The Dharma of Business – Why the World Needs Entrepreneurs

missing_puzzle_piece_in_bodyAuthor and social entrepreneur Lynn Serafinn discusses the greater role of the independent business owner, and how it extends far beyond our personal vision.

In recent years, record numbers of people have been going into self-employment. For some, it has been a response to the current economic climate, where finding a job has become increasingly difficult. For others (especially women), they thought running their own business would allow them to spend more time with their children. Still others took this route because they found the world of employment to be unfulfilling.

While all of these are viable reasons to start a business, they are not always adequate to keep us on the entrepreneurial path. Turning a new business into a profitable enterprise can be a rocky road. In my observation, most businesses don’t ‘turn around’ until their third year of trading. No matter how wonderful a vision we may have for our business when we started it, if we lose our nerve during those first few years, we are likely to abandon ship before that crucial turnaround occurs. Such is the stuff of shattered dreams. And if, on top of that, we also become the target of the projected fears of family and friends, who many never have dared take such a risk as we have, we can sometimes succumb to feelings of failure.

The Success Myth

I have seen this unfortunate scenario play out all too many times. The end result is that many sensitive and idealistic people leave the entrepreneurial world and, often reluctantly, return to employment. Perhaps this is why so many people have developed the belief that there is no place for idealism in the business world, and that to be ‘successful’ you need to be tough, ruthlessly pragmatic and emotionally aloof.

Many business ‘gurus’ on the Internet challenge this myth of the hardened entrepreneur. They talk about running ‘heart-centred’ businesses and about using a more ‘feminine’ approach. They talk about finding your life purpose and about living that purpose through your business. But while these approaches all have their value, I still see many ‘heart-centred entrepreneurs’ struggling (or failing) in their businesses. Why?

I believe the reason is that these business owners have not yet connected with the ‘meta-purpose’–or the dharma–of business itself. What is the dharma of business? And why is connecting with that dharma vital to the future of humanity and the planet?

Micro, Macro and Meta Purpose

At the top of this article, I cited a few reasons why people may choose to start their own business: not being able to find a job, wanting to stay home with the kids, not enjoying employment. These reasons could be called the ‘micro-purpose’ of a business as they address the needs and desires of the individual (and perhaps their immediate family). Micro-purpose is the usual starting point for most business owners; but unless this purpose progresses to the next level, it is rarely enough to help people make it through the tough times. People stuck in the micro-level tend to either quit their business when the going gets rough, or plod on mechanically out of a sense of obligation.

The next level is the ‘macro-purpose’ of a business. That is when our motivation is driven by a deep-rooted desire to address the needs of others. Most who define themselves as ‘heart-centred’ businesses are expressing this ‘macro-purpose’, where the focus is upon service and connection to others. This macro-purpose can provide entrepreneurs with strength and support as they surf the ups and downs in their business ventures. But even the macro-purpose can often leave sensitive, service-focussed business owners drained, especially when they continually find themselves in scenarios where they give more than they receive.

The third and final level is the ‘meta-purpose’ of a business…or I might say ‘the meta-purpose’ of ALL businesses. To be in touch with the meta-purpose of our business means to be driven by a sense of heart-felt duty to serve the needs of the Greater System. The ‘Greater System’ is comprised of human society AND our natural world. It is our eco-system, our economic system and our communities–locally, globally and even online.

Those who truly see the purpose of a business within the Greater System have a different perspective altogether. The idea of folding up your business and going back to employment makes as much sense as your left leg suddenly deciding it wants to be a gall bladder: it’s simply a mad idea. A left leg needs to be a left leg for the sake of the whole body. An entrepreneur needs to be an entrepreneur for the sake of the Greater System.

To the enlightened entrepreneur who can see this ‘meta-purpose’, being an entrepreneur is equally vital to society and him/herself. They are inseparable. This feeling of inseparability from the greater purpose can be expressed in a single word from ancient India: dharma.

What Dharma Really Means

The word ‘dharma’ is often used in spiritual communities, but rarely truly understood. Many translate dharma to mean ‘duty’. Thus, to ‘live your dharma‘ would mean to act upon your duty.

But to me, the English word ‘duty’ has a semantic interpretation that does not rightly reflect the true meaning of the word dharma. When I think of ‘duty’, I think of obligation and lack of free will. I think of people locked into situations they cannot change, working some ‘greater good’ (or status quo) that is not always of their choosing. The concept of ‘duty’ has a weightiness to it that I do not believe is in the word dharma.

The word dharma is from Sanskrit, the language used in Indian literature as long as 5,000 years ago. It is derived from the verb root dhri, which roughly means ‘to draw together’ or ‘to hold together’. Thus, the noun dharma means ‘that which holds things together’ (my interpretation).

Everything in Creation has a dharma because everything has a role to play in ‘holding things together’. The dharma of water is to quench, cleanse, flow and support life. The dharma of a tree is to produce oxygen, provide food, provide shelter for birds and other creatures, provide shade, fertilise the soil with its leaves, and so on.

Humanity also has a dharma, although defining precisely what that is has been the subject of endless philosophical and theological debates throughout the centuries. In ancient India, the dharma of human society was explained through a model they called the varnashrama system. This varnashrama system uses an interesting analogy that can help us understand the ‘meta-purpose’–the dharma–of business.

