• tarahthornburg

Dharma, Ikigai, and Discovering Your Purpose in Life

This post originally aired as an episode of my podcast, “The Fearless Creative.”

If you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below. 

If you do listen, please take a moment to subscribe and leave a review on Apple PodcastsGoogleSpotify, or your favorite podcatcher. (If you don’t know how to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, I’ve got a wonderful little cheat sheet here.)

Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show. I am so happy to be here. I’ve had a pretty good week…This past Thursday I completed the last major round of edits on my first nonfiction book for writers, artists, and creatives. I have a paper copy of the manuscript printed out and sitting here beside me, so I am finally ready to announce the title…

The book is called “Creative Morning Magic,” and it has been a long time coming for me. I was looking back at my old notebooks to try to figure out when I started working on it, but the last four notebooks that I had scattered around my office didn’t go back that far. I really got serious about putting together a coherent draft of the book back in January. I revised it. I stopped. I revised some more. I stopped. And this is really out of character for me the way I write.

Normally with fiction I can plan out a book within four or five days. I’ll pound out a first draft in less than a month, and I’ll have a finished product four or five months after I start. But this book was near and dear to my heart, and I felt that it needed a lot of work, a lot of love, to come together as a book that was useful and coherent and practical.

It’s kind of ridiculous that it took me so long to get it this far because the book isn’t that long and the premise is super simple: At its core, the book is a morning routine that allows you to integrate creativity into your daily life — no matter what creative medium you work in. But what makes it different from “Miracle Morning” or any of the more popular personal development books is that the routine is designed to use mindfulness to enhance creativity. 

The routine itself is super simple, but from what I could find, there actually aren’t very many books out there that discuss the link between mindfulness and creativity. There have been studies done that show that meditation gives you all the necessary ingredients to be more creative, but there really weren’t any practical guides that I could find that paired mindfulness and creativity in this way.

Natalie Goldberg probably comes the closest with “Writing Down the Bones,” but honestly, I don’t find her books to be very user-friendly. I wanted my book to feel really friendly and approachable and allow you to pick it up and immediately start putting the routine into practice. It talks about the different elements of creativity, how to establish a creative habit, and how to carry those elements of joy and mindfulness throughout the day.

So now that I have a print version to go through, I’ll probably be sending it to my editor in just a few weeks. Because this is the first nonfiction book I’ve written, I don’t have an existing readership for it. So if you would like to receive an advanced review copy, shoot me an email at writewithtarah@gmail.com.

If you’ve never gotten an advanced review copy or ARC before, basically you receive the book for free before it is published — in this case it will be a digital copy — and the quid pro quo is that you agree to write a review once it is published.

So if you would like for me to send you the book early — maybe a month or so from now — please email me at writewithtarah@gmail.com. I’ll put my email down in the show notes.

One more little housekeeping reminder: If you missed last week’s episode, definitely go back and give it a listen. I interviewed my husband Ben, who is also an entrepreneur. He talks a little bit about how he has used his background and his skillset to build a business and work for himself. We also touch on discipline and teamwork and what it’s like to live and work in a two-entrepreneur household. It’s a short interview, but it’s definitely worth your time. So make sure you go back and give it a listen if you missed the podcast last week.

So today I wanted to talk about something that has been on my mind for the last few weeks…It’s an idea that’s a little more abstract, and so it’s taken me several weeks to digest it enough that I could really talk about it. But if you’re a writer or really any kind of creative, you know that sometimes ideas have to really marinate in your subconscious for a while before you can put them out into the world.

This week I want to talk about creating art and working in our businesses in a way that is “in dharma.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry. I’m going to break down what dharma is, how you know if you are “in dharma” with what you’re doing, and how we can all align our lives and businesses so that we are fully harnessing our unique talents and passions to be of service and, of course, be profitable. I’m also going to talk about the difference between a passion, a profession, a vocation, and a mission and the Japanese concept of ikigai.

But first it’s time for this week’s Discovery segment. This is the part of the show where I highlight a book or a podcast or a TV show that I have found useful or interesting this week. And this week I’m highlighting a book that I revisited to pull together the theme for this show. 

It is “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, who was a painter and poet born in modern-day Lebanon. He was born in 1883 and was educated in Beirut, Boston, and Paris. He is a famous American poet because he wrote a lot of prose and poems for Arabic newspapers in the US. 

Reading from his bio on the Poetry Foundation’s website: “These pieces spoke to the experiences and loneliness of Middle Eastern immigrants in the New World…Gibran’s simple and direct style was a revelation and an inspiration. His themes of alienation, disruption, and lost rural beauty and security in a modernizing world also resonated with the experiences of readers.”

Sounds relevant to us today, right? Even though he died in 1931, I find Gibran to still be incredibly relevant and modern.

