The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Callingby Stephen Cope
In this fast-paced age, the often overwhelming realities of daily life may leave you feeling uncertain about how to realize your life’s true/b>
From the Senior Scholar-in-residence and Ambassador for the famed Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health comes an incisive and inspiring meditation on living the life you were born to live.
In this fast-paced age, the often overwhelming realities of daily life may leave you feeling uncertain about how to realize your life’s true purpose—what spiritual teachers call dharma. But yoga master Stephen Cope says that in order to have a fulfilling life you must, in fact, discover the deep purpose hidden at the very core of your self. In The Great Work of Your Life, Cope describes the process of unlocking the unique possibility harbored within every human soul. The secret, he asserts, can be found in the pages of a two-thousand-year-old spiritual classic called the Bhagavad Gita—an ancient allegory about the path to dharma, told through a timeless dialogue between the fabled archer, Arjuna, and his divine mentor, Krishna.
Cope takes readers on a step-by-step tour of this revered tale, and in order to make it relevant to contemporary readers, he highlights well-known Western lives that embody its central principles—including such luminaries as Jane Goodall, whose life trajectory shows us the power of honoring The Gift; Walt Whitman, who listened for the call of the times; Susan B. Anthony, whose example demonstrates the power of focused energy; John Keats, who was able to let his desire give birth to aspiration; and Harriet Tubman, whose life was nothing if not a lesson in learning to walk by faith. This essential guide also includes everyday stories about following the path to dharma, which illustrate the astonishingly contemporary relevance and practicality of this classic yogic story.
If you’re feeling lost in your own life’s journey, The Great Work of Your Life may provide you with answers to the questions you most urgently need addressed—and may help you to find and to embrace your true calling.
Praise for The Great Work of Your Life
“Keep a pen and paper handy as you read this remarkable book: It’s like an owner’s manual for the soul.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
“A masterwork . . . You’ll find inspiration in these pages. You’ll gain a better appreciation of divine guidance and perhaps even understand how you might better hear it in your own life.”—Yoga Journal
“I am moved and inspired by this book, the clarity and beauty of the lives lived in it, and the timeless dharma it teaches.”—Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart
“A rich source of contemplation and inspiration [that] encourages readers . . . to discover and fully pursue their inner self’s calling.”—Publishers Weekly
“Fabulous . . . If you have ever wondered what your purpose is, this book is a great guide to help you on your path.”—YogaHara
From the Hardcover edition.
“Cope layers biographical teaching stories between the lessons offered by what might be the greatest teaching story of all: the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna teaches Arjuna about finding and manifesting your life's divine purpose, or dharma. Cope, while examining the life struggles faced by such visionaries as Jane Goodall, Harriet Tubman, and Mohandas Gandhi, encourages readers to reject the modern idea that 'we can be anyone we want to be' and instead to discover and fully pursue their inner self's calling….The historical portraits make interesting reading in their own right—Cope is a skilled storyteller—but in the service of illustrating a well-organized thesis about achieving true fulfillment, they offer a rich source of contemplation and inspiration.” —Publisher’s Weekly
"The director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health inquires into the dharmavocation or callingof a selection of both illustrious and ordinary individuals. 'Yogis insist that every single human being has a unique vocation,' writes Cope. Turning to the Bhagavad Gita for guidance, the author realized the difficulty in penetrating even the first piece of advice: 'Discern, name, and then embrace your own dharma.' For some, their dharma is a ready and apparent gift, but others struggle long and hard to hear that piece of inner music, that passion. So Cope illustrates this fact of life through example, drawing smooth portraits of important historical characters and twining them with glimpses into the lives of everyday people he knows. For example, he weds Henry David Thoreau’s courage to follow his muse in front of an entire town’s disapprobation with the story of a psychiatric nurse with a magical caregiving hand who needed help in recognizing and using her talent. Cope also tells the stories of Robert Frost finding a voice word by word, Walt Whitman’s wartime nursing, 'a calling for which he didn’t even know he was searching,' and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot breaking the rules to understand the connection between seeing and painting. With ringing clarity, Cope gets his main point across: that seeking is all and that dharma will allow you to bear life’s suffering. 'You only get yourself when you lose yourself to some great work,' he writes. An engaging exploration into living fully."—Kirkus
