You are embedded in an experience where some voice you often think is you, explains the world as a story. In one sense, this story is your life, and we change our lives by changing the storyteller. For reasons I’ll explain, the Bhagavad Gita’s Dharma myth appears to be one of the healthiest (as measured by positive psychology psychometrics) stories modern Westerner’s can tell themselves.
The newest findings in research on achievement, success, and well-being find that there are some key features humans need to meet in order to flourish. We need to follow goals that we are intrinsically interested in, we need to seek mastery in a certain skill or craft, and we need to weave a personal story where we can see how our skill or craft improves the lives of others. The Bhagavad Gita’s conception of Dharma is a mythic mirror to this research.
Dharma is the idea that each of us are born into this world to perform a sacred work in service of the collective illusion, Samsara. The Gita refutes the idea that the enlightened should go off into solitude and bask in their Nirvana. As a psychonaut and psychologist, I think this is The Myth for psychonauts. The allure to reject the “game” of society and escape into our inner worlds is a story I see possess a lot of intelligent young psychonauts.
One major function of stories are that they highlight goals. Our life story is defined by our highest goal. The highest goal articulated in the Gita is the acceptance of our Dharma. As you will see, your highest goal is the single most influential idea in your psyche.
Mini-Summary: Your life is determined by the story you tell yourself about it.
Your Highest Goal is Functionally Your God
As a psychologist, I’m interested in what the healthiest kinds of stories are that we can weave. I’ve found that the most influential factor for what kind of story people tell themselves depends on their highest life goal.
Because we experience, we will suffer (Buddha’s insight). It is a technical fact however, that we solve the suffering of life with a sufficiently worthwhile highest goal (our nervous system produces dopamine when it detects progress being made towards a goal, and dopamine produces the experience of meaning.)
For most of recorded human history, humans were given their highest goal by their culture’s religion. The goal was some kind of divine afterlife. There was a deity who provided rules. These rules translated to daily goals that provided parameters of meaning for the nervous system. Their God and religion gave an overarching structure to their existence.
In the absence of compelling religions, the individual is now responsible for generating this overarching life goal, and deriving from it the daily habits of thought and behavior that will give his life meaning.
Setting and pursuing goals is the rationally sanitized version of God selection and religion creation. Modern people’s religions are the systems of thoughts and behaviors they believe will help them achieve their highest goal.
Note: If you don’t know explicitly your highest life goal, and your personal religion for achieving it, you’re likely swept up in someone else’s.
“I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason or compare, my business is to create.” -William Blake
To identify our highest life goal, we need to understand what interest is.
Mini-Summary: Your story is defined by your highest goal and your plan of action for achieving it.
The Neurobiology of Interest
To set the stage, keep in mind that the logic of evolution is adaptation, and the nervous system is the most complex byproduct of evolution. This is a little more simplistic than is actually the case, but a useful way to understand emotions is that they are your nervous system’s feedback to your conscious mind on your current goal progress.
(The chaos we experience is because most people have many unconscious conflicting goals running at once. Aka, we worship many gods.)
The feeling of interest is an experiential fact of nervous systems. One way to understand our experience is that it is an emergent process of our nervous system’s unconscious and conscious goals, which arise from our primal motivational drives (Hunger, thirst, reproduction, thermoregulation, etc).
Every behavior we perform is a micro goal, and consciousness seems to serve the function of setting and pursuing higher level goals (Future goals).
We experience interest when our nervous system detects something in our environment that it finds may be useful to some goal we are currently pursuing.
Each of us, before our parents and culture could explicitly teach us what we should be interested in, we’re drawn in by certain activities, crafts, and experiences.
Mini-Summary: If we want to thrive, we need to create a story where the highest goal is something we intrinsically are interested in.
How To Connect To Our Interest
It is surprising the amount of people who confess that they don’t really know what they are interested in. This section is going to focus on key questions researchers use to help people find what their interests are.
Our culture is a kind of game, and there is a specific strategy that scientists find the most successful people share. One of the key components of the strategy is that they never waver from their highest life goal.
I think the Gita’s idea of Dharma is an ancient insight into this trait of the most successful. I believe each of us has a Dharma, and once we discover ours, we can begin playing the game of culture at a higher level.
Answer these questions to uncover your Dharma.
1st Question) What were the 2-4 activities you were naturally drawn to as a child, before your parents and culture taught you what was important? (This question comes from Robert Greene’s Mastery.)
