The world can be a pretty difficult place to navigate. It’s tempting to say that it’s tougher now than it has been in the past, but that’s probably not so true. People have felt bewildered by the things going on around them for eons – war, famine, disease, how to pick a good spouse – and wondered how to find the right path through all the unknowns. The concept of Dharma reflects these very issues – in particular, how we figure out what we’re doing here, on every level. Determining one’s dharma means finding one’s way, from the most minute (what do I have for dinner?) to the most profound (how can I make the world a better place?).
Brad Waites, the director of the College of Purna Yoga in Vancouver, says, “’Dharma’ is from the root dhri, which means ‘to hold’ or ‘to retain’; ‘ma’ is me. ‘Dharma’ literally translates as ‘that which holds me together’; it is an integral part of you, and you are never truly fulfilled if you do not live your dharma.” Those of us who are very lucky may have experienced this sensation – perhaps you love your job and can’t imagine doing anything else. Or maybe your volunteer work is what makes you tick. Or maybe, like a lot of us, you’re still searching.
Unraveling your dharma, says Waites, includes figuring out what to do with yourself on every level, even the most immediate. “We often think of dharma as a single grand and glorious purpose,” says Waites, “but every action from the most mundane to the most profound is of importance to the soul. Washing that carrot tonight for your dinner salad can (and should) be an expression of your dharma.” This is the dharma of the now, says Waites, which may seem trivial, but can be very much intertwined with your larger purposes.
Many people are probably familiar with “individual dharma,” which, says Waites, is “your personal life mission and may include work, relationships, talents, self-discovery, responding to circumstances and conditions in your life, and so on. The essence of individual dharma is finding the thing or things that create a sense of fulfillment and wholeness within you. Your individual dharma makes you feel more like you, from a deep, internal place.” Waites points out that individual dharma can change from time to time in your life – it’s not static. You can have several dharmas at once, as you may be a parent, a teacher, and a spouse simultaneously.
And finally, the largest-scale type of dharma is the “universal dharma,” which is all about how we fit into the big picture – and how we can collectively make it better. Waites says that “Universal dharma is participation in the group collective for the evolution of humanity… Your universal dharma is your particular role in the group collective to help move all of us forward.” This is a pretty weighty concept, obviously, but it’s something that a lot of people may wonder about. Volunteering, starting a nonprofit, or teaching meditation to kids are all ways we try to move the world forward (and there are many others). Finding which expression is the best fit with you can be an interesting challenge.
Waites reminds people to take time and care when it comes to figuring out your purpose, and urges people to look internally rather than externally, since doing the latter can lead you in the wrong direction. “The primary pitfall is a quest for dharma that starts on the outside,” he says. “This usually involves a mental analysis of what you are good at, what you like to do, what makes you happy, what makes common sense, what fits the easiest, what gives you the lifestyle you want, what creates admiration and prestige, and so forth. Your soul doesn’t care about these labels, and a mental analysis based on external circumstances will not lead you to your dharma. It may lead you to outward success, fame and fortune, but you still will not have fulfilled your dharma. This is why the world is full of people who appear to have everything and are still miserable.”
Waites’ final advice for figuring out your dharma is to keep engaging in whatever practice you choose to get in touch with yourself. This could be asana, meditation, mindfulness, journaling, talk therapy, or all of the above. “The only way to find your dharma is to develop a practice that leads you to your soul,” he says. “The only way to live your dharma is to constantly express the truth of your soul in every thought, word and deed. The only way to know if you have fulfilled your dharma is to feel your soul flowing through you. There is no easy or quick fix; it is your life, after all.”
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.