I recently went to lunch with a friend I’ll call Carol. After chatting for over an hour I told her it was time for me to go because I needed to finish my weekly blog post. She immediately asked me, “So what happens if you don’t?” In other words, does it really matter that every week I spend a great deal of my time and effort writing and publishing articles here on SMART Living 365? Remember, I don’t get paid by writing this blog (other than the sale of my books). So why bother?
The simplified answer is that writing, and what I do with it for now, matters to me and I believe it is my purpose—or you could even call it my dharma. That in itself is more than reward enough. Serendipitously, a few days later I listened to a podcast that further explained how living our “dharma,” offers each of us a path to a meaningful, gratifying and on purpose life. From there I was reminded that whatever unique dharma we have, it’s best not to wait for retirement, or anything else, before finding and living it to the best of our abilities.
In case your unfamiliar with the word, dharma is a Sanskrit word from India that relates to the mythology found in the ancient text the Bhagavad Gita. Although not new to me, I only had a loose idea that dharma meant one’s personal destiny or purpose. It wasn’t until I heard it defined by a man named Stephen Cope that I could appreciate its value. Cope, a psychotherapist, author, and director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living in New York, writes and speaks about the many relationships between Western psychological paradigms and Eastern traditions.
While the symbolism found in the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita is fascinating, what caught my interest the most was hearing Cope explain how dharma is as relatable today to us in the West as it was meant when originally written over 2,000 years ago. While the idea of purpose is a part of it, it can also be described as acting from our sacred duty or our true self. Getting in touch with our unique dharma on a mental, emotional and spiritual level is a gateway to living a life of purpose and fulfilment—regardless of our age. And according to Cope, our dharma is a fluid experience that changes as we change. But always, it exists to point the way to the life we came here to live.
Like a few of the books I’ve read on finding our purpose, there are certain things we can each do to discover our dharma. Cope recommends that we:
- Ask yourself “what lights me up?” What is it that grabs your interest and won’t let go? What would you do even if you didn’t get paid for it? What is a theme that has played out over and over in your life and seems to matter?
- Uncover your personal “gifts” or talents. Cope says most of us aren’t that good at recognizing our own real talents. Instead, ask close or intimate friends to tell you what they think are your gifts.
- Explore your challenges or “wounds”. It is often our limitations or perceived disabilities that hold a key to our unique and special contribution to make on this planet. Cope tells the story of Marian Woodman who, when she developed cancer, decided to use that as the focus of her writing and dharma from then on out.
- What do you feel you have a duty to bring forth? Not duty like “I have to do this because everyone thinks I should.” The duty behind dharma is not guilt-ridden. Instead, this is a responsibility you hold deep within that you know that if you don’t do it, you will regret it for the rest of your life.
- Think of the small as large. Lots of people want to imagine their purpose as something grandiose. But Cope tells stories of people, like Henry David Thoreau, who started out wanting to be a famous world-renowned author. It wasn’t until he surrendered to Walden Pond (along with a copy of the Bhagavad Gita) to explore what mattered to him deep inside that he found his true dharma—and his writing flowed from there. Even then, his real notoriety didn’t occur until after he passed and was not the fuel that created his most important work.
- Often dharma requires a sacrifice. No, this doesn’t mean you must sacrifice your family or your dog. What I think Cope is talking about is that we all have to make choices and decisions and that nearly everything is a trade-off. We can’t be and do everything—we have to choose. Excellence requires practice. Discernment is critical. In order to live our dharma, we must choose to let go of things that distract and limit us.
Of course, Cope believes there are a number of caveats to watch out for along the way. He claims the biggest obstacle seems to be doubt. Not only does that indecision often stop us in our tracks, Cope believes that most of us end up torn between our options and sit down in a lawn chair at the crossroads and forget about any movement at all. He claims the example of Robert Frost as a person who wrote deeply about the choice he made at the crossroads of his life. Anyone remember, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference?” In order to truly live our best life, we must make a choice, move beyond the doubt that holds us back, and with aim and precision stay true to our dharma.
Another caveat is the idea of romanticizing our purpose. Cope explains how many people think that finding their purpose means that they have to chuck their boring job and move to Paris to be a painter. Instead, Cope suggests that we find out how we can bring our best and deepest selves to whatever work is in front of us. Of course, that may mean that we leave a dull and soul-sucking job for something near and dear to our hearts, but maybe not. It may mean that we find a job for less money and one that offers more time to pursue our passions. But more importantly, it doesn’t mean drowning ourselves in escapism. Cope seems to believe that our deepest souls are constantly seeking ways to express our unique selves at any age or stage.
Also of value are what are knowns as the Four Pillars of Dharma. Cope teaches that the following guidelines are a necessary part of fulfilling our dharma. They are:
- Look to your dharma. In other words, strive constantly to make it a focal point in whatever you are doing. Again, precision and aim are essential.
- Do it full out. Action is critical to dharma. But don’t just start something, give it your all. Practice. Practice.
- Let go of the fruits. In other words, refuse to be attached to the outcome. If we stay attached to how it looks to others, whether others like it, whether we get paid for it, or if others approve of it, we dilute the power of our dharma. Trust and be true to your true nature. Do it for the simple reason that it brings you fulfillment and you believe it adds value to the greater whole.
- Turn it over to something greater than yourself. Whether you call it nature, Krishna, Buddha, Mother Mary or whatever, recognize that your place in the Universe needs your piece of the puzzle to continue and be unified.
What makes Cope’s approach so rewarding, for me at least as a writer, is that he has interviewed and studied dozens of different people through the years that drew inspiration from the ideas behind the Bhagavad Gita and its concept of dharma. A few of his examples come from Walt Whitman, Susan B. Anthony, Beethoven, and Mohandas Gandhi besides the others I mentioned above. I found the stories Cope tells about the challenges they faced, especially their self-doubt, to be very powerful and inspiring. Each of them, unique in their own way (as we all are) gave their gift to the world. Still, as Cope points out, it is better to fail at our own dharma than to succeed at someone else’s.
You may be surprised to learn that I haven’t yet read Stephen Cope’s book, The Great Work of Your Life—A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling where he fully covers these profound ideas. But as Cope recommends, it’s SMART to begin with “what lights you up.” For that reason, I have a copy of the book on order after just listening to several free podcasts online. If the idea of living your true self “lights you up,” and you want to be inspired, it may be SMART to start seeking your dharma and then to do your best to live it full-out.
Okay, your turn. What lights you up? What are your talents? What do you do on a regular basis whether you get paid or not? What’s excuse do you give to keep from living your dharma? Please share in the comments below.