When life hands you a difficult decision, try asking yourself, “What is my dharma?”
First published in Yoga Journal
One June morning in 2003, I took my seat on an airplane next to man with a powerful face and beautifully pressed clothes. We began talking, and soon he was telling me about the dilemma he faced: A bunch of people in the Democratic Party wanted him to run for president and he didn’t know whether it was the right thing to do. He’d been a career soldier, and pretty well done the commander thing. He liked private life. But some part of him felt that, given the way things were going in the country, maybe it was his duty to try and lead. The problem, he told me, is that when you put yourself into a fight like that, your opponents do whatever they can to destroy you. He wasn’t sure he wanted to subject himself to all that.
When the flight was over, and he gave me his card, I discovered that I’d been sitting next to General Wesley Clark. I was struck by how much his life-path crisis mirrored the one immortalized in the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjuna is faced with having to fight against his own kinsmen in a world war. It was in response to a dilemma much like Clark’s that Krishna gave Arjuna a teaching that has literally rung down through the centuries: “Better your own dharma—your personal duty—even if unsuccessful, than the dharma of another done perfectly.” (BG III-35)
As it turned out, Clark did follow his warrior’s dharma. He got into the fight, and as we can all now see, it played out unsuccessfully. Perhaps he wished afterwards that he had listened to his doubts. My hope is that he felt good about what was in fact a courageous act of personal dharma, regardless of the outcome. After all, the question “What is my dharma—the right thing for me to do—in this situation?” is not the same as the question “What will be to my advantage?” or “What will work?”
Before we go any further, let me clarify what I mean by dharma. Dharma is one of those big, context-dependent Sanskrit words that has several meanings. Buddhists often use the word as a synonym for Buddhism itself. But when the classical Indian texts like the Bhagavad Gita speak of dharma, they USUALLY mean right action. “What is my dharma?” is shorthand for “What is my responsibility as a mature, ethical individual—my responsibility to others, my responsibility to myself, my responsibility to life?” Not only “What is the morally and ethically correct choice?” But also, “Given my nature, my skills and talents, and my personal preferences, what the best way for me to support the greater good now?”
The challenge, however, is that it can be notoriously difficult to figure out what our dharma is at a given moment. Even when the right thing to do is obvious, we aren’t always the right person to do it. If I can’t swim, it may be in everyone’s best interest for me not to jump into the river to try to save a drowning child. (Seeing me and assuming I could help, a better swimmer might not jump in; or I might end up needing saving myself.) So the dharmic action for you at a given moment may not be the right action for me. That’s what makes the contemplation of personal dharma so vital.
Suppose you’re Judy, a social activist married to a fellow aid worker and living in Zambia. She’s deeply committed to her work, and she can’t imagine doing anything else with her life. Then she gets pregnant. She doesn’t want to raise a child in a war zone. She doesn’t want to leave the people she’s helping in Africa. She doesn’t want to have an abortion. What is her dharma in that situation?
Or, imagine that you’re Darren, who was recently offered a grant that will allow him the time he needs to finish his novel, but just found out that the grant’s corporate sponsor is a pharmaceutical company known for price-gouging. What should he do?
These are the kind of large and small decisions that dharma is all about.
What personal compass should Judy and Darren 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? Are there principles they can apply?
A Dharmic Blueprint
Years ago, searching for clues on the path of correct action, I came across one formula that seems to me to cover all bases. It’s a set of traditional guidelines from an Upanishadic text of India, the Yajnavalkya Samhita. Like most ancient wisdom, these prescriptions need to be interpreted to suit contemporary conditions. I offer it to you with a few adaptations of my own, and suggest that you experiment with it yourself.
The text offers criteria for figuring out your dharma in a given situation, and one overall “rule” that trumps them all. Here’s what it says:
“The sources of dharma are known to be these: the sacred texts, the practices of the good, whatever is agreeable to one’s own self, and the desire which has arisen out of wholesome resolve.” Then the passage goes on to give us a kind of dharmic 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.”
What I love about this prescription is that it is so free from absolutism. Instead of saying “Do this or that,” it gives us a method for weighing the different factors at stake in any important ethical or life-path decision. It’s basic message is, “We’re giving you the guidelines, now figure it out for yourself.”
This is Dharma 101: always begin by checking in with the wisdom of your tradition. My personal guides to dharma include the yamas and niyamas of the Yoga Sutras—non-violence, non-stealing, contentment, truthfulness and the rest; the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path (right speech, right livelihood, etcetera); some of the precepts of Taoism—(“To create without owning, to give without expecting, to fulfill without claiming”); Christ’s beatitudes, the Bhagavad Gita, and certain instructions of my teachers.
You can identify your own wisdom sources. However, if the sacred texts, and even your teacher’s instructions, are to be useful in the crunch, you need to work with them, and actually try to apply them to real life situations.
Suppose the teaching you are working with is equanimity—or as the Bhagavad Gita puts it, ‘even mindedness towards desired and undesired events.’ First, you’d spend some time thinking about what it means. You might ask yourself what the difference is between equanimity and indifference, or whether practicing equanimity means that you never feel your emotions. Once you have a sense of what the teaching means for you, you’d try to put it into action. You might spend a week applying it strictly, and notice how you feel. What thoughts or actions help you feel even-minded? What challenges your equanimity? How do you treat your own emotional ups and downs—do you tend to give into feelings, or to suppress them? What practices can you do to regain your even mindedness when you’ve lost it? You can follow this process with any one of the great wisdom teachings, remembering that it can be as valuable to notice where you ‘fail’ to practice the teaching as to see where you succeed. And as you keep practicing, you’ll begin to find that these pieces of wisdom actually surface when you need them, and help you make wise decisions on your own. For Judy, who has practiced with a Buddhist teacher for several years, the teaching that came to her rescue was ‘openness’—the idea that all situations are workable if we are simply open to them.
