The Four Glorious Goals of Life
By Katie Silcox
When our digestion is good, our sleep is deep, and our emotions and sexuality are being channeled properly, we have more energy to engage in our passions and pursuits in life—in Ayurveda, our foremost pursuits are known as the four goals of life.
According to the Vedas (the spiritual root texts of Ayurveda), your soul has four goals or desires, which the texts call the purusharthas, “that which is for the purpose of the soul.” The Ayurvedic tradition takes these four core human motivations and gives us permission to enjoy and pursue them, while not becoming overly attached to any of them. In this way, we can enjoy pleasure, seek success and purpose, strive for material gain, and seek out the practices and mentors that will teach us how to live a more integrated, enlightened, soulful life. By no means will my general overview do justice to the complex tapestry of what these four motivators are or how we can succeed in their fulfillment, but I do hope to give a brief summary, as they are paramount in our sense of total health and happiness.
Life Goal #1: Luscious, Everyday Pleasure
The first goal of life is kama, meaning pleasure or enjoyment. If we are to live life fully, we need life to feel good. There is nothing like the sensory stimulation we get from smelling a baby’s skin, stroking a kitten’s silky fur, or seeing a peony in full bloom. What brings you deep sensory satisfaction?
The great news is that Nature has set it up so that many of the things that feel good to us are also physiologically and emotionally good for us. Science shows that touch (whether a massage therapist’s or a lover’s) increases the hormones in our body that keep our immune system functioning. It’s a downright miracle that just the smell of onions simmering in olive oil causes our body to release the very digestive enzymes that it will use to process the food when we eat it. That’s Divine Intelligence, and Mama Nature’s way of saying, “Relish this moment!”
The problem with all this wonderful kama comes when we overindulge. Remember in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Augustus Gloop ends up as a piece of fudge after falling into the river of chocolate? Without proper guidance, the out-of-balance, overindulging aspect of our senses can ignore our internal attempts at regulation. If we leave our senses in the driving seat, we run the risk of overdoing it—whether it be booze, chocolate, shopping, sex, TV, or exercise.
The secret to true fulfillment in the realm of pleasure is self-awareness, moderation, and nonattachment. Nonattachment has not always been an easy thing for me to practice. When I enjoy something, I sometimes want to hold on. Talking to the Divine has helped me build a form of surrender. Whenever I feel myself clinging to pleasures, I will stop and say something like, “Oh, Divine Mama, let me trust in your infinite abundant sources. May I know that this pleasure may rise and fall, but that you are continually dropping your grace into my life.” When we cling, it is as though we don’t believe in all that the Universe offers; it is as if we are saying that we don’t have faith that pleasure (or whatever it is we want to cling to) is abundant and always waiting for us. It helps me to simply pay attention. I know that I don’t need to cling because when I’m paying attention, I see that the beauty is always being dropped down onto me.
Another way to practice nonattachment is to be deeply aware of the present moment while enjoying pleasure. Think of it as simultaneously relishing and releasing.
Life Goal #2: The Means for Prospering
The second goal of life is artha, or the ways and means of prosperous living. Artha is related to the tools that help us move forward in life. A place to live, enough money to pay the bills, good health, proper clothing, and even our iPhone are all examples of tools that help you move through life with more ease.
Just as we want pleasure, we also love the feeling of abundance and good health. It feels good to rest easy knowing that our basic needs are met. It’s hard to think about the meaning of life when we are pawning our jewelry or arguing with credit-card company minions. And in fact, Ayurveda encourages us not only to pursue financial abundance, but it also states that without a certain sense of ease around finances, our advancement toward knowing who we are is hindered. Why? Because if we are worried about finances, our mind becomes easily disturbed, fearful and distracted. A similar thing happens with our health. If we are sick, it’s hard to meditate, help our kids with their homework, or launch our dream business.
