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Dharma Isn’t Determined by Your Feelings
Sandra: I’m still a bit confused about dharma. In principle it sounds like common sense, but putting it into every day practice is harder.
Rory: If you haven’t already, have a read of the article I wrote on dharma – it covers the topic in a fairly simple, comprehensive way.
Dharma is a multifaceted topic, but it’s something we all innately understand, even on an unconscious level because it’s built into all of us.
As I say in the article, we all have an innate understanding of dharma based on shared values and mutual expectation.
For instance, we know that it’s wrong to hurt others, to lie, cheat, steal, etc. because we don’t want that to happen to us. Even a hardened criminal has an innate understanding of dharma – even if they choose not to follow it! A thief might steal, but he knows that it’s wrong because he, in turn, doesn’t want to be stolen from.
There are different types of dharma: universal dharma (values such as non-injury, honesty, etc.); situational dharma (when you’re in a certain situation you behave as you’re expected to behave; for example, if you’re at the cinema, you keep quiet and don’t talk all through the film); and then there’s personal dharma, which is living according to our own personal nature. Because we also have a personal dharma (called svadharma) our nature may compel us to respond to the same situations somewhat differently.
Sandra: So far I understand that if it feels right and doesn’t hurt anything or anybody, you are following dharma.
Rory: Dharma isn’t determined by our feelings. When it comes to dharma, our feelings should come under the scrutiny of the intellect. Our feelings are often based on our desires, conditioning, habits and personal/cultural values. I might be sitting in the cinema, and if it’s a boring film, I might feel like talking or singing or making a noise. If I do, however, I’d rightly be kicked out of the place for violating dharma. So something that feels right may not always be right. That’s why we should always use the faculty of intellect to decide – “Okay, I feel like doing this, but is it good/right/appropriate in this situation to do it?”
However, as you said, as long as you’re not hurting anybody/anything, there’s nothing to stop you from doing what you feel like. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dharma, it just means it’s not explicitly adharma – like spending the evening watching crappy TV, I guess. ☺
Dharma is basically responding appropriately to the needs of each situation as it presents itself. Most of the time, dharma is already spelt out for us: we know what to do and how to behave at work and in public, with family, etc. Sometimes, the dharma of a situation may not be as immediately clear, which is why we may need to carefully analyse a situation and determine how best to respond for the benefit of all concerned.
Sandra: But there are so many cases in which it’s such a grey area, like when others perceive it as hurt to them, even though that wasn’t your intention. Does your intent count here or the actual action? And if your intention was non-harmful, and someone takes it badly and accuses you of something, and you end up feeling bad – is that still following dharma?
Rory: We’re not in control of the results of our actions, only the actions themselves. There will be times when we do what’s best but other people may not necessarily concur; they might respond negatively, but that doesn’t mean you weren’t adhering to dharma. As a parent, you no doubt experience this a lot. You tell the kids it’s time for bed and the reaction probably isn’t always a, “Gee, you’re right; thanks, Mum!” The dharma of the situation, however, is that bedtime is bedtime, whether they like it or not.
This is where karma yoga ties in with dharma. You act dharmically, do your best and accept whatever results come with an even mind, which takes the stress out of action!
Sandra: So your intention was right – but you still upset someone, who may take revenge and make you feel bad. Tricky one.
Rory: It can be tricky. Such is life, unfortunately. Sometimes you just can’t win with people, and no matter how much good you do by others, you may encounter resistance, anger, resentment, etc. Again, this has to be accepted with the karma yoga spirit. Your mind will at least be at peace knowing that you’ve done the right thing and acted with integrity and with the right motive, intention, etc.