Embracing Dharma

Since Heartwood closed on March 16 due to Coronavirus, the center has been very peaceful and quiet. David and I are getting along fine, applying ourselves to projects and study we’ve long wanted to attend to, but I must say, the dog, doesn’t like this sabbatical one bit. He misses his job of greeting people, walking with them around the property ever alert and ready to pounce on diabolical squirrels and lizards, or laying at the feet of someone meditating when he senses they need a friend. Like everyone else who is currently out of work, his identity is shaken, and he misses his job. He’s clingy, lethargic and downright bored. He hovers so close I keep tripping over him when I’m outside, even though I ruffle his hair and assure him that this too will pass.  

Our work, like all the roles we play in life (parent, spouse, sibling, friend) defines us in so many ways. Not becoming attached to temporary identities is difficult.  We are naturally devoted to our role when we are parenting, but kids grow up and become self-sufficient and as result we suffer the loss of our purpose (the empty nest syndrome). People spend years craving retirement only to find they don’t know what to do with themselves when they are finally relieved from their job. It’s nice sleeping in and not having to deal with management or a commute, but the feeling that you are replaceable or that you no longer contribute something valuable to society makes filling your day with leisure activities seem frivolous and way less satisfying than you imagined. During the enforced pause of our normal activity due to a pandemic, I’ve heard more than one-person comment that just because there is a virus harming older or high risk populations, it’s unfair to expect them to stop living their life. This self-serving view is yet another sign of how people identify with the roles they play instead of understanding the deeper meaning of “Self” as a spiritual energy that is present and permanent in us all.  Staying home is not about the needs of “others” cramping your style. There are no “others” if we are all connected.

The study of Dharma in yoga teaches us that our path unfolds on several levels. Dharma is the law of the universe, and there is much more to it than the common interpretation that Dharma is a choice for mankind to make about what he or she is meant to do for a living to be personally fulfilled.   We align with our dharma when we live in harmony with the earth or protect society recognizing that all things are connected, and it is our “duty” to honor and protect the earth and all creatures on it. Bhagavat Dharma, is fulfilling our spiritual duty and living a life devoted to something much bigger than ourselves and our petty little desires. Our entire life is meant to be devoted to much more than our personal roles, identities and personal dreams.

Svadharma is a different level of Dharma, our personal duty, which changes as we evolve. Roles like parenting or contributing to society through work are a part of our Dharma from ages 18-65, but as we grow older, our Dharma evolves from less worldly pursuits towards spiritual advancement. We don’t all achieve true wisdom as we age, but we are meant to. We are meant to have a purpose and to contribute at all stages of life, whether we are aiding society by earning, providing, or assisting family, friends, employees or strangers, or in later years through sharing the wisdom and material wealth we have gained, all of which is meant to be offered back to the world as we mature. What we are not meant to do is work hard in early years for the goal of funding a leisure, selfish life later, feeling entitled because we “earned it ”.  

Adharma is living out of accordance with natural law. This is when a parent does not meet the demands of protecting or providing for their children or family members during the years they are meant to do so. It is when people choose not to work and contribute to society for personal and selfish reasons and instead are a drain on others. It is when we abuse our role, such as being a leader, and making choices for personal gain rather than public good. It is doing our work resentfully for a superficial purpose- money, rather than as an act of service to others. We must recognize that our karma is directly related to our dharma and every act of sacrifice or effort for the greater good rather than self-serving interest is how we live in grace and connect to the divine.

There was a time in my past when I lived with someone who spent more time trying to avoid work than the average person spends showing up to do their part for family and society. The reasons given was, “I don’t want waste my life by working. I want to really LIVE!”

At a time when this choice affected me, the constant push and pull between our interpretation of “work” was torture. Constantly faced with the “I Deserve a Life!” mentality made it very difficult to meet responsibilities or adhere to the natural duty to care for a family and contribute to society. Worse was the guilt I felt. I was accused of being a workaholic and the one who stood in the way of loved ones living the life of their design. My expectation that everyone should contribute was seen as my not allowing them to be their true selves – as if we can only be true to ourselves by turning our back on others.

For years, I pondered what was wrong with me and my relationship with work. When life was particularly difficult, I questioned if I had it all wrong.  The “I Deserve a Life!” mentality made sense too, on some level. I was tired and didn’t exactly feel fulfilled, buried in the worry of paying bills, doing laundry and generating revenue since if I didn’t do this, no one would. Did these people know some secret to happiness and the easy life that evaded me? They didn’t have to deal with the stress and drama of being productive or caring for the needs of others, because they simply chose not to. They put their own happiness at the forefront of every decision. Would I be happier if I did the same?

