What is Dharma?

dharma-yogaThere is a word that exists in many traditions but that we don’t have in our language, the practical meaning of which I find very valuable and important to know. The word is dharma. It is a Sanskrit word, and because we don’t have a single word translation for it in western languages, and it has very different meanings according to its context, it is quite difficult to explain.


     What is Dharma?

One way it could be translated is: ‘the behavior that is in accord with the natural order, the laws that regulate and coordinate the operation of the universe and everything within it’. In more simple terms, dharma is the right behavior, the correct thing to do, the right action. Although in some cases it may be used with moral or religious connotations, I like to use it simply as the natural sense of the right action or behavior according to the needs of the moment. From this point of view, there is no right or wrong, there is only the possibility to open the eyes and see what the moment requires.

Yes, the moment has needs.

If I am in college taking a class and while the professor is talking I am playing games on my phone, I am going against the needs of the moment, I am going against dharma. The need of that moment is to pay attention to what the professor is saying. Of course there are exceptions, and this is what makes understanding and applying dharma so difficult. If for some reasons I am forced to take that particular class and the professor happens to be a very bad one and I know of a way to use my time more profitably than listening to him, then the need of that moment is to do just that. From the point of view of the university I may be doing the incorrect thing, but from the point of view of this particular situation, given these particular circumstances, going against the established regulations is the right action, is what the dharmic action is.

If I am on holiday with my family and I spend most of my time answering old emails I am going against the needs of the moment, which is to pay intentional attention to my wife and children. But if I am regularly late for work and don’t take care of my responsibilities because I stay home playing with my children I am going against the needs of the moment, I am going against dharma.

There are thousands of examples like this and actually each moment, given its particular and unique circumstances, has its own needs, its own dharma. And because it is so particular, because it is so much related to the unique circumstances of each moment, it really depends on how aware we are of ourselves and of the moment. The possibility to see dharma is directly related to the emotional, psychological and spiritual maturity of the individual.

Without this maturity, it is very easy to oversee dharma, and one of the main reasons why we may go against it is because we consider ourselves – our own personal needs – more important than the needs of the total, just like a kid crying and shouting ‘I want, I want, I want!’

The needs of the moment – dharma – are the needs of the total in that particular instance. But when I consider my own needs to be more valuable, more important, more significant than the needs of the total, I can go against dharma. In Sanskrit it is called adharma. Adharma has a short term effect and a long term effect. The short term effect of going against dharma is that I may get what I want, like comfort, power or pleasure. The long term effect is that I create a troubled, agitated, anxious mind.


     A Value for a Quiet Mind

Here, we need to deviate a bit from the subject of dharma and introduce the idea of values. As I mentioned before in several of my writings and in my classes, values are really what lead our life. A value is what I pay attention to, what I really love – not what I say I love. I may say that I love my family, and that everything I do is for my family, but if my attention in my everyday life is mostly directed to my work and making money, leaving almost no time to be with my family, then my value is not my family but security. I may say that I love my family but what I actually love is feeling secure. This is not easy to see as it goes against many of our deepest beliefs, but if we are able to go deep enough into our own psychology we may be able to see the truth of it.

One of the main aims of the Yogilates classes is to create the value of a quiet mind, because it is only with a quiet mind (a mind that is more present, more aware, has more space to see and perceive what is around) that one is able to have a more substantial, profound and beautiful life. And more importantly, it is only with a quiet mind that we can find real freedom. For a more in-depth look at what I mean by freedom please take a look at THIS NOTE.

A tense, worried, anxious, restless mind may be able to get a lot of the goodies that are so much in fashion in our society – like power or money or pleasure or recognition – but it cannot be free, it cannot find peace, it cannot find real happiness.


     Back to dharma / Feeling good

And so, one reason why I may want to learn to be more aware and follow dharma is because I value a quiet mind, I value freedom, I value peace, I value real happiness. When I go against dharma, in the long term, I suffer – and when I follow it I feel good. But this ‘feeling good’ is not based on a candy-like sensation, like comfort or power or pleasure, but it is the natural sensation of well-being that arises in the deepest of my being when I am doing the right thing, when I follow the natural laws, when I follow my own nature.

This underestimated but profound sense of well-being is a very difficult value to respect, especially in our materialistic and very adharmic societies, but one that I have a choice to follow.


