Better to Strive in One’s Own Dharma Than to Succeed in the Dharma of Another

I love my job. It is, after all, my dream job. I have wanted to be a singer since I was seven. I am one of the lucky ones who got to do what she wanted. I love singing for a living, love writing songs, love traveling around the country with my sister. But at the height of my career, I found myself clandestinely purchasing Martha Stewart Living and reading it in secret in the back of the van, hiding its cover behind Rolling Stone. (I referred to Martha Stewart Living as my “porn.”) And sometime around the time I met Tom and we got married, I began having fantasies about having health insurance and weekends off. I began to wish that I didn’t have to rely on my wits so much. If I were someone with an honest trade, like a plumber or a nurse, I thought, I’d always have work to do. If I run out of ideas, I have nothing. This can make a person anxious, or at the least, give them Stiff Neck Virus. Stiff Neck Virus is my father’s term for what happens when suddenly your shoulders creep up to your ears and you have to turn your whole body in order to converse with the person sitting next to you in the car. I always seemed to get Stiff Neck Virus after a long weekend on the road or a plane trip where I had to lug my six-thousand-pound guitar.

In 2004, Katryna took her second maternity leave, and I did a solo tour with Lisa Loeb and Carrie Newcomer called “Folk The Vote.” (It was fun, but apparently we didn’t Folk enough because George W. Bush won a second term.) On that trip, my friend Jill Stratton suggested that I become a life coach. “A what?” I said. But I was intrigued. I’d heard of Martha Beck; I’d even read one of her books. I went home, did some research, made some applications, flew out to Arizona, and within a few months was fully certified in her program. I had a full client roster, and I discovered an entire continent of myself. Day after day, week after week, I sat in my sunny office at home, talking on the phone to men and women about their lives, their careers, their struggles. I listened, challenged, questioned, probed, got excited about their successes and grieved with them about their setbacks. I loved coaching. And I began to think I could do it for the rest of my life. It was fun and creative work, after all. It was especially fun to help them with time management (er, consciousness) and forgiveness work. Most interesting of all for me was exploring the mind-body nexus—getting clients (and myself) to feel feelings in our bodies and using a tool called “wordlessness” to make sense of them; to stay with feelings and not run. As this is not my strong suit—I am the proverbial helium balloon, constantly floating up above as a thought takes me away from the present moment—it was great practice to work with others.

But something nagged at me. There were many times when clients came to me with issues that were frankly above my head. There were many times when I wished I’d had more training. Should I go to grad school for social work? Divinity school? Become a “Master Coach”? But how could I get more training when I still had a music career, a writing career and a family to hang out with?
After the birth of my second child, the director of my favorite yoga studio started coming to the children’s music classes Katryna and I run. “Oh,” I said to her one day. “I have always wanted to do a yoga teacher training. But who has the time?”
“I will teach you privately!” she said.

Yes! I thought. Not only is yoga teacher training on my Bucket List, this is just what my coaching practice needs! I will become even better at being present, being embodied. I will help my clients so much—not to mention fulfill a lifelong dream to create a daily yoga practice. This was IT! The next breadcrumb.

And so for a year and a half, I met with her privately, went to several classes a week, practiced on my own in the mornings, read books on anatomy and medieval yogic philosophy. I learned to do a handstand, twisted my body till I saw things from an entirely different point of view, lost my baby fat, felt a new centeredness and groundedness. The training was half over. I looked ahead to an even more intense period of study and practice. Meanwhile, Katryna and I were writing a book for families, to teach them to make music with their young children; and we were also attempting to record our 16th CD The Full Catastrophe. Friday was our only day to work in the studio. Friday was also a yoga day. Every Friday, I found myself torn between my commitments. Usually I did both.
My teacher assigned The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient text that tells the story of Arjuna, a warrior who is about to enter the battlefield but has suddenly panicked. The poem is a conversation between himself and his charioteer who turns out secretly to be the god Krishna. At one point, Arjuna begs Krishna to reveal himself—to get out of his disguise as charioteer. So Krishna does. But the vision is overwhelming—full of monsters and blood and gore and so much raw beauty and horror that Arjuna is overwhelmed. He wants Krishna to put his Halloween costume back on to finish the conversation. He simply can’t bear to see God in all His glory. It’s like staring into the sun: for us humans, this is a recipe for going blind. And so Krishna takes pity on his poor human charge, and resumes his disguise as charioteer.