Rely on Good Examples
The second yardstick for right action, “the practices of the good” invites us to channel the discernment we’ve received, often unconsciously, from observing people who consistently make elevated moral and ethical choices. This is the basic, “What would Martin Luther King do?” (For MLK, you can substitute your Polish grandmother, or the tenth grade teacher who spent her after-school hours helping failing kids.) Or, you can think of the greats in your own field. In thinking through his situation, Darren looked at the examples of great artists of the past, artists whose work was supported by kings and even dictators, and who were driven by the power of their muse to create no matter what the cost. Judy thought of great political activists like Dorothy Day, and of saints like Sarada Devi, the wife of the great saint Ramakrishna, who took care of a mentally unbalanced niece for years, and managed also to be a spiritual teacher to everyone who came to her. As she looked at their lives, she realized that wherever she chose to make her home, she could find work that would satisfy her desire to help society.
See If It Feels Right
The third criteria—“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.
However, feeling “wrong” about a course of action can be hard to distinguish from the resistance that comes up when you’re asked to try something new and challenging. In the same way, feeling “right” can be hard to distinguish from greed or ambition or laziness, or from wanting something so badly that you’ll overlook the warnings from your inner dharma meter.
One way to handle this is to get quiet and ask yourself, “If I did know the right thing to do, what would it be?” Then, when the answer comes up (which it will, believe me), do it. But give yourself permission to re-evaluate your choice in a few weeks, or months, whatever is appropriate. The great blues singer Bessie Smith once sang, “Once ain’t for always, two ain’t but twice.” It’s a great point to remember about dharma. Sometimes, the choice we make based on our best instincts and information turns out to be wrong. Or perhaps the circumstances change. And when that happens, you don’t get points taken off if you change your mind.
That’s what Darren, the novelist with the dicey corporate sponsor, did. He took the grant–after deeply contemplating his own artistic calling, and deciding that he had to take this opportunity to write the book that was bursting to come forth. He reasoned that supporting artists was actually a worthy use of corporate money, and that he was putting the money to good use. Eight months later, after reading a series of articles about how “his” company declined to lower prices on AIDs medicines for poor countries, he stopped feeling right about living off their money. He gave back what was left of it, and got a part-time job. Yet the time the grant had given him had allowed him to get such a good start on the novel that he was actually able to get a small advance. Darren feels fine about both his decisions. As often happens with decisions of dharma, he had made the best choice possible at one moment, and changed course when he received new information.
Judy decided to go home to London when her baby was born, even though a part of her felt that her help was needed in the Zambian bush. “But the truth is, having a newborn was so stressful,” she says, “that I felt I needed some measure of physical comfort and security both for me and for her.” Three years later, she still wonders whether she made the right choice, though she also realizes that there will be time for her to go back to Africa when her daughter is older. It was the fourth of the yardsticks for dharma that finally helped her accept her own situation.
Do What’s Best for All
That fourth criteria—“the desire that flows from a wholesome resolve” 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 difficult project.
Judy’s “wholesome resolve” was to give her child the best possible chance to grow up healthy. In choosing between two different dharmas—her commitment to working with the people of Zambia and her commitment to her child—Judy based her choice on the realization that while other people could do her work in Zambia, no one else could bring up the child. Even when our motives are mixed, layered with ego or desire or competitiveness, when our resolve is essentially healthy or helpful, it’s probably dharmic. This is especially true when, like Judy, we find that we are literally the only person available to do some important task.
Reach for the Highest
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 my teacher 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 ignore 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.
There’s an intuitive knowing that we develop when we steadily turn towards the ‘I am’ beyond all of our transient I’s. My mind will often hesitate between one course of action or another, wondering whether an impulse has come from my authentic self or from some hidden sub-set of the ego. But when I touch the underlying Presence of the I am, it tends to rearrange the co-ordinates so that the right course of action becomes obvious. The key to your personal dharma, 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.
So, when you’re faced with decisions of dharma, whether they are big questions or small ones, try applying this final criteria. Sit down for a moment and focus on your breath, observing the flow of thoughts and emotions. When you feel a bit of space in your mind, breathe into that space, and ask yourself, “Which choice will take me closer to my higher Self? Which choice will give me more access to the clarity and wisdom of my true Self, my original face?” Just ask the question. Then wait, paying attention to the feeling sense that arises. When it comes, attend to it. The more you get to know it, the more it will be there to guide you, and the more you will be living your own dharma, the deep truth of your most personal, and most universal being.
Are you facing a decision that tests your sense of dharma? Try applying the five principles above. Or see how you can use the dharmic yardstick on one of the following problems:
1) It’s the morning of a workshop your company is putting on. You’re in charge of logistics, and in an hour 45 people will be showing up to register. As you step out of the shower, your daughter comes in with flushed cheeks, and a 101-degree fever. Your husband is out of town, and you can’t get the babysitter on the phone. Applying the dharmic yardstick of: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, what is the right action for you in this situation?
2) You’re a popular and gifted professor and have just been offered the job of dean of your college. You don’t see eye-to-eye with the university’s administration and dread having more contact with them, but your colleagues are begging you to take the job and improve things for them—and the job offers a major salary increase. What choice do you make?
3) Your boyfriend tells you that he’s just been asked to write a pastiche of his mentor’s brilliant but impenetrable work on developmental psychology. Writing the book will probably make your boyfriend famous in his field, but will also wreck his relationship with his teacher. How would you advise him?
© Copyright 2006. Sally Kempton/Dharana Institute. All Rights Reserved.
Date Last Modified: 8/3/06