I began this soul-searching quest long before I’d ever heard of the term Dharma, but desperate to discover its existence none-the-less.
My initial query into the realms of living a purposeful life began in my early thirties. I was in a challenging marriage. I had three children. Money was tight. I felt overwhelmed. Watching Oprah one afternoon, the baby asleep, the toddler busy crafting and the eldest at school, folding what seemed like a never-ending flow of laundry, the tiniest of sparks was ignited. Oprah was interviewing Sarah Ban Breathnach and they were discussing the topic her book, Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self. Inspired, I bought the book, along with an artist’s sketchbook, a towering pile of glossy magazines, and a fresh package of pencil crayons. I went about digging into my past, trying to resurrect my identity through photos and memories and compilations of artistic endeavours.
I suffered a severe depressive episode in 2007. Despite having made some discoveries and even making some changes in how I lived, I was still trying (and unsuccessfully I may add) to please others. The daily denial of my very identity, as well as unprocessed traumas from the past, left me experiencing thoughts of suicide and hopelessness. During my recovery, the spark I’d identified years earlier expanded. I awakened, again, to the knowledge that I had to make some profound changes. I knew I had to unearth my authentic self once again.
In 2015 my interest piqued again. This time, thankfully, the journey of self-discovery was not triggered by depression. It was activated by a series of life events that had me curious about what path my life would take next. I was in transition, no longer teaching, and yearning to change directions. I was looking for insight into how my talents might manifest into a new career. I picked up a copy of Ken Robinson’s Finding Your Element and began to devour the readings and complete the activities with earnest.
While I appreciated the insights I gained around my aptitudes, attitudes, passions and opportunities, the answer didn’t announce itself to me with dazzling clarity. Frankly, I was still just as muddled up and confused as when I began. It seems that I have been gifted with a plethora of lovely gifts, but none of them stands out as “the one.” I have many talents and interests, dreams and desires, but none seems more pressing or important than another.
So, I carried on as people do, still confused, yet happy enough engaging in a multitude of different tasks. I filled my days with a variety of writing projects I have on the go, household chores, trying out new recipes, exercising, and engaging with family and friends. Then a close friend of mine invited me to join a book study of Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life. I was back on the hamster wheel, running, or perhaps sauntering, in search of my apparent greatness.
From the start, I was irritated by this book, which seemed to hold forth as its premise a promise of being able to discern your dharma if only you look to it. Inspired by the dialogue between Krishna (God) and Arjuna (a human warrior) in the ancient and sacred texts of the Bhagavad Gita, I felt certain that my dharma would finally be revealed to me. But alas, I felt even further confused as the examples held forth of great lives seemed too magnificent and grandiose.
The women in my group felt similarly challenged, finding the examination of the lives of famous artists like Beethoven and Emerson daunting. The flavour was patriarchal, despite the inclusion of women like Susan B. Anthony and Jane Goodall. These women devoted their entire lives to their causes. The important work of raising families and being wives and mothers didn’t seem to be acknowledged. As women, each of us present felt drawn and divided. Laughing, we quoted the song by Meredith Brooks, I’m a Bitch.
After reading the first three pillars of dharma, we were gathered together for discussion and Kim shared with us a video by Adam Leipzig titled How to Know Your Life Purpose in 5 Minutes that was illuminating for her. She found his road-map to finding your purpose useful, while I got derailed with the statement, “What do you feel supremely qualified to teach other people?” I was educated and worked for over twenty years a teacher in a variety of educational settings, but none of my life experiences left me feeling supremely qualified.
As it turns out, it isn’t uncommon to find it difficult to discern your own area of supreme qualification. It is often a skill that comes so naturally and easily, the fact that you didn’t need to work your ass off to obtain it obscures it. Sometimes your dharma isn’t so easily identified because it doesn’t manifest as a career or calling, but as a way you live your life. My friends encouraged me to let my feelings, not my thinking, guide me.
I finished reading the book. I meditated. I prayed. I tried to let it go, claiming, who cares anyway? I’m living my life! I’m happy! But it is next to impossible for me to lie to anyone, let alone myself, and I couldn’t shake this grasping need to know the answer to the question, what is the purpose of my birth?
One evening my Mister and I were scrolling through possible Ted Talks when my eye was drawn to a presentation by Elizabeth Lesser titled, Say Your Truths and Seek Them in Others. She shared, among many poignant stories, a truth that was revealed to her when she was a mid-wife delivering babies; that we’re all born completely unique. At birth, we are certain of our magnificence and shine in our authenticity. Then we are socialized into covering up our differences and attempting to conform. She challenged viewers to uncover their souls, challenge themselves to stay open during painful life situations, and look for the sacred awe.
Exploring my feelings, I recognized that what has always held the most meaning for me in my life are connections with people. Not the fluffy exchange of niceties we practice in polite passing, but the powerfully, fully engaged and meaningful sharing of souls. When I looked back on my life, I noticed that the benchmarks I valued weren’t when I graduated from University or started teaching in a new placement or bought a new home. They were all about relationships. When my children were born. When my father died. When I married. When the adoption was granted. And how I felt in all the little moments, when I saw souls bared naked before me, and felt, in return, seen.
And so, I finally arrived, if there is such a thing, at an answer that feels good enough. Kim, you will be happy to know I completed my homework assignment. It’s a little bit late, and I’ll probably even change my mind, but this is my elevator pitch: I create meaningful relationships by encouraging and supporting others to express their authentic thoughts and emotions.
So yeah, I’m feeling like I’ve been going around in circles, trying to discover my dharma.