Exploring dharma (spiritual duty): A personal perspective

A/C | Words by Sarah Picton, student of Stewart Gilchrist at ELSY 2019/2020
– Written February 2020 as part of ELSY 200hr YTT course.

Dharma, taken from the root “dhri”, essentially means “to support, to hold up, to bear”, (Easwaren, The Bhagavad Gita). This idea of dharma – this law, this spiritual duty – is as infinite as it is specific. A law governing the expanse of the universe, which is to be upheld from within (Easwaren). How wonderfully contradictory! With many definitions of dharma (Easwaren), we can at least begin by suggesting dharma is both fluid and personal. A noun and a verb. It represents action in inaction and vice versa. Beyond a word, a phrase, dharma is something each of us need to explore and keep exploring.

And stories and storytelling weave through the fabric of my understanding of dharma. “To understand, stand under where we now stand…”, (Sutra 2.21, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, audiobook; translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda); so this essay is an exercise in observation, in understanding – reflecting on my life, and the stories and lessons, people and artwork, which have shaped it. The substance of my dharma.

Dharma, says Easwaren in The Bhagavad Gita, is the “…essence of a thing, its virtue…”, relating to the reader an ancient story which compounds this understanding of Dharma—a universal order (balance), as such. The story Easwaren tells is about a man who repeatedly saves a drowning scorpion, and, in turn, is repeatedly stung. When questioned about his behaviour, the man expresses deep insight on the meaning of dharma saying “the dharma of a scorpion is to sting, the dharma of a man is to save.”

“The Yamas and Niyamas – the 10 moral signifies which give us all a framework for modern life – are the pillars of modern yoga”, (Stewart Gilchrist). In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Sadhana Pada, we learn practical guidelines for everyday life. These ancient aphorisms – found in The Mahabharata (Veda Vyasa), The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Swami Swatmarama), the Upanishads, The Yoga Sutras (Patanjali), and other sacred texts – speak to the transcendent and cascading power of storytelling.

Sacred stories executed with grace in myth and legend, in stories accessible through aphorism, colourful analogy, rich symbolism, written language, in music, spoken word and allegory ripple through the pages of time, carving out a framework for daily life.

Myths and stories offer familiarity, providing a uniquely identifiable way to understand universal happenings – a way to grasp onto the human element amid the unknown. A chance to make sense of the world; to learn about nature, about science, history and culture – and how these fields magically collide with humanity.

Consider the myth of the great flood: a story echoed through the ages and through cultures, from east to west, north to south. These stories are magical not because they inherit a magical undertone (with larger-than-life narratives and superhuman protagonists) but because they make life’s chaotic simplicity make sense! And that is magic.

Natural phenomena like rainbows (The Goddess Iris), to the personification of Grief (the Boogeyman); in South Africa, Zulu/Xhosa mythology, we grow up learning about the Tokoloshe; on screen today (the HBO series The Outsider), we learn about the El Cuco (Mexican legend). The Boogeyman, whatever its form, represents the mushrooming impact of loss, it’s a name we give, a story we weave, to make sense of human experiences and emotions which don’t. These stories, these myths – shared in dance, symbols, song, movement, and language – are threads in the fabric of understanding the nature of being human.

The late Joseph Campbell (author of The Power of Myth and The Hero’s Journey, among other pioneering works) spoke about Mythology as: “…the underlying form of every civilisation and the underpinning of each individual’s consciousness.”

Stories have moulded my life, my dharma, since childhood. In the pages of Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, Dr Seuss and Enid Blyton, me and my dad travelled to rocky islands and magical faraway trees, to places where Hakken-Kracks howl (Dr Seuss, Oh The Places You’ll Go) and where Good ultimately endures. Journeys and teachings on discovery, about courage, of loss, and friendship, of surviving those endless dark nights and sharing the sweetness of illuminating dawns; adventures of learning to appreciate life’s ups and downs.

When my dad passed away, I held onto these memories and still do. Detachment scares me.

I became a writer because everyone has a story and everyone is a part of another person’s story. We’re all storytellers weaving a story in some way. Learning about others, their experiences and their stories; the ones where their eyes are dancing – these are the moments which opened up my spectrum of understanding. About myself, others, and humanity. These moments have helped me realise we are so much more alike than it seems. I want to share this with the world. Creating common ground is a part of my dharma.

Life is full of hard realities which really isn’t fair, isn’t even legal. Amazon not paying tax for example! An imaginary (or real) line drawn which makes one group wealthier than another. How only certain boroughs accommodate mental healthcare. Insane! Life often does not make sense, so trying to put a box around a morphing liquid-like substance will never work. The only result will be frustration and a vendetta with wasted time.

To see life truthfully, to live with Satya, we seek out those stories which help us make sense of the madness of our ever-changing now.

We find truth not in fact but in authenticity.

Consider Gonzo journalism for example: Hunter S. Thompson’s stories read like everyday life double-dropped in acid. And this is why it works! Because that’s often how life plays out! Chaotic, colourful, hilarious, nonsensical and unbelievable. [And this is why] we can relate to his writing – because it doesn’t play out with logic; [it feels larger-than-life]. And this feels true to me.

Authenticity and the courage to speak with candour is a part of dharma – it is inherent to being true to oneself; being authentic is a stepping stone inwards, an inwards support of sorts, being genuine ignites sparks of dharma and self-realisation.

Dogma will not help steer us out of chaos [inspired by StewG]. But, dharma (shaped by stories which we can identify truthfully with), just might! Destruction, harm, chaos – these are a part of the world we live in; as is lust (kama), anger (krodha), greed (lobha), attachment (maha), pride (mada), jealousy (matsarya); BKS Iyengar [on the six enemies (arishadvarga) of the mind] from Light on Life; “Vitality” chapter. These arishadvarga are a part of us. They always have been and always will. However, so will love, hope, resilience, patience and forgiveness.

Recognising the good and bad – in all cultures, classes, societies, continents, and most importantly in ourselves – is essential to dharma. Because by recognising the importance of both Bad and the Good, we acknowledge there is balance in life. More than this: life (the big picture), I believe, is a creative, ingenious composition of balance; a fleeting, magical adventure in harvesting harmony with humanity.

We read about the six enemies of the mind (arishadvarga) in ancient texts, and in more modern books, like Iyengar’s Light on Life. Beyond the books, cinema plays a pivotal role in celebrating and unpacking such discoveries (Arishadvarga, namely) for me.

The classics (Seven, Natural Born Killers, Four Rooms, and the more recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Joker and Booksmart) present timeless narratives fueled with primitive emotions and flawed heroes. Protagonists for whom I root even though some are killers. Is it the possibility of redemption? The brutality of life’s beauty? Their conviction, their pain? Why I root for the underdog has never really been a subject for inner debate. It just feels ‘right’. So, is this dharma? Our inner voice? Our conscience?

The dharma I adopted has been shaped by loyalty and love from my family; in childhood stories of courage and curiosity. In witnessing the importance of helping those who are ostracised and bullied. In learning about the women and men who, through action, and in art (written and other), fought for the ostracized, voiceless and the nameless (Virginia Woolf; Nelson Mandela). In those who challenge the status quo, those who call out bullshit, mine especially.

Ultimately I believe dharma is malleable. But also unwavering. To draw from experience, mine was defiance and destruction: I lacked any sort of discipline other than my writing, chaotic in its own way. I also lacked spirituality. But my life is significantly different to three years ago, to 10 years ago—to 20 years ago. Adding discipline into my life – discipline which is not destructive – is helping me understand the meaning of duty, of dharma.

Today, I feel strongly about a certain cause-and-effect relationship between dharma and discipline. Starting in the beginning with ahimsa: like my addictions, each day ahimsa (Sutra 2.35); non-harming – the planet, animals, myself and others – is a choice. To not eat meat, to not drink dairy. [Side: Honouring satya: I must admit I have drunk dairy a few times over the last few weeks. But I have not eaten meat. So too have I stopped smoking.]

Practicing the niyamas, especially non-grasping (aparigraha; 2.39) is, I believe, intrinsically related to the second [of the five] kleshas (afflictions) discussed in the Yoga Sutras (2.6): Egoism (Asmita). I suffer from ego desires. And like we learn in the Sutras, the inevitable happens when these desires do not crystallise or dissipate with time: I feel frustrated and embittered. But less so now than I used to. So, the lesson I can take is how my dharma is changing as I change.

Learning that my emotions are not me – I am not my conditions (Sutra 2.5) – is liberating, and very practical. By objectifying emotions (Sutra 2.25) we free ourselves from these emotions! This is an on-going discovery…a daily commitment to learn observe; witness, through practice; experience, the [lessons embedded in the] ancient Vedanta (and other) philosophical teachings, like:


“Aham Sakshihi”; Vedantic saying meaning “I am the eternal witness.” (The Yoga Sutras; translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda – audiobook)

My journey with dharma is absolutely linked to learning through experience, in stories and from others. It is a journey of realising the value in kindness, courage and love – because at the centre of what I believe, is living kindly requires conviction and discipline.

The narrative I, like many of you, grew up with was ‘you will never change’. I am committed to changing this narrative. This is my dharma, or at least a part of it.

Dharma is very much a work in progress. It is kinetic and it is steadfast, it is having a purpose. Is to aid the growth of the human spirit and to serve beyond self-gratification.

Every day we have the opportunity to learn to give, to grow. The Yamas and Niyamas provide us this opportunity—this framework for navigating the seas of everyday life. Steering our true self – the soul, the vessel – requires coordinates, discipline and vision. We must all seek to understand our weaknesses, our shared ignorance. If not, ego will triumph and our vessel will sink. Dharma helps to keep our soul afloat, and this is critical; as if we are sinking in the self, how can we serve others?

Many days have been spent in salty reverie. In the small yacht, so big to my young eyes, which my dad and grandad built. Watching the white-tipped seahorses charge towards the shoreline. Buried in the sand, waiting to be rescued in my princess castle…The ocean, water, makes me feel grounded: it is where I feel most at home. I can smell it in the seagulls circling London’s buildings, and taste it in the sweat of tapas.

My dharma is to figure out how to help keep the ocean and her living stories afloat. And in order to do this, I must first address my own misgivings. Uphold my own truth, working through the Yamas and Niyamas every day.

So, again, what is dharma?

It’s more than a choice: It is our purpose. To make a change for a better humanity; it is a spiritual quest inward. It is dynamic and cannot be broken. It is new, it is old. It is many things… and it is definitely worth discovering for yourself.

Key Sources & Inspiration:
Stewart Gilchrist @ ELSY
The Bhagavad Gita translated by Easwaren
Light on Life by BKS Iyengar
The Yoga Sutras, Sri Swami Satchidananda (audiobook)
Light on the Yoga Sutras by B.K.S Iyengar

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