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Do the Right Thing: 5-Step Decision-Making Guide

When life hands you a difficult choice, try this time-tested process for discovering your dharma—the right action for this situation.

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When life hands you a difficult choice, try this time-tested process for discovering your dharma—the right action for this situation.

One June morning in 2003, I took my seat on an airplane next to a man with a chiseled face and beautifully pressed clothes. As we talked, he told me about a dilemma he faced: People in the Democratic Party wanted him to run for president and he wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. He had already had a military career and felt that he was done with being a commander. He liked private life. Still, some part of him felt that, given the way things were going in the country, maybe it was his duty to try to lead. The problem, he told me, is that when you put yourself into the political arena, your opponents will do whatever they can to try to destroy you. He wasn’t sure he wanted to subject himself to such intense personal attacks.

When the flight was over and he gave me his card, I discovered that I’d been sitting next to General Wesley Clark. I was struck by how much his life-path crisis mirrored the one immortalized in the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjuna is faced with having to fight his own kinsmen in a world war. It was in response to a dilemma much like Clark’s that Lord Krishna gave Arjuna a teaching that has literally rung down through the centuries: “Better your own dharma—your personal duty—even if unsuccessful, than the dharma of another done perfectly.”

As it turned out, General Clark did follow his warrior’s dharma. He got into the fight, and as we now know, it played out unsuccessfully. Perhaps he wished afterward that he had listened to his doubts and stayed out of the primaries. My hope is that he felt good about what was in fact a courageous act of personal dharma, regardless of the outcome.

Before we go any further, let me clarify what I mean by personal dharma. Your personal dharma is the path you follow toward the highest expression of your own nature and toward the fulfillment of your responsibilities to yourself, to others, to your society, and to the planet. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna often speaks of dharma as something inborn, a life calling that each of us has been given and from which we depart at our peril. But he also uses the word to mean right action, and for most of us, personal dharma comes down to that most basic question: What is the right thing for me to do now? Or, given my nature, my skills, and my personal preferences, what actions should I take to support the greater good?

Often, we associate dilemmas of dharma with situations in which our desires are in conflict with our sense of personal or professional responsibility. (As in, Is it OK for me to date my yoga instructor? or, Is it all right to insist that clients pay me in cash so I don’t have to declare that part of my income?) But just as often, our conflicts of dharma are not about desires at all but about competing responsibilities. Sometimes we’re faced with choices in which no matter what we do, someone will get hurt.

Even when the right thing to do is obvious, you may not always be the right person to do it. (If you can’t swim, it may be in everyone’s best interest for you not to jump into the river to try to save a drowning child.) The right action for you at a given moment may not be the right action for me. That’s what makes the contemplation of personal dharma so tricky and so vital.

Let’s look at two people in classic dilemmas of dharma. Judy is a social activist married to a fellow aid worker, living in Zambia. She’s deeply committed to her work and can’t imagine doing anything else with her life. Then she gets pregnant. She wants the child but doesn’t want to raise her baby in a war zone. Yet she does not want to leave the people she’s working with—and helping—in Africa. Then there is Darren, who is offered a grant that will allow him the time he needs to finish his novel, but he finds out that the grant’s corporate sponsor is a pharmaceutical company known for price gouging.

Both these people face situations in which it’s hard to calibrate the “right” thing to do. Both of them need to think through their situation, and they long for some guidance about how to do it.

A Guide to Decision Making

Fortunately, a set of guidelines in the Yajnavalkya Samhita, a Upanishadic text of India, can help answer questions of personal dharma. The text offers criteria for figuring out your dharma in a given situation, and one overall “rule” that trumps the rest. “The sources of dharma are known to be these: the sacred texts, the practices of the good, whatever is agreeable to one’s own self, and the desire which has arisen out of wholesome resolve,” it says. Then the passage goes on to give us a kind of dharmic bottom line: “Over and above such acts [as]…self control, nonviolence, charity, and study of truth, this is the highest dharma: the realization of the Self by means of yoga.”

