“…the cessation of your pain and sorrow will depend on how well you overcome your ignorance of your True Self that lives within you.”
Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, p.11
If you have ever read the Bhagavad Gita, one of India’s most revered texts, you would have come across the word, dharma. Likewise, if you’ve ever delved into Hinduism or Vedic science, you’ve probably encountered the concept.
Dharma is an important idea in Hinduism, Buddhism, yoga, and many schools of thought in India and beyond. But what exactly does it mean? In his translation of the Bhagavad Gita, Jack Hawley calls it: “…one’s responsibility to his or her highest self.” It could also be defined as your life’s purpose or duty.
Is Dharma Relevant Today?
Dharma is just as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. Having a higher sense of purpose is associated with fewer cardiovascular problems, lower mortality, and better overall health. People with more purpose in their lives tend to make healthier lifestyle choices, get more exercise, sleep better, and are less likely to use illicit drugs. .
Richard Allison, long-term meditator and self-confessed neo-luddite has first-hand experience. “Dharma is extremely important,” he says. “Having meditated and lived a non-mechanised life for some years, I’ve realised that dharma can be described as the natural order of things, or the underlying intention of the universe as a whole. To be in accordance with your dharma also means being in alignment with the natural world.” This idea harks back to the word’s etymology: In Sanskrit, dhr means to hold or bind together.
Your dharma will be shaped by your upbringing, your religion, and even the age into which you are born, adds Allison. But in order to find it, he says, you can start by cultivating virtues such as truthfulness and compassion, two important teachings in yoga.
You might have been going to yoga classes for years and never have come across the yamas and niyamas. That’s a shame because every good yoga training course drills these concepts into trainee teachers. The yamas and niyamas are the first two practices of yoga, and they can be translated as self-regulating behaviours and personal practices.
The yamas are:
- Ahimsa (non-violence)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Brahmacharya (non-excess or right use of energy)
- Aparigraha (non-greed)
The niyamas are:
- Saucha (cleanliness or purity)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (sensory development or burning enthusiasm)
- Svadhaya (self-study)
- Isvara Pranidhana (surrender)
Simple as these concepts may sound, they can be difficult to practice well in today’s fast-paced world. Allison suggests seeking out the company of someone who embodies any one of them. “But don’t ever assume that the company you seek will be fully enlightened,” he warns.
It Probably Won’t Be Easy
Allison says that living in alignment with your dharma can be challenging. “It’s a matter of discipline,” he says. “People don’t like the word discipline, but etymologically it means putting yourself into a position where you can learn. And your dharma is not necessarily fixed. It’s about doing your best as the situations around you evolve.”
Carol Talbot understands evolving situations. Many years ago, she was a young woman growing up in the foster care system. Full of internal angst, she lashed out at her surroundings. “Causing damage resonated with me. I felt peaceful,” she says. “But as I started to get to know myself better, I began to understand different experiences and my internal landscape started to change. My actions started to resonate with my new internal landscape.”
Talbot worked on herself over the years, carrying out svadhyaya and naturally moving toward what Allison calls “living the truth.” She is now a registered mental health nurse and shamanic practitioner. And she has the presence of someone living within the natural order of things. “All aspects of my life have come together,” she says in a soft voice. “I’ve learned that when you work with the authenticity of your soul, you can’t go wrong, even if it looks wrong from the outside.”
Talbot doesn’t shy away from her past. Instead, she has integrated her ex-offender self into who she is today. And having changed so much herself, she finds herself better able to connect with patients and clients who are going through difficult times. She has found purpose in her life, and these days describes herself as: “a collection of my past and present experiences.”
Being in the Here and Now
Finding your life purpose can seem like a daunting task. For Allison, it was a gradual process. “It’s difficult to describe,” he says. “But there’s certainly a feeling to it. You get to appreciate beauty, and to be in the now rather than being caught up in the future or the past.”
The key takeaway here is that change is both gradual and constant. There will probably never be that aha! moment in your life when you suddenly realize your life’s purpose and are able to distil it down into one simple phrase. Life is nuanced, and just as our environment is forever changing, so too must we.
If you really want to find purpose in your life, you need to put the work in. But hopefully, as you explore and get to know yourself and the world better, you’ll find that it’s not work after all, but simply life. Here are some ideas
Start to Recognize Meaningful Moments
Get in the habit of stopping daily or weekly to recall the moments in which you felt aligned with something bigger than yourself. Practice this regularly, and you may find yourself noticing those moments at the time they occur rather than having to come back to them later. This awareness will naturally bring you more into the present.
Nature is a wonderful healer, and we often forget that we too are nature. Getting outside to work in the garden or simply to breathe some fresh air in the park will help you re-connect with the rest of the world.
Practice the Yamas and Niyamas
As Allison says, practicing the yamas and niyamas is important. Find a teacher whose practice resonates with you, but never forget that you are responsible for finding purpose in your life, no one else.
The word devotion has all sorts of negative connotations. But you could see a devotional practice as simply the act of devoting yourself to life. Practicing gratitude is another way of creating a devotional practice.
Just as the Bhagavad Gita says, the cessation of your pain depends on getting to know your ‘True Self.’ No one knows exactly when this great text was written, but many say it’s around 5,000 years old. It’s quite astounding then, that what those ancient thinkers said is only now being ‘proven’ by modern science.
Your life’s purpose may not be a grand thing like leading your country or writing a bestseller. And your purpose may change as you go through life. But, ancient and modern minds alike agree: finding purpose will enable you to enjoy better health generally.