His works were hugely popular back in the day, but sadly he did not gain a lot of favor with American critics during his lifetime. “The Prophet” was first published in 1923, and at the time it was considered a little too romantic and sentimental by critics. In those days, according to the Poetry Foundation, critics favored the “cool intellectualism of James Joyce and TS Eliot or the gritty realism of Ernest Hemingway.”

But if you haven’t had a chance to read “The Prophet,” it’s definitely worth the read. It actually went back into the public domain this year, so you can read the full text online. I’ll put a link to it down in the show notes, but I would encourage you to get a paper copy. If you just glance at it online, it looks kind of heavy and old-timey…But if you just read it in little chunks as it was written, it’s very digestible and pleasurable to read.

It’s a tiny little book, and it’s chock full of life lessons. What’s cool is that it’s a book of short poetic essays that are neatly organized around specific topics like love, marriage, children, eating and drinking, work, on joy and sorrow, on freedom, on friendship, on religion, on death…It’s basically an owner’s manual for the human experience.

The passage I wanted to share that really resonated with me for the theme of today’s show is from the essay on work. He writes:

“And what is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.”

To me, I don’t know if there is any quote that better describes the experience of the artist, the writer, or the creative entrepreneur…But it also applies to anyone who works at a regular job that pours their heart and soul into what they do. And I think nowadays that it can be harder to find those individuals out in the wild, because most of us now will work multiple jobs or even work in multiple industries throughout our working years. But if you look for it, you will find these people.

There’s a guy who manages my neighborhood grocery store, King Soopers. And for some reason, I feel like this store has a problem keeping employees. The turnover is just crazy, and I don’t know if it’s the low wages or the company culture. But I think it’s just kind of a demoralizing place to work, but there is a manger there who is a total ray of sunshine. He’s so efficient and on the ball. He’s always jumping in to ring up customers and bag groceries and help customers find open check-out lanes. He’ll start conversations and compliment customers. He’s just really wonderful…

I think it’s easy to weave with threads from our heart when we’re making art or writing a novel that’s a passion project…It’s a lot more difficult (but I would argue even more noble) to do the work we’re not as excited about with love. 

When I was working my 9-to-5, I think this actually got me into trouble sometimes because I was an editor, and I wanted every article that crossed my desk to be absolutely perfect. I didn’t want to put anything out into the world that didn’t have love poured into it, which meant helpful information and accurate facts presented in a helpful manner with impeccable grammar. But if everyone poured their heart and soul into what they did, just think about how different the world would be. 

So if you are a creative entrepreneur but you are still working a 9-to-5 — even a job that you really don’t like — consider how you could do that work with love. You don’t have to love what you do to bring love to the task in front of you.

But if you are thinking of starting a creative venture or trying to grow your side hustle so that you can escape your day job, I think it’s really important to come from a place of passion. Because the idea is not just to replace your job with something that pays the bills. (Being a repo man pays the bills, right? Working for the IRS pays the bills. Being a telemarketer can pay the bills.) It’s not just about replacing your income; it’s about replacing your income with a business that you love and a business that brings beauty and wonder into the world. Or at least it’s about adding value to the world or doing something better than what’s currently available. 

If you’re a creative entrepreneur who makes screen-printed T-shirts, don’t sell a cool design on a crappy T-shirt. Put your design on a really well-made shirt that feels good to wear. Don’t build a business centered around adding crap into the world. 

I get really discouraged whenever I talk to someone about starting their own business and they tell me about a business that has the potential to be profitable but isn’t infused with any personal passion. I hate that because it isn’t sustainable. It’s just another way to make a buck that isn’t improving anyone’s life — not their life and certainly not the lives of their potential customers.

I’m thinking of a very particular entrepreneur I know right now, but I don’t want to mention this person by name, so I’ll use a more innocuous example of a family member.

My dad has been working in the insurance business my entire life, and I know that he really desperately wants to do something else. And when I was home visiting, we were sitting at a bar having margaritas…well, I was having a margarita…and we were talking about different businesses he could buy.

I know that deep down, my dad wants to own a piano bar. But, understandably, he’s scared to get in the bar business or the restaurant business. But I told him, “Look, this is your second act. You’ve spent your whole life making a good living in a business you really don’t enjoy. Why don’t you do something fun for a change?” 

To be fair, I may have said he was in the “fourth quarter of his life,” which sounds a little grim. Wisdom isn’t always delivered perfectly on the first take, but I meant well. 

This is the advice I’d give to anyone: If you are going to start a business or a side hustle, make sure it’s something that you love to do. Because it isn’t just a J-O-B. It’s your livelihood. 

And this brings me to the idea of dharma. Now dharma is a concept that’s often unfamiliar to Westerners. It’s a concept that appears in a lot of Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s a Sanskrit word with many interpretations, but it’s confusing sometimes because it doesn’t have one clear definition. It’s been translated to mean “law,” “order,” “duty,” “custom,” “the true nature of the universe,” “cosmic law and order,” “what is established,” or “the intrinsic nature of a thing”…All sort of vague, right?

