I have a history of optimal code switching, hat changes, and other chameleon-esque tricks to make myself “more” of what other people needed me to be. Whether this occured with my family, romances, and career makes no difference. There’s an acute and terrifying pressure we feel, as humans, to be enough or perfect. Part of this comes from our training at early ages, in which our parents–with probably admirable intentions–coached us to say or do certain things. For those with a religious background, this might come from moral obligations or expectations, whether stemming from commandments, parables, or other teachings. Large parts of it are socially-induced: we act out of propriety or rebellion, envy or admiration. However, I contend that most of it comes from us and the simple truth that we: a) don’t know ourselves well enough; b) never take the time to learn more about ourselves; or c) avoid following a path that might be temporarily uncomfortable for the sheer sake of staying embroiled in what we know.
If this is you, you are not alone. I’ve been there. I often find that I am still there, particularly in my teaching (both English and Yoga). I think to myself, if only I was more like ________. When not in relationship to teaching, I find that I often doubt the path I have walked this far — is it the right one? Have I made a huge mistake? Now what?
I don’t think there are simple answers. However, I do believe that the more we turn inward and lean on our heart’s truths, we are open to the opportunity to observe ourselves as participants and creators of our paths.
Enter dharma. Dharma is an important Hindu, Buddhist, and yogic concept which refers to a law that governs the universe. In order to live out our dharmas, we must act with accordance to this higher law, this manifested order, this organized influece. Side note — I’ve always been one of those individuals who believed a little bit in destiny and a little bit in free will. There’s a magic when we give up portions of our control and begin to recognize that something so much greater than us–whether a divine being, a power, or a framework full of potential–has placed us on this path. Now, what we do with that path is kind of up to us. This is where our discernment comes in, which is something for a later post.
The implication of dharma is that there is a true way for each individual to walk his or her path. As soon as we code switch, pick out new hats, or change our colors, we are acting outside of our dharma because we are giving something up about ourselves. Instead, the challenge is to walk our dharma in service of not only ourselves, but also of others. Our dharma, which is closely related to our karma (which, again, must be another post), therefore refers to our greater purpose. And, according to the Bhagavad Gita, it is far better to do poorly in walking our own dharma than it is to excel in someone else’s. Thus, if you, like me, have a history of avoiding who you are for the sake of others and their expectations, we both have permission to put a stop to that and revel in the magic of our own paths. Our feelings of joy, fulfillment, contentment, and harmony come from being in alignment with our own dharma.
But what if our dharma is not what we truly seek?
In the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita (a smaller portion of this larger text), tells the story of Arjuna. A warrior prince on the battlefield, Arjuna is faced with the difficult decision to either retreat from battle or engage the other army, which happens to be composed of his family members and kings. His sacred duty as a warrior urges him to battle, but his family loyalties lead him to doubt his dharma. Disguised as the charioteer, Lord Krishna encourages Arjuna to fulfill his dharma by engaging in the battle ahead. You see, Arjuna’s dharma is to fight for justice and protect his kingdom. If Arjuna acts in accordance with his sacred duty, he will not incur negative karma for himself as a result of operating outside of it. Arjuna, emboldened by this encouragement and Krishna’s removal of his disguise, arms himself and enters the battle with discernment and confidence in his choice.
Chances are you are not faced with a similar decision — unless you happen to be a royal warrior facing avaricious royal cousins on a battlefield with a disguised Hindu god as your charioteer. Conversely, you’ve probably found yourself between a rock and a hard place, which you saw as “wrong vs. wrong”. What if we shifted that perspective to “right vs. right”?
How do I even begin to find my dharma?
First, we must find our dharma. What is your sacred duty, your higher purpose, your truest self? When are you in integrity or goodness in your words, thoughts, actions, and convictions? What is your reason for being alive — not just living? Finally, are you existing with relationship to your own dharma, or are you walking behind someone else, hoping to catch his or her essences, and never walking your own path? Krisha advises Arjuna and other seekers when he insists that we do not lose anything by following our own dharma, but we risk fear and insecurity when in competition for someone else’s. It’s important to note that your dharma will change throughout the course of your life. For example, your dharma at 16 is far different than your dharma at 36 — and it should be! As we emerge more fully into ourselves, we redefine, refine, and reflect on our dharma, noting those special moments when we change and celebrating that shift. However, this is not enough. In order to be in complete harmony with our dharma, we must carry it out to the absolute best of our abilities.
What does it mean to “carry out my dharma fully”?
Simply put, you must carry out your dharma with total effort and insistent practice. Your focus and commitment to walking this path of authenticity and conviction leads to clear and loving harmony with yourself. If you find you often partially do, then you are not alone. The demands on your time, paired with your very active mind and very human heart, might often cause you to stumble on this path — please don’t lament this or berate yourself for it. You are delightfully and wonderfully pursuing greatness, and these hurdles are there for your greater learning. If you feel yourself pulled in so many different directions, I encourage you to ponder the following question: Am I spending my precious time chasing or participating in things that do not contribute to or fulfill my dharma? If you answered yes, it might be time to re-evaluate, reflect, and refine your habits. And then, once you find your dharma and begin acting in accordance with it, you let go of the results?
How do I let go of the results? Shouldn’t I be clinging to those?
Why would you cling to the results? Aren’t they a part of you? Once we turn over the results of our actions, as Arjuna did to Krishna, we have acknowledged not only our dharma but also our performance of it. And then, we let go of the fruits of our labor. We choose to detach from the ego of the past in favor of moving forward to our next step. You might hear stories of athletes who hold onto their glory days, or maybe you see this with your grandparents, who fervently cling to their youth. This does not stop the wheel of time from moving, and it traps them in a frustrating cycle and sense of longing. We must also, however, learn to let go of the rewards of our actions before we’ve even earned them. If you walk your dharma for the express purpose of the reward, then you are attached to an outcome and out of alignment, truly, with your dharma. Are you pursuing your journey because it is important to you or are you eager to be praised, rewarded, or heartily compensated for your efforts? If it is the latter, it might be time to readjust. Letting go of the results is perhaps the most challenging task of all.
Where do I start?
Begin by discovering what you were put on this earth, in this lifetime, with this body and heart and soul and mind, to do. Be willing to change what you’ve been doing in honor of what you should be doing. Once you take this step, you whole-heartedly move forward, even if the steps are grueling, even if you are humbled, even if it would be easier to slip back into the comfort and ease of your earlier, artificial dharma. Along the way, let go of the results. Be in the moment of your dharma. Be in the fullness of your own presence, purpose, and duty. If you discover and then follow your dharma with the compassion, grace, tenacity, and resolve it warrants, the rewards will come. Just don’t set out looking for them.