What is Dharma?

dharma-yogaThere is a word that exists in many traditions but that we don’t have in our language, the practical meaning of which I find very valuable and important to know. The word is dharma. It is a Sanskrit word, and because we don’t have a single word translation for it in western languages, and it has very different meanings according to its context, it is quite difficult to explain.


     What is Dharma?

One way it could be translated is: ‘the behavior that is in accord with the natural order, the laws that regulate and coordinate the operation of the universe and everything within it’. In more simple terms, dharma is the right behavior, the correct thing to do, the right action. Although in some cases it may be used with moral or religious connotations, I like to use it simply as the natural sense of the right action or behavior according to the needs of the moment. From this point of view, there is no right or wrong, there is only the possibility to open the eyes and see what the moment requires.

Yes, the moment has needs.

If I am in college taking a class and while the professor is talking I am playing games on my phone, I am going against the needs of the moment, I am going against dharma. The need of that moment is to pay attention to what the professor is saying. Of course there are exceptions, and this is what makes understanding and applying dharma so difficult. If for some reasons I am forced to take that particular class and the professor happens to be a very bad one and I know of a way to use my time more profitably than listening to him, then the need of that moment is to do just that. From the point of view of the university I may be doing the incorrect thing, but from the point of view of this particular situation, given these particular circumstances, going against the established regulations is the right action, is what the dharmic action is.

If I am on holiday with my family and I spend most of my time answering old emails I am going against the needs of the moment, which is to pay intentional attention to my wife and children. But if I am regularly late for work and don’t take care of my responsibilities because I stay home playing with my children I am going against the needs of the moment, I am going against dharma.

There are thousands of examples like this and actually each moment, given its particular and unique circumstances, has its own needs, its own dharma. And because it is so particular, because it is so much related to the unique circumstances of each moment, it really depends on how aware we are of ourselves and of the moment. The possibility to see dharma is directly related to the emotional, psychological and spiritual maturity of the individual.

Without this maturity, it is very easy to oversee dharma, and one of the main reasons why we may go against it is because we consider ourselves – our own personal needs – more important than the needs of the total, just like a kid crying and shouting ‘I want, I want, I want!’

The needs of the moment – dharma – are the needs of the total in that particular instance. But when I consider my own needs to be more valuable, more important, more significant than the needs of the total, I can go against dharma. In Sanskrit it is called adharma. Adharma has a short term effect and a long term effect. The short term effect of going against dharma is that I may get what I want, like comfort, power or pleasure. The long term effect is that I create a troubled, agitated, anxious mind.


     A Value for a Quiet Mind

Here, we need to deviate a bit from the subject of dharma and introduce the idea of values. As I mentioned before in several of my writings and in my classes, values are really what lead our life. A value is what I pay attention to, what I really love – not what I say I love. I may say that I love my family, and that everything I do is for my family, but if my attention in my everyday life is mostly directed to my work and making money, leaving almost no time to be with my family, then my value is not my family but security. I may say that I love my family but what I actually love is feeling secure. This is not easy to see as it goes against many of our deepest beliefs, but if we are able to go deep enough into our own psychology we may be able to see the truth of it.

One of the main aims of the Yogilates classes is to create the value of a quiet mind, because it is only with a quiet mind (a mind that is more present, more aware, has more space to see and perceive what is around) that one is able to have a more substantial, profound and beautiful life. And more importantly, it is only with a quiet mind that we can find real freedom. For a more in-depth look at what I mean by freedom please take a look at THIS NOTE.

A tense, worried, anxious, restless mind may be able to get a lot of the goodies that are so much in fashion in our society – like power or money or pleasure or recognition – but it cannot be free, it cannot find peace, it cannot find real happiness.


     Back to dharma / Feeling good

And so, one reason why I may want to learn to be more aware and follow dharma is because I value a quiet mind, I value freedom, I value peace, I value real happiness. When I go against dharma, in the long term, I suffer – and when I follow it I feel good. But this ‘feeling good’ is not based on a candy-like sensation, like comfort or power or pleasure, but it is the natural sensation of well-being that arises in the deepest of my being when I am doing the right thing, when I follow the natural laws, when I follow my own nature.

This underestimated but profound sense of well-being is a very difficult value to respect, especially in our materialistic and very adharmic societies, but one that I have a choice to follow.


     The inspiration

I was thinking about all this because the other day I received an invitation to go with my son to a very beautiful swimming pool. It was a very exclusive one, difficult to access because of its high price. In this place, there is an inside swimming pool which is much more affordable and quite busy and then there is the outside swimming pool – the one I was at with my son – with a wonderful Jacuzzi, a solarium, several nice bars and a large relaxing grassy area. It was very quiet and pleasant. At a certain moment a beautiful girl was going around offering fruit to the guests. My son was delighted. The water was just the perfect temperature for that very hot day and to rest on those hammocks in the well kept green grass was a really pleasant experience.

To get to this pool is not easy. That was very clear when you saw the big crowd of people that were in the inside pool and how quiet it was at the outside one. To be there required a big payment, monetary or otherwise.

While I was there really enjoying myself, a question jumped into my head: how much would a person be willing to pay to get an experience like this? There is absolutely nothing wrong – quite the opposite actually – with enjoying the wonderful possibilities of our modern world, if we are able and capable of getting them without going against dharma. But many times we try to get those things by doing exactly that.

‘Those things’ could be enjoying a pleasurable experience like this swimming pool, or a thousand other possibilities: making some more money, getting a sexual favor, having power over a person or group of people, becoming famous, enjoying comforts, privileges etc.


     3 ways for adharma

There are 3 ways to go against dharma:

1) Going against the environment;

2) Going against other people;

3) Going against ourselves.

We can go against the environment for example by cutting down a forest to build a mall and by this making lots of money; we can go against another person by lying to get a sexual favor, or we can go against ourselves by indulging in some food or drug that gives some pleasure but damages the body or simply by not using well some free time we may have on our hands (like watching a movie instead of resting if we are very tired or working instead of enjoying a movie).

In all these cases there is something to get, a short term effect like pleasure, comfort or power. But there is also something to lose: a quiet mind, and with it, the possibility to actually gain peace, happiness or freedom.


What is it that we really value?

What do we really want for our lives?

What is really important for us?

We can only answer these questions in the deepest of our hearts. And then we can live those answers in the way we live our own lives.*




* One thing I find so interesting about dharma is that even the ability to write such a note about the subject of dharma and adharma does not make one free from the possibility of going against dharma. That is because the choice between dharma and adharma cannot be made in our minds but only in the moment, in our everyday actions. We may know in our heads a lot of theory about what dharma and adharma is, but then, when the moment comes and the possibility to get something that will give me a short term benefit appears, what will I chose? If choosing that benefit does not go against dharma then there is no problem. But what happens if it does? What happens if by getting that benefit I go against either the environment, another person or myself? Will I chose the short term effect of that benefit or will I chose the long term effect of peace of mind? These questions cannot be answered in the mind. They can only be answered by my actions in that particular moment.


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