“You’ll find inspiration in these pages. You’ll gain a better appreciation of divine guidance and perhaps even understand how you might better hear it in your own life. With this masterwork of a book, Stephen Cope shows us once again that great yoga writing need not be esoteric, complicated, or full of Sanskrit to point the way to liberation.”—Yoga Journal
“Stephen Cope is a national treasure. He is an incredibly rare combination of brilliant spiritual thinker, elegant prose stylist, and empathic, grounded teacher. The dharma stories threaded throughout The Great Work of Your Life are moving and instructive. Keep a pen and paper handy as you read this remarkable book: It’s like an owner’s manual for the soul.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
“I am moved and inspired by The Great Work of Your Life, the clarity and beauty of the lives lived in it, and the timeless dharma it teaches.”—Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart
“I was spellbound and inspired by this book from beginning to end. I thought, How is he going to bring together the message of the Gita, the enduringly compelling lives of so many amazing people, the quest for passionate expression in the lives of his friends—how will he keep so many balls juggling at the same time without dropping any—and end by making it all relevant to me right now in my life? And he has! One rarely thinks of a dharma book as a page-turner, but this one is indeed that. This is a great read and a great revitalizing breath of fresh air.”—Sylvia Boorstein, author of Happiness Is an Inside Job
“Stephen Cope has taken great Western figures—poets, painters, freedom fighters, a composer—and shows how the dharma of fierce determination played through their lives and how it can inspire all of us today. Tears came to my eyes as I read how Walt Whitman found himself. This is an important book—West and East informing each other. It was a joy to read.”—Natalie Goldberg, author of Old Friend from Far Away
“Consistently well-written and get-up-and-go inspirational, this book should go right to the top of your reading list… this valuable book should help you bring 'the great work of your own life' into sharper focus.” –Yoga International
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Read an Excerpt
The Four Pillars of Dharma
From the very beginning of the Bhagavad Gita we can see that it is going to be a teaching about dharma—about sacred duty. Anybody can see that the first chapter is a device used by the author to set up the problem of vocation. How do we know, finally, to what actions we are called in this life? The author knows that we’ll identify with Arjuna’s dilemma: How do we choose between two difficult courses of action? What are the consequences of an inability to choose, or of choosing poorly? Who can effectively guide us in making these choices? Finally, in any ultimate sense, does it really matter what choices we make with our life?
At the outset of this tale, the narrator describes Arjuna as paralyzed by doubt. He has come to a crossroads in his life, and is forced to choose between two difficult paths. And for the time being Arjuna has demurred. He is stuck on the floor of the chariot, unable to act at all. From the beginning, then, it is clear that the narrator sees Arjuna’s central affliction as the problem of doubt.
For those of us who study the contemplative traditions, this is exciting. Something new! Until the writing of the Bhagavad Gita, the Eastern contemplative traditions—both yoga and Buddhism—had almost universally seen grasping as the central affliction or “torment” in the lives of human beings. These traditions had come to really understand the afflictive nature of desire, craving, grasping, greed, lust.
Grasping will come into Krishna’s teaching, to be sure. But at the outset of the tale, Arjuna’s central torment is not grasping. Or even its flip side—fear and aversion. No, it’s clear to us that Arjuna is not really so much afraid as he is immobilized in a web of doubt. Stuck on the floor of the chariot.
In the fourth chapter, Krishna will state the principle clearly: “Doubt afflicts the person who lacks faith and can ultimately destroy him.”
This doubt of which Krishna speaks is the outward and visible sign of an inner struggle. And if this inner struggle is not resolved, it will (as St. Thomas declares in his Gospel) destroy him.
The stakes are serious. It will be important for us to understand the exact nature of this doubt that afflicts our hero.
Notice that “doubt,” as used in the Gita, is somewhat different than our ordinary Western understanding of doubt. When we think of doubt, we most often think of what we might better call “healthy skepticism”—a lively mind, closely investigating all options. That is not quite what the Gita means. Doubt, as understood here, really means “stuck”—not skeptical. Doubt in this tradition is sometimes defined as “a thought that touches both sides of a dilemma at the same time.” In yogic analysis, doubt is often called “the paralyzing affliction.” Paralysis is, indeed, its chief characteristic. It follows, then, that doubt is the central affliction of all men and women of action.
