Stephen Cope, in The Great Work of Your Life, asserts that in contemporary times we have all been misled into believing anything is possible. “You cannot do anything you set your mind to,” he declares.
In The Bhagavad Gita, which was written around the fifth century BCE, Krishna states, “You can only expect a fulfilling life if you dedicate yourself to finding out who you are.”
Who am I?
With ever-increasing to-do lists demanding your attention, it’s easy to lose touch with the sacred nature of your own existence.
Krishna explains, “Our bodies are known to end, but the embodied self is enduring, indestructible and immeasurable.” He urges Arjuna, the princely warrior, to perform his personal sacred duty — his sva-dharma — and rise up, fight the battle. This symbolic reference is not meant as an act of violence; it demonstrates the courageous spirit and faith in the inner self that is required to answer the call and live your soul’s purpose.
You can consider the battlefield as the ground of steadfast resolve in the face of negative thoughts, self-doubt or fear of failure with pure intentions, aligning and harmonising your life to answer the dharma call.
Your dharma is your higher responsibilities; those actions that are right for you when performed with effortless focus, immense inner satisfaction, passion, dedication and present-moment awareness. Aligned with your spirit, when you find something that utilises all of you in this way, you begin to let go of the outcomes and do whatever is required without personally attaching to it. The inner fulfilment transcends ego, rewards, success or failures.
Dharma is that feeling of losing yourself in your work; yet, actually, it is finding yourself through peace that the right kind of work brings you.
Dr Shaun Matthews, a holistic doctor, Ayurveda healer and yoga therapist (ayurvedichealing.com.au), talks of Ghandi, who defines dharma as ahimsa: the path of non-violence. In turn, Ghandi also defined ahimsa as love.
Matthews explains dharma as “finding where your individual thread fits into the overall tapestry of life”. He says, “The tapestry is only as important as the threads; there’s a fundamental relationship.”
This analogy echoes Indra’s net in Vedic mythology: each of us is a jewel reflecting all other jewels, interconnecting the net — the whole universe. Matthews says, “When you start to align with your dharma, your prana [life force] becomes very strong and it’s hard to get sick. Your immune system functions really well because it’s so aligned. It takes a lot of courage, but ultimately it brings enormous satisfaction and peace of mind along the way.
“Although, you’ll be tested,” Matthews continues. Dharma takes determination, selfless service, practice and courage.
Everyone’s gifts are valid and they all piece together to hold up the inner world order. Each of us has a part to play. Finding out what that role is and living it is part of your sacred journey.
In Vedic wisdom, life has four aims:
- Dharma: your duty through meaningful work
- Artha: acquisition of wealth for material security
- Kama: emotional and sensual enjoyment
- Moksha: liberation
Some amount of artha is required in order to have the resources to pursue your dharma. Kama provides balance in your life and moksha offers the opportunity for non-grasping, to live yogic principles and let go. Cope says, “At the end of life, most of us will find that we have felt most filled up by the challenges and successful struggles for mastery, creativity and full expression of our dharma in the world.”
Hearing the call
Your dharma call nudges or niggles at you, softly whispering or causing peaks of dissatisfaction with your circumstances to drive you to rise up and fulfil your sacred duty. If you quiet the mind, follow your intuition and seek what moves you, you will know. Krishna advises, “It is better to fail at your own dharma than to succeed at the dharma of someone else.” Your life is an opportunity to know yourself and discover your gifts, where they can be best used, practised and nurtured for the benefit of the whole.
The great work of your life
In The Great Work of Your Life, Cope writes about The Bhagavad Gita against a backdrop of historical and modern lives. Each example demonstrates the spiritual path that is the essence of dharma. One person we learn from is Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden as well as a philosopher, poet and student of The Gita. Thoreau said, “It is fearless living out of your own essential nature that connects you to the Divine.”
Cope notes that Jane Goodall — the English primatologist, known for her extraordinary work with chimpanzees — had a direct path to dharma through the loving support of her mother; her gifts were “named, celebrated, cherished and nurtured”. Goodall also says, “I have been able to tap into a spiritual power that is always there, providing strength and courage if only we reach out.”
Cope cites another example, Susan B Anthony, a 19th-century champion of women’s rights. Anthony named her dharma and claimed her calling, saying, “I must concentrate all of my energies on the enfranchisement of my own sex.” Her dharma took immense courage, demonstrating the central teachings of The Gita.
“When a person is devoted in complete faith,” says Krishna, “I unify his faith in that form … he gains the object of devotion. In this way, every desire is fulfilled by me.”
In identifying your own dharma, it may help to hear from your peers: Australians living their dharma and recounting how they answered its call.
Stephanie Kelly (dragonflytherapies.com.au) is a graphic designer, reflexologist and yoga teacher. When all her friends were busy having kids, she felt she “needed to find ways to expand her life”.
It was by creating a soul collage with a counsellor that reflexology was revealed. “For me, reflexology is one of the most restorative, healing practices and people switch off really quickly to get out of their heads and into their bodies … I see it as a realign[ment] with your true nature.”