I listened to more than one long diatribe about the strength it takes for a person to “follow their heart” and not give in to society’s expectations.  And sure enough, these free spirits kept falling into situations where their own needs were provided for by “the universe”, be it because they bankrupted debt, started lawsuits, filed insurance claims for payouts, took advantage of social services, or finding some other a way to live off the tole of others who chose to care for their needs because true love involves sacrificing for others. (been there and did that) . All of this further supported the self-server’s belief that living a life devoted to their personal wishes and dreams was the “right path” because the universe supported their lifestyle.

Was I a dupe, killing myself with all this hard work and sacrifice for nothing? Did they have it all right?

Then my studies of yoga deepened to the subject of Dharma and everything came into perspective.

To work hard and sacrifice IS to live your best life. Not only is the sense of accomplishment lovely, but knowing you made a difference in the world and truly impacted others through your service is the yoga definition of a life well lived. Service is how we enrich our karma and settle the spirit. the more I contemplated my dharma the more I noticed how deeply fulfilled and happy I am, even though I work harder than many other people.  

I no longer buy into the idea that living the good life is being able to sleep in, go where you want when you want, and not having to answer to anyone or anything as you pursue your own interests and desires. I love gardening, being creative, reading, and taking walks. But the preciousness of this down time is made more poignant because I understand these endeavors are not the end but the means – they fuel my energy and health so I can be of greater service to others when I am at “work”. The idea that being free of responsibility is the good life is an illusion. Such self-serving is said to be rooted in selfishness, fear, laziness, and ego, a big basket of the Kleshas (which in yoga, is the definition of the obstacles to true enlightenment.) Those who maneuver their way out of work and get by may think the universe is providing, but according to the wisdom teachings, everyone has a duty in life and we will never spiritually evolve unless we fulfill that duty (the entire theme of the Bhagavad Gita!)   

We are all connected and what we do makes a difference in the lives of others. Our work, effort, sacrifice and commitment is an offering to the world and this is how we honor the divine. True spirituality demands we stop worrying about whether we have to do more than others or whether our work makes us giddy with joy.We have to stop measuring success by money or power, and stop focusing on what life is doing for us personally, and start focusing on what we are doing for life.

Work has been put on hold for many of us with the current Coronavirus situation. Many of us are preoccupied with the financial fallout, and how could we not be concerned when our livelihood is at stake and we want to meet our responsibilities. But whether we are missing our work, or embracing a long overdue pause to rest, balance and put priorities back in order, we must not forget how important our work is and it’s connection to our spiritual path.

Yoga teaches us that no matter what you do for a living, all service is an act of grace. We must be fully present and generous with our time and effort for purposes beyond a paycheck. Work is not something we do to nurture our ego or satisfying our desires. We are not designed to do what we enjoy rather than what might really make a difference in the lives of others. We are born with certain energies and gifts that determine how we can best be of service.  Hard work is an act of giving, be it stacking a grocery shelf, laying tile, or teaching meditation to stressed out cancer patients. Whether you are the dog whose job is to greet visitors with a wagging welcome, or a nurse who shows up for work daily despite the risk to self and family because you recognize your skill set is desperately important during this public crisis, living our dharma is fulfilling our duty to others.

I know many of us have extra time on our hands, and some of us are even reevaluating what we do for a living, wondering if this pause in our life is the perfect time to make changes. Our Dharma does evolve, and change is inevitable. It may indeed be time for adjustments to your career or lifestyle. But whatever you do for a living or however you fill your time, understanding the sacred nature of living a life of service can change your entire definition of “Work”.

Perhaps by contemplating Dharma, the four-letter word we often associate to work will become L o v e.

Interested in learning more about Dharma? I recommend these great books.

Dharma for Awakening and Social change by Maetreyii Ma Nolan, PH.d

The Book of Dharma, Making Enlightened Choices by Simon Haas

And if you want to consider your personal dharma and how to find your purpose:

The Five Dharma Types: Vedic Wisdom for Discovering Your Purpose and Destiny, by Simon Chokoisky

If You Build It – they may or may not get it.

The other day, a yoga teacher visited Heartwood, toured the grounds with my daughter and said, “What a gorgeous and unusual place, I’d love to buy a center like this one day.”

Denver smiled and replied, “You can’t buy a place like this. You have to build one from scratch. Nothing was here until my Mom got an inkling to make a yoga center out of an old piece of agriculture property. Only vision and hard work leads to owning this kind of place.”

She didn’t get the feeling that the woman fully believed her.

Later Denver said to me, “Everyone loves the idea of Heartwood, but I don’t think many understand how much work and ingenuity was required for you and David to create this place. And they have no clue about how much work this little 7 acres is to maintain. Some yogis may think they want a Heartwood of their own, but they’d change their mind once they realized that the work is never ending and most of what they love out here cost money and demands ongoing effort, but doesn’t support paying the bills.”    

