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From “quiet quitting” to “hustle culture,” career burnout is everywhere. But it doesn’t have to be this way, according to bestselling author and Harvard Medical School visiting scholar Suneel Gupta.
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An alternative way of working — and living — can be found, says Gupta, in the ancient philosophy of “Dharma,” your “sacred calling.” Being in your “dharma,” he explains, aligns your ambition with inner fulfillment, the part of you that finds joy through action.
In his new book, Everyday Dharma: 8 Essential Practices for Finding Success and Joy in Everything You Do, Gupta lays out a roadmap for how to be more fulfilled by your work through small changes. We spoke to Gupta about his new book to learn how we can all learn to be in our dharma.
Why did you decide to write this book?
For most of us, the #1 determiner of our mental health is our job. And yet very few of us are satisfied with what we do each day. So many people I talk to believe that work-life balance is about finding joy outside of your job. As an author and researcher, I’m more fascinated by how we can find joy through our work.
I discovered that this is possible through an ageless wisdom, proven over millennia, that empowers us to find meaning and happiness in everything we do. It’s called Dharma.
What does it mean to find your dharma?
Your Dharma is your essence – who you really are inside — and when you’re expressing that essence you feel confident, creative, and lit up. And when you don’t…you can feel lost, depleted, and depressed. So many of us are feeling that way right now. This book is about how we find our Dharma when we are overwhelmed with duties — bills to pay, back-to-back commitments, kids to tend to, and aging parents to worry about.
Is this based on your own experiences?
I first learned about Dharma as a child, on my grandfather’s front porch in New Delhi. But as an Indian kid growing up in the Midwest, I turned my back on my upbringing. I would over-wear Bruce Springsteen t-shirts and even put baby powder on my face to try and fit in with all of the white kids. It wasn’t until decades later when I was burnt out and depressed that I returned to my grandfather’s teachings.
What is the first step toward finding your dharma?
The good news about Dharma is that you don’t have to go searching for it. It’s already inside of you. Michelangelo would look at a block of marble and say, “The sculpture is already inside.” The same is true for your Dharma. We just have to chip away at the layers of cruft — expectations, judgments, doubts —that have hidden it from you.
One simple way for us to get to our Dharma is by using the “Bright Spots chisel.” Your bright spots are the tiny diamonds in the rough of otherwise difficult times and circumstances. To find them, ask yourself a simple question: Even if you hate your job right now, are there any moments that bring you joy? These tiny, sometimes fleeting moments can be little windows into your Dharma.
What is the second step?
The second step is when we begin to align your Dharma (who you are) with your duties (what you do). And we realize that little alignments can make a massive difference. I tell the story of a nurse named Karen Struck who reconnected with her Dharma through patient reports. Instead of simply filling out the clinical details and hitting print, as every other person in her department did, she took her time with each form. To her, a medical record didn’t just represent a patient’s history, but their story—how they made a living, how they spent their evenings, and who was in their life. Karen’s coworkers eagerly waited for her reports, which flowed with the rhythm and nuance of a novel.
Karen didn’t have to leave the hospital in order to live her Dharma. And that’s the key. We often think we have to abandon our life in order to transform the way we live. But our Dharma is often within reach no matter what we are doing right now.
What is the final step in finding your dharma? What should this do?
The final step is called “Kriya” or action. We often lead our lives with a map, but Kriya encourages us to live it with a compass. Instead of needing step-by-step directions, we boldly take the next best step, then pull out our compass and do it again. Getting to your destination may require you to take a few detours, but looking backward, the journey will make sense. And you will no longer be trapped in the complacency that often comes with uncertainty. You will learn to let doubt and action co-exist.
What is the overall goal in finding your dharma?
I think the most noble goal of Dharma is to erase the lines between Work and Play. To make work feel like play again — just as it did when we were kids. “Happiness” is seen by many as too flimsy to fit into a place of business. But we spend half of our waking hours at our job — and there’s no reason why we can’t bring joy back to what we do. This book is filled with stories of people who blurred the lines between work and play, which not only led them to greater happiness but also higher goals, aspirations, and life achievements.
