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What is Your Dharma?


The word "dharma" has multiple meanings and no single translation in the English language. In Hinduism it refers to duty, virtue and "right way of living". It is translated by some to mean your vocation or your "true calling". For many of us, finding our "true calling" is a lifetime journey. I recently finished reading Stephen Cope's book, "The Great Work of Your Life" (A guide for the journey to your true calling), which parallels Krishna's mentoring of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita with the life's work of both ordinary people and famous luminaries such as Jane Goodall, Walt Whitman, Harriet Tubman and Gandhi to help the reader find and embrace their true calling. This has been a timely book for me. I purchased it as a gift to myself while finishing my 300-hour training in Integrative Yoga Therapy at Kripalu this summer. I have been questioning my own dharma over the past few years and this book spoke to me when I saw it in the book shop. I was actually sitting in the Kripalu coffee shop at a table next to Stephen Cope while a young woman was interviewing him, and I figured this was a sign that I needed to buy this book.

For a long time I have been questioning, "How can I relieve the world of suffering? What is my role in life?" In the book, Cope says, "Dharma saves us not by ending but rather by redeeming our suffering. It gives meaning to our suffering. It enables us to bear our suffering. And, most important, it enables our suffering to bear fruit for the world."

When I was a young college student full of ambition and idealism, I thought I would change the world. That I would somehow use my own talent, intelligence and personal resources to make a difference, although I was unsure how....As I got older this unfolded for a short time in the world of folk music and dance traditions. I was able to form a non-profit that educated the community about the folk traditions of other cultures. As a friend said to me recently, "I believe the way to bridge understanding between cultures and religions is through the arts." I, too, believed this. Through the World Music Folklife Center, we were able to do this in some small way. We were also able to raise money for charities that supported Romani people, the native people of Darfur as well as Search for Common Ground, an organization based in DC that works to find peaceful solutions to conflict around the world. After my divorce, when I had to part ways with this organization I had helped create, I floundered - for years - struggling just to make ends meet and wondering - How can I help others when I cannot even help myself?

In fact, I still struggle with this. My suffering is seeing others suffer and feeling so utterly powerless to do anything meaningful in the world to make a difference. As far as I can tell, my "dharma" is simply to keep on doing what I'm doing - to offer guidance through the teachings of yoga - which connect us to our higher source. When we are truly connected with our highest selves, we see our connection to all living beings and we cannot commit acts of violence against them. To do so, is to commit acts of violence against ourselves. The practice of yoga teaches us how to live, and in so doing, helps us to connect with and follow our dharma. The yamas - part of the 8 limbs of yoga offer us a map of how to live life, that, if followed, can help us live our dharma and also become better human beings. When we follow the true teachings of yoga, we strive everyday above all to practice ahimsa - non-violence - to ourselves and to others. When we practice satya, we must be truthful with ourselves and each other. If we truly practice asteya, not only are we "not stealing from others", but we must work towards social justice and ending oppression for all. By practicing brahmacharya and aparigraha, we learn to conserve our energy for spiritual practice and to not take more than we need. In so doing, we help to restore balance in our world and for our environment.

I think we often have ideas that our dharma must be something extraordinary. Cope states, "Through studying the many extraordinary lives that appear in these pages, I have come to see that our understanding of dharma today is obscured by our fondness for the cult of personality and for self and for celebrity. Our understanding of dharma is obscured by the narcissism of our time. Studying the lives of great exemplars of dharma has helped me to see that the primary distortion in my dharma life has been the age-old misery of self-absorption. Deep in midlife I had begun to feel the awful burden of wanting to be special; wanting to be better; wanting to experience every possible adventure in this life; wanting to be, as we have sometimes said at Kripalu, an "expanded self." I can relate to this and will add that poverty can be an incredibly humbling life experience in one's search for dharma. When you are stripped down to the bare essentials and your daily existence becomes struggling for survival, dharma becomes a simple prayer between you and the Divine, Great Mystery - your higher self or whatever you choose to call it. "Make me a vessel. Move through me. However great or small the act. I am here to serve and I trust that my needs will be met." This is faith.

Cope goes on to quote Thomas Merton, "...we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves. It is, therefore, a very great thing to be little, which is to say: to be ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are."

And this is key - in finding and following our own dharma, we must not fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with others. Ultimately, I am the only Shining Waters who can BE Shining Waters and fulfill her duty in this lifetime. You are the only one who can be You and live your journey in this life. Living our dharma does not mean life will be easy. Of all the examples that Stephen Cope gives of dharma truly embraced and lived, Harriet Tubman's speaks to me the most, as she has always been an inspiration for me on life's journey. Cope says, "Tubman struggled to make ends meet until the end of her life. She was never compensated for her war service (an American scandal that has never been repaired). She gave away everything she had. None of the obstacles she faced ever stopped her for long. She just kept moving forward. She always remembered her refrain on the Underground Railroad: "If you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going." There is something to be said for that: Just keep moving forward....I still struggle with seeing others suffer and feeling incapacitated to help, but if I can help one person connect with the infinite, to see beauty in a grasshopper or a tadpole, then this is my dharma. And that may be all I can accomplish in this life. And that is enough. Or as Mary Oliver wrote: "My work is loving the world. Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird - equal seekers of sweetness. Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums. Here the clam deep in the speckled sand. Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished. The phoebe, the delphinium. The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture. Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here, Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever."


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