Posted by: Lisa | May 11, 2011

The Four Aims of Life

In various yoga books and magazines, I keep coming across what is termed “the four aims of life.”  I have never heard this concept expressed in any philosophy, psychology or religion – and yet these aims seem so fundamental, so vitally important to living a balanced, fulfilling life.  When we cultivate all four aims as evenly as possible, we can’t help feeling well, whole and deeply satisfied.

The four aims are (in simplified fashion):  artha – making a living in the world; dharma – using our gifts to serve others; kama – enjoying the pleasures of life; and moksha – spiritual liberation.

Most of us tend to overemphasize one or two of these aims to the detriment of the others.  For example, I have some friends who are so obsessed with their career and making a living that they don’t have time for much else.  On the other hand, I know some young people (and not-so-young people) who are only motivated to bounce from one pleasure to the next – be it food, sex, shopping, sleeping or various forms of entertainment.

I am blessed that I’m able to combine artha and dharma:  my mode of making a living (teaching fitness and yoga) enables me to serve others directly, to make a difference in their lives.  Some forms of livelihood have this balance and others do not.  If we are not so blessed, then we can look for ways outside of our jobs/career to serve others, perhaps through volunteer work in a setting that appeals to us.

When I was focused on becoming a nun and living a “religious” life, I was out of balance with the four aims of life as well.  I’ve met many people who make the same mistake:  focusing too much on serving others and striving for spiritual liberation.  Those things are important – but enjoying the pleasures of life is important, too.  The Buddha himself learned this lesson the hard way when he nearly starved to death on his quest for enlightenment.  After that, he became a believer in moderation; he taught people to follow the Middle Way.

So, let us stop to consider the four aims and see where we are out of balance.  It’s useful to check in with this periodically because we can be balanced for a while and then later realize that things have gotten out of whack.  Let us work, serve others joyfully, have some fun and set aside time to commune with Spirit each day.

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