The Great Work of Your Life, Dharma, and Embracing Fear

While we often like to emphasize our commonalities with others in order to fit in and feel a sense of belonging, the pathway to your fulfillment is found not by merging into and conforming with the crowd, but by nurturing your uniqueness, discovering your own truth and going your own way.

Ancient yogis thought it was our “sacred duty” to stay true to our own path, calling this path our dharma. Dharma is a Sanskrit word rich in meaning, but it can be thought of as comprising both who we are and the way of life most in harmony with our individuality.

Remaining faithful to your dharma involves settling in on an activity or career which you experience as a true calling or vocation. In other words, you must find the great work of your life, and strive towards mastery in your chosen field.

“Every man has a vocation to be someone: but he must understand clearly that in order to fulfill this vocation he can only be one person: himself.” (Thomas Merton)

In discovering the great work of your life you will be fulfilling your “sacred duty”, faithful to your dharma, and engaged in the process of self-realization.

The Great Work of Your LifeAs Stephen Cope explained in his illuminating book, The Great Work of Your Life:

“The yoga tradition is very, very interested in the idea of an inner possibility harbored within every human soul. Yogis insist that every single human being has a unique vocation. They call this dharma. Dharma is a potent Sanskrit word that is packed tight with meaning…Dharma means, variously, “path,” “teaching,” or “law.” For our purposes in this book it will mean primarily “vocation,” or “sacred duty.” It means, 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.” (The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope).

We are aided in the attempt to fully and completely embody our own idiosyncratic dharma. Within each of us exists an “inner law” or entelechy – a vital force directing us towards self-realization and the flourishing of our individual personality. We are guided to our dharma in a teleological way.

In spite of this, remaining faithful to our dharma is often a difficult and agonizing process, in which we must wrestle with doubt, despair, and fear.

Because of the difficulty in following our dharma we have a tendency to deny and repress it in a variety of ways. It is therefore crucial to understand how important it is – for it has the potential to save you if you remain faithful to it, or destroy you if you deny it.

Creative Potential, Self-Realization, and Being Saved by The Great Work of Your Life

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” (Gospel of Saint Thomas)

The process of self-realization is stimulated when you actualize the latent creative potential within you.
Your creative potential, in turn, is actualized when you discover or devote yourself to a calling – the great work of your life.

Since unrealized creative potential is one of the most destructive things for your psychological well-being, following your dharma and finding a calling is of the utmost importance.

In discovering the great work of your life, and making it the Archimedean point around which your life revolves, you will actualize your creative potential, and move in the direction of self-realization.

If you ignore and repress your dharma, and fail to find a vocation, your unrealized potential will destroy you – wrecking havoc on your psychological well-being in innumerable ways (depression, anxiety, fear, apathy, anger etc.).

Real powers always contain this dual aspect – capable of bestowing harmony if utilized correctly, and destruction if repressed or used incorrectly. Your dharma is a real power. You must acknowledge it as such, remain faithful to it, and ensure it saves you instead of destroys you.

“A man’s own calling, with all its faults, ought not to be forsaken.” (Bhagavad Gita)

Finding Your True Calling by Following Your Fears

“What you fear is an indication of what you seek.” (Thomas Merton)

There are two ways to discover your true calling – the great work of your life.

Firstly, you can begin to notice deep urges within you to pursue and master some activity or craft. Or you can become aware of a goal you’re obsessed with, a dream that won’t leave you alone. If the urges you have are genuine and persistent, whatever it is you envision doing, that is your calling.

Secondly, you can follow your fears. If you imagine fully devoting yourself to some activity, or cultivating a specific lifestyle, the more afraid of it you are, the more it’s a sign that it could be your true calling.

Learning from Fear

While fear can be a “mind killer”, paralyzing us in the face of our highest possibilities, it can also serve as a guide and companion. As Thomas Merton recognized, fear can point us in the direction of our calling.

It is important to learn how to live with fear, and accept it as an inevitable part of going your own way. If you do not pursue the great work of your life because you are paralyzed with fear, as Abraham Maslow pointed out, a life of unhappiness lies waiting for you.

If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.” (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Abraham Maslow)

The Ultimate Peril: Your Soul Dying Before Your Body

There is a peril we all face: that of our soul dying before our body. In denying your dharma and not allowing your individuality to unfold and flourish, there is the danger that the light in your eyes will be extinguished long before your body dies.

To ensure this doesn’t happen you must stop for a moment and ask yourself whether you are either 1) living your life’s calling, or 2) devoted to the path to discovering what it is. In other words, are you willing to go to any lengths to bring forth the genius that is within you?

If you are, then you are embodying your own idiosyncratic dharma, you are living your own truth and are on your own path – and undergoing the process of self-realization.

The Great Work of Your Life and the Path to Serenity

The great work of your life may not bring you fame and may not move mountains. It may even appear small and insignificant in the eyes of others. But for you it is the most important thing, it is “your tomb where you die and arise to new life” (The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope). All other paths which divorce you from your dharma will imprison you in one way or another.

“Do your daily duty, and let the rest go. Poke away systematically at your little calling. Tend the garden a little bit every day. You do not have to exhaust yourself with great acts. Show up for your duty, for your dharma. Then let it go.” (The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope)

Chase after money and security
And your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
And you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
~ Lao Tzu

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