The Sanskrit word dharma is often translated as 'duty', this is correct, although the word duty brings with it, I think, certain connotations of things we have to do, but which we would rather not. The word itself comes from the root dhri to hold, to establish, to support and I think this is more helpful in understanding dharma and how it relates to our lives. Dharma is that which we are meant to do; dharma is our work in this life, our purpose. It is the link between the workings of your inner, spiritual purpose and the outward activities and intentions of your life. Dharma therefore is holding/ establishing/ supporting a link between your inner soul-work and your outer life and livelihood.
In yogic terms, your individual soul chose to become manifest in your physical form for a reason. Your job in your one life is to polish one facet of this beautiful soul that you have inside you. Dharma is your soul’s purpose in this life.
We can have more than one dharma and many different dharmas over a lifetime. For example, if you have very young children, then your chief dharma is in dedicating yourself to nurturing them; if you have teenage children, your dharma is still to love and protect them, but also to let go a little, to give them the gift of independence. So the role is the same, but the dharma has changed over time. Being alert to how dharma changes over time helps us to stay awake, to stay in tune with what is best serving our personal development and those around us. Being alert to how dharma changes over time helps us to choose courageously and not to cling to outdated, but comfortably familiar, ways of being.
Staying true to more than one dharma at a time might mean that we work in the city, but also dedicate ourselves to a local charity; we might be a parent, but go back to college to learn how to do something new. Knowing that there is room in your life for more than one purpose can be very liberating. You realise that you can nurture yourself in the ways that you need, while still fulfilling your role as Sales Assistant / Film Producer / Teacher / Parent / Child.
Your dharma is unique to you; only you can discern it and only you can learn how to fulfil it. Aadil Palkhivala recommends tuning in with your dharma in the following way:
“… we must regularly step out of our frenzied routine and quietly ask, “Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is the reason for my existence? Why did my spirit choose this body and what does it want to experience?”
You do not need to believe in reincarnation, soul, spirit and the Divine to benefit from this practice. Simply asking yourself every morning, What is the purpose of this day? will help you to clarify your personal purpose and to live your life in its best and highest form; it will help you to stay on track; it will help you to be clear about what you need to do in your life and this will help you to be bold about clearing the unnecessary impediments out of your way in order that you fulfil this purpose to the best of your ability… Does drinking too much in the evening sap your energy the next day and make you less effective? Get the drinking out of the way. Do you have a friendship that seems to steal your energy and never replenish your sense of vitality? Devote less time to that friendship and more time to those that help you to fulfil your purpose. Does being unfit keep you from doing the things that you long to do? Commit to building your level of fitness by taking a long walk every day.
Your longing is your cue – what is it that you really want to do? Do you feel that you work all day every day only to feel unsatisfied at the end of it? Why do you think that is? Is there something else that you should be doing for yourself or for the world that would alleviate that sense of dissatisfaction? Should you be doing that thing as well as or instead of what you currently do? Only you know. So ask yourself the question; and be prepared to acknowledge the answer.
"You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough."