In yoga, the goal is to act in line with your dharma. While the word “dharma” is used in different ways, I like the way yogi and author Stephen Cope defines it in his book The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling. He says that dharma “refers to the peculiar and idiosyncratic qualities of each being—those very essential and particular qualities that make is somehow itself.”
Svadhyaya, self-study, can be used to uncover your dharma, your true nature, your true path. Questions to ask yourself to help uncover this path include the following: What are your gifts? What do you feel called to? What provides you with a sense of satisfaction?
Sometimes we know what our dharma is, but we are concerned about acting on it, believing it to be selfish. When we feel we are doing something just for ourselves, it is easy to put it aside. However, it is important to recognize that when we are acting in line with our true nature, doing what we feel called to do, we are bringing something valuable to the world. If we do not act, we are withholding something from others that it is within us to give.
Selfless action is best when it is in line with our true nature, not just taken in an effort to be how we think a good person should be. In Cope’s book, he talks about following a friend around through her dharmic action of caring for an elderly person. The friend listens attentively to the stories of the elderly woman she cares for, even though she has heard them many times before, and patiently cleans up after her. Cope has enormous respect for his friend’s work but knows that he could not do it. After leaving the elderly woman’s house, he observes, that his friend
…really is lit up. There are the shining eyes. She is not just making it up. She’s not just doing this out of obligation or to be a good person. She genuinely likes this stuff. Taking care of Jane would make me crazy. I would be full of resentment within half an hour, and would be fantasizing about sending her off to the nursing home within two day’s time.
Reading this made gave me a profound sense of relief. I have spent a great deal of my life feeling guilty for not wanting to do many of those good and selfless things I feel I should do. While I am not saying we should never do things we don’t want to do in order to do to assist others, it makes so much more sense, and has a more positive impact all around, when we are doing something that is in line with our own natures. Such action is more genuine and more likely to have the intended impact. Furthermore, we are more likely to stick with it and not get burnt out.
A good way of knowing whether we are acting in line with our dharma is to observe the effect certain activities have on us. When we are engaged in dharmic activity, it just seems to flow. We are not checking the time, counting down the minutes until we are done. Although the activity may be challenging, it is not depleting. Rather, it is regenerative.
Take a moment to ask yourself what you would do even if you weren’t being paid or felt obliged to do it. What activities do you find regenerative? What really lights you up?
Do you engage in this activity regularly? If not, why not? Is it because of time constraints? Do you feel like the activity is selfish? If so, can you recognize how following this dharmic path is of service to others? For example, someone who loves gardening creates beauty for others and can choose plants that can support insects, wildlife and people. Someone who loves board games can create important social connections with others. Someone who loves reading is gaining knowledge that can assist themselves and others. Anyone who acts in line with their dharma is going to be a calmer, more present, happier person and that can’t help but have a positive impact on those around them.
If you have trouble identifying what constitutes dharmic action for you, take some time in the next while to observe yourself while you are engaged in certain activities. Are you doing it out of obligation or out of love? Are you pushing to finish or are you enjoying the process? How do you feel when you are done? Energized or depleted?