Everyday Dharma: 8 Essential Practices for Finding Success and Joy in Everything You Do
The following is excerpted from Everyday Dharma: 8 Essential Practices for Finding Success and Joy in Everything You Do by Suneel Gupta. Published by Harper One.
Uncovering Your Essence
My grandfather’s crinkled copy of the Bhagavad Gita was always resting on his bed stand. I remember sneaking into his room one night and asking him to read me a story from the book. It was past my bedtime, sure, but this was a request Bauji simply couldn’t refuse.
He placed his reading glasses on the bridge of his nose, cracked the binding of the ancient text, and began to tell me the story of a young and handsome hero named Arjuna.
Arjuna is in the back seat of a chariot, on his way to battle. Good and evil are about to clash, and with Arjuna leading the way, the forces of good expect a resounding victory.
There’s just one small catch: Arjuna is in the middle of a panic attack.
Staring at the forces that oppose him, he becomes overwhelmed with feelings of doubt. He questions his purpose, his identity, and his mission. In this moment of desperation and despair, Arjuna crumbles to the floor of his chariot.
This is Arjuna’s moment to shine—to do his greatest work— and yet he feels paralyzed by insecurity. In a last-ditch effort to pull himself together, Arjuna turns to his charioteer for help.
This is when he learns that his humble servant is actually Krishna—the god of protection, compassion, and love. Krishna pulls Arjuna to his feet, but the warrior can’t look his charioteer in the eyes. Staring at the ground, he shamefully admits that he’s lost. That he doesn’t know what to do or how to act.
Krishna responds with a single line that will inform the rest of our journey into dharma. Powerful words that get to the heart of how we feel when something is missing but we don’t know why. Krishna says:
“You do not know how to act because you do not know who you are.”
Dharma = essence + expression.
Your essence is who you are. Your expression is how you show up in the world. Your essence is your calling, and your expression is how you take that call. My ancestors had another word for essence. They called it Sukha (pronounced sook-ha).
Teacher, doctor, lawyer. These are occupations, but your sukha is much bigger, broader, and more deeply ingrained than any one job title. Helping people grow, aiding in others’ health, and standing up for the defenseless. Each of these is an essence.
And yet, from an early age, we are conditioned to skip past essence and go straight to an occupation.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question we have all been asked, from kindergarten to college. The answer they expected was always a job title. You couldn’t say, “I want to boost people’s confidence in their appearance.” It was, “I want to be a fashion designer or a fitness instructor or an orthodontist.”
This carries on into adulthood. “What do you want to be?” turns into “What do you do?” Our identity and our title become intertwined. We become convinced that we are our job—and consumed by what other people think of it.
In the 1980s, researchers at Dartmouth University devised an experiment. If you were a participant in the study, a professional makeup artist painted a fake “scar” on your face. Imagine a bright- red, lumpy-looking blemish from your right ear down your cheek.
You were then asked to go into a room and have a sit-down conversation with a stranger. Your job was to observe their behavior—how they responded to you and the scar on your face.
But there was a twist. Seconds before you go in, the makeup artist asks if they can give your scar a “touch-up.” Instead of touching it up, however, they wipe it off entirely. So you enter the room believing you still have a scar on your face.
Later, researchers asked each participant whether the stranger had noticed their scar. Absolutely, they all said. In fact, the stranger couldn’t stop staring at it. Some participants claimed that the stranger looked away because the mark was so hideous.
The Dartmouth experiment illuminated a basic human truth: we tend to view ourselves through the eyes of others. We believe we are what they see. In turn, we make choices that aren’t in line with what we want, which leads us farther down a path that doesn’t feel like our own.
Like Arjuna, we can easily find ourselves not knowing how to act because we’ve forgotten who we really are.
The purpose of this book is to bring “who you are” and “how you act” into harmony. We start by reconnecting you with your essence, your sukha.
“Finding your essence” might seem daunting. But the truth is that your sukha is already inside of you. And sometimes all it takes is a simple shift in perspective to see it again.
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