The Catholic Encyclopedia weighs in convincingly on this issue. Apparently, doubt is an issue for Catholics as well as Hindus: “Doubt,” it reads, “[is a] state in which the mind is suspended between two contradictory propositions and unable to assent to either of them.”
Catholics and yogis are apparently in agreement about this phenomenon of doubt.
The Catholic Encyclopedia continues at great length. “Doubt,” it says, “is opposed to certitude, or the adhesion of the mind to a proposition without misgiving as to its truth.”
Here the Catholics make an opposition of doubt and certitude. This, I think, is very helpful.
And listen to the definition of certitude that follows. Certitude: “the adhesion of the mind to a proposition without misgiving as to its truth.”
In Arjuna we have a hero whose doubt is writ large. He is split down the middle. And it will take the entire eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita before he gets to certitude. But what a thrill when he does.
“Krishna,” says Arjuna at the very end of the Gita, “my delusion is destroyed, and by your grace I have regained memory; I stand here, my doubt dispelled, ready to act on your words!”
My doubt dispelled!
Until I began to wrestle with the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, I thought that doubt was the least of my problems. Grasping and aversion, the classic afflictions pointed to by the earlier yoga tradition, were much more obvious in my life. However, as I have begun to investigate the Gita’s view of doubt, and as I begin to understand what doubt really is, I see it at work everywhere. I’ve begun to see the ways—both small and large—in which I am paralyzed from action on a daily basis. Split. Replete with misgivings. Unsure. A foot on both sides of various dilemmas.
We can see why the yoga tradition has called doubt “the invisible affliction.” It is slippery. Hidden. Sneaky. Indeed, it is this very hidden quality that gives doubt its power. I know people who have been stuck in doubt their entire lifetime. Each of these unfortunate individuals—some of them my very own friends and family—came at some point to a crossroads. They came to this crossroads and found themselves rooted there, with one foot firmly planted on each side of the intersection. Alas, they never moved off the dime. They procrastinated. Dithered. Finally, they put a folding chair smack in the center of that crossroads and lived there for the rest of their lives. After a while, they forgot entirely that there even was a crossroads—forgot that there was a choice.
We do not suspect the ways in which doubt keeps us paralyzed. Plastered to the bottom of our various chariots. Unable to assent.
I see it all the time in the people I work with at Kripalu.
Just to give you a taste of how these things show up, let me give you a thumbnail sketch of one of these people, a woman whom I will call Katherine. She has recently come to one of these fateful crossroads, and has already put down her folding chair.
Katherine has been for many years the dean of a small private girls’ school—a school that one of my friends calls Crunchy Granola Hall. Katherine is loved by several generations of students: mothers and daughters. For years she has lived squarely in the center of her dharma, her sacred duty. She has changed lives. Anyone who knows her would declare that she has thrived in the role of dean of this school: counseling and befriending faculty and students; helping chart the course of the school; raising money for new buildings. Now, however, she is tired. She is irritable and pissy with her faculty. She forgets to attend important meetings. She is, if truth be told, finished. In her heart of hearts she knows it. In private she admits it to me: She no longer even cares.
But Katherine is terrified. And completely unsure of what might come next. She is afraid that if she leaves the deanship, she will be devastatingly lonely. That only her cats will need her. She knows there is a new dharma calling her, and in fleeting moments she sees it out of the corner of her eye. She occasionally gets a whiff of a calling that feels more real than rain: Perhaps she could teach English literature to her young charges. She could be free of the wearying burdens of deanship. She could work only a few hours a week. She could garden (her passion)!
Katherine can occasionally visualize how perfect this would be, and how well it would meet her energies at this stage of life. English literature has been one of her most enduring loves. She could transmit it to the girls in small doses. When she visualizes this new dharma, she feels the possibility of living once again. But then the fear comes. Maybe she won’t get invited to all the important powwows about the future of the school. Maybe they’ll think of her as washed-up—consigned to the oblivion of the educational North Forty. And then she thinks, “Perhaps I should stick it out for another year. There will be just a little more in my retirement package, too.” Katherine has been paralyzed by this conflict for more than three years, and she is not a happy woman. “Living a lie,” she has even said to me after several glasses of wine.
Katherine is stuck. She might well say with Arjuna, “Conflicting sacred duties confound my reason!”