That’s why my favorite interpretation of dharma is the “right way of living” or “purpose in life.”

Deepak Chopra writes at length about dharma in several of his books, and one thing he says is that everyone has a unique talent with a unique expression. And part of dharma is serving our fellow humans. Abundance is achieved when we are using our unique expression of our unique talents to serve other people.

He writes that in the West, we’re trained to ask “What’s in it for me?” while Eastern philosophy shifts that to ask “How can I help?”

I know…To us Americans, that sounds kind of like socialism. And not the good Bernie Sanders kind. But you can tackle this from a purely capitalist perspective, too.

Rather than asking, “What is my unique talent and how can I serve humanity” you could ask, “What is my competitive advantage and where is there a gap in the market?”

And I think that the most successful business ventures are those that identify a real problem with an existing market and figure out how to solve that problem. A lot of popular eco-friendly brands got their start this way. Many of them were started by moms who wanted nontoxic or eco-friendly alternatives to personal care products or cleaning products, and they created the products that they themselves wanted to use for their families.

Personally, I’ve found that my books sell the best when I am writing the type of book that I want to read — especially if I can’t find a book like that out in the world.

If you don’t believe that you can be successful just creating that thing that you yourself want, go on Etsy. I cannot tell you how many things I’ve bought on Etsy or had made for me on Etsy because I couldn’t find what I wanted in stores. 

In “The Book of Secrets,” Deepak Chopra gives some very helpful concrete ways to know whether you are “in dharma” or not.

1. When you are in the dharma, you are ready to move forward. 

2. You are ready to pay attention. Anytime an opportunity presents itself, you are alert to that opportunity, and you are able to seize it.

3. The environment is supporting you. Meaning, when you move forward, it seems as though things sort of just fall into place. For instance, maybe there’s some new skill that you need or want to learn, and then one day out of the blue, you meet someone who knows about that thing. Or you see a flyer for a workshop teaching that thing. This is a sign that you are in synchronicity.

4. You feel more expanded and free.

5. You see yourself almost as a new person.

On the other hand, there are a few telltale signs that will tell you that you are not in dharma.

These signs are:

You are stuck in your old ways. You aren’t ready to make the necessary changes to move forward.

You aren’t paying attention. You’re distracted. You keep finding other things to do. You aren’t really able to slide into synchronicity because you aren’t paying attention to things that are spontaneously happening around you to support your endeavor.

The environment doesn’t feel supportive. Meaning that things keep getting in your way. 

And you may feel threatened to internal changes that need to take place. You’re not willing to evolve or expand.

You still see yourself as others have seen you your entire life, or your motto is, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

When I’m not in dharma, a lot of times it can feel like I’m trying to write something but I just can’t seem to reach a state of flow. So when you are in flow or in the zone, writing or whatever you might be doing feels easy — almost effortless. But when you are trying to write something that you aren’t passionate about or something that’s just too difficult or you don’t understand very well, you get a feeling that’s similar to not being in dharma.

But what does this look like on a practical level? In other words, what are you doing wrong?

On the one hand, maybe you are trying to do something that isn’t a good fit for your skills. This doesn’t mean that you should never try to expand or learn new skills. This means that you may be trying to perform a skill that you aren’t good at because you have no desire to learn it OR it’s a skill that fundamentally goes against your nature.

So, for instance, I am not in dharma when I am creating paid ads for my books. To me, ads are very impersonal and salesy. They can make me feel scammy at times, and I prefer to be able to make an authentic connection with people.

Ads don’t really give me an opportunity to do this. It’s all about perfecting that magical ad copy that sells stuff and targeting the right keywords at the right price. That just runs counter to my fundamental nature and doesn’t capitalize on what I’m really good at — which is connecting with people, sharing my experience, breaking things down, and relating to people on a human level.

Another thing you may be doing that’s preventing you from being “in dharma” is being so focused on making money that you’re no longer thinking about how you are adding value.

Now, personally I don’t see this problem as being very prevalent in the artistic community or the writing community. I think too often people undervalue their work. But if you are going to be paid for your work, you have to think of how it benefits other people and what that benefit might be worth.

And usually when you are creating something wonderful — something of value — it often starts to seem as though the universe is conspiring to help you. Maybe a friend offers to help you with your website. Maybe you know someone who knows someone who would be a good candidate for what you have to offer. Maybe you sell everything you make through word of mouth.

I think being in dharma is the key to turning a passion into a profitable business, but if you have been working on your creative business for a long time and you still aren’t anywhere close to being able to support yourself that way, it might be time to think about whether what you’re doing is a passion, a profession, a vocation, or a mission.