Towards the end of the poem, Krishna tells Arjuna, “One’s own dharma, performed imperfectly, is better than another’s dharma well performed. Destruction in one’s own dharma is better, for to perform another’s dharma leads to danger.”
Something profound shifted in me as I read this. My dharma, for better or for worse, is my career as an artist: musician and writer. And, as I understand it, we don’t choose our dharma––which means vocation, among other things. It chooses us. All these months of studying yoga felt very much to me, in that moment, like my dharma. But teaching yoga––that belonged to someone else. Like Arjuna, I was avoiding the “battle” involved in the business of living by one’s wits, by one’s muse––in short, as an artist––by turning to alternative ideas about how to make a living. When I read the Gita, I related to Arjuna throughout; as wanting to get out of the battle, not go forward into my fate––of appearing to others (if not myself) as an aging musician who never had a hit, or of laboring to write a book that might not even make a splash.

Looking backwards at my career, I alighted at my 23-year-old self. If could talk to that 23-year-old, who was safely working in a boarding school as an administrator, just married, with just a dream to be a folk singer, and I, Krishna-like, revealed to her what would be in store for her/me for the next twenty years if I chose this path, that 23-year-old would not have chosen it. That 23-year-old’s idea was to try this music thing, succeed at the level of the Beatles, with the plan that, if she failed, she’d go to Divinity school in her forties. Given a reasonable back-up plan, who would choose to stay in a “failed” career? Who would choose to strive so hard and so long for a goal (world famous singer/songwriter) and not achieve it?

The problem was, I didn’t fail. We weren’t the next Beatles, but we have a very successful music career, landing in the gray area between world famous and sub-karaoke. Moreover, looking back, I would not change a single thing. I can’t say I have a single regret. I am so glad to have exactly the amount of fame and success I do have. Even the disappointments have made me who I am today. Every year, I am so glad I continue to make music, continue to perform. What a life I have had! Music chose me, wooed me, won me, in the end.

And I am glad I didn’t know how it would turn out. I am so glad I had those big dreams as a young person. Young people need to have big dreams, and their work is to mine those dreams, work hard to reach for the big brass ring. It’s none of our business whether or not we succeed in wrestling it down, but it is our business to reach.

We can’t ever stand to know what our future will hold. It is too much, just as the vision of Krishna in the Gita is too much for Arjuna. We think we can’t possibly live through what we end up living through. But we do live through it, and if we are awake and kind—to others and ourselves—we come out the better for it.

Yoga is a process of making one’s inner intentions match one’s actions. To make my inner intention match my actions, I needed to admit that as hard as it was to go forward as an artist, I had to because it was my dharma. Also, as hard as it is to keep showing up on stages around the country, I do love it. I do believe I still have much to give. And if I am awake, I notice that after shows, over and over, people say things along the lines of “Thank you for sharing your gift. Thank you for bringing your message to North Carolina/St. Louis/Winnipeg/Seattle––thank you for traveling so far to sing to us.” In other words, I got, post-Gita, that we are actually doing a service by sharing our music. I still often feel just so grateful that anyone pays any attention to us at all. It feels like a gift to get to make this music. I feel as amazed as Willie Mays when he found out that he could be paid to play baseball. Most days, I would pay to play. Good thing our manager won’t let me.

Only by single-minded devotion
can I be known
as I truly am, Arjuna––
can I be seen and entered.

I went back to the studio. I needed to take a leap of faith in my music career: devote more time to it, even though it might not be remunerative. Rather than get a degree or a certification, I needed to take a hiatus from my life coaching practice. I needed to continue to give myself, my artist––my Willful Child if you will––margins to play in and explore. I needed to write for the sake of writing again. And I needed my IAP to cultivate single-minded devotion. (Not to just one thing; that’s not possible for me. But whatever it is I am doing, being, whomever I am loving, I must do this with devotion, focus and attention.) Our book, All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family came out in September, 2011. The Full Catastrophe came out in April 2012. Neither shot to number one. No matter. We are so happy with both projects, so delighted when people let us know that they read and use the book, listen to the CDs. And of course, making The Full Catastrophe proved to us that we still love making CDs, layering our harmonies in the studio, working with guest musicians. And our long-time fans repeatedly let us know that they love it; that they play it; that they are learning the songs and singing them with their families. We have a book that stands as a teaching tool and memoir, rolled into one. And we have another CD to represent a phase of our lives, of our career. Process, not product. This, to me, is success.

And finally, since my yoga training, the first thing I do every day is a single humble sun salutation. I can officially say that I have a yoga practice.

Excerpted from How to Be an Adult. To read more, buy the book!

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