Understanding Our Function within Society

Imagine the human body: a head, two arms, a torso and two legs. Each of these components has a dharma:

  • The dharma of the head is to think, reason and send messages to the rest of the body. It is in charge of making decisions that ensure the safety of the body.
  • The arms have the dharma of lifting, holding and carrying things. Their purpose is to ‘do stuff’ by interacting with the surrounding environment. They are also used to defend the body when it is in danger.
  • The legs have the dharma of holding the body up and allowing it to move from place to place. Without the legs performing their dharma, the body becomes vulnerable and dependent.
  • And finally, the torso has the dharma of FEEDING the rest of the body. Through the actions of the torso, all the resources the body needs–air, water, food–are made ‘consumable’ and are distributed throughout the rest of the body. The torso ensures the body has everything it needs to be happy and healthy. Upon the ‘advice’ of the brain, it circulates oxygen, nutrients, antibodies, hormones and everything that supports our bodily functions. Finally, it whisks away waste to keep the body clean and free from disease.

In the varnashrama model, human society is compared to these four functional components of the human body:

  • The ‘head’ is comprised of scholars, philosophers, scientists, theologians, teachers and mentors whose dharma is to study, advise and guide the rest of society towards knowledge and wisdom.
  • The ‘arms’ are the administrative class of society–government, civil service, military, etc. Their dharma is to ‘hold’ the mechanisms of the social body together and to ensure it is protected.
  • The ‘legs’ are the workers, the labourers, the builders, the craftsmen, the artists, the storytellers. Their dharma is to lift society and to help it move forward by building and creating all the elements of culture that makes us human.
  • And finally, the ‘torso’ of society is comprised of the mercantile class, which include both the business AND agricultural sectors of society. Their dharma is to feed society by ensuring all the necessary resources are processed, distributed and delivered throughout the Greater System, and that it is kept clean and free of anything that could make it ‘ill’.

Business and Flow within the Greater System

Within the human body there is a natural cycle of processing, distribution, delivery and elimination. This same cycle is integral to our Greater System. The ‘resources’ businesses circulate are not limited to food, services and other goods, but also include money. Part of the dharma of business is to ensure the continual balance and flow of natural resources as well as of our economic system. While the ‘old paradigm’ business model is based upon balancing financial outgoings against incomings, the true dharma of business–the meta-purpose of business–is about flow within the Greater System, not just financial gain for the business itself:

  • If we engage in business and marketing practices that disrupt the balance of the Greater System, we are not practicing our dharma as entrepreneurs, even if we are making huge profits.
  • If we produce manufactured goods without concern for how they will be disposed of and brought back into the Greater System at the end of their lifespan, or produce them at such a pace that the Greater System cannot absorb them and recycle them, we are not fulfilling our dharma.
  • If we use fear, deception, scarcity marketing and other unethical practices to encourage overspending–thus causing debt and environmental waste within the Greater System–we are not fulfilling our dharma.
  • AND, if we intuitively know we are part of the ‘torso’ of the Greater System, but we allow our own fears, insecurities and self-doubt to defeat us, and cause us to abandon our role as entrepreneurs, we are also not fulfilling our dharma.

Embracing Our Dharma as Social Entrepreneurs

Being an entrepreneur is both a tremendous honour and a tremendous social responsibility, because the ‘meta-purpose’ of our work is to ensure the Greater System can function and prosper. Without business, civilisation as we know it would collapse. But until the business sector steps into its greater dharma, it is less likely to feed society than it is to feed upon it.

I believe we are at a crucial point in our history where the role of the entrepreneur is more important than ever. But simply encouraging more people to become business owners is not enough to bring flow back to the Greater System. We don’t just need entrepreneurs but social entrepreneurs–business owners who understand not just the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ purpose of their business, but who connect deeply to their meta-purpose–the dharma–of the work they do.

When we see just how vital a role we have in the function and flow of the Greater System, it becomes easier to harness the moral and emotional strength needed to rise above times of sluggish sales, discouragement from others or any doubts we might have about our own abilities. And as more and more socially conscious business owners step up to the challenge of ‘feeding’ our world through ethical enterprise and marketing, they will in turn bring support and encouragement to those who are coming into the arena for the first time.

Then, by embracing our collective dharma, we might again see the noble institution of commerce reinstated to its original, divine purpose: to bring flow and wellbeing to everything within Creation.

Lynn Serafinn
May 2013

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Lynn Serafinn author of The 7 Graces of Marketing

LYNN SERAFINN, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach, teacher, marketer, social media expert, radio host, speaker and author of the number one bestseller The 7 Graces of Marketing — How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell and Tweep-e-licious! 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market their Business Ethically. She is listed in the Top 20 of the Top Marketing Authors on Twitter by Social Media Magazine and was a finalist for the prestigious Brit Writers Awards. She also received the eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian and Ecological Social Affairs, as well as the Bronze Medal in Business and Sales.

Lynn’s eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India. Her innovative marketing campaigns have produced a long list of bestselling non-fiction authors through her company Spirit Authors. Lynn is also the Founder of the 7 Graces Project CIC, a not-for-profit social enterprise created to train, support, mentor and inspire independent business owners to market their business ethically, serve society and planet, and restore all that is best about humanity.

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5 Responses to The Dharma of Business – Why the World Needs Entrepreneurs

  1. An interesting take on the role of business. To me, the word “Dharma” is linked to Buddhist philosophy which focuses on benefiting all beings. Its a little tough applying to business where there are winners and losers. The nods to ethical business practices I could relate to.

  2. Nancy Mramor says:

    Lynn has really captured the meaning of dharma in business. Kudos to Lynn for this informative and well-written post!

  3. Beryl says:

    Fascinating article Lynn. Never ever thought about business that way and just had got used to believing (dangerous word here) that I was not up to the task in hand. When we change our perspective on these problems, our world changes too. Many thanks indeed.

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  5. Pingback: How to find your purpose (and turn it into your life's work)

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