Imbalance in artha occurs when we become greedy or too focused on materialism. When we have thirteen shades of lip-plumping lipstick and feel we really need just one more, we may have an accumulation problem. I will never forget walking into my neighbor’s house. She had amassed 157 stuffed animals. Shoes (still in their boxes) were stacked from floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall. She had a guest room full of purses (piled on a virtually invisible bed, price tags still attached to many of them). The primary motivating force in her life had become acquiring things. She had slowly built up a safety bubble composed of teddy bears, high heels, and handbags. I think that if we are honest, many of us have a little bit of the crazy-teddy-bear lady inside us. Ayurveda teaches us how to embrace our love for stuffed animals without smothering ourselves with them.
Artha can also be imbalanced when we mistakenly think that we need nothing. I know a few spiritual people who feel wrong or guilty for wanting nice things, like a warm home, soft clothing, or a chocolate bar (even if it’s organic, fair-trade). This is the opposite end of the artha spectrum, and it is just as harmful for our total wellness. The lesson? It’s okay to need things—in moderation and for the purpose of the higher good.
Life Goal #3: Roll Out of Bed with a Purpose
The third goal of life is dharma, or our essential life purpose. In the craziness of daily life, many of us forget what a mind-blowing opportunity it is to be in a human body (as opposed to being born a honey badger). Ayurveda says that every human being comes into this life with a specific dharma, and until we are living that dharma, we will not be happy. My teacher, Rod Stryker, says there is a you-shaped hole in the Universe just waiting to be filled with your full expression as an individual. Until you figure out how to embody your full expression and purpose, you will feel out of sync with what your Higher Self longs to become.
Dharmic pursuits do not necessarily have to fulfill any holier-than-thou requirements, however. Dharma has nothing to do with what we could call “a job,” but is more likened to the unique thing you bring to the table in any of life’s circumstances (be it a job, a relationship or a project). What is more, people working in jobs that may not have cache in society can be quite important on the cosmic scene. For example, have you ever met someone with what our society may consider a lowly or bad job, yet they seem to be totally in love with it? Or they use it to make your day better? That is the embodiment of someone living her dharma.
In order to align with our essential life purpose, we need enough balance to actually hear the inner voice of our intuition. Most people who are fully working in their passion will tell you that they had no choice; their job chose them. They say they feel a kinetic flow of energy when they are working in the realm of what they love. Researchers such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are now confirming the existence of a creative psychological flow space that people enter when they are working in their dharma. Time seems to slow, even stop. Energy levels are high, and there is a feeling of aliveness and presence that gives us even more motivation for the work at hand. Feeling this flow space is a good indication that we are aligned with our dharma and in what Csikszentmihalyi calls the optimal experience in his book, Flow.
Life Goal #4: Give Me Liberty
The fourth goal of life is moksha, or freedom. Ultimately, behind all of our actions lies the drive to move beyond the recurring cycles of pain/pleasure and birth/death, and to feel the happiness of not being subject to these polarities. Moksha is waking up in the morning and feeling fearless. Moksha is the sense that there is nothing out there that will bring us ultimate happiness—it’s all inside ourselves. Moksha is truly needing nothing and no one to be whole and complete.
The further we advance on the path of knowing who we are, the more this goal becomes clear and the more we can align our life choices with things that will support our own true freedom. If we become too attached to the idea of freedom, we run the danger of becoming a holier-than-thou, spiritual egoist. I have seen students and friends attempt freedom through the path of what psycho-spiritual experts call “spiritual bypassing”—basically attempting to run away from the “bad” world by checking out into some flaky spiritual zone where we don’t deal with our issues. The teachings state that this is impossible. We can’t run away from pain or pleasure, birth or death, or even our own internal struggles (karmas). What we can do is learn how to become a loving witness to all of life’s duality.
Real moksha is about tapping in. It’s about seeing the bigger picture: what life looks like beyond our own motivations. You can measure your success in the realm of moksha by how fearlessly and joyfully you live your life in this current, imperfect world, as well as how well you surrender your negative feelings when you don’t get what you want. It’s also about seeing things as they really are and moving beyond the material world. But the stuff that flashes on billboards, the phone calls, the dinner dates, the news, and the warm touch of a loved one are all very real to us, so the more we work toward knowing who we are, the more we can delight in the existence of this illusory, temporary world of the senses, while at the same time experiencing the Divine delight behind it all. In this sense, we become free because we are fully and delightfully engaged with the temporal beauty of life as it is unfolding.