What I love about that prescription is its lack of absolutism. Instead of saying: “Do this or that,” it gives us a method for weighing the different factors at stake in any important ethical or life-path decision. I offer it to you with a few adaptations of my own and suggest that you experiment with it yourself:

1. Seek Guidance 

Begin by checking in with the wisdom, “the sacred texts,” of your tradition. My personal guides to dharma include the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra (nonviolence, nonstealing, contentment, truthfulness, and the rest); the Buddha’s eightfold path (right speech, right livelihood, and so on); some of the precepts of Taoism (to create without owning, to give without expecting, to fulfill without claiming); Christ’s Beatitudes; the Bhagavad Gita; and certain instructions of my teachers.

You can identify your own sources of wisdom. However, if the sacred texts, and even your teacher’s instructions, are to be useful in a crunch, you’ll need to take time to reflect on them, understand what they mean for you, and apply them to real-life situations.

To do this, choose a teaching you’re interested in embodying. As an example, let’s use equanimity, or as the Bhagavad Gita puts it, “even-mindedness toward desired and undesired events.” You intuit that this is a quality that you’d like to develop. First, spend time thinking about what the word means. You might read about it in different sources and contemplate what different teachers have said about equanimity. You might ask yourself what the difference is between equanimity and indifference, or whether practicing equanimity means that you never feel your emotions. Once you have a sense of what the teaching means for you, try to put it into action. You might spend a week applying it strictly and noticing how you feel. What thoughts or actions help you feel even-minded? What challenges your equanimity? How do you treat your own emotional ups and downs—do you tend to give in to feelings, or to suppress them? What practices can you do to regain your even-mindedness when you’ve lost it?

You can follow this process with any one of the great wisdom teachings, remembering that it can be as valuable to notice where you “fail” to practice the teaching as to see where you succeed. And as you keep practicing, you’ll begin to find that these pieces of wisdom surface when you need them and will help you make wise decisions on your own. For Judy, who has studied with a Buddhist teacher for several years, the teaching that came to her rescue was “openness”—the idea that all situations are workable if we are simply open to them.

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2. Rely on Good Examples

The second yardstick for right action, “the practices of the good,” invites us to channel the discernment we’ve received, often unconsciously, from observing people who consistently make elevated moral and ethical choices. This is the basic “What would Martin Luther King do?” question. For MLK, you can substitute your Polish grandmother, the teacher who spent her after-school hours helping failing kids, or a friend who always “gets it right.”

In thinking through his situation, Darren looked at the examples of great artists of the past, artists who had been supported by kings and even dictators and who saw themselves as servants of art whose first responsibility was to the muse. He thought about the reality that art patrons have often been people whose business practices were ethically questionable but whose philanthropy at least put their money to good use. He decided it was acceptable for him to take the money.

Judy thought of great political activists like Dorothy Day, who spent her life working for social justice and promoting nonviolence, and of saints like Sarada Devi, the wife of the great Ramakrishna, who took care of a mentally unbalanced niece for years and managed also to be a spiritual teacher to everyone who came to her. As Judy looked at their lives, she realized that wherever she chose to make her home, she could find work that would satisfy her desire to help society.

3. See If It Feels Right

The third criterion, “whatever is agreeable to one’s own self,” is crucial. You might know what the books say is the right thing to do. You might long to make the decision that Jesus or the Buddha or one of your more saintly friends would have made. But if something feels wrong for you personally, then it probably is not your dharma, and that means that you probably shouldn’t do it.

However, feeling “wrong” about a course of action can be hard to distinguish from the resistance that comes up when you’re asked to try something new and challenging. In the same way, feeling “right” can be hard to distinguish from greed or ambition or laziness, or from wanting something so badly that you’ll overlook the warnings from your inner dharma meter.

One way to handle this is to get quiet and ask yourself, “If I did know the right thing to do, what would it be?” Then, when the answer comes up (which it will, especially if you give it time), do it. Give yourself permission to reevaluate your choice in a few weeks or months. The great blues singer Bessie Smith once sang, “Once ain’t for always, two ain’t but twice.” It’s a crucial point to remember about dharma. Sometimes the choice we make turns out to be wrong. Or perhaps the circumstances change. Dharmas change according to circumstances. In short, it’s OK if you change your mind.