     The inspiration

I was thinking about all this because the other day I received an invitation to go with my son to a very beautiful swimming pool. It was a very exclusive one, difficult to access because of its high price. In this place, there is an inside swimming pool which is much more affordable and quite busy and then there is the outside swimming pool – the one I was at with my son – with a wonderful Jacuzzi, a solarium, several nice bars and a large relaxing grassy area. It was very quiet and pleasant. At a certain moment a beautiful girl was going around offering fruit to the guests. My son was delighted. The water was just the perfect temperature for that very hot day and to rest on those hammocks in the well kept green grass was a really pleasant experience.

To get to this pool is not easy. That was very clear when you saw the big crowd of people that were in the inside pool and how quiet it was at the outside one. To be there required a big payment, monetary or otherwise.

While I was there really enjoying myself, a question jumped into my head: how much would a person be willing to pay to get an experience like this? There is absolutely nothing wrong – quite the opposite actually – with enjoying the wonderful possibilities of our modern world, if we are able and capable of getting them without going against dharma. But many times we try to get those things by doing exactly that.

‘Those things’ could be enjoying a pleasurable experience like this swimming pool, or a thousand other possibilities: making some more money, getting a sexual favor, having power over a person or group of people, becoming famous, enjoying comforts, privileges etc.


     3 ways for adharma

There are 3 ways to go against dharma:

1) Going against the environment;

2) Going against other people;

3) Going against ourselves.

We can go against the environment for example by cutting down a forest to build a mall and by this making lots of money; we can go against another person by lying to get a sexual favor, or we can go against ourselves by indulging in some food or drug that gives some pleasure but damages the body or simply by not using well some free time we may have on our hands (like watching a movie instead of resting if we are very tired or working instead of enjoying a movie).

In all these cases there is something to get, a short term effect like pleasure, comfort or power. But there is also something to lose: a quiet mind, and with it, the possibility to actually gain peace, happiness or freedom.


What is it that we really value?

What do we really want for our lives?

What is really important for us?

We can only answer these questions in the deepest of our hearts. And then we can live those answers in the way we live our own lives.*




* One thing I find so interesting about dharma is that even the ability to write such a note about the subject of dharma and adharma does not make one free from the possibility of going against dharma. That is because the choice between dharma and adharma cannot be made in our minds but only in the moment, in our everyday actions. We may know in our heads a lot of theory about what dharma and adharma is, but then, when the moment comes and the possibility to get something that will give me a short term benefit appears, what will I chose? If choosing that benefit does not go against dharma then there is no problem. But what happens if it does? What happens if by getting that benefit I go against either the environment, another person or myself? Will I chose the short term effect of that benefit or will I chose the long term effect of peace of mind? These questions cannot be answered in the mind. They can only be answered by my actions in that particular moment.


Categories: Reflections

There are 5 comments

  1. Carlos

    I just found another definition for dharma which i like very much:

    Dharma is that which maintains the harmony of the creation.
    And at a personal level, it could be defined as: the way of life by which the harmony of the creation is maintained.


    Why is it so difficult to do the right thing to do? Is it because it is not clear what is the right thing to do, because the right thing to do is hard to do, is it somehow fear, lack oh confidence. I feel somehow still, repeating the same mistakes over and over again, feeling like going nowhere, uncapable of adjusting to what the moment requires, uncapable of deciding between two opposite choices. For exemple, I received an email. I ask myself should I answear or not. I can’t decide, so I remain in silence, but I still haven’t decided not to answear, I don’t answear because there is no third choice. I don’t know what the consequences will be and I still am afraid of them. I am afraid of future pain, sufferings, too strong emotions to bear. So how can I overcome theses feelings and situations? Will I ever experience accoplishing dharma? Thank you very much, best wishes, Alexandra.

    1. Carlos

      Hello dear Alexandra,
      Nice to hear from you.
      The mind has three different states. In Sanskrit they are called satva, tamas and Rajas.
      When the mind is in Rajas, it feels agitated, with lots of desires, always in motion, doing, doing, doing, and because many of the things we try to do can not be done for several reasons (that is just the way the world is) we often feel frustrated, upset and angry. One of its characteristic is its power of projection. It projects and fears the future, it is constantly thinking about the future.

      When the mind is in tamas, the mind feels dense, and dull, and confused, and tired, and lazy and fearful and ignorant. One of its characteristic is its power of concealment. It is a state where is very difficult to see, to perceive, to have a clear idea of what is actually going on around ourselves.