There are many ways to be quietly paralyzed by doubt. We might call Katherine’s version Fear of Closing the Door. I see this version quite frequently. Someone has had a profound taste of living their dharma, maybe even for decades. But now that particular dharma is used up—lived out. You can smell it. This person knows that a certain dharma moment is over but has only the vaguest sense of what must be next. It increasingly begins to dawn on her that in order to find that next expression of dharma she is going to have to take a leap of some kind. She knows that she is going to have to close a door behind her before she will find the next door to open. And gradually she comes to the edge of a cliff, where she knows a leap of faith will be required. This is where she sets down in her folding chair. Will she ever get up?
Fear of Closing the Door is one version of dharma paralysis. But there are many others—countless others, really. Let me recount just a couple of these to you, so that you can get a flavor of the possibilities.
Katherine’s story is rather dramatic. But here is a different kind of dharma problem that is perhaps closer to home for most of us. Let’s call this one Denial of Dharma.
My friend Ellen and I were talking one day over brunch. I was telling her about the work of our Institute, and asking her about her own life—her own vocation. “Well, I don’t really have a calling,” said Ellen a little wistfully. “I wish I did. But I don’t.” Ellen was at that time a head nurse in the psychiatric unit of a local VA hospital. I knew—because several of her colleagues had told me—that she was greatly respected, and even loved, in the hospital. She was knowledgeable, professional, masterful. Always learning more. A hard worker. As she described herself, though, she was “just a regular old worker bee—not one of those people with a high calling.”
Ellen loves to help. To support people. To love people. To be of service. Not only at work, but all around her community in Albany. She helps Jessica, our mutual friend with Alzheimer’s. She takes care of Bill, her friend with a brain tumor. She keeps a watchful eye out for her adult son, Jim, and his girlfriend—helping where she can, and unobtrusively. I mean, really. Ellen is an angel for many. Her Thanksgiving table, a meal which I attend every year, is an outpouring of generosity. Ellen gets a tremendous amount of satisfaction out of lending a hand. She does it quietly, with no fanfare, and often with great humor. Her best friend, Dee, told me recently that in the early years of their friendship, she watched Ellen very closely, looking for the crack in her spirit of giving. She can’t really be that generous, can she? She can’t really enjoy giving that much. She must secretly resent it, don’t you think? Finally, Dee concluded with astonishment that she actually does enjoy giving that much.
Now, Ellen has a brother named Henry, who is also a good friend of mine. Henry is a well-known film producer. He lives a crazily dramatic life. He is wildly and publicly successful. He is rich. He is Ellen’s younger brother. But Ellen has always felt overshadowed by him. Who wouldn’t?
Ellen lives with the sense that she does not have a calling, simply because her calling is not dramatic—like Henry’s. But she most certainly does have a calling. It’s clear to everyone around her. Her dharma work is everywhere. It saturates her life. She lives so much in the center of her calling that she doesn’t see it. For Ellen, her life is her dharma. It is not just about her job, or even her career, though in her case, that career, too, is part of her dharma. Ellen is squarely in the middle of her dharma. But she has not named it, and therefore is not, in a strange sense, doing it on purpose. All that is left is for her to embrace her dharma. To name it. To claim it. To own it.
This is Denial of Dharma, and I see it all the time. It is a sly version of doubt. With Denial of Dharma, there is often a vagueness, a lack of clarity—and confusion about the nature of dharma itself. Ellen’s boat is not really sailing trimmed to the wind. But it could be. If she just took a small step toward embracing her dharma. What stands in her way? We will examine this interesting question in some depth as we go along.
And finally, here is one last example of the many forms of doubt. This one we will call The Problem of Aim.
Let me introduce you to a man I will call Brian—Father Brian—who is a priest in a local Roman Catholic parish. Brian was young—as most are—when he went to seminary in Boston and committed to the priesthood. He knew he had a vocation. He felt it stirring early in his high school days, when he admired the priests at the prestigious private high school he attended. And he had always loved to be in church. The Church, as he once told me, always “had the magic” for him.
So what is the problem? Well, Brian is now forty-three years old, and he knows more about who he really is. He now says he was perhaps slightly confused about his vocation. Yes, he does love the Church, and he does believe in the Church as an important institution. But he realizes now that what he really loves, what really gets him up in the morning, is the music of the Church. He’s an accomplished organist. Has a beautiful Irish tenor voice. He realizes now, as he leads Sunday Mass, that he would much rather be in the choir, or directing the choir, or playing the organ, than be behind the altar. “I just don’t feel like a priest,” he says. “I feel like a musician. I feel like a transgendered person before the operation. I look like a priest. But under the cassock, it’s not quite me.” He looks down from the throne where he sits as rector, and longs to be just a part of the choir.
