A Theory on Dharma
- Reed Nelson
- 10 Oct, 2020
Similar to my post on the Psychology of Love, this one is based primarily on a book: The Great Work of Your Life1. I happened upon this book because it’s required reading for a Yoga Instructor Advanced Certification program, which I recently came in proximity to.
Finding and fulfilling your purpose (your dharma) is an active, continuous process. It’s not a simple matter of finding out “why you’re here”, and being content with this passive sort of meaning. To satisfy your dharma is not just about finding an explanation for your existence, it’s a guide for living to your fullest potential, and feeling the deep satisfaction that comes with that. In this post we discuss the features of dharma, and a guide for living it.
What is Dharma?
There’s a lot of murkiness around the concept of dharma because it has such a broad and abstract meaning, and different variations on that meaning are important to different denominations of major religions that have been around for ages. In Buddhism, dharma is one of the three jewels that pave the path to enlightenment, and in Hinduism, it’s one of the four main philosophical principles. For our purposes, dharma is your individual purpose in life; what fulfills you most; your path, vocation, sacred duty.
Each person’s dharma is unique to them. Plumber Claire and Plumber Dave may both have found their place, fulfilled in their trade, but dharma is wholly personalized. The personal idiosyncrasies make all the difference. Nobody else can be you, and you will not be satisfied if you try to be anyone else. The thought is that every base will be covered if everyone acts on their calling2. As in, you wouldn’t run into issues where nobody’s dharma is to be a physician, or a firefighter.
One cannot get a new dharma, but a dharma can change over time. Perhaps the firefighter finds a new calling in bartending. Furthermore, one’s greatest responsibility in life is to their dharma, to embody it completely. We are happy and prosperous when we are on the right path.
Speaking of the right path, your dharma is predetermined, it’s a path set for your soul by universal laws. It’s not that your dharma is defined to be what will most fulfill you, but conversely, what will most fulfill you will be your dharma. If you find this point particularly disagreeable, perhaps keep it in your mind but don’t get hung up on it.
A consequence of this fixed path is that you can’t be whatever you want. That doesn’t sound as nice as the more conventional idea in America that you can be whatever you want, but perhaps it is more accurate.
Many make the mistake of thinking that to live their dharma they need to make some radical changes to their life—to drop everything and move to France to paint. But actually, most people are already living close to their dharma. Alas, dharma is neither Horseshoes nor hand grenades. To live close to your dharma but not in it is to lack the sense of purpose altogether.
Magnitude is another dimension of dharma: you must not aim too high or too low. Aim too high, and you’ll never find satisfaction and feel like a failure. We can’t all be olympians in our favorite sport. Aim too low, and you won’t be living up to your potential. Comparing oneself to others is a recipe for failure. To reiterate, your dharma is yours alone.
Furthermore, your dharma requires all of you. You might have to cut out lesser hobbies and interests in order to satisfy your one true passion. Depth > breadth.
Walking the Path
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives
Committing yourself to your dharma involves rejecting that which would pull you out of it. On the day to day scale, these are small bouts of laziness, and distractions like Netflix, TikTok, etc. But there’s a larger scale element too: now and again you’ll come upon opportunities that might, in one way or another, hinder your ability to execute on your dharma. A teacher offered a job as dean, an engineer offered the job of project manager. Finding and sticking to the path of your dharma may require extreme action, sacrifice, or leaps of faith. Sometimes it may require you to fully cut yourself off from other paths of interest.
Unify yourself under your dharma, let it define you. The book drives this idea with the example of Susan B. Anthony: Her dharma was found in being a high profile women’s rights activist. Anthony took many steps to maximize her rhetorical ability. In public, she dressed modestly and in all black. This was not her sense of fashion, rather she held the importance of her message above all else, and didn’t want to distract from it in any way. She took on a writing and speaking coach who compelled Susan to become very particular about her diet, exercise, and sleep habits. She even rejected the prospect of marriage, saying “when I am crowned with all the rights, privileges, and immunities of a citizen, I may give some consideration to this social institution; but until then I must concentrate all my energies on the enfranchisement of my own sex”. Your dharma can be consuming, but that shouldn’t cause you to shy away from it. The more you give yourself over to your dharma, the more fulfilled you will be.
Practice deliberately. Considerable research has been done regarding the development of expertise in a field3 4. There are a few requirements for optimal deliberate practice, which are pretty intuitive:
Sustained and intensive practice, as in maybe several hours a day over many years.
Practice with the specific intention of improving, and with built in measures to allow you to gauge that progress and identify future ways to improve.
Have respect for necessary recovery time so the same high intensity can be sustained for each practice.
Spend considerable time in the domain of the task. So if you’re a philosopher, that might mean vibing with other philosophers, talking about their ideas, their approaches, and yours.
Tied up in true mastery is usually a very rare, strong attention to detail and pattern recognition. Sometimes to the point that the novice or journeyman can’t recognize it even when it’s pointed out. Henry David Thorou is someone the authors consider to have lived his dharma. Not long after graduating from Harvard, he moved to New York to write next to the big dogs of his time. He was a colossal failure, and within a couple years, he moved back to Concord, MA where he grew up. Then he went to Walden Pond, somewhere he could connect with, and had everything he needed to hone his craft. The result was not just an American classic, but by the time he left, he’d classified plants and identified patterns in nature that were never before recorded.
A final and very important note on this point is that the pleasure of mastery comes with an intimate knowledge of one’s domain, not control over it. The underlying philosophical thought from the Gita here is that the whole world is inside each person and every thing, and so to know any one part of the world deeply is, in a sense, to know the whole.
Letting Go the Fruits
The pleasure is found on the path, not at the destination. Common desires and ideals are to live a labor free life, to retire into leisure, and to be famous, powerful, or wealthy. But working to these ends will not bring a sense of fulfillment. Rather, fulfillment is found on the path to, and in mastery of one’s craft. This is what it means to meet the challenge of your dharma in the world.
It’s important to have detachment from the outcome of your dharma. One should never engage in action for the sake of reward. Perform work in this world without selfish attachments, work in success and in defeat. The idea is that the mind which clings to the outcome is one which is never fully engaged in the task at hand. Rather than being totally present, this person is leaning forward into what is yet to come. They are miserable with doubt and anxiety because they’re constantly asking themself “how am I doing?”, “am I winning or losing?”.
It’s better to fail at one’s own dharma than to succeed at another’s. Do not be what you are not5.
Stephen Cope, The Great Work of Your Life (2012). The book outlines the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, which translates to “The Song of God” - It’s the most famous Hindu text. The story is a narrative of a dialogue between Arjuna, a great prince and warrior, (and babe), And Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer. Though the reader knows Krishna is a Hindu god. The story’s set on a battlefield, and for the duration of the book, Arjuna is pretty much in the middle of an existential crisis over this war he’s fighting, and Arjuna is dropping wisdom on him to help him through it. Krishna’s teachings are the Gita’s teachings. ↩
Venturing dangerously close to Capitalist mythology here. ↩