What is it that you can’t stop being? I’m not referring to your job, your to-do list or your identity as a parent or partner. What are you unconsciously doing or being as you go through your daily routine? What grabs your attention? When do you feel clear and charged like you downed an espresso? These clues will help reveal your Dharma.
Dharma is a central concept in Hinduism and Buddhism that does not have one translation. “The path” is the most accurate nutshell definition. The implication of dharma is that each person has a right way of living for them. Once you inhabit your true nature and align your life with a path of expression, the journey towards enlightenment begins. Don’t tune out because the word enlightenment feels too lofty, enlightenment in Buddhism just means awake. When we engage in our dharma, our heart awakens, transforming our experience of the world around us.
Years ago, after reading Stephen Cope’s, The Great Work of Your Life, I set an intention to notice what I couldn’t stop being every day. Stephen said to look closely at your childhood. What did you love doing? What characteristics stood out in your personality?
As a child, I loved reading and writing poetry. Under the covers with a flashlight, I whispered the poems of Yeats and Arnold late into the night. In 5thgrade my English teacher noticed my passion and asked me to stay after class. We started meeting regularly, and I shared my journals with her. The memory is vivid because it was my first experience of feeling seen by another person. Observing the “Buddha nature” in someone and reflecting it back to them is an act of love that can change a life.
Writing is now an expression of my dharma, but my dharma is not necessarily to be a writer. What drew me to poetry were the emotions that the writers boldly displayed. The courage in their vulnerability gave me access to my shut down heart. Something inside me desired to be brave and open too.
The next time I noticed a glimpse of a path was at a soup kitchen with my mother. I was twelve years old, so it was suggested that I stay in the kitchen and make cheese sandwiches. As soon as things got busy, I snuck into the dining hall and chatted with the men and women seated there. Moved by their rawness and transparency, something dormant inside me was activated.
Assuming that being of service or a volunteer is part of my dharma is too basic a translation of the soup kitchen memory. Making a difference for the men and women at the soup kitchen did flood me with light, but it was who they were that made that possible. The same as the poets. What reached out and grabbed me in both circumstances was the purity in the communication. It’s the same reason I love attending AA meetings fifteen years later. Alcohol hasn’t been an issue since my first year of sobriety, but I can’t get enough of the brave people there who share from their hearts. I feel blessed to be an alcoholic, so I have access to those church basements.
As a parent, understanding dharma is essential. My greatest responsibility is to notice what my children can’t stop being. Burying them in my dharma would eventually cause them grave pain. My daughter sings as she brushes her teeth in the morning and as she reads in bed at night. My son uses two boxes of aluminum foil to build a robot at 6:00am. It’s not my job to interpret what any of this means, but I can keep exposing them to opportunities that may reveal the next step in their journey. I highly recommend a book series that I love reading to my children called Ordinary People Change the World by Brad Meltzer. Each book describes a dharma journey, and I’ve never made it through one without getting choked up with tears of awe.
A quote in the Bible sums up the importance of connecting with your dharma: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” The destruction referenced in this quote is rarely cataclysmic. Most people destroy themselves slowly over a lifetime by making small unconscious decisions that lead them farther and farther away from their truth.
Being disconnected from my Buddha nature for fifteen years almost killed me. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to stop drinking. Without alcohol, far from the right path, my experience of the world was excruciatingly empty. Even without an addiction, the world is a distracting place, and most people get lost or coached away from their dharma at an early age by well-intentioned mentors and peers who are not fully expressed themselves.
But it’s never too late. Ever. Finally, at forty-four, I feel peaceful and fulfilled, closer than I’ve ever been to a right way of living for me. On days that I’m impatient because I want it all figured out, I remind myself that dharma is not a destination, it’s a lifetime of becoming.