What’s your dharma?
You cannot be anyone you want to be. I read that recently in a book about finding the purpose of life and it surprised me. The Great Work of Your Life, by Stephen Cope begins with an inspiring pep talk for anyone not quite sure what he or she is meant to do in this life. It’s also addressed to those unsure about the whole idea of purpose in the first place.
Cope’s book is about dharma. It’s about the unique gift each of us has and how we can easily miss the mark when it comes to living with purpose. It’s also a journey through the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu text in which the hero, Arjuna learns about dharma. Arjuna’s teacher is Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu.
I related immediately to the opening chapter in which Cope introduces some friends who are stuck in terms of figuring out their dharma. These folks are struggling to recognize their path in this life. It’s easy to see why so many of us experience this struggle. We’re often sidetracked. We do what we think we’re supposed to do or what others expect us to do. But we all have a unique dharma or gift we’re here to express no matter how “big” or “small” it may seem.
We do not choose our dharma
And then there was this sentence: You cannot be anyone you want to be. Cope invites the reader to do a double-take here. After all, the statement seems to contradict the advice of New Age gurus who suggest you can set your sights on any achievement and attain it. We’re told we can do anything we set our mind to. Cope suggests this is not the case; we don’t choose our dharma.
You cannot be anyone you want to be. I tend to agree.
There are some things I obviously cannot be. Many of them are things I also don’t want to be, like an Olympic ice skater or a brain surgeon (though some would argue I could be a brain surgeon if I worked hard enough). There are also things I’d like to do if I could. At one point, I thought my dharma was to be a psychologist. It didn’t work out even though I think I took the proper first steps toward my goal. I’ve been told I should have kept trying, but I don’t think so. I needed to get a job, and I realized that there were other things I could do that would be just as worthwhile (for me). There’s a trade-off in terms of how much we’re willing to work to reach a particular goal.
For the most part, the idea that you cannot be anything you want to be isn’t too troubling after all. The reason is there is something more important than what you want to be, and that is your dharma. It’s the thing you can’t not do no matter how hard you try not to.
I can’t not write. It’s part of who I am. Like it or not, I always find my way back to it. (Thankfully, I always like it.) Listen to people who know what their life’s purpose is, and you’ll probably hear them say things like, I had to do this; I had no choice.
So how easy is it—or should it be—to live our dharma once we’ve determined what that is?
What to do once you realize you cannot be anyone you want to be
The idea that you cannot be anyone you want to be is not so upsetting when you realize how much better it is to be who you are. According to Cope, living our dharma comes rather easily once we discover it. The process of discovering our dharma—or discovering ourselves—is what can really be daunting. In fact, it can take an entire lifetime!
Learning who we are does not always come easily, and for some it may not come at all. It’s the journey that matters. “Concerning one’s dharma, one should not vacillate,” says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Cope says we must find our dharma and do it “full out.” He describes conditions various dharma-following people created in their lives to deliberately bring forth their life’s work. His stories are about famous people like Robert Frost and Jane Goodall. They are also about some of Cope’s friends. They did things like create time for contemplation and writing or buy a farm to live a quieter life. Jane Goodall went to live with primates.
Is it reasonable, though, to think that all people can discover and live their dharma in this way? While I was thinking about the answer to that question, I stumbled upon an article in Yoga Journal. The article was on the same topic of dharma and the Bhagavad Gita, but with a somewhat more realistic twist. The author, Sally Kempton, discussed how to live your dharma when you find yourself in a situation that doesn’t follow the ideal of “do what you love and the money will follow.” Sometimes we’re faced with having to make a living doing something that’s not exactly our bliss, Kempton said.
How then, can we live our dharma?
The answer may be it isn’t so much what you do but how you do it that matters. Kempton’s examples included an accountant who crunches numbers in a cubicle all day but is a joy to be around. She describes a would-be freelance writer who manages a social welfare agency because she needs to make a living and believes in the cause. I know more than one person struggling to find meaning while trying to make a living. Some are miserable; others are content and joyful.
When I struggle with the concept of dharma, I think of this: Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. While not exactly about dharma, the point of this Buddhist tenet is life is often boring. We don’t always move in a straight line toward enlightenment or the fulfillment of our dreams. Our work in the world is not always thrilling and deeply full of meaning.
But none of this means we should give up the search for meaning. It just means that we may need a more realistic perspective on what it truly means to live our dharma. And we should always strive to become more of who we truly are.