I didn’t make soil, or blood, or light. I didn’t make the water I drink. I didn’t cause the sun to hang in the sky or the crops to grow. I didn’t design the system by which plants cast off oxygen as a waste product, oxygen that keeps me alive. Nor did I extract the crude oil from the ground and refine it into gasoline to fuel my car. And I wouldn’t, for the life of me, know how to make a car from scratch either.
I didn’t grow the cotton, weave and dye the cloth, or sew it into these clothes. I didn’t invent language, write the world’s literature, or teach myself how to read. I didn’t discover electricity, design this computer, pave these roads, build this house, or make all the art that lends depth, significance, and beauty to it all.
My life is supported by countless natural systems, and the work of hundreds of thousands of people who I’ll never meet.
I don’t do anything. I just get up in the morning, put on my pants, drink some coffee, and try to keep up. Everything I do, everything I build, everything I create, is only possible because of the boundlessly supportive universe in which I find myself. All creation is co-creation. There is no such thing as the self-made man. Even if you pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps, somebody else made the bootstraps.
In Vedanta philosophy these dynamic relationships are known as dharma. The Sanskrit word dharma comes from the root dhri meaning to support, to sustain, or to hold. In its most basic sense, dharma is the supportive nature of universe, including the laws of physics, the maxims of biology, and the breathtaking harmony of all of these systems nested within systems that make life possible. But it doesn’t stop there. Dharma also means the social order, the way human ingenuity weaves a web where all of our contributions intertwine to create sustenance for us all. We are clever builders with opposable thumbs and an insatiable drive to create.
There is no such thing as insignificant work. From the field hand to the brain surgeon, the cafeteria worker to the Nobel laureate, every human effort matters, because it all exists in an interlocking edifice of inter-being: pull one brick out and the whole thing comes down.
And now the moral dimension. Dharma imposes an ethical obligation. It’s imperative that we pitch in. In the same way that we are supported, we are morally obligated to take the talents, passions, and abilities we have been given and offer them as contributions to the sustenance of the universe. For some mysterious reason, the sacred formless source of the universe took form as you. Trust the source. Allow the fledgling idea that you are infinitely significant to take flight. There has never before been a human being exactly like you with your sensibilities, talents, and gifts, nor will there ever be again. You’re a one-off. And there must be some reason why the sacred, eternal, formless source of the universe took form as you here in the world of time-bound, embodied forms. You’re needed. There is work to do – work only you can do.
When seen through this lens, the work that we feel called to do is a sacred calling. Our calling is that still, quiet voice within us nudging us to take risks, think big, and throw ourselves into the flow of our own best life. Something’s tugging us toward self-actualization the way sunlight tugs the branches of trees upward in ever grander expressions of themselves. How do we discover our dharma? Your mind doesn’t know, but your heart does. Your love will lead you to your purpose. As the Sufi poet Rumi put it, “Let yourself be silently drawn by the pull of what you really love.”
You have eyes. You see the woundedness of the world. You have a heart. You feel the pain of injustice and cruelty. You have ears. You hear the quiet voice of the truth hidden just beneath the din. You have hands and a mind and two strong legs. You can help. In fact, your own happiness depends on it. As we feed we are fed. As we teach we are taught. As we heal we are healed. As we love we are loved. Our joy arises only insofar as we are able to lift the joy of others.
As you discover the places where your passion meets the needs of the world, you are uncovering your dharma. And when you live in accord with your dharma – when you are true to your sacred purpose – two amazing things happen. One, life gets easier. It gets easier because you feel yourself being lifted. You’re no longer struggling alone. Allies and resources mysteriously show up when you least expect them. And two, the quality of your work elevates. Your work is better now because you are weaving your unique contributions into the supportive outpouring of literally everything else. In cosmic cooperation, our efforts are amplified.
In chapter three of the Vedanta classic The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, “Every selfless act is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead. He is present in every act of service. All life turns on this law.” In other words, in the consciousness of surrender to your higher purpose, working not for your own gain but in the consciousness of service, the flow of the universe is pouring forth from you like water from a fountain. You are not doing the work, the work is doing you. In the theologies of the west, where God is personified, a similar concept is found. It only sounds different. Jews, Christians, and Muslims say things like “God, use me. Make me an instrument. Lead me where you want me to be. Tell me what you want me to say. Thy will, not mine be done.” The result is the same – selfless action performed not for self-interest but for the good.
Peak performance in any endeavor is realized only through self-forgetting. When we are attached to selfish outcomes, we fail. When we put other’s needs first and act for the sheer joy of it with no attachments to specific outcomes, our egos disappear leaving an opening through which the light of the divine reveals itself. We didn’t need to seek greatness, we had only to get out of its way.
All work is service. We must cultivate the consciousness of seeing our work as a love-offering. This shift will liberate us from the chains of craving and attachment. We’ll no longer be working for a private reward alone. We know we’ll get paid. But we know the wealth and wellness our work co-creates goes far beyond self-interest, far beyond dollars and cents. As we work for these larger purposes, our deeper reward will be the embodied knowledge that we are fast in the arms of a conscious, loving universe. You can’t get that from your 401K. But you should have one of those anyway.