He tells a story about Leonardo Da Vinci. As a boy, Da Vinci would wonder off into the woods, sit with paper and pen (quill?) and meticulously draw the life in the forest. This interest was not something he had to learn. There was a force within him that was compelled to manifest.
We all have this force in us. As children, before the ego solidifies, that force inside us seemed more prominent. It’s voice was louder. Looking back into the fog of childhood to find these interests are vital to finding our Dharma.
Tip: Ask your parents and siblings what they remember you being naturally attracted to as a kid.
Question 2) Who were 2-4 real or fictional characters you remember admiring as a child?
Admiration is a feeling your nervous system generates when it detects that there is another “human-like” creature who embodies some kind of quality your nervous system knows will help you be more adaptive. We are attracted to those heros and people that we want to embody some ability of theirs (reminds me of megaman.)
This is another hint to what our Dharma is.
Question 3) What were 2-4 dream occupations you remember wanting as a child?
If you really explore why, each of these dream occupations encapsulate some kind of trait, like bravery, or freedom, or nurturer. If you can pin these down, you have a stronger sense of what kind of qualities you want to exemplify in your lifetime.
These three questions are a good start on excavating our past. As children, that force in us was less conditioned by culture, but it was also naive and unrefined. We can use our past as guiding lights, but the present is where we live, and it is in the present moment we will always be in.
Question 1) What 2-5 activities trigger the psychological “flow” state in you?
Flow is the psychological state we enter when we are completely immersed in an activity. We lose our sense of time and sense of self. Studies abound that people who can find flow in their daily lives, specifically in their professional and leisure time, report positive marks in virtually every well-being psychometric we can test for.
This is just a hunch, but I think that the activities that trigger flow in us are hints as to what our authentic self wants to do in the world. Flow is the pinnacle of interest.
Write down the 3-5 activities that give you flow. If you can start finding connecting threads to your childhood interests you’re well on your way to articulating your Dharma.
Question 2) What are 3-5 careers you could see yourself occupying for the next 20 years? This is pretty straightforward. Take some time to think about this and get your 3-5.
This is where our childhood dreams can meet the practical world. You are older and understand a little more about the world. Do any of these careers overlap with your past interests? Can you see how you could get flow in your work in these careers?
Question 3) What are 1-3 major problems in the world you think you can meaningfully contribute to addressing?
This is critical, and I will explain this more in the Purpose post I’ll be writing next week, but to maximize our well-being, the human organism thrives when it feels what it does helps other people.
We are intensely social animals, to care about and for other humans is seared into the oldest parts of our brains. Identify some problem in the world that your interests, career, and flow states may be directed at. It will imbue your life with purpose.
Question 4) Ask your friends and family what they imagine your highest life goal is (and tell them what you think theirs is.)
This can be uncomfortable, and their answers are not divine commandments, but our friends and family have the blessing of seeing us without the distortion of our ego. They may be able to see our blind spots, and even our bright spots that we may ignore due to anxiety or fear.
Aim to get 3-5 answers.
Now look at your 7 groups of answers. Like throwing a blanket over a ghost, a form will appear. These answers won’t explicitly identify your Dharma, but they’ll pin it down, give it form, and from there you can close the gap between your ego and your Dharma.
Tip: If you still are not sure what your Dharma is, that is fine. Research tells us that at this point, introspective thinking will not help anymore. Now you must go out into the world and try things. Stay mindful of what grabs your attention. Plenty of people wander from job to job for years without realizing their Dharma.
One story about human existence that has endured for thousands of years, is the Bhagavad Gita’s idea of Dharma. Dharma is the idea that each human as a unique sacred work to carry out in the world. The science of well-being, success, and achievement nicely fit onto this story.
Our Dharma is our life goal, which serves the same psychological function as a religious God, and how we attempt to manifest our Dharma serves the same function as religions did.
Before we begin seeking mastery our Dharma, we need to discover what our Dharma is, not our parent’s or culture’s expectation of us, but that which we truly feel compelled to manifest in this world.
To do this, we need to understand the neuropsychology of interest. We can look into our past for hints, and ask our present self a few questions as well.
The next step, which will be expanded in the next post, is using our interest to determine a craft or skill we are prepared to start practicing. For decades.
What is Your Dharma?
If you had to articulate your highest life goal in one sentence, what would you say yours is?