      The thing with tamas and Rajas is that they are the other side of the same coin and in most cases people just go from tamas to Rajas and from Rajas to tamas back and force all the time. Often, but not always, they wake up in the morning feeling pretty tamasic (heavy, tired, sleepy). And so, drink a few coffees to wake up, and then the rajasic mode take over. And they spend most of their day just doing, and worrying, and doing, with tension, agitation; always in a hurry, always trying to reach that future that can never be reached. Usually for lunch, if they have the time for one, they eat some heavy food that just help them to fill their stomachs with almost no nutritional value. These heavy foods encourage a tamasic state, but because of all the responsabilities and deadlines that people have the rajasic state manage to stay afloat. By the end of the day, we are exhosted, and the tamasic state kicks in. We feel tired and heavy and when we finally have the time to pay attention to our life, we look at it from this tamasic state, and what we see is not a nice life. We see only the dark side of it, the problems, the downsides. We have some beer and pizza, or some other fast food, which makes us even more tamasic, and stay long hours in front of the tv or computer. We go to bed very late, and then wake up feeling tired and…. And the show goes on.

      There’s another state called satva. In this state the mind feels light, clear, calm, in order, with space and in this state the mind has the possibility to actually see and think with clarity. When we see our life from this state, we can see we are not doing bad. We are alive!, we exist! and that alone is an incredible miracle. There may be some problems, some unsolved difficulties, some old patterns of thought and behavior that need to be dealt with, but that is all.

      As I wrote in this article, not all thoughts are created equal, and so just because a thought is saying our life is a problem it does not mean that our life is actually a problem. (the actual problem is to see our life from a tamasic or rajasic point of view, instead of seeing it from a satvic point of view).
      A satvic point of view may be: ‘there may be some unsolved issues in my life, but that is not a problem; it is only a chance to mature.’

      For me our aim in this life, success in this life, is not based on how many things we get – a bigger house, more money, more kids, more power – but how we mature as human beings. And the only way to mature as human beings is dealing with our difficulties and learning from them, not trying to get rid of them. And the way to deal with our difficulties is by seeing them with a satvic mind, with a clear and an open mind. I have written an article about how to have a quiet mind HERE.

      The problems are never in the world, but in the way we see the world. And we see the world the way our minds see the world. There is no other world than the interpretation that our minds do of what they see. If we want to change the world – our world – we need to change the way we see the world. I wrote some more about this in this note.

      My question is: how much time and energy and desire do we put into acquiring a quiet mind, into finding ways to harmonize our inner life? For me this is one of the most important issues.
      How much time and energy we put into making more money or having a relationship or pushing our profession? Of course there is nothing wrong with it, we need to survive and make our living, but the happiness and peace we are looking for is not in what we get from the world, but in the clarity and harmony with which we see that world. That is why we need to put time and energy into clearing our minds, into harmonizing our inner world.

      And one of the first steps towards that inner harmony is to stop fighting with what is. In particular, in this case, to stop fighting with your own psychology. I have written an article about this HERE.

      Dharma means harmony, and harmony has to be found first in our own minds.

      What I wrote here may not be very easy to take. You are very welcome to write me back if you like.


    Dear Carlos, thank you so very much for your answear, I’ll take it as an unexpected gift from you and life for my birthday.
    I have read your article on dharma and many of your other writings along the years.
    They have always inspired me and given me a sens of peace and true wisdom, in accordance to my deeper intuition.
    Your answear spoke to me, and I acknoledge the three states of mind that you have very clearly described to me.
    I feel that I often pass from rajas in the morning with strong anguish to a sorte of tamas toward the end of the day for exemple.
    But I feel that all this pressure that I put on myself often brings me from one to the other and this is comming from the difficulty of positioning myself toward my family, my closest friends, people from work etc. I don’t think it’s only my pure interpretation that those who surround us often put pressure, not always conciously or deliberatly ,but they express in different ways their expectations. I fail to have a more dharma peace of mind because I have the feeling that I fail to live up to what I cannot interpret otherway than their expectations, their will. The mechanism is simple, on numerous occasions you are expected to behave in a certain way and when you don’t then the feeling of some sorte of guilt appears.
    So what I want to say is that is very difficult to be auto-referential in a constant way in a world that relays so much on the ambiguity of communication. We communicate, it’s a must ourdays , yet there is often so little understanding because it’s so hard to decide on the meaning of the signs that we receive from the others.
    It’s this stuggle to understand and to get yourself understood that get’s me out of myself from rajas to tamas. How to keep on a quiet mind when i feel i have to respond, to act toward other subjectivities than my own. How to be free and still relate in an harmonious way when I don’t have the feeling of really understanding the others?

Post Your Thoughts