by Cathy-Mae Karelse

In Ayurveda and yoga, dharma is one of the cornerstones of the teachings. It is commonly translated as doctrine, duty or responsibility. It is sometimes associated with the tao from the Chinese traditions to indicate ‘the way’. It is also connected with ‘truth’. In the Living Well: Ayurveda and Yoga in the modern world programme, we propose that currently, dharma is most closely aligned with ‘flow’. Dharma embraces the Ayurvedic principle of persons (microcosms) living in harmony or flow with the universe (macrocosm). Flow makes it easier to relate to a living universe in constant motion by thinking of dharma as alive, fluid and something to which we relate in every moment.

Recently, the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to identify an ideal state in which people come into the fullness of being. He highlights a number of facets of flow to indicate how we might tap into inner resources easily lost in the busyness of repetitive, mindless behaviour. Contrary to automated ways of living, flow generates new and expansive ways of being. It brings about innovation and creativity and is closely aligned with inspiration – the kind we find from reading a good book or watching exceptional theatre.

Key elements of flow are:
  • complete absorption in the task at hand
  • complete immersion
  • motivation and engagement
  • skill in action during which sense of time, desire for food and the sense of the ego are absent.

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that some people naturally tap into this flow, but that for those of us who don’t, we can bring about qualities that allow us to drop in and awaken to the wonder and possibilities in the universe. And it is here again that flow sounds like dharma and macrocosm: spacious awareness introduces the possibility of stepping out of the details and minutiae of limited spaces and small ways of seeing the world. Flow encourages opening the mind and the heart, listening deeply to the universe as if it is speaking to us through more than the breath, as if we are hearing and speaking with our hearts.

From an Ayurvedic perspective, the more we are in flow, the more the microcosm becomes continuous with and flows in sync with the macrocosm. The ways to increase flow in our lives is through engaging in healthy activities:

  • that we find absorbing
  • in which we are focused yet expansive
  • with a balance between our skills and the challenge at hand
  • where we receive instantaneous feedback, a loss of clock time, or self-awareness, and
  • in which we sense control.

Csikszentmihalyi proposes that challenge and skill must be matched and high – if not, if set too low, the person loses interest.

Curiosity, persistence and humility are key personality attributes that both generate and increase with flow. When we move our awareness beyond the physical body, drop into being, and/or attune to the living universe, flow states or dharma become more accessible. These ways of being are central to Ayurveda, yoga and mindfulness practices. These systems propose it wise to pay attention to those activities that captivate our attention, that bring single-pointedness and spaciousness and in which we are able to utilise and enhance our skills. Remaining close to that that which we find inspirational and pursuing our talents and interests, according to the wisdom traditions, are key ways of entering flow more regularly in our lives.

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