That is certainly true, but David and I don’t mind the effort because we look at Heartwood as “living art”. Sometimes, hard work has a purpose unrelated to the equation people so often make of calculating a measurable return on investment for their time and money. Art for art’s sake fuels something deep inside. For the creator, there is an alignment of creative energies that makes the artist feel connected to self and the divine. For those witnessing and enjoying the creation, there is pleasure and the reminder that beauty & inspiration can provide us with opportunities for insight and inner connections.   

David and I design spaces that meld with nature and celebrate our love of Yoga and spiritual studies. We seek utility with each project – a view or place to sit, dream, meditate or practice. We imagine people visiting and being called to pause, breathe and convene with the natural world. Considering we started the idea of Heartwood with just a run down, overgrown agricultural property and scant resources to devote to development, what we have done thus far feels satisfying. We know we won’t have the stamina to keep at this forever, and our limitless dreams for this place will never be fully realized (at least by us). We have inspiration for dozens of projects that most likely will never manifest due to our age and limited resources. But for now, Heartwood still calls to our creative spirits.

Our favorite pastime is walking the grounds with a cup of coffee after hours, looking at what is blooming or enjoying evidence that people are using our spaces. We take stock of all the work needed to be done to maintain our projects, then share ideas for upgrades or new spaces that start with “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if . . .”

We call Heartwood “Living” art because, like life, our creations often grow, thrive, then decline and die. (For the Yogis, I’d say the gunas are truly represented here-  Rajas, Sattva, and Tamas in all stages around the property.)  

We once had a beautiful bottle garden gracing the property. Dozens of reclaimed colored bottles hung from trees and surged up out of the ferns. I scoured Goodwill looking for colored bottles and dragged dozens of huge bottles home from Homegoods. The bottle garden turned out so beautiful Country Garden’s Magazine featured it along with our Chakra garden in an 8 page spread. Our bottle garden became a signature area of Heartwood. David designed all kinds of contraptions for keeping frogs out of the bottles and to stop the dog from knocking them down. He designed a variety of caps for the tops, landscape lighting to illuminate the bottles at night and mounts so that when the ferns grew too robust the bottles would be elevated for display. I had to clean the bottles every few months and took charge of replacing those that broke or wore out. Again and again I sealed the tops and changed the wires to hang them so they would catch the light.

Despite our efforts to maintain this pretty area, time and the Florida sun slowly deteriorated the bottles.  Hurricane Irma took down several of the trees holding up the bottles. Slowly our bottle garden grew tired and old.  I tried moving the bottles, but the new location just wasn’t the same. Eventually, that lovely little work of landscape art became history. Am I sorry we put so much time and effort, not to mention money into all those bottles, considering they are now history? Not at all. Because that bottle garden was not only fun to create but left us with memories of Heartwood’s early stages of development that will be with me forever. And how is missing the bottles any different than my missing the tulips that boom for only a few days each year? All things are impermanent. What is important is to appreciate what you have while you have it, and not grasp onto what is meant to die or no longer be present for you.    

The law of the universe reveals that while something fades, something new comes into existence.  Creative inspiration usually starts with an innocent comment, like, “Gee Dave, look at this cool labyrinth picture on this journal therapy e-mail I received. Wouldn’t it be fun to have something like that out front where those dang trees keep dropping limbs and nothing will grow? Of course, that would be a huge undertaking, and who knows if anyone would ever walk a labyrinth way out there. We certainly couldn’t afford to make a big old labyrinth when there are so many practical things we need . . . but dang, doesn’t that look fascinating . . . ”  and thus, the seed of an ongoing conversation has been planted.  

For fun we start talking about what kind of labyrinth we would make and how big, if only . . .. We next start reading about labyrinths, sharing history, folklore, and other tidbits of information over dinner (which is a much nicer conversation than talking about bills or politics). We start noticing Labyrinths in our travels or around town.  In time, our random comment has blown into a loose plan that if ever we can spare the time and money, we will certainly build one.”

Before you know it, our random idea has become a quest, and we skip taking a vacation one more year and instead, David is out there mathing it up, plotting out a labyrinth with engineering precision and I end up spending what would have been my vacation time that season and the next 2 laboriously and painstakingly painting the dang thing over and over to keep the path from fading. Just like when you buy a couch and suddenly feel you have to paint the living room and buy new rugs because they now seem shabby, we start landscaping the area and adding additional details. Up comes a “before I die” board, and a river rock path. This spills out to a bamboo grove with meditation benches. And since it is so lovely out there now, why not build a pavilion so we can practice yoga near the energy of the labyrinth? Voila! Who can miss a bottle garden when there is a whole labyrinth to maintain!

