cultivating the hope of dharma


photo cred EMA

“Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.  After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.” – zen proverb.

This was my mantra this week as I shoveled. And shoveled. And swept. And shoveled more snow. And swept more grime. The snow was nearly burying every hint of optimism in my life. Every time the driveway cleared, it snowed again. Every time I cleaned the studio’s wood floors, they were covered in grime and dirt and road salt within one hour.  So, again and again, I took a <very exasperated> breath, layered up, shoved my hands into gloves (which I abhor), and kept shoveling.  Again and again, I took the broom and dustpan to the expanse of hardwood floors.  Because that’s the deal with dharma: we do the work that needs to be done.

Last year, at this time, I was flying to Africa. (To escape the daunting Midwest Winter?… Maybe… But if you remember correctly, it was still snowing in April of last year… so… #fail.)  I was leaving my new home, new job, new boyfriend for one month to travel back to Zambia, where I’d left behind a home, a job, and dear friends carefully carved from the sub-Saharan dust six months prior. While I was (painfully, resentfully) shoveling snow this week, I remembered a conversation from two years ago:  I was walking through ankle-high mud on a broken road with my boss, a man who began his international travelling to developing countries in the 1960s. His travels were long. Uncomfortable. Arduous.  Dangerous. But he was there working for his church, serving his purpose. He said (through stuffy nose and allergy-swollen eyes), “Lisa, sometimes we do the work not because we want to, but because we need to.  Because it’s the right thing to do.”  

In other words: dharma.  We do the work, and we let go of the results. 

Dharma is a valuable and often confusing concept within the yoga philosophy.  It pertains to shoveling. And flying to Africa. And driving downtown to volunteer at an urban homeless shelter. And visiting friends in the hospital. And doing your yoga. While I was shoveling, I remembered this journal entry from a few years ago entitled: cultivating the hope of dharma.


photo cred EMA

Please Note: The following post is a journal entry from 2011.  It is one in a series of posts that chronicles a journey of personal transformation and yogic lessons I encountered while living and working in Zambia.  As an Early Childhood Educator, I worked with community school teachers in this sub-Saharan African country where lessons in hope are abundant and practicing faith is essential for spiritual survival.  

I wrote:

“I’m absorbed with anxious excitement. I fly out tomorrow. 24+ hours on four planes, approaching an opportunity to investigate my own dharma by travelling to Africa. The invitation to the Copperbelt Region of Zambia is to work side by side with primary school teachers as they navigate their dharma of providing education to children in their communities. I hope to witness the teachers deepen in commitment to their purpose, their power to do something meaningful, and their strength to live out their dharma. I think it will be ridiculously difficult. And heartbreaking. And hot.  And dirty. And lonely. And frustrating. Three schools, a dozen teachers, three hundred orphans, one of me.  But I also think it will be rewarding; I hope that by engaging in the act of empowering through literacy, educators and students can cultivate a harvest of hope for the future together.

Although it is a complex concept, dharma is generally used in yogic philosophy to denote a person’s specific function, calling, or sense of duty to this world. 

It is specific to a lifetime, a community, a person’s individual constitution of talents and skills.

Your dharma is a calling to show up in this world, to live your fullest, and to pursue your dreams.

I will never be a math genius. I will never be an IT person. I will never be a mechanic, or a musician, or a CEO. (I will probably never do my own taxes). I will never, ever, be a doctor. (Rumor has it that doctors use and/or see needles and/or blood.) These things aren’t for me. They aren’t my dharma: I’m a teacher, a healer, a leader. My role, my skills, my talents. But it doesn’t stop there, with just me. I also have a responsibility to my community.

As a yoga practitioner, intrinsic in the cultivation of my personal dharma is the call to facilitate and bolster the collective dharma of my community. The Bhagavad Gita challenges us:

“…do your worldly duty, but do it without any attachment to it or desire for its fruits. Keep your mind always on the Divine (The True Self). Make it as automatic as your breath or heartbeat… The True Self works for the welfare of the world, unattached, ever helping to point humanity toward dharma (right action, living a truth based life).” (3.19, 25)

Not easy to do. Especially when life gets tough. (And it will, even if you have really flexible hamstrings, let me tell you.) As each person navigates her unique life experience, experiences of loss and adversity lead to denial of worth and personal dharma. The internal monologue is this: “I’m worth less because there is nothing worthy to do in my life.”

This sentiment is overwhelmingly echoed in communities trapped in deep poverty.  The lack of options – the lack of resources, education, and time – to entertain dreams for the future is debilitating to the formation of a sense of dharma.

As a yogi, I hope to cultivate an entirely new ‘thought process,’ devoid of hopelessness and instead infused with hope. The narrative is this:

“Every action in this life is worthy; every life is priceless by design. Living my own Truth-based life inspires others to find their own heartbeat, their own purpose, their own worth.”

Personally, I experience a renewed sense of hope when I see individuals create a course of right action in their lives, which extends to communities rallying around living out a collective dharma.

When a community commits to live together in hope for a brighter tomorrow, creative solutions can and will be found to address the most distressing situations.  Dharma is rediscovered.

Feeling worthy becomes automatic as a heartbeat.

Like I said before (forgive me if I repeat myself, most of you stopped reading one-scroll ago, anyway), dharma is about putting on your gloves and picking up the shovel. It’s about getting up at 5:00 am to walk one kilometer to school, barefoot. It’s about sitting by a charcoal burner boiling water for your mother’s morning tea (that’s also called selfless love, but we will save that for another blog post). Most importantly, it’s about showing up in your life and doing the work that needs to be done. It’s about stretching your hamstrings, even when they are really really tight. And showing up for a Vinyasa class even when you are hung over. Today. And again tomorrow. And learning to find healing while doing it.


Author’s Note: As mentioned, this  post contains a journal entry from 2011. Travel with me over the next few months as I re-visit these journal entries, many of which can be found also at  If you are interested in the work I was doing, please visit the website of HealthEd Connect. I invite you to accompany me on this journey and to follow the inspiring story of educators from two different countries and worldviews as we work together to grow hope and cultivate its harvest of transformation.

1 thought on “cultivating the hope of dharma

  1. Hi Lisa, this is Angie Freese. Where did you get the first picture on this post of the snow scene? I LOVE it. Can you send it to me separately? I hope to see you Saturday. I am fighting sinus issues (again). Have a good day!

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