confused me for most of my life, “What am I really supposed to be doing?”
Years of practice have convinced me that there is such a thing as personal dharma, and that unless we’re in touch with it, we’re out of touch with our real source of strength and guidance. When we are inside our dharma, spiritual growth seems to happen naturally. When we aren’t, we feel stuck and stymied not just in our work and relationships, but in our inner life as well.
But what exactly does it mean to be in touch with our dharma? And how should we define dharma? My massage therapist is sure he knows; he often says, in impassioned tones, that his dharma is to convince people to eat a raw food diet. My friend Linda, on the other hand, is having what she calls a dharma crisis: she needs to go back to work, but thinks it would be undharmic to leave her 18-month-old baby in daycare. (‘Undharmic’ being yoga-speak for all manner of rule-breaking, from cutting in line at the movies to sleeping with your yoga teacher.) Buddhists, of course, use the word as a synonym for the inner journey, or for Buddhism itself, as in the title of Kalu Rinpoche’s book The Dharma, or Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.
If all these people are using the word correctly—and they are—then dharma has at least three meanings. Your dharma can be your personal life path, your calling. It can be a synonym for right action, the moral or ethical good in a situation. Or it can mean the spiritual path itself. If you look up “dharma” in a Sanskrit/English dictionary you’ll find it translated as “religion,” as “the path,” as “natural law,” as “righteousness,” as “duty,” as “truth,” as “virtue,” as “correct action.” The word itself comes from a Sanskrit root (dhr, if you’re interested) that means “to support or uphold,” and also “to nourish.” “Dharma is so called,” says the Mahabharata, “because of its capacity for sustaining the world.”
So one clue to discovering whether you’re following your dharma might be to ask yourself whether you feel that the universe supports you in what you do, or whether your actions and way of life helps you feel connected to some sort of universal truth. Most traditional teachers agree that dharma is connected to the underlying order of the universe. I would add that to follow your dharma is to align yourself with the most evolved level of your own consciousness.
When one of the sages in the Mahabharata says, “When dharma is protected, it protects you,” he meant that something in the very fabric of life will create some sort of order or pattern out of the natural chaos of existence. Whether you call it dharma or “truth” or “God’s will” or even the “evolutionary imperative”—that force, like gravity, tends to move the world toward the state of harmony that the Greeks called the good. It may move crab-like, one step forward and two steps back, but somehow, at the end of every cycle, dharma prevails.
If dharma is the macro level of this force, swadharma, literally “own duty” or “own virtue” is the individual, micro patterning, the inner imperative that aligns our individual actions with the greater Consciousness as it evolves toward its highest possible expression. Swadharma is linked with the idea of “calling,” or vocation, so to follow your swadharma is to follow the thread of guidance that “calls” you to express your being in unique ways. Since our calling is the instrument we play in the symphony of life, when we don’t express it, we are actually depriving the universe of the very thing that we were meant to contribute. A 19th-century rabbi named Zusia once said, “God won’t chastise me for not being Moses. He’ll chastise me for not being Zusia.” For each of us, the highest imperative, the core of svadharma is somehow bound up with your willingness to be yourself.
I once spent several years on a teaching team with the same group of people. One of them, a man I’ll call Tom, exuded a loving, supportive presence, expressed not so much in words, but in the affectionate aura that he brought into a room. Another, whom I’ll call Don, exuded a kind of judgmental harshness. I trembled when I had to present ideas to him, because most of the time he shot them down. We loved Tom and often resented Don, yet we all knew that they were both essential to our group. In fact, when Don tired of the unpopular role of critic, and started holding back his opinions, we all begged him to get real, and be his acerbic self. His challenges kept us at our edge. Tom was a “nice” person, and Don was not, at least not around us. Yet both of them, by being themselves, allowed the whole group to flower.
Part of the reason that expressing your svadharma—being Zusia, or Tom, or Don—is so tricky, is because it is not just a matter of figuring out a set of “right” behaviors and sticking to them through thick and thin. Our dharma in some situations may demand that we follow conventional rules and moral precepts, but at other times we’re called to that post-conventional form of dharma that St. Augustine summed up in his famous dictum, “Love, and do as you will.” Dharma is alive, and it changes, day by day, year by year, and situation by situation.
Judy, a social activist married to a fellow aid worker and living in Zambia, had no doubt about her life work until she got pregnant and began to wonder if she wanted to raise her child in the bush. Darren is offered a grant that will free him to finish his novel, then finds out that the grant’s corporate sponsor is a well-known corporate polluter. Larry has a weekend meeting with a prospective client, but his daughter is failing geometry and has asked him to stay home and help her. These are the kind of large and small decisions that dharma is all about. What personal compass should Judy and Darren and Larry use to make their decisions? Should they follow their feelings, which may or may not be skewed by hidden desires or emotional wounds or cultural prejudices? Apply personal principles? Look for the higher law in the situation? Go with their intuitive “hit”? Is doing the right thing about the greatest good for the greatest number (in which case, as one great thinker said, we should be thinking about what is good for viruses!)? These are all fundamental questions of dharma. And they can be really hard to answer.
The guidelines I’ve found most helpful in resolving these questions come from a traditional text of the Upanishadic tradition of India, the Yajnavalkya Samhita. Of course, like most ancient wisdom, the text needs to be periodically re-interpreted to suit contemporary conditions, and so I offer it to you with a few adaptations of my own, and a suggestion that you experiment with it yourself.
The text offers four clues to correct dharma, and one overall “rule” that trumps them all. Here are the four: 1)”The Vedic scriptures and other sacred texts, 2) the practices of the good, 3) whatever is agreeable to one’s own self, and 4) the desire which has arisen out of wholesome resolve—all these are known to be the sources of dharma.” Then the passage goes on to tell us the real bottom line: “Over and above such acts (as) . . . self control, non-violence, charity, and study of truth, this is the highest dharma: the realization of the Self by means of yoga.”
Here’s how I suggest you work with these prescriptions. For “Vedic scriptures,” you might substitute the wisdom of a tradition you trust—the yamas and niyamas of the yogasutra, the Sermon on the Mount, or a universal teaching like: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” My Guru used to say that we know we’ve imbibed spiritual wisdom when it arises spontaneously in moments of intense stress: “When you’re angry, the teaching of non-violence should arise,” he used to say. “When we’re tempted to take something that doesn’t belong to us, the teaching of non-stealing should come before our mind.”
The second yardstick for right action, “the practices of the good,” invites us to channel the discernment we’ve received, often unconsciously, from observing the people we admire. When I’m trying to make a choice that demands diplomacy and discriminating wisdom, I often ask what my brother David would do. When the question is “What’s the most loving choice?” I think of my friend Lee. And when I need to practice equality awareness, or when faced the choice between the demands of society and the demands of my soul, I take inspiration from my teacher’s ability to see everyone as equal, and to choose truth over comfort. Even more powerful is to turn to the sage inside. Often, one of my favorite forms of self-inquiry in moments of indecision is to ask myself, “If you did know the right thing to do, what would it be?”
The third criterion—”Whatever is agreeable to one’s own self”—is crucial. You might “know” what the books say is the right thing to do. You might long to make the decision that Jesus or Buddha or one of your more saintly friends would have made. But if something feels wrong, then it is probably not your dharma, and that means that you probably shouldn’t do it.
Feeling “right” about a course of action can be hard to distinguish from the resistance that comes up when we’re trying something new and challenging. That’s why we often have no choice but to walk a path for a while and see how it feels. A friend of mine, a talented teacher, was asked last year to lead a movement to re-organize his department and made a dean of his college. He accepted the job despite the fact that he hated administration because people kept saying that only he could save the department, and because he knew it needed to be done. A year later, the Dean’s office was in chaos, the same people who had offered him the job were plotting to remove him, and my friend had developed an immune system disorder. He had taken on a dharma that didn’t agree with him, and it blew up in his face. Later on, he described his year as a dean as a daily experience of shaving off corners of himself to fit into the job, like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Yet he’d never have known it wasn’t right for him if he hadn’t tried.
It’s the fourth criterion—”the desire that flows from a wholesome resolve”—that cuts to the heart of personal dharma. What is a wholesome resolve? It’s essentially an unselfish motivation. The desire to help, to serve the situation, to accept responsibility for creating positive change, to benefit others are perhaps the most powerful forms of wholesome resolve. So are the motivations that come from the vows we take (out loud and silently)—the desire to preserve a family, to maintain good health, to love unconditionally, to complete a long or difficult project. Wholesome resolves are decisions that change the world for better, even in incremental ways. The two questions I’ve learned to ask when I’m wondering whether or not to start a project or jump in with a piece of advice, is “Will this help the overall situation?” and “Am I the person to do this?”
Yet, as the Yajnavalkya Samhita says, all of these methods for following the thread of dharma only really work when you’re in touch with your Self, the inner awareness/being/joy that is the true measure of dharma. When people asked Swami Muktananda how to find their swadharma, their life-calling, he’d always say, “Your real swadharma is to know the truth of your inner being.”
Sometimes his answer seemed to beg the questions we wanted answered, those burning life-questions like “Should I marry this person?” or “Should I go to graduate school or take a job?” Only later, after years of meditation and self-inquiry brought me into the kind of relationship with my own heart that couldn’t be overturned by a bad day or a difficult decision, did I come to understand what a good piece of advice he was giving us. The awareness that comes when we steadily turn into the “I am” beyond all our transient I’s, is the only infallible guide to all questions of dharma.
My mind will often hesitate between one course of action or another, wondering whether an impulse comes from my authentic self or from some hidden sub-set of the ego. But that awareness that knows and contains both authenticity and falsehood, the awareness that has always been present but that practice and attention have brought forth—that awareness pulses steadily with a wisdom that always Knows. The key to your swadharma, the secret that will let you live the life you’re meant to live, is always found when you tune yourself to the rhythm of your own inner Heart.
|Sally Kempton, formerly known as Swami Durgananda, is recognized as a powerful meditation guide and as a spiritual teacher who integrates yogic philosophy with daily life. She is the author of the best-selling book Meditation for the Love of It, and writes the popular Wisdom column for Yoga Journal. She is a teacher in the tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, conducts workshops and retreats on its applied philosophy, and is also a core founder and faculty of iEvolve: Center for World Spirituality. You can find Sally’s personal website at www.SallyKempton.com|
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