Defining the Boundaries of Duty

Defining the Boundaries of Duty

The spiritual seeker is sometimes assailed by questions about what exactly is duty - duty towards others, to the self and to society. These questions could be: What are the boundaries of my duty? What should I be doing for others? What about myself – am I being selfish if I want to put my interests first? How do I distinguish duty from obsession? How much is enough and when am I doing more than necessary or desirable?

Indian wisdom says – It’s all about the right knowledge + the right attitude:

Indian wisdom offers some useful pointers, in terms of the above dilemmas and questions.

  1. Align your pursuits with your Swadharma (true nature), to give value to society and find fulfillment.

  2. Duties and priorities vary as per the stage of life. Learn to adapt.

  3. Understand that there is the transactional, outer world, perceived through our senses, and a richer, far more important inner world, to be understood and experienced. Choose your duties to nourish both - the latter gives clarity to the former.

  4. With increasing wisdom, one finds that there are little or no conflicts between duties towards oneself and those towards others. So the aspect of selfishness becomes redundant. Working for others gets dovetailed into nurturing oneself - each makes the other more meaningful.

  5. It’s not an action, per se, which can be classified as “duty” or “obsession”. It’s the mindset with which the action is done that determines the same. So the same action can be either “duty”, or “unhealthy obsession”. Do I work, thinking it to be a necessary means to an end, and therefore give it my best shot, without worrying too much about getting a certain type of result? Then I am doing my duty. Or, am I hyper-vigilant and extremely attached towards reaching a certain result only, and I base my joys and sorrows based on that? Do I see the action as an end in itself, and expect my happiness to emerge from its success? This would be dangerously close to “obsession”.

  6. Work with a greater sense of purpose, beyond immediate results. “What do I want my life to be?” is a tough but question to answer, allowing us to develop a healthy perspective and sense of balance. The concept of duty towards our different stakeholders then becomes increasingly clear.

Neither too selfish, nor a martyr be:

  1. Do I have a nagging feeling of not considering others’ needs?

  2. Am I adept at finding reasons to avoid doing what I find boring or tiresome?

  3. Do I do the minimum required of me, and say, “Why do more? Others are doing only this much.”

  4. Am I clear about my priorities – people, situations, and events?

  5. Do I push myself beyond my existing physical, mental and emotional capacities, while pursuing a certain objective?

  6. Do I lose sleep thinking over tasks that are yet to be completed?

  7. Do my family members and colleagues ask me to “Just relax”?

Answering these might give us useful pointers on which part of the spectrum we stand and whether we need to re-calibrate our sense of duty.

Of course, with time and training, one would move beyond dry duty, to sweet service, where love and joy permeate the very act of doing. In the meantime, let us work with self-awareness, towards a world where duty is joyful!

Speaking Tree: Defining the Boundaries of Duty, April 19, 2016

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