For many people, building a labyrinth would seem a frivolous or wasteful use of limited resources, but every time I spy someone walking the labyrinth, I’m convinced that what was at first an unlikely idea was meant all along to be a collaborative project bringing purpose and meaning into our marriage and our world. No, I never regret any of the time or effort devoted to the artistic unfolding of Heartwood. Building Heartwood fulfills our Dharma.

The medicine wheel was another project fueled by curiosity and inspiration. David and I have been long interested in Indian history, spirituality and Shamanism and one day we started a random conversation about medicine wheels which turned into our both doing some research (not many pictures of formal medicine wheels for public use out there, so we didn’t have much to go on). We addressed the issue of a medicine wheel being of a different tradition than yoga, and perhaps no one would want to go out there even if we built one. We debated designs and different regional and cultural versions and then found a tradition that spoke to us. Once the concept of building a medicine wheel was a go, we had to figure out how to do so affordably. Of course, we agreed grudgingly that the best place to put this medicine wheel was an overgrown thorny area filled with tree stumps (clearing the area cost more than the actual project!) But before we laid the first stone, I could see it there in my mind.

We had a formal Medicine Wheel ceremony, laying the stones in the rain since nature chose not to make this easy, and later, completed the project with more colored stones totally blowing the budget. David built a huge bench around the entire ring inviting students to sit wherever energy called to them and made a 6-foot hoop for a dream catcher to enhance the décor of the area. To display this, we cut down some carefully chosen trees on the side of our property and dragged them over to the area to cement into the ground like goalposts. The dead trees deteriorated over time and a hurricane came a year later and knocked them down. That same storm flooded the medicine wheel so it all but floated into the ferns. Generous students arrived to help us clean up that mess and rebuild the wheel and months later, David built a more solid structure out of timber which he planted true north to hold the dreamcatcher and new windchimes. Next, he planted a shamanic garden with sage, sweetgrass, Indian Tobacco and cedar trees (all native plants used for shamanic ceremony) and we added small stone statues of animals to represent spirit guides for fun. The native herbs didn’t make it in the harsh Florida climate, but two of the three Cedar trees survived.

The medicine wheel is probably my favorite area of Heartwood. I teach a nature yoga class out at the wheel involving a semi-seated practice on the benches. The meditation and poses are steeped in shamanic themes. Unfortunately, this area can get uncomfortably sunny midday so some seasons the heat prohibits me from bringing students out to the wheel.  But never fear, David and I purchased two metal gazebo roofs some time ago at an end-of-season close out sale, and for more than a year we talked about making a few covered decks by the Medicine Wheel area so people (mostly me) could practice out there or meditate and have a shady, protected space to journal or hang out. The idea circled between us long enough that recently, we both felt it was time to act.

So David built two staggered, 12 foot covered decks. As is the case with almost every project we’ve done, people didn’t “get it” at first. They just didn’t see the vision we saw in our heads. David had several conversations with students that went something like this . . .

“What are you building out there?”

“Decks for people to practice on.”

“Where are you moving them to?”

“Um…. They’re decks. I’m building them where I want them to be. They are right where they will go.”

“Hummmm….. interesting. Don’t you think they are rather obvious, two big decks out there by the medicine wheel?”

“No more obvious than the 24 foot Medicine Wheel and 6 foot dream catcher, I suppose.”   

More than one person took me aside to say, “How do you feel about what David is building? Are you OK with that?” (As if I wasn’t the one nagging him to build those decks for two years and hadn’t given him my opinion about exactly where I wanted them. Ha.)

This week David put fans and lights in the ceilings of those newly finished decks so they will be more inviting. We are now planning some nice landscaping to keep the practice area partially hidden when you drive in and to add ambiance to the natural setting. Strategic planting will create a “room” feel for this space, but new plantings will require a watering system too. That means more work for a project that will not generate revenue, but man, what a beautiful and unique area this will be for visitors (and us) to practice. Like everything we’ve built here, it takes times for new spaces to “settle in”. Nature fills in the blanks left from construction, a few fun details will be added and soon it seems the medicine wheel had always magically just been a part of the landscape here.

I’m aware that building something like a Medicine wheel and practice decks seems an odd and unnecessary choice to those who don’t see a practical point in art for art’s sake. But if David and I didn’t find meaning and joy in Heartwood’s “living art” and instead focused only on practical projects that supported the revenue operations of this business, Heartwood wouldn’t have the charm or uniqueness it has. And I certainly wouldn’t feel as fulfilled as I do, dreaming up the next artistic project and marveling at David’s talent in making a vision manifest.  

About a week after David finished the decks, he went out to get the mail. When he returned, he handed me a cup of coffee and said, “There are two students out at the medicine wheel practicing on the decks. We both knew they had many places to drop a mat to practice, but they chose that one.

We looked at each other knowingly and smiled.