My wife and I recently made a huge change in our lives, and it raised many an eyebrow. We moved from Los Angeles to a small town in the Berkshires region of Western Massachusetts—from a warm, sunny climate to an area with harsh winters. From a small, one-story house to a larger one with steps. Exactly the opposite of what people of Medicare age normally do.
A number of factors played into our decision, and to some extent we reasoned our way to it. But it was primarily a spiritual choice: we felt that this new place—with its beautiful natural landscape, its quiet, its peace, its history, its cultural offerings, and its access to various loved ones—would serve our spirits best in the next phase of our incarnations. It was a strongly felt conviction that upheld, but also transcended, all of our analysis.
[Read: “Making Good (Gut) Decisions.”]
Packing up after decades in one place, moving across the country, and planting new roots has been (and continues to be) physically grueling, emotionally exhausting, highly stressful, and a constant, ongoing challenge. And yet, it feels just right. Amidst the turmoil and discomfort is a palpable contentment, a subtle knowing, a sense of harmony and balance that says, “You’re where you should be, doing what you should do, and you will thrive.”
The experience brings to mind a vital concept that has informed my spiritual life for half a century: dharma.
When Actions Are Aligned With Dharma
Dharma is one of those Sanskrit terms for which there is no adequate English equivalent. It’s often translated as duty, as in doing what is prescribed by custom, tradition, or religious precept. But that doesn’t quite get it. The higher meaning of dharma is better captured in one of the subsidiary definitions you’ll find online: “the basic principles of cosmic or individual existence; divine law.”
The word derives from a root form meaning to uphold or sustain. Something is dharmic if it upholds the intrinsic nature of something, whether an apple, a human being, a community, or the cosmos.
When actions are aligned with dharma, they uphold goodness, harmony, wellbeing, and the social and spiritual advancement of everyone and everything affected by the action.
“Dharma” is evoked most often by Westerners with reference to career or occupation. People who are unsure of their career path might say they’re searching for their true dharma, and many fret because they don’t feel a strong enough sense of calling. But dharma pertains to our actions across the board.
We each have many dharmas, and they interact and overlap: the dharma of a child to parents and of parents to children; the dharma of a family member to his or her kin; the dharma of a citizen to the community, the nation, or the ecosystem; the dharma of a spiritual devotee; and, of course, the dharma of a doctor, a carpenter, a teammate, a soldier, and on and on. Action in accord with dharma is vital for the individual, the family, the civilization, and the planet.
When True Dharma Calls
In simpler times, of course, one’s dharma was clearly delineated by custom and tradition. But even then, it could be confusing. In the classic depiction of dharma in the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, the warrior Arjuna is torn between his dharma as a protector of society and his dharma to his extended family, some of whom happen to be threatening the very society he is duty-bound to protect. Now, of course, things are a whole lot more complicated than they were in that bygone era, and determining what is dharmic in any given aspect of life can be crazy-making. Doing so requires self-knowledge, discernment, and an
intuition that’s attuned to the subtle forces that govern the cosmic order—an inner spiritual positioning system, so to speak.
The sages taught that knowing one’s dharma and acting accordingly is an essential part of the spiritual path. Sometimes that means honoring tradition and custom. Sometimes it means the opposite—going against the grain, doing the unexpected, throwing caution to the wind, defying common sense. When the still, small voice within tells you unequivocally what the dharmic thing to do is, and the stirring of your heart and the tickle in your soul confirms that voice, you have to stand firm even when those you care about try to talk you out of it.
Loved ones did that to my wife and me: “But you’ll miss your friends in LA.” “Won’t it hurt your careers?” “Can you handle a New England winter?” At a certain point, you just have to thank them for their concern, smile warmly, and say, “Gotta do what I gotta do.” When true dharma calls, there’s really no choice.
All places are alive with holiness: Cultivate your own personal cathedral.