The River of Dharma

A dynamic definition of health involves being the optimum version of oneself, reaching for the loftiest ideals, pursuing dreams and being in touch with the soul level of life. It means being able to give generously to others for the benefit of all.

This harnessing of potential is akin to the yogic idea of dharma, specifically svadharma, the personal path laid by genetics and karma. Dharma is a flow towards evolution, a movement in a positive direction for individuals and collectives, animate and inanimate life forms. Psychology also finds this quest for excellence at the heart of the healthiest human beings. It is a measure of a person's vitality that they have surplus energy to give to selfless, creative, philanthropic, spiritual or benevolent pursuits. In this way life evolves in a natural flow.

Students of natural therapies and the humanistic sciences are often directed to psychologist Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow's groundbreaking work investigates the psychological states of healthy people. He and his fellow researchers found striking similarities between people who are holistically healthy, or "self actualised".

Maslow discovered that healthy individuals are motivated towards self actualisation: a process of "ongoing actualisation of potentials, capacities, talents, as fulfilment of a mission (or call, fate, destiny, or vocation), as a full knowledge of, and acceptance of, the person's own intrinsic nature, as an increasing trend toward unity, integration, or synergy within the person" (as quoted in Murray and Pizzorno's Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine).

Maslow noted that self actualised people had "peak" experiences in their lives, during which their perception of time and space was altered. They had a powerful sense of transcending themselves through this mystical, limitless, ecstatic experience, which somehow transformed them. They reported feeling a greater sense of purpose in their lives and interconnectedness with others.

In 1990, another humanistic psychologist, Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, wrote the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, in which he described similar qualities in the psyches of humans functioning at the highest levels of their chosen fields. Csikszentmihalyi describes being "in the flow" as experiencing optimal fulfilment and engagement. In an interview by What is Enlightenment? magazine, he says, "Flow, whether in creative arts, athletic competition, engaging work or spiritual practice is a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation". In his research on what makes people genuinely happy, he redefined happiness as a life path involving the continual challenge to engage with something greater than self interest.

Both Maslow and Csikszentmihalyi see humans evolving and flowing towards a new paradigm where they are highly differentiated and highly integrated. A sense of self responsibility is highlighted by both authors. Csikszentmihalyi believes humans have a unique opportunity - in fact, an obligation - to become conscious participants in their own evolution.

To this end, he advises "being in the flow", but consciously directing that flow in an ethical and moral direction, for the welfare of others. Without a moral compass he feels that "peak" experiences can become an addiction that ultimately serves no one.

This is remarkably similar to the concept of dharma in yoga. In the Sanskrit text Bhagavad Gita (from the Mahabharata epic), Lord Krishna encourages Arjuna, who has asked his sage advice, to do his duty. Krishna emphasises doing one's own duty or svadharma rather than following someone else's path. He says that even doing one's duty poorly is infinitely preferable to following the dharma or flow of another. To follow the dharmic path well, the ethical principles of the Yamas and Niyamas should form the foundation of life.

In this way, the ancient yogis and modern day psychologists agree: the unique potential of the individual can be lived out, while at the same time furthering the forward movement of humanity as a whole.

The concept of dharma can be visualised as a river flowing towards the ocean of Cosmic Consciousness. We may find ourselves sitting on the banks of the river, perhaps we dip a toe in now and then. It takes courage to immerse oneself in the flowing current, to trust that the goal is the ocean and be prepared to weather any rapids along the way. Overcoming fear and discomfort is a way to push the limits of what is known in order to evolve.

Maybe you need to get cold, wet, go hungry or sacrifice some other short term pleasure for a longer term goal you cherish. Perhaps you need to consider the welfare of others before your own comfort, in order for the whole society to move forward to the new paradigm where everyone takes responsibility for themselves, their effect on others, the environment and the future.

Spiritual teacher Swami Sivananda encouraged his followers to "Give. Serve. Love". Other spiritual teachers also encourage selfless service and giving from the heart as a means to purify the Self and benefit all of life. In every tradition, the wisest teachers encourage generosity of spirit so that all people can benefit and move forward together. It is not an evolutionary step if you do it alone because the demise of your physical form is inevitable.

The only way forward is to share your realisations, gifts, talents and resources as you go. There's no point waiting "until I've set myself up" because human nature shows that perfection is ever elusive. The desire for more in terms of material wealth and comfort is virtually indefatigable. By stepping into the flow, we may begin to feel as Guatama the Buddha did: that state of mind where excessive opulence sickens, the contrast between "the haves and have nots" plays heavily on the conscience and the urge to find a deeper form of happiness overrides the urge for sensory or short term pleasure.

To move towards this flow many paths can be taken. There are some well-trodden sure-fire techniques to get into the flow - and most importantly to stay there - moving with effortless grace. The initial requirement is to make an effort to overcome inertia, step out of your comfort zone and learn how to practice.

In the flowing style of yoga taught by Shri Pattabhi Jois, known as Ashtanga Vinyasa (eight limbed flow), the master admonishes students for too much talking. He insists that yoga is 99.5 per cent practice, only half a per cent theory.

Practitioners of other paths agree: it is in effortful "doing" that the graceful state of "being" is found. Yoga and the martial arts are systematic rituals developed over many thousands of years with the express purpose of getting the practitioner into that flow. By repeatedly entering that state of mind, body and soul, "flow" becomes a familiar place and hence more easily accessed and traversed.

Having made some effort and had a glimpse of the "flow state", it is sometimes tempting to coast a little. However, the desired state quickly becomes elusive. Too much talk and not enough practice mean more effort is required. It is in the consistency of effort that the space opens up. Within that space is the deep internal joy-filled well of the human soul.

Engaged with external life as we are, it can seem beyond our reach. But routine, ritual and consistently applied effort in the right direction make it a part of daily reality. This applies to seated meditation, as well as the physical art forms described.

The Olympic athlete doesn't achieve their goal through visualisation alone. They train body and mind. They discipline themselves by waking up early to train, following a strict diet and sacrificing their social life.

In the same way, holistic health involves not only exercising your body, but also your mind. Practise disciplining your mind to control its urge to run after pleasure and away from pain. Take up a new hobby or branch out in your work so you feel challenged, pushed to your edge, but not over it. Make a conscious effort in everything you do, to do it as well as you can in that given moment. Be grateful for the gifts you have and work to strengthen areas of weakness. Become solution-focused. Consider the possibility that learning goes on until the very end of life and possibly after, too. If you need a new skill to reach your goal, make the effort to develop it. Seek out a teacher in your area, ask for help (but stay engaged, don't sit back and let them do the learning for you) and take responsibility for the wellbeing of others and yourself. Choose to do the right thing not the easy thing, and if you fall down pick yourself back up again.

The only reason some athletes find themselves on the dais receiving a medal is that they didn't give up. Like anyone at the top of their field they kept going with determination. Just like Buddha under the Bodhi tree, they persisted until they got it. Even if external rewards never eventuate, they have a store of inner treasure from their dedicated pursuit of excellence. Not least of which is the understanding gleaned from experiencing being in the flow, the river of dharma, their unique life path.

Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath