Right-Sizing Your Dharma

…see yourself as the smallest of the small. Then you can make room for the whole world.” ~ Chögyam Trungpa

I’ve been reading Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling (Amazon Kindle link). My colleague, David Lee recommended it from an online discussion about what we’ve read in the past year. 

Cope’s book draws heavily from the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text about, among other things, dharma, a word packed with meaning. Dharma can mean “path,” “teaching,” “law,” “vocation,” or “scared duty.” It’s these last two meanings that Cope focuses on. 

He provides examples of how people (famous and ordinary) identify and name their dharma — their calling. Some, like Jane Goodall, knew their dharma at an early age and were encouraged by their parents. Others — like Cope’s friend Ellen a psychiatric nurse — were unaware of their dharma even though they were universally seen as  engaged in her calling.

Right-sizing Dharma

One of the more well-known folks Cope chronicles is Henry David Thoreau, the author, philosopher, and Transcendentalist of the mid-19th century.

Thoreau is Cope’s example of the importance of understanding the “right size for our life — for our dharma.”

As a young adult, Thoreau had aspirations of being a great writer. A few years after graduating college, he set out for New York City to secure his place in the city’s literary scene. He saw himself mingling with the great American writers of the time.

However, he was “a colossal failure.” Thoreau, the unconventional thinker and writer, tried to fit in by developing his writing career in a conventional way. The result was work that was judged mediocre at best.

After 13 months in New York, Thoreau returned home to the woods of Concord, MA and Walden Pond. There he realized that his challenge as a writer was not trying to satisfy the establishment in New York, but in developing his own voice. His time at Walden Pond was inspiration for his greatest works.

Thoreau’s initial failure emerged from a “dharma error” many of us experience –the effort to be big. 

Confusion About the Right Size of Dharma

Cope’s friend Ellen, the psychiatric nurse, struggled with her calling — her dharma. In her mind being a psychiatric nurse — which she was really good at and enjoyed — was too small.  It didn’t match up with what she thought a calling should be. 

Part of her struggle was cultural. Caretaking roles, like nursing, are not as highly regarded by our society as doctors. Another factor, was that her father strongly encouraged her to pursue grand roles in her life. 

So Ellen, who was actually a great nurse — her dharma — was concerned that she fell short of both societal and parental expectations. She continued to be challenged with claiming and naming her dharma. “What is my life really about? Does my little dharma really matter?”

Right Size is Everything

Knowing one’s dharma — one’s calling — is just one challenge. Focusing on the size of our calling is quite another. 

If we think too big we may miss the actual impact of our calling. We may feel that what we do just isn’t big enough. It wasn’t until Thoreau returned from New York City to Walden Pond that he could free himself to focus on what really mattered to him and produce his greatest work. 

Our greatest challenge is not only determining our dharma, but also figuring out the right size for our life — not too big, not too small. 

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