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Dharma: Why don’t you take a long walk off a short pier?

The yoga yurt at Gravito

The concept of dharma has been on my mind almost constantly since our retreat in May at Springhead. From our May retreat theme of karma, dharma emerged like the mother and guardian of all the ideas in yogic thought.

Dharma literally means “support”, although is sometimes translated as “way”, “path” or “purpose”. We can put the literal translation in the context of the Baghavad Gita, where Arjuna risks turning away from his purpose and threatening the harmony of the universe. His dharma is that which supports the right unfolding of reality. When you live according to your life’s purpose, you live your life to the full, bearing all your gifts, and bringing what is good within you into the world.

Dharma then, is to be the theme of October’s retreat at Bala Brook, Dartmoor and aptly, I gained much inspiration whilst away in Portugal this summer at Gravito – the site of next year’s week-long retreat in September. Gravito is a piece of land which sprawls down the side of a mountain near to Pedrogao Grande in the mountains of southern Portugal, about three hours’ drive from Lisbon. When Miguel and Shobha began their project there several years ago it was wild land. The couple would go there in the summertime to camp and hang out with friends, and begin the arduous task of chopping back five-feet-high growth of tangled bush and non-compliant undergrowth which rampaged over several acres of land.

Shobha inherited the land from her Portuguese family who had built four houses, two of which are now delapidated but two inhabitable. Shobha and Miguel now live in one of the houses with their two children, and run the idyllic retreat centre called Gravito. The land is now a thriving scene of yoga, permaculture, beautiful hand-made structures (yurts and teepees, the yoga platform) made by Miguel himself, a sculptor who along with carpentry skills is also a shamanic practitioner and the man behind the permaculture project in the garden. Guests and volunteers can go and swim in the river at the bottom of the garden, in a secluded pool which gathers at the base of the little waterfall under the shade of oak trees, the leaves of which create a dappled light which plays on the water as you swim.

The river at Gravito

Shobha and Miguel have found their dharma. They have discovered their passion, nurtured their gifts and worked tirelessly for years in order to make their dream come true. Gravito, off-grid and in the middle of nowhere, is a truly visionary project. It exists for itself, as a testament to the possibility that people can understand, love and work with the land and testament to a burning desire to live in true symbiosis with Mother Earth. Volunteers are welcome to come and work for five hours a day, and Miguel patiently explains the concept and the system to each new worker in the hope that, one by one, people will somehow relearn how to be in nature. This brave and radical pair didn’t need to do this – they had well-paid jobs in Bristol where they could have stayed and been comfortable, but instead they strode off into a foreign country to work their fingers to the bone without any promise of a living at the end of it.

In the last post I wrote here, I talked about Karma: action being its own reward, and about how to let go of outcomes. Letting go of outcomes is not exactly easy, in fact it’s one of the hardest things we can do – however, the great sacred texts of yoga promise us that in order to find true happiness, this is what we need to do. And indeed, if you have ever tried it, it really is an unburdening. We can only control our own actions and nothing else. What a relief.

Tee pees at Gravito

So if we are to let go of outcomes, then why the **** do anything at all? Because of dharma – higher purpose. We all share a common dharma – to be conscious and to be human, and in this way our innate vocation is the same. We all share a certain drive for survival and for love. Beyond that, our natures are all unique and our dharmas will all play out differently. Krishna says to Arjuna in his moment of crisis, “It is better to fail at your own dharma than to succeed at another’s”. Your dharma is the gift that only you can offer in service to humanity.

Great, so all we have to do is let go of all our attachments, transcend our egos and find our true vocation in life. Sorted. But what is my dharma? How do I know if I’m doing it already? How will I know when it has been fulfilled? When am I supposed to know? If everyone’s is different, then how will I recognise mine when it comes along? Tricky tricky. Thankfully, Stephen Cope has thrown us a few bones so we can chew on the meaning of life more, er, meaningfully…

In his book “The Great Work of your Life”, Cope examines the lives of several extraordinary people who have fulfilled their dharmas in various ways and to various effects, namely Henry David Thoreau, Keats, Marion Woodman, Beethoven and Ghandi to mention but a few. Also in this book we meet some other people whose lives are not extraordinary, and through them we learn about the struggles that people go through in finding and recognising, then trusting in their dharma. Cope attempts to codify the stages of living dharmically, giving a step by step guide to channeling your passion and having the faith to walk alone, off the end of Clevedon pier and into the unknown. For some people this walk is not a choice, it’s something they just have to do for their sanity, but that doesn’t make it easy. Even those who are well on their way to fulfilling their purpose have their struggles and their doubts. I think there is a little person inside all of us that just wants to be small, be safe, be comfortable and just be like everyone else.

Cope points us towards the walkers – to Thoreau, Keats, Beethoven, Ghandi. A common habit amongst these remarkable characters is that they were drawn to walking, whether it be striding, rambling, sauntering or ambling. What is the link between walking and dharma? Is it the independence that it brings? The opportunity for clear thought? The inspiration of nature? I don’t know the answer to that, but I did meet one of the great walkers in the flesh just last weekend in London.

Satish Kumar is one of our most celebrated walkers, having walked 8000 miles for peace, exactly fifty years ago. In two and a half years, Satish walked from his home in India to four nuclear arms cities with not a single penny in his pocket nor a single morsel of food in his pocket. He is now a highly respected peace activist, teacher and speaker, and he has been the editor of Resurgence magazine for thirty years. Satish told us the story of his legendary walk, a story he has surely told hundreds of times but he told it to us with a sparkle in his eye as if it were the very first account. This is a man who really is in love with life; a man who walked, penniless, into neighbouring Pakistan, into Moscow, into Paris and into Washington DC with absolute faith in the kindness of others. He had the conviction that it took to be able to listen to inner guidance, and it took him straight into his dharma.

Satish explained to us, his listeners, the instructions of his guru, who had insisted that the young Satish walk without money. Money is protection, and in this way it is a weapon. We carry money because of fear, and fear does not bring peace, fear brings war. To walk without money is to walk in trust, and trust brings love. Before he left, friends of his worried he would not survive the task- his answer was that if he died walking for peace, it would be a wonderful way to die. He walked not as an Indian, nor a Hindu, nor as a protester but as a human being.

Just before you give away all your worldly possessions and take to the streets, the meadows and the forests, take a look at the Baghavad Gita. It’s the original and best treatise on dharma and on yoga. Stephen Cope gives us a very simplified and accessible glimpse into the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna. If you prefer something you can get your brain’s teeth into, there are plenty more scholarly interpretations of the Gita. Thoreau was a fan, as was Beethoven, and Ghandi never left home without his copy. It is said of Ghandi that it was his study of the Gita that revealed to him his vocation to peacefully free India from British rule. You might get more than you bargained for, but if you really want to know what all this yoga stuff is about then it’s a book that’s worth a look.

Bala Brook, Dartmoor

Our weekend in Dartmoor will be an opportunity, for those who wish to, to reflect upon dharma and to explore the qualities of yoga practice that bring us more into our authentic selves. You won’t be asked to empty your pockets and hand over your ready cash and your chocolate stash, but you will be invited to an optional afternoon discussion on the subject, and you will have plenty of time to walk, to be alone, to be with others and to enjoy having some space.

I will leave you with one thought that Satish shared with us on Sunday and which has stuck with me since: when we go out and work, we are in service to the world. In order for our work to be meaningful, the intention we must come with is to serve selflessly. When we work we must say “Thank you”, and not “How much money am I going to get?” Oh yes! I keep forgetting! I have enjoyed my work much more this week.


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