Dharma is a complicated word and a complicated concept. In essence, it means “right action” but in practice, it is often used to refer to fulfilling your life’s vocational purpose. But what is your life’s purpose and how do you know if you’re doing it?
These are concepts that a lot of us struggle with. Some of us feel deeply called to a particular vocation and consider that our dharma. Others feel that caring for our families is our call and that is our dharma. For the devotee, dharma takes on a whole other meaning. For the devotee, our dharma is whatever we are called to do by our spiritual teacher, our guide and guru. When our guru isn’t in the body, it becomes more complicated…who gets to tell you what your dharma is? How do you know it when you’re doing it?
I’ve seen a lot of friends struggle with this, as I have myself, and I wanted to share a few ideas that I hope might help. For one thing, your dharma is not your vocation – it’s a way of life. It means pursing right action in whatever job is in front of you to do. It means seeing Spirit in everything and using your ever-developing skill of intuition and attunement to the Divine to guide your actions. Not in a ‘woo woo’ way with a pendulum in hand (sorry all you pendulum lovers out there). I mean in that practical, everyday way you learn through meditation.
Spiritual community is an added layer to this dharma concept. In community, there are jobs to be done and there needs to be people willing to do them. That’s one of the great strengths of spiritual community – it helps to give you a channel through which you get to work out your karma with like-minded, spiritual seekers all around to support you.
Many people come to spiritual community with their own idea of how they want to ‘serve’. They have a strong sense of their own vocational dharma and believe that it is their job to pursue that. But, that’s the thing about spiritual community – if you want to get the most out of your experience, you’ll take the opportunity to set aside your own idea of what you want to do and embrace, at least for a while, the idea that you are serving the Guru by serving in the community where you are needed. It’s an amazing, expansive opportunity…a way to get beyond your little ego and find out how to apply right action in whatever activity is asked of you.
Sounds to many like giving up part of yourself. Our society defines who we are by what we do. But, it’s not true, of course. Who we are is so much deeper, greater and more exciting than what we do for a time…not to mention, the average American changes careers like 9 times anyway. That’s a lot of false self definition.
Some people have a particular talent and feel deeply called to express it. That’s amazing and wonderful. But, pursing that talent may or may not be your ‘dharma’…in fact, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you pursue right action in anything you do. What matters is that you find yourself challenged to grow spiritually. What matters is that you are serving others and moving out of your own small self definition.
In my own life, the way I have been able to determine best whether I am doing my dharma isn’t whether it’s easy or makes me happy. It’s whether I find myself driven to improve, driven to meditate more because I know it will make me better at what I’m doing in life.
BTW – I only got to this conclusion recently. I spent a lot of time defining myself as a ‘nonprofit professional’ who cared about ‘helping people.’ There was a smug self-righteousness hidden in there…a certain sense that other people were more selfish than I was. Being let go from a job that I loved helped to shake the sense into me…humble me enough to make me take a look at my life with a new perspective.
Motherhood is dharma for me. It’s really hard and sometimes unnatural for me. That drives me to do better. That drives me to want to see my family as expressions of God and to serve them more selflessly.
My work has been that way too. I can’t help myself but try to make my workplace better, wherever I am. I can’t help but want to do a better job and I’ve discovered that the best way to do better is to meditate more. Make me a cashier, ask me to clean toilets, I will do my best to do my dharma in whatever is in front of me.
I hope we all can find fulfillment through ‘right action’ in whatever we pursue in life. May your path be full of interesting twists and turns and may you find each one an opportunity to expand and grow into a deeper expression of your true Self.