During the Stress Management workshop I conducted last week for the Confederation of Indian Industries, a young man came to me with a problem. He was trapped in a job he not only did not love, but positively hated. What could he do, he asked me. His job paid well, he has been working for his organization for many years now, but he hated every moment he worked and now that hatred had begun to spill over to his life – poisoning his relationship with his friends, with his family, even with himself. What should he do?
Choose the profession you love, and you won’t have to work a single day in your life, they say. Absolutely true. Work is no more work then. Work is no more a drudgery then, no more a chore. Work becomes pleasure. Work becomes fun. Work thrills you. It fills your life with excitement. Work becomes growth. The money you make is no more the real reward then; the real reward is the fun, the excitement, the thrill and the growth that comes through these. Then money becomes the bonus.
Unfortunately, all of us cannot choose the profession we love. Or do not choose the profession we love. For various reasons. Sometimes it is that the competition is so tough, opportunities so few, we do not get the job we love. Sometimes that job is not well-paid, sometimes it does not command great social respect, and you choose a profession that you do not love but is respected and well-paid. With young people, frequently their parents want them to do something entirely different from what they themselves want to do. And they give in to parental pressure. A fact so particularly true of lots and lots of young Indians today. I know so many young boys and girls who detest the profession they are in. They have no aptitude for it, and yet they are in it because of parental pressure.
In India we have always had the concept of swadharma. Swadharma is one’s dharma, and here the best meaning for the word dharma is ‘nature’. The word dharma is used in so many different senses that it is difficult to list them all, but essentially it means the true nature of a thing or a person. Thus, speaking of things, the ancient masters say the dharma of fire is heat, the dharma of water is to flow and find its level and so on. Dharyate iti dharmah – what sustains a thing’s nature, what makes a thing what it is, is its dharma.
According to the rishis, swadharma is not the profession of the family one is born into – a brahmana’s son is not necessarily a brahmana, a kshatriya’s son is not necessarily a kshatriya and so on. Swadharma is decided by what they called one’s gunas – swabhāva-prabhavair gunaih, as Krishna puts it in the Gita. One’s gunas need not be the gunas of the family one is born into. In the Mahabharata we have a clear example of this in Yudhishthira. Yudhishthira, by birth a kshatriya, was by gunas more a brahmana than a kshatriya, which created problems for him and all people around him all his life. Unless we choose the profession that our gunas – nature or qualities – decide for us, we will throughout our life be miserable, as Yudhishthira was.
Each plant in your garden has different requirements – some require more water, some less; some require shade, others, bright sunlight; some require certain minerals, others, other minerals. If you water the cactus every day, it might die. But the marigold in the post next to it needs to be watered daily.
At the heart of the concept of swadharma is the simple psychological-spiritual truth that unless we choose the profession that is right for us, life will not give us the challenges we need to grow, to actualize our potentials. And that is why Krishna tells Arjuna in the Gita: swadharme nidhanam shreyah, paradharmo bhayāvahah. It is better to die in one’s own dharma. Terrible is [the life of] paradharma – what is not one’s own dharma.
Past midnight, one day about a month ago, my wife and I were standing outside our home talking to two friends of ours – a professor friend from XLRI and another professor friend from Hawaii University. They had been with us all evening and we had been talking for some six hours at a stretch about various things, and now they were leaving. But so interesting had the conversations been, we were reluctant to end it and it continued outside our gate for a while more. Suddenly one of them asked me: How do you recognize your swadharma? And I answered: When you are doing your swadharma, you feel as though you are floating – light and weightless. The work you do sends thrills through you. Every moment becomes exhilarating. Excellence becomes effortless.
My friend who had asked the question commented – “You get into the ‘flow,’ right?”
The flow state is exactly what you get into when you are performing your swadharma.
Flow is the modern psychological term for that state in which you perform effortlessly at your best. Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one authority who talks at length about the flow state in his books. [If you do not know how to pronounce his name, the professor himself explains – “Chicks send me high.” That’s easy, of course!]
This is how it feels when you are in the flow. You feel completely involved, focused and fully concentrating. You experience a sense of ecstasy – sort of being outside everyday reality. You have great inner clarity – your perceptions are absolutely clear, you know exactly what needs to be done and you do precisely that. You experience a sense of serenity – “no worries about self, feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego – afterwards feeling of transcending ego in ways not thought possible.” And you experience a sense of timelessness – you have no awareness of time passing, though you are fully alert and awareful.
A musician performing at his best frequently gets into flow. So does a dancer dancing, a player playing, an orator giving a speech, a runner running…a surgeon performing a complex surgery on the human brain. Yes, he too. The Mahabharata uses an unforgettably beautiful word describing Bhishma fighting in the battlefield – nrtyanniva, as though dancing. He is slaughtering people by the dozens a minute in battle and as he does so, he looks as though he is dancing. That is the flow state.
Only by following swadharma can we achieve flow. Only through flow can we achieve self-actualization.
But what about people like the young man who asked me that question in the Confederation of Indian Industries workshop? What should they do, now that they are trapped in the wrong dharma and have been so for many years?
My answer is, it is never too late to change.
That is, if you can afford to take the risk. Sometimes we lead our lives so deeply into paradharma, which Krishna describes as bhayāvahah, terrible in its prospects, that it becomes almost impossible to turn back or change course.
Is there then no hope for such people?
Here is something from Jim Cathcart’s essay in Jack Canfield and Jacqueline Miller’s Heart At Work. In the essay, Cathcart narrates the experience a professional musician friend of his shared with him:
When my second daughter was born, it was an emergency caesarean operation. We were very worried and I was there at the hospital. I remember prior to going into the hospital, talking with my wife’s doctor about what I did for a living. The doctor confided in me and said, “I wish I had been a musician because I love to play concert piano.”
Later, after my wife had the delivery, the doctor came out with the good news that my wife was fine and I had a brand new healthy baby girl. While we’re standing there and I was receiving the good news, another doctor walked up to the physician who had just delivered my child and said, “Excuse me, Doctor, I just wanted to tell you that you performed brilliantly in there, and it was an honour to have assisted you.” The doctor thanked his colleague, and the colleague left.
I just turned to the doctor and said, “Now tell the truth. You have just brought a new life into the world, saved another life, and you’ve had one of your colleagues tell you it’s an honour to be in your presence – for heaven’s sake, can you honestly say you wish you had been a musician?”
The doctor grinned, nodded his head and said, “I was pretty good in there.” We both chuckled and then the doctor said, “I know exactly why, too – because this morning, I got up early and, for one hour, I played Chopin at the piano.”
So there it is. The doctor could not choose the profession that was his swadharma. It should have been bhayāvahah, terrible, for him. But he does something beautiful. He finds a little corner for his swadharma in his life. He finds a little corner for himself in his life. And that corner enriches his entire life. Making whatever he does, even his paradharma, beautiful. Making him excel even in his paradharma.
If you cannot have the profession that is your swadharma, then find a little corner for your swadharma in your life. Find a little corner for yourself in your life. Nurture yourself. And your self, nurtured by your swadharma, will spread its fragrance to your entire your life, and to the whole world around you.