When long-time nurse Bronnie Ware questioned dying patients about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, the number one response was, "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."
Looking back at my own life, I sometimes wonder why I initially chose a career in law. It was not because I was following my life purpose. I liked the subject, but I didn't have a burning passion for it. Law was a career that was well-paid and prestigious, and I wanted to be seen to be "successful".
On completing my degree at Cambridge, the usual next step was to work in London for one of the big City law firms. Opportunities beckoned, and it was difficult to say "no". But life is short. Was this really the right career choice for me? Was I being true to myself?
The First Principle of Dharma: Truth
Thousands of years ago, the sages of ancient India formulated the Dharma Code, a powerful system for making enlightened choices in everyday life. It was originally intended for kings and queens, to make wise decisions in ruling kingdoms.
Expressed in its simplest form, the Dharma Code is four principles that manifest excellence through "right action" - action that leads to optimal outcomes. These are Truth, Purity, Non-violence and Discipline. Applying the Dharma Code results in the unfolding of our potential.
We each have a unique set of gifts, and a particular contribution to make in the world. Our gift may be a special capacity to inspire others, an ability to change the way people think, or the devotion to nurture a student or a child. However, if we are continually trying to conform to the expectations of others, we never give ourselves the chance to manifest these gifts and become who we are meant to be.
Truth, the first Dharma principle, is about insisting always upon ourselves and never pretending to be anybody else. It is about relinquishing façades and disguises. When we dishonour who we are, we live against Truth. This brings instability and weakness into our life.
Why is Truth so potent? Because Truth doesn't need to be sustained in any way: it sustains itself. Thus, if we can build our life on Truth, the life we build will be upheld by the universe itself. It requires no additional effort on our part.
We can ignore reality, but we can never ignore the consequences of ignoring reality. In my own life, I have fallen "out of Truth" several times; and while I have learned from these experiences, they always led me into a hard but futile struggle and to inevitable defeat.
The I Ching affirms this same wisdom: "It is only when we have the courage to face things exactly as they are, without any sort of self-deception or illusion, that a light will develop out of events, by which the path to success may be recognized."
Truth always begins at home, with oneself. As Shakespeare advised so directly, "This above all: to thine own self be true". He was emphasizing the first dimension of Dharma. When we live in accord with Truth, our own North Star, our life is not a hard struggle to be somebody. No. Just as a tree doesn't strain to grow, and just as a river doesn't struggle to flow to the sea, we manifest our purpose naturally, through "effortless effort".
Applying Truth in My Own Life
Over the years, I came to recognize that a career in law is not my life purpose. It is not what I was placed on earth to do. It has certain attractions, but it did not pass the "Truth test" for me. And when we are not true to ourselves, we actually inflict a form of violence upon ourselves. For how many years, even decades, can we avoid Truth in our life? And how can not being true to ourselves lead to anything but regret later in our life?
Awareness of the short duration of our life can sometimes give us the clarity and courage to put this first principle of Dharma into practice. Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple and Pixar, put it poignantly:
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Are there any areas in your life right now where you think attention to Truth would make a real difference in helping you realise your purpose and potential? If so, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.
Simon Haas is the author ofThe Book of Dharma: Making Enlightened Choices. He lived for ten years in temple monasteries in India, studying the teachings of Dharma, and apprenticed for 16 years with an elderly master practitioner in the Bhakti tradition.