Excerpted from The Wheel of Healing With Ayurveda, An Easy Guide to a Healthy Lifestyle, written by Ayurvedic medical practitioner Michelle S. Fondin.
Everything in existence has a dharma. Every single cell in your body has a dharma. A red blood cell would never try to become a brain cell, just as a tree would never try to become a flower. The manifestation of cancer cells occurs when normal cells “forget” their purpose.
It’s my firm belief that most illness stems from our not living our life’s purpose. When we’re living out of sync with what we’re supposed to be doing, our body feels it. We can, for a time, ignore our purpose, but sooner or later the body protests in an effort to get our attention. If we listen, chances are our body will heal. If we continue to ignore the signs, one of two things is likely to happen: either the illness we experience will become terminal, or modern medicine will assist us in healing for a time and we will experience a relapse later. Senior citizens who find a greater purpose in service after retirement offer an example of how a sense of purpose gives our bodies strength and greater health. Studies have shown that senior citizens with health problems who have a garden or a pet to care for become healthier. This reality may sound harsh but it’s true: If you have no higher purpose, you will die sooner than those who have one.
I had a client who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Two weeks after her retirement, she was diagnosed. For a year she went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I met her a few months into her treatment, and we then met weekly. After a couple of months with me, she told me about a huge project she was starting with her sister in order to serve humanity. With a glow in her eyes she said, “A lot of good has come out of my experience with cancer. My sister and I were not that close, and now we talk every day. I didn’t know what I was going to do after retirement, and now I have this project.” Chances are extremely good that she will permanently heal from her cancer. Among other changes she made in her life, she found a new life’s purpose.
Dharma is inner drive, the tugging of the heartstrings that prompts you to live more fully. One person in the public eye who clearly demonstrates living in dharma is Diana Nyad. I recently heard her story on National Public Radio and was moved by her tenacity, passion and drive. Nyad is the woman who, in 2013, at age 64, swam from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, without a shark cage, in 53 hours. This was not Nyad’s first attempt at making this particular swim, but her fifth attempt over the course of 35 years. She started her training for her most recent attempt at the 103-mile swim in 2010, and when a journalist asked her why, she responded, “Because I’d like to prove to other 60-year-olds that it’s never too late to start your dreams.”
Your dharma will drive you to living it no matter what happens. Obstacles and delays may come your way. But if you are truly living your purpose, you’ll become unstoppable.
Have you ever come to a crossroads in your life where you have achieved many of your major goals, and where you recognize you’re unhappy and that something must change? You obtained an education, found the love of your life, had a couple of kids, bought the car, the house and the vacation home, and then, in a panic-stricken moment, looked around with discontent and said to yourself, “Now what?”
Over the course of our life, we often ask ourselves, “Why am I here?” “What am I supposed to be doing?” Or: “Now what?” Many times we ask this question in relation to a career, education choice, or goal. Most often, the question is linked to the financial outcome we expect to have when we have reached a goal or achievement. Unfortunately, most of us think of dharma, or purpose, in terms of something big, such as becoming a movie star or a sports hero. But it doesn’t have to be quite so grandiose.
In the Indian tradition, the word dharma, although not easily translated, can be considered one’s “righteous duty” or “virtuous path.” For example, it’s a bird’s dharma to fly, a cow’s dharma to produce milk, and a bee’s dharma to make honey. It’s your duty to live according to your dharma. And when you do, you’re living in harmony with nature and the cosmos.
Being in harmony with the universe lets you feel like life is flowing. You have a sense of easily flowing downstream instead of constantly fighting your way up a current. All of us have experienced moments in our lives when we were “in the flow” or “living on purpose.” Think back to the time when you first fell in love and this love was returned. For weeks and maybe months, you were floating on clouds, time had no bearing, and it didn’t matter what the weather was like or who insulted you. You were in love. The whole world could come crashing down around you, and as long as you were with your beloved it didn’t matter. Love is every person’s dharma; and when you’re in love, you have purpose. So does that mean we’re to walk around with hearts and cupids all day? It might be interesting, but it might also get boring after a while. And we all know that the feeling of falling in love generally doesn’t last forever. But that’s the idea.
Other moments of flow you may have experienced might be scoring the winning basket for the final game in the season, baking the perfect cake, gazing into your baby’s eyes for the first time or leading a chorus in unison. These are what psychologist Abraham Maslow, in his Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (1964), referred to as “peak experiences.” A peak experience is when time stands still, you’re completely absorbed in the present moment and whatever you’re doing is effortless. You experience bliss and ease and recognize that the moment is right.
You may have many purposes in life; your purpose may change over time or develop in a way you never anticipated. Dharma does not have to be big to be meaningful. Living your dharma could entail raising children, being a bank teller, building houses or picking up trash. If your work is effortless, you have a love for what you do, and you’re in service of humanity, then you’re in dharma. Other indications that you’re in dharma are a sense of lightness in your body, a joyful or glowing feeling upon awakening in the morning, or a sense that time is flying by. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Time flies when you’re having fun.” When you’re in dharma, your work is fun. Observe children at play, and you may notice that when a mother tries to take her child away from a highly creative playtime the child will protest. This is because the child is absorbed in the present moment. She is in dharma. Dr. Maria Montessori, the first Italian woman doctor and the originator of Montessori education, stated, “A child’s play is his work.” We can learn a lot from children about living in dharma.
We live in a world of overachievers. Western society teaches us that to be successful, we must get good grades, play an instrument, excel at a sport, be the president of a club or association, go to a top university, get the best salary at a Fortune 500 company, buy a big house, and drive an expensive car. And the list goes on. Do you get the picture?
Recently a retired woman who was learning meditation with me explained that her husband of twenty-two years thought she was a failure because, according to him, she lived a “small life.” To illustrate her point, she said, “I raised two boys, of whom I’m very proud, I was a manager at a large corporation, and I took care of my husband and the house. How could he say that I lived a ‘small life’?” The sadness and frustration that emanated from her is a result of the disease that affects our society when it comes to the perception of success.