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

Author: Ginny East Shaddock

Ginny is the owner of Heartwood Yoga Institute. She is an ERYT-500 Yoga teacher, C-IAYT Yoga therapist, RCYT & Ayurveda Counselor who loves nature, gardening, and creative arts. She has an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University, and a BA in Business Administration from Eckerd College. She teaches writing and is the creator of the memoir writing program, "Yoga on the Page" combining the teaching of yoga to writing personal stories with integrity, intention, and heart.

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