That’s what Darren, the novelist with the dicey corporate sponsor, did. He took the grant after deciding that he had to take the opportunity to write the book that was bursting to come forth. But months later, after reading a series of articles about how “his” company had declined to lower prices on AIDS medicines for poor countries, he stopped feeling OK about living off its money. He gave back what he hadn’t spent and got a job. The time the grant had given him had enabled him to get a good start on the novel and he was able to get a small advance. Darren feels fine about both his decisions. As often happens with decisions of dharma, he made the best choice possible at one moment and changed course when he received new information.

Judy decided to go home to London when her baby was born, even though a part of her felt that her help was needed in the Zambian bush. “But the truth is, having a newborn felt so stressful and such a responsibility,” she says, “that I felt I needed some measure of physical comfort and security both for me and for her.” Three years later, she still wonders whether she made the right choice, though she also realizes there will be time for her to go back to Africa when her daughter is older. It was the fourth of the yardsticks for dharma that finally helped her accept her situation.

4. Do What’s Best for All

The fourth criterion, “the desire which has arisen out of wholesome resolve,” cuts to the heart of personal dharma. What is a wholesome resolve? It’s essentially an unselfish motivation. The desire to help others, to serve the situation, to accept responsibility for creating positive change—these are perhaps the most powerful forms of wholesome resolve. So are the motivations that come from the vows we take (both formally and informally)—the vow to preserve a family, to maintain good health, to love unconditionally, to complete a difficult project.

Judy’s “wholesome resolve” was to give her daughter the best possible chance to grow up healthy. In choosing between two dharmas—her commitment to working with the people of Zambia and her commitment to her newborn child—Judy based her decision on the realization that while other people could do her work in Zambia, no one else could bring up her daughter. Even when our motives are mixed—layered with ego or desire or competitiveness—when our resolve is essentially healthy or helpful, it is probably dharmic. This is especially true when, like Judy, we find that we are literally the only person available to do some important task.

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5. Reach for the Highest

Yet, as the Yajnavalkya Samhita says, all these methods for following the thread of dharma really work only when we’re in touch with our spiritual core, the authentic, essential Self we experience when we enter deep into our own being. Different traditions call that essential Self by different names—the heart, the inner Self, the Tao, pure Awareness, Presence, or basic emptiness—but one thing all agree on: When we’re in touch with it, we are in touch with our highest dharma.

When people asked my teacher, Swami Muktananda, how to find their personal dharma, their life’s calling, he’d always say, “Your real dharma is to know the truth of your inner Self.” Sometimes his answer seemed to ignore the issues we were worrying about, those burning life questions like, Should I marry this person? or, Should I go to graduate school, or take a job? Only later, after years of self-inquiry and meditation brought me into the kind of relationship with my authentic Self that couldn’t be overturned by a bad day or a difficult decision, did I come to understand what a good piece of advice he had given us.

When I sit quietly for long enough to let my mind settle into stillness, I become aware of an inner Presence, a sense of being that is wordless and calm. That quiet Presence is not only calming but also tends to put everything else into perspective, showing me the difference between what truly matters and what is only of temporary importance.

The keys to your personal dharma, the secrets of what it means to live the life you’re meant to live, begin to reveal themselves quite naturally when you have that sense of perspective. And it develops on its own, over time, as you sit in meditation every day with the intention to touch your true Self.

So, when you’re faced with decisions of personal dharma, whether they are big questions or small ones, try applying a final criterion: Sit down for a moment and focus on your breath, observing the flow of thoughts and emotions. When you feel a bit of space in your mind, breathe into that space, and ask yourself, Which choice will take me closer to my true Self? Then wait, paying careful attention to the feeling that arises. When the feeling comes, attend to it. The more you get to know it, the more it will be there to guide you and the more you will be living your own dharma, the deep truth of your most personal and most universal being.

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