Oops. Brian almost made it squarely to the center of his vocation. But not quite. Close—but no cigar. Brian lives in close proximity to his dharma—to his passion. But not in the passionate center of it. It has taken him quite a few years to realize this.
This is not a simple problem. In fact, Brian is actually very good at being a priest. He is a wonderful preacher—an incisive theological thinker. And though it’s true that he’s not gifted as a counselor, and that in obvious ways he is not interested in being a pastor, he has so many of the gifts one needs that he “passes” very well as a competent rector.
This is a problem of aim. How important is it that we live squarely in the center of our dharma? How many of us get it almost right, but not quite right? And is a miss by an inch really as good as a miss by a mile?
Brian has done pretty well with his dilemma, at least until recently. It seems that the older he gets, the more he longs to live squarely in the center of his dharma, and the more he feels the accumulated weight of a kind of creeping self-betrayal. In the past two years, he tells me, he has begun to feel moments of desperation about it. He is angry with God. He has periods of loss of faith. He gets depressed. And he is currently seeing a Church counselor. It is all pouring out.
Brian has finally realized that he does have the gift of a passion, but he has not been pursuing it. He has been trying to transcend this conflict through prayer and confession, and through being as close as possible to what he loves: sacred music. This has been, for him, like falling in love with someone who is married to someone else, and deciding that it might be enough in this lifetime just to live next door to the beloved.
Do you recognize Brian’s problem of aim? It’s a curious thing about dharma. It’s almost all about aim. It appears that we will not hit the target of dharma unless we are aiming at it. And does hitting the target matter? It does to Brian. He is on the floor of his chariot as we speak.
Katherine, Ellen, Brian. Each one of them is stuck on the bottom of their chariots. Unable to fully assent. Lacking certitude. Their lives are colored by doubt.
There are, of course, a thousand ways of being stuck. Of being split. Freud believed that that “split” is the very nature of neurosis. And that none of us can avoid it. It is, apparently, a part of the human experience.
But is a life of certitude really possible? Krishna teaches that it is. But the key to living a life true to dharma is a complete understanding of and respect for doubt. Indeed, the only way to get to certitude is to look more and more deeply into our doubt—to shine a light into the dark corners of our self-division.
Meet the Author
Stephen Cope has been for many years the Senior Scholar in Residence at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. He is the author of a number of bestselling books, including Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and The Wisdom of Yoga.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Stephen Cope uses teachings from the Bhagavad Gita to explore the idea of dharma. This can be defined as one's true calling, life path, or more simply, utilizing and accepting the spiritual gifts that God has bestowed. Through individual examples he showcases how getting close to your dharma isn't enough--such a state can cause suffering for yourself and those around you. It's every person's obligation to fulfill their purpose in life, not just for themselves but for humanity in general. You must hit your dharma head on. This is a wonderful book that will make you think about where you are in your own life. Mr. Cope offers insights into how others have found their dharma--Jane Goodall, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Susan B. Anthony, Camille Corot, John Keats, Marion Woodman, Beethoven, Harriet Tubman and Mohandas Ghandi. This book is a gem and I highly recommend it.
I've read Stephen's other books prior to this and greatly anticipated this new work. The wait was worth it. This book, done in his accessible and conversational style is perhaps his best work. He has "translated" the Bhagavad Gita into language that is really understandable and most importantly to me, practical and applicable to my life. Books don't give you answers, but this book will certainly help you to start paying attention to what is important to you and hopefully help you realize you already have the answers. Thought provoking and well written.
This book has stories of remarkable people, who will inspire you to do better. It's refelective, poignant, and thoughtful. Hopefully, it will move you a little closer to your calling in life.
Written in his signature conversational style, Stepen Cope once again shares personal insights as well as those of others of friends and mentors in this approachable exploration of the ancient spiritual classic, The Bhagavad Gita. I highly recommend this to yoginis, yogis and anyone else on a spiritual enrichment path. And, I can't wait to explore this teaching with Stephen himself at his workshop at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in January 2013, where the author is the Director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living.