By Ramona M. Wis
“People actually feel happiest and most fulfilled when meeting the challenge of their dharma in the world, when bringing highly concentrated effort to some compelling activity for which they have a true calling.”
One of the best books I have ever read is Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life. Subtitled, “A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling,” this is a masterful exploration of what it means to understand our dharma—our unique, personal mission, that which we are on this planet to fulfill.
Cope’s readable yet powerful look at the themes in the ancient classic, The Bhagavad Gita (Song of God), as lived out by Jane Goodall, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and others, has a lot to offer our daily great work as conductor-teacher-leaders. And if you are struggling with your “mission,” as you had always defined it, looking at the nature and expression of dharma may be a worthwhile pursuit.
Dharma is a Sanskrit word with many definitions, including personal mission, sacred duty, and “most of all—and in all cases—truth. Yogis believe that our greatest responsibility in life is to this inner possibility—this dharma—and they believe that every human being’s duty is to utterly, fully, and completely embody his own idiosyncratic dharma.” (xxi)
Our dharma is not necessarily our day job. It could be best expressed in an avocation or another aspect of our life, such as parenting or volunteerism. Sometimes our career is “within spitting range” of our dharma or our dharma resides within the responsibilities we have as conductors. But only when we recognize and name our dharma can we live intentionally and experience a sense of certitude to move forward on a path of action, all themes Cope unpacks with great expertise.
Stating your dharma as “I am a choral director” is too broad. Think of the typical choral director job description. That list is long. And covers a wide skill set, from the performance skills of conducting to the musical, technical, and historical knowledge required of choral scholars to the rehearsal pedagogy to help singers learn and understand the music to the leadership and communication skills required every step of the way.
What are your particular gifts that are put into service within your job responsibilities? Where do you light up, express yourself effortlessly? When are you in a state of flow, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call it, when all other parts of your job fade into the background as you work on mastering something you find challenging but compelling, puzzling yet interminably interesting? And what aspects of this job drain you, pull you away from your center, from your natural bent, or perhaps leave you experiencing “imposter syndrome?”
We learn a lot about our dharma when we recognize, unquestionably, “this is me” or when we feel a higher source working through us. How often composers say their piece seemed to “write itself” or authors, that their book was written “through them.” Yes, their effort, time, and skill were needed, but the soul connection of their work to the core of who they are is an important indicator of their dharma. So is the light in our eyes or the effortlessness of action that others see in us when we operate at a level of creativity and insight that seems unique to us.
Once we name our “idiosyncratic dharma,” we are on a path to live more intentionally and make decisions that align with it.
“When one examines [Robert] Frost’s life closely, it becomes clear that this man became more and more himself through a series of small decisions that aligned him with his voice. He had a gift, of course. But his power came into focus through his commitment to this gift, and through a series of decisive actions taken in support of it.” (75)
Knowing our dharma doesn’t mean we can abandon the parts of our job that we don’t like, though it may help us to restructure our workload, seek assistance of others who have different gifts, or see our current job as a place to use our gifts now, but not forever. And even if our dharmic awareness results solely in a shift in mindset, that is enormous. Knowing where our dharma is in full regalia can light us up so much that we are renewed to deal with other responsibilities without darkening our spirits.
Our current world situation may be the most opportune time to consider the question of dharma. “When difficulties arise, see them as dharma,” Cope suggests. Our dharma can change or be refined . . . sometimes, as a response to “the call of the times.”
“The Gift cannot reach maturity until it is used in the service of a greater good. In order to ignite the full ardency of dharma, The Gift must be put in the service of The Times.” (53)
“The Times” right now challenge us in countless ways. But there is a glimmer here, as dharma directs us toward our most authentic way of teaching and leading our singers. Through our passion for the physical technique of singing that we never have enough time to teach. Our love of language and the text/context connection in our music. Our natural inquisitiveness for all things technological and our ability to create new modalities that reap more benefits than we imagined. Our compassionate advocacy for singers in their personal health and wellness battles. And through our leadership that will get us through this era and position us solidly for the next chapter to come.
“At the end of life, most of us will find that we have felt most filled up by the challenges and successful struggles for mastery, creativity, and full expression of our dharma in the world. Fulfillment happens not in retreat from the world, but in advance—and profound engagement.” (xxiv)
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice.
For further reading:
The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling