What comes to mind when you think of the word “dharma”? Perhaps nothing; maybe you’ve never heard or read the word before. Maybe you think of the title character in the ’90s sitcom “Dharma & Greg” and have, from that, concluded dharma to be the equivalent of its namesake: well-meaning but silly and ungrounded in reality. That is often its reputation, sadly.
Those who have been reading my column for a while will know that a dharma is a life practice, a way of being. It is somewhat the opposite of a religious dogma in that a dharma advises, whereas a dogma commands.
Buddhism is technically a dharma, though it is often referred to as a religion and generally considered to be such. So is Hinduism as well as many other faith practices and traditions. Each offers guidance for right living and inner peace. Generally, dharmas do not use threat of punishment — either eternal or otherwise — as a behavioral tactic, like most dogmas do. The proof of each individual dharmic practice is revealed in how they make you feel when following them.
Although we see the religion that has organized itself around the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus did not actually teach religion. He taught dharma. The gospels reflect not so much an eternal view as they do a grounded, practical one. He taught people how to be in enhanced relationship with one another. He taught them how to exhibit compassion, how to save themselves from their lesser impulses and rise above petty squabbles to awaken their own inner light. That’s a dharma.
Right about now, we could use a bit more of that. We could use some practical, useful advice on how to live peaceably and productively with one another, and with ourselves. We need this. So consider allowing yourself some time for it. We make time to go to the gym, we make time to go to the grocery store, get our hair done. Each of these is important. And all are actions that reflect our best self-interest. But nearly all of us, at least partially if not entirely, tend to disregard our genuine need for regular self-reflection and stillness. There are only two reasons for doing this, or anything, for that matter: love and fear.
Though few will admit it to themselves, we procrastinate about self-care because we typically fear self-reflection. It’s part of the reason we stay so busy all the time. We run around avoiding self-reflection like the plague. It’s OK to sit still once in a while. You will be OK. Much better than that, in fact.
Another component of our reticence to allow time for self-care and personal reflection is guilt. Guilt is the fear of punishment from our wrongdoing, whether reputationally, criminally or even eternally. Our culture makes us feel very guilty, even worthless, when we stop producing. Even for just 15 minutes. Often, our sense of self-worth comes from how much we’ve gotten done in a day. The busier we are, the more efficient we are, the more frazzled we are becomes a twisted badge of honor we very reluctantly give up. Few are honored for their ability to sit down for a few minutes every day. That should change. It will probably have to.
Let’s say you have some digestive issues and a bit of anxiety (understandably) and you visit your doctor. What would you do if your primary-care physician literally “prescribed” for you a daily regimen of 15 minutes of quiet, silent breathing every day? Compare that to how you’d respond to receiving a more traditional prescription for some acid-reflux and anti-anxiety medications. Which prescription do you think you’d follow better?
Assuming you’d be like most (even often myself, I admit), and prefer the pills to the peace, take a moment now to wonder why that is so. Not just for people in general, but for you. Why would you, in particular, rather take a pill than sit still for 15 minutes a day? Perhaps because pills are easier to believe in than peace? We are certainly encouraged to believe so. Corporations spend millions just to convince us of that pseudo-fact alone. Much to their chagrin, they can’t sell you inner peace, however. Try though they may.
But taking 15 minutes every day to literally do nothing, buy nothing, solve nothing or invent nothing is far more effective than a pill. So effective, in fact, that it helps your pills work better, too. That is the dharmic effect. And it gives more credence to the effectiveness of the stillness than it does the pill-ness, for the reverse certainly isn’t true. There’s no pill that enhances the effectiveness of your inner peace. You’re already well-equipped to do that.
And that’s where the various world dharmas come in. Not just the Christian dharma or Buddhist or Hindu, but all of them, really. They all contribute to the same conversation: The one that is designed to just make you feel better. When you feel better, you do better. That’s it. That’s the whole purpose of the existence of dharmic teachings and practice. Just to feel better, and thereby increase our capacity to do better.
If you truly wish to place your value and self-worth on how much you can accomplish in a day, that’s an even better reason to take your time for daily self-care and quiet reflection. Because people accomplish more, in less time, when they are well-rested and are doing what they can to follow basic universal advice for enhancing the four relationships: relationship with the self, with others, with the Earth and with spirit.
Studying these is the equivalent of adding hours to your day, as well as your life. And there are many simple ways to do so. They don’t have to be elaborate or involve changing your religious beliefs in any way. They can even improve your experience with your current religion. And, like pills for inner peace, there’s certainly no religion that enhances the effectiveness of your relationship with other religions, that’s for sure.
here’s a clue in that. Religions have self-survival motivations to them; dharmas do not.
So consider learning more about the still, quiet pathways toward inner peace. You don’t have to achieve nirvana just to have a better day. Fifteen minutes of stillness can often accomplish that. But look toward the old advice, the old teachings. There’s simple and effective wisdom in them, ready to be rediscovered. Look at them with a sophisticated and even critical eye if you’d like. Any life practice worth its salt can stand up to scrutiny. If only religion could do the same.
Put a meditation app on your phone or set an alarm to go off once a day. Mine goes off a little after 11 a.m., every morning. I stop, take a deep breath, give thanks for the Earth, the people, the teachers and healers, the leaders and visionaries, and for God Itself. I take another deep breath, exhale with an “amen” and then continue on with my day. I could do more, of course. And maybe I’ll get there. The advice is correct even when I have trouble following it myself. A smoker is always correct when they tell you not to smoke. And they should know.
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster. He is the producer of The UU Virtual Church of Fitchburg and Lancaster on YouTube and host of the Our Common Dharma podcast series. Email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.