Understanding Dharma in Personal Decision Making

“Every school district in the state has told me they’re not hiring teachers with a Masters because they can get two bachelors for the price of me. And I’m tired of this low-pay, dead-end parochial school job. The kids are great but the vice-principal works me to the bone and there’s not an eligible man in sight. I can’t believe I’m thirty-eight, living with my parents and doomed to be a spinster. I’d like your advice on what to do. I’d really like to be in some kind of healing profession, but my financial advisor tells me if I start a pre-med program to become a naturopath or chiropractor I’ll nearly be on Medicare by the time I open my practice.”

Wendy and I had this same conversation the previous August, two weeks before she started another school year at the same job that made her feel trapped.

“Close your eyes, Wendy, and ask yourself what you’d like to see yourself doing ten years from now, after finishing some new training and finding yourself five years into your new career.”

“I see myself as a mother with a profession.”

“Wendy, last year we talked about dumping the parochial school and finding something to do that would help you become less intense and put you in contact with men who had similar values as you. Now you’re no richer and just more discouraged.”

“I was afraid having a hole in my resume would raise a red flag.”

“We decided the only interviewers that cared about holes in your resume would be offering jobs like this one you hate.”

Wendy wished she had the courage to undertake any of my suggestions to get her out of her double rut, her fearful clinging to the known, as lousy as it was, and her unavailability to a potential suitor. She rolled her eyes at my suggestion she leave for Istanbul with a backpack and a credit card. Or that she volunteer building bridges with environmental groups in the state parks. Or organize local triathlons even if it didn’t pay a nickel. She was free to make a choice for more happiness in her life, but as she left, I sensed she’d be back in the same school in a couple of weeks.

The noun dharma comes from the Sanskrit root DHR-, meaning support or foundation and is related to the Latin word firmus. In different ancient epochs dharma has had different meanings — duty, order, merit (you get what you deserve) — but I prefer to understand dharma as natural law, the source of universal order in nature, because this meaning gives a practical handle on how we make choices in our lives as individuals as well as a society. Dharma is the foundation for evolution, and if it was quantifiable would be measured in terms of progress. Whether your life is truly progressive and in accord with natural law will always be a subjective judgment.

A discussion about dharma came up in a conversation on an ancient battlefield when Arjuna, as commander of the army, found himself in the unenviable position of having to defend his subjects from his tyrannical cousins and uncle who had seized his kingdom. Looking across the battleground at his friends, family and teachers who were duty-bound to fight for his spiteful cousins, Arjuna has a classic panic attack, unable to bear the thought of killing the people he loved most, or being killed himself. His charioteer, surveying the bow and arrows he has strewn across the ground in despair, counsels him that it is better to execute his own dharma imperfectly than that of another perfectly.

Dharma as natural law implies that there is not one universal code of conduct for all creatures, so predatory carnivores are not obliged to adhere to the principle of non-violence (ahimsa), which the Yoga Sutras present as a universal value conducive for liberation. According to the charioteer, there cannot be a universal statute for right conduct, but only a contextual one, based on the individual’s talents, desires and idiosyncrasies as well as the circumstances and nature of the times. It is better to do your individual, contextual dharma, right here and right now, the charioteer advises, than to do what others may perceive as “right.” You are the general and your duty is protecting your subjects, not your family, he advises Arjuna. So kill the whole bloody lot of them if this is what it takes to get your kingdom back.

Deciding whether to go back to your same job may not seem like a decision of such import as whether to wage war against your family or invade Iraq, but they are all still questions of right action. To a scientist, deciphering the elements that properly guide a decision to function in accord with natural law is akin to decoding the scientific principles underlying gravity, the transcription of DNA or a chemical reaction. These individual laws of nature proceed according to physics’ principle of least action and the principle of evolution. Structures in nature tend to evolve and progress using the most effortless path.

That doesn’t mean that Wendy or anyone else contemplating what action to take need take the easy way out. John Paul II instinctively sensed he was uniquely positioned to free many nations from the restrictions on liberty imposed by communism and dictatorships. It would be a huge, complicated, perilous and painful undertaking, but it was his dharma, and he attacked the task with joy. For an individual or society making a big decision, fathoming what is evolutionary may be the toughest part. Is evolution in this lifetime defined by more wealth, more love, more knowledge, more happiness, or maybe by less stress and uncertainty?

Natural law, as the source of perfect order, also contains within its nature the seeds of disorder since even the changing, material universe emerges through its functioning. From a medical perspective, even though we know that a field of perfect intelligence underlies quantum mechanics and its expression as the human physiology, in practice we experience the frustrating way that dharma expresses itself as errors and chaos. “If natural law is expressing itself so fully in my life,” you may sometimes think, “why is my DNA making so much cholesterol and blocking my arteries? It must be my lousy genes!”

Life is about decisions, so a proper health science should be about maximizing choices and enlightened choosing, making natural law its central issue to give you access to all life’s possibilities. The purpose of spiritual practices from the health perspective is to refine your nervous system to such a degree that it naturally and spontaneously computes the direction that leads you to more progress in life: a choice in accord with natural law. The subtlety of brain functioning arising from a diabetic’s spiritual practices leads her to choose the salad over the chocolate mousse without needing to be exhorted by her physician. Although I once attended a lecture by a spiritual leader who smoked a cigarette before beginning speaking while his followers waited patiently, I am also convinced that effective spiritual practices lead to better health choices.

Dharma can be rigid, punishing the leopard for choosing grass over fresh venison with weakness and death. It can also be forgiving, like offering Wendy all possibilities, any one of which could lead to happiness and would probably be more progressive than the status quo she detests. Arjuna, on the other hand, has only one choice according to his charioteer. “Negotiation has failed; you have to fight.”

When we make our choices, we have to take into account both natural law and man-made law. The two are usually found, despite the best intentions of legislators, to be conflicting, leaving few appetizing options, like a vegan patient on a low acid diet for gastric reflux, who decides she now wants to become kosher. Likewise, Wendy has to not only obey her heart, but other dictates as well, including her family’s demands to stick nearby.

Both Arjuna and Wendy have a choice. I doubt Wendy will find the courage to let her heart decide for more progress because her intellect is conflicted with so many other demands. Arjuna and his brothers will choose to annihilate everyone they love dearly, letting dharma wipe the slate clean, restoring justice to the order of things. As aspirants after ideal health, we can make better choices in our lives by following some simple Vedic wisdom:

  1. Refine your nervous system’s ability to perceive, intuit, discriminate, and choose through systematic contact with the source of natural law in your own consciousness.
  2. Be regular in your practices.
  3. Decide with your heart.
  4. Choose what you sense is most evolutionary and progressive according to your highest values. If your choice is not the most effortless, take a step back and reconsider all the consequences before plowing ahead.
  5. Keep the inputs simple. Don’t mind about all the demands on you that don’t matter.
  6. Remember that dharma is contextual. Soak all the circumstances in and let your heart cook on it when you are fresh and rested.
  7. Remember that natural law is absolute but that it structures from its perfection an imperfect world. Since the results of your decisions must always be imperfect, plan on letting them make you fulfilled.

Dharma as natural law implies that there is not one universal code of conduct for all creatures, so predatory carnivores are not obliged to adhere to the principle of non-violence.

Jay Glaser, MD is a board certified internist in Massachusetts.