So these distinctions come from a diagram by Mark Winn, and it appears in this little book called “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life,” which I’ll link to in the show notes. The concept of ikigai is a little more in-depth than dharma, but it goes along these same lines.

Ikigai is a Japanese concept that roughly translates to your “reason for being” or your reason to get up in the morning. The Japanese are fascinating because they really don’t have a word for “retirement.” And ikigai has been cited as one of the reasons why people in parts of Japan like Okinawa live so long. 

Of course their diet and active lifestyle come into play. But one thing researchers have found is that as people get older, they aren’t put out to pasture or viewed as irrelevant because they’re no longer contributing to the GDP. They’re still viewed as valuable pillars of the community, and they still have a purpose in life.

In this book, there’s a wonderful Venn diagram that shows where ikigai lies. And it lies somewhere between a profession, a passion, a mission in life, and a vocation. 


If you don’t know the difference between these things, basically…

Your profession is what you’re good at and what you can be paid for.

Your passion is what you’re good at and what you love. 

Your mission is what you love and what the world needs. 

Your vocation is what the world needs and what you can be paid for. 

Your “reason to live” or “reason for being” can overlap with some or all of these things, but really it lies in the center of everything. For many of us, this may be as simple as “to be creative” or “to make art.” I think sharing ideas might be part of my ikigai.

But if ikigai still seems too abstract to be useful, think about what you always fantasize about doing when you retire — if you no longer need to work a traditional job and all your immediate needs are met.

So, for instance, my Granny is going to turn 93 this month, and she is out in her garden every single day. Now for her father, farming was his vocation. She comes from a long line of farmers. That garden is her passion. It’s just who she is. It’s what she does. I don’t think she can really imagine not tending to her garden.

But I would say that the garden is just how her ikigai is manifesting itself. For most of her life, she identified as a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. She wanted to take care of, to nurture. And now that her children and grandchildren are grown and my Granddad is no longer with us, she takes care of her garden and the birds.

So when you are setting up your creative business, it’s a good idea to think in terms of dharma or ikigai. Dharma is a little simpler because you really just have to think about your unique talents and how those talents can best be used to serve the world.

What do you do better than anyone else? What do you love to do? These things usually overlap, but if they don’t, make yourself a Venn diagram and look for where they do overlap. And how can you use those things to help other people or serve the world?

And when I say “serve the world,” I don’t mean that your art needs to end world hunger or anything like that. I think that art and music and literature serve the world by their very nature. 

Mother Teresa once said, “We can do no great things. Only small things with great love.”

I heard this quote for the first time this week, and I think maybe I’d like it on my headstone. Because sometimes it feels like I’m not accomplishing anything very big. I’m always writing and podcasting and writing books and building my business, but it’s nothing earth-shattering. I’m creating digital content that gets lost in the massive churn of the Internet.

Early on in my fiction-writing journey, this would sometimes really eat at me. I would feel guilty that I wasn’t doing something more important — something that would make a larger impact. 

But then I would occasionally get emails from people telling me that they were going through cancer treatment or that they were recovering from a really traumatic surgery and that reading helped them escape their reality. Instead of being stuck in a hospital bed, they could be fighting in a rebellion or unraveling a conspiracy or getting in a good ol’ fistfight.

And that to me was enough. I thought if I could make a terrible time in a person’s life easier or more comfortable in some way by providing an escape, then I had done my job. Because that’s what books were for me when I was younger and going through hard times. They were an escape.

So you really don’t have to look hard to see how your art can serve others if you are creating your art for the right reasons.

Money should never be the number-one motivation for creating something. Obviously, we all want and need to make money. Making money is fantastic, but you shouldn’t start at money. You should start with the passion. If you start with your talents and passions, profits will naturally follow. The passion is what gives you endurance, so the passion is important.

And if you would like to be a writer or an artist or create something but you can’t right now because your circumstances don’t allow, keep that quote in mind: “We can do no great things. Only small things with great love.”

Whatever you’re doing, pour your heart into it because the little things matter.

How you perform your day job matters.

How you take care of your family matters.

How you treat other people matters.

How you move through the world matters.

And, of course, your art matters.

That’s all I have for you today. I hope you found it helpful. I mentioned a lot of books and resources in this episode, and you can always find those linked in the blog post and the episode show notes. If you have an iPhone and you click on the show in your podcasts app, you’ll see “Details” in purple under each episode. If you click on details, it will take you to the Episode Notes. 

As always, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave a written review wherever you get your podcasts. This helps other creatives find their home away from home on the Internet, and I really appreciate them.

You can find me on Instagram @writewithtarah. You can always get in touch with me there or on the website to let me know what you think of the show or if you have any ideas for future show topics. I am always so happy to hear from listeners, so don’t be a stranger.

I’ll see you next time, and happy creating!

Photo by Michael Heuser

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