Kelly is now on the brink of a new dharma, an exploration deeper into yoga therapy. She is open to the call of the moment, the dharma of what is to be. “I feel like I’m blossoming the female energy later in life, acknowledging and allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help,” she says. “Seeds may lay dormant for many years as to your purpose, but when they are unearthed there is powerful growth and a new determined energy that springs from within.”
Matthews says life for him has simply been about “joining the dots”. After his medical studies, he worked as a volunteer doctor with the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamasala, India. He felt so at home in India that he went back and studied Ayurvedic medicine for foreign doctors in Gujarat.
He then began teaching Ayurveda out of his living room in Bondi and later developed a three-year Ayurvedic course for Nature Care College. Matthews says his life is uncompromising: “One thing leads to another and I just trust that. The intuitive dimension supports my dharma incredibly.”
Dharma can call in dramatic ways. At one stage Matthews got really sick with an ulcerative bowel. “I was the healthiest person I knew, I loved my work, I had this exciting relationship and I was sick with chronic pain,” he says. “I felt ripped off.” He did a lot of healing work on the spiritual plane and says it was “karma [cause and effect] that came from parents and grandparents held in the gut”. This became “an initiation as a healer to heal my own deep-seated illness”.
Matthews’ exploration took a few years and led to his first book, Journeys in Healing. He had a Vedic astrology reading with Hart DeFouw, who said to him, “If writing is in your [birth]chart, not to write is not to fulfil your dharma.” Matthews’ second book on Ayurvedic living will be available later in 2015.
Before becoming a mother, Kane poured everything she had into primary school teaching. As a baby, her son was plagued with ongoing rashes and Kane discovered through kinesiology that the source of the problem was her own sugar addiction affecting her breast milk.
“He had a yeast infection,” she explains. “I went into a lot of denial but then got into gut health and fermented foods and his rashes never came back.” From that point, her dharma changed. “I came out of the fog and started to see more clearly … You can only really help others if you get it and know what it’s like to have that addiction,” she reflects.
Kane broke free from sugar and eventually grew a new business from her research and passion to improve her son’s health. Pink Farm (pinkfarm.com.au), created by Kane in partnership with her friend Tanya, is thriving, along with her son. She runs workshops called Healthy Eating Simplified, which is “a broad workshop that looks at healthy fat, sugar and real food principles”.
Richards (*not his real name) is completely aligned in his career as a senior accountant, appearing content and engrossed yet maintaining work-life balance. He initially excelled in information technology but was fascinated with accounting and drawn to its challenges.
He explains his passion: “People who have creative minds and great ideas often don’t have the business goals to achieve financial success … Some people are struggling financially and I help turn their path around.”
When asked how he found his dharma, Richards says, “My economist teacher’s enthusiasm was my initial spark. Seeing where accounting turned my lights on for me I knew that’s where I fit; it’s where I sat most comfortably.”
“All true vocation arises in the stream of love that flows between the individual soul and the divine soul. All true dharma is a movement of the soul back to its Ground.” ~ Stephen Cope
To reach fulfilment and freedom, Krishna says, “Make every action a sacrifice, utterly free of personal attachment.” He urges, “Anyone who has sincere belief and devotion and takes control of his or her senses will rise to this wisdom, which in turn leads to the realisation of profound peace.”
Your harmony, your expression through dharma, has wider meaning to the whole. You’re a jewel in Indra’s net, upholding the worldly and other-worldly affairs.
So what is your dharma? Is it like Thoreau’s, whose true dharma awakened only after abandoning failed attempts to fit into the literary scene? Thoreau let go, went to Walden Park and found his call, creating a masterpiece upon the realisation to “be humbly who you are”.
Or is yours more like that of Harriet Tubman, the fugitive slave referred to in Cope’s book who rescued large numbers of slaves in the American South between 1850 and 1860? Tubman put aside doubt and indecision — which can be central aspects of “call” stories — and, as Cope explains, “learnt to walk by faith and not by sight”.
Could your karma reflect the genius of Beethoven who, within a tortured life, completely surrendered to the craft? If it is, can you choose not to suffer through the difficulties? Your dharma may mirror others or may not; yet it is entirely unique, born out of your own gifts and individual circumstances for your own contribution to the world.
And where does the creative spark come from? In The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says, “You are not the doer … Nature drives all actions, either sattvic [pure], rajasic [passionate] or tamasic [heavy], so perform them and surrender them to me.” When you surrender your efforts, allowing yourself to be a vessel for Spirit regardless of the success or failure, you feel most fulfilled in your dharmic role.
Perhaps it isn’t finding your dharma that you’re seeking to achieve. Perhaps the questions to ask are, “Will I embrace it?” and “Will I have the courage to follow it?” Dharma changes, evolves and grows as you do, and your understanding of your own sva-dharma can deepen with time.
Do what’s required: create a soul collage or have your birth chart read, answer a need, see where you fit, follow your intuition, “join the dots” and, in the process, “know who you are”. You might just be amazed at the brilliance waiting that is the art of your life. Be fearless, be “humbly who you are”, be courageous and embrace the unknown.