Editor’s Note: This is a rebroadcast. It originally aired June 2020.
One of the most burning questions in life is what it is you’re called to do with it. What is your life’s purpose? What great work are you meant to do?
Guidance on this question can come from many sources, and my guest today says that one of the best is the Bhagavad Gita, a text of Hindu scripture thousands of years old. He’s a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and author of The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling. Stephen Cope and I begin our conversation with an introduction to the Bhagavad Gita, the significant influence it’s had on philosophers and leaders for ages, and what it can teach us about making difficult decisions. We then discuss the insights the Gita offers on the four pillars of right living, beginning with discerning your true calling or sacred duty. We unpack the three areas in your life to examine for clues to your life’s purpose, and why that purpose may be small and quiet rather than big and splashy. Stephen then explains the doctrine of unified action, why you have to pursue your calling full out, and why that pursuit should include the habit of deliberate practice. We also discuss why it’s central to let go of the outcome of actions to focus on the work itself, and the need to turn your efforts over to something bigger than yourself. All along the way, Stephen offers examples of how these pillars were embodied in the lives of eminent individuals who lived out their purpose.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- A primer on the Bhagavad Gita
- Prominent individuals influenced by the Gita — Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and more
- The universal nature of Arjuna’s struggles
- The 4 pillars of your “dharma” or calling
- How do you figure out your calling in life?
- Questions to ask about where to find that calling
- What it means to “think of the small as big”
- What does it look to go full-out on your dharma?
- Unifying all your actions to a single purpose and utilizing deliberate practice
- What does it mean to “let go of the fruits”?
- Beethoven as an example of letting go
- Turning your work over to something bigger than yourself
- What Harriet Tubman can teach us about letting go
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- A Treasure Trove of American Philosophy
- Stillness Is the Key
- Action Over Feelings
- 10 Overlooked Truths About Taking Action
- How to Find Your Calling In Life
- AoM series on vocation
- A Primer on Nietzsche’s Big Ideas
- Expect Great Things: The Mystical Life of Thoreau
- The Secret of Great Men: Deliberate Practice
- Reach Your Peak
- Camille Corot
- Marian Anderson
- John Keats
- Negative capability
- Harriet Tubman
- The Bhagavad Gita
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. One of the most burning questions in life is what it is you’re called to do with it. What’s your life’s purpose? What great work are you meant to do? Guidance on this question could come from many sources, and my guest today says that one of the best is the Bhagavad Gita, a text of Hindu Scripture thousands of years old. His name is Stephen Cope. He’s a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and the author of The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling. Stephen and I began our conversation with an introduction to the Bhagavad Gita, the significant influence it’s had on philosophers and leaders for ages, and what it can teach us about making difficult decisions.
We then discuss the insights the Gita offers on the four pillars of right living, beginning with discerning your true calling or sacred duty. We unpack the three areas in your life to examine for clues to your life’s purpose, and why that purpose may be small and quiet rather than big and splashy. Stephen then explains the doctrine of unified action, why you have to pursue your calling full out, and why that pursuit should include the habit of deliberate practice. We also discuss why it’s central to let go of the outcome of actions to focus on the work itself, and the need to turn your efforts over to something bigger than yourself. Along the way, Stephen offers examples of how these pillars were embodied in the lives of eminent individuals who lived out their purpose. After the show is over, check out our show notes at AoM.is/gita.
Alright. Stephen Cope, welcome to the show.
Stephen Cope: Thank you, Brett. I’m glad to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are the author of a book called The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling. And this book uses the Bhagavad Gita, it’s a piece of Hindu Scripture to explore this idea of a vocation or calling in your life. I read this book a few years ago. I was telling you off-air that after I read the book, that’s what introduced me to the Gita, and since then, I’ve read the Gita, at least once a year, ’cause it’s such a… It’s a cool piece of literature.
Stephen Cope: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So I’m curious, how did you discover the Bhagavad Gita?
Stephen Cope: Well, the Bhagavad Gita is really the most well-known Scripture, yogic Scripture in India. So if you’re hanging out in Indian culture or Hindu culture or yogic culture, pretty much everybody knows about the Gita. There are a number of great Scriptures in the yoga tradition, but the Gita is certainly the most well-known. It’s the kind of thing that everybody in every little village in India knows. And there are images of Krishna and Arjuna, the two main characters pretty much everywhere on temples. And so once I came into the yoga world, it’s pretty much inevitable that you bump into the Gita.
Brett McKay: And as you said, it’s a piece of Hindu Scripture, but as we’ll talk about in this book, a lot of great Western thinkers for a couple of centuries now have been influenced by the Gita. I mean, who are some of these individuals?
Stephen Cope: I mean, honestly, it’s remarkable. I, writing on the Gita as I have, I keep bumping into more. So there is probably the first major Western philosopher was Schopenhauer who wrote in the early 19th century. The Gita was translated in English as late as, I think 1787 or 1785. But where you start really beginning to see its influence is with Thoreau and Emerson. The transcendental was unconquered in the 1820s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and Thoreau picked it up and was profoundly influenced by it. And you can kind of draw a direct line then between Thoreau’s influence and Emerson as well. And then Tolstoy, who picked it up. And from Tolstoy, a direct line to Gandhi and then to Aldous Huxley, who wrote a brilliant book called The Perennial Philosophy. And from there to Himmler to Martin Luther King and to Bobby Kennedy. So there’s this direct line back to the Great American philosophers, Emerson and Thoreau.
Brett McKay: So let’s dig into the Gita. And for those who… Before we get to some of the lessons and take away that you talk about in your book, can you give people who aren’t familiar with the story sort of the big picture overview of what’s going on with it, and the main characters, yeah.
Stephen Cope: Sure, sure. Yeah, it’s a great tale and like most tales, it was meant to be spoken verbally, even though it was written down somewhere in the, probably the 2nd century of the common era. The tale is about… It happens on the night before a great war, the battle of Kurukshetra, on the field of Kuru. And the two major protagonists are Arjuna and Arjuna is a warrior. He is the greatest warrior of the kingdom of Kuru and his father was the king, now the deposed king of the kingdom of Kuru. And the other major character is Krishna, who’s his charioteer. And Krishna, of course, is God in disguise, we don’t find that out until the middle of the book. But the whole book is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna at the edge of the battlefield.
So you can imagine there’s a huge battle, an epic battle about to take place the next morning. And Arjuna is very conflicted about whether or not to fight in this battle. The backstory is that the kingship has been stolen by one of Arjuna’s cousins, and that’s what precipitated this war. And he realizes as he sits with Krishna that he’s got a dilemma that he cannot solve, and the dilemma is this. Because he’s a warrior and he was part of a very rigid caste system, it was his duty, it was his sacred duty to fight in a war, to fight in a just war, and this was a just war. On the other hand, he realized that he was most likely gonna kill his own kin because his cousins were on the other side of this battle. And so the very first chapter, he investigates this dilemma. He must fight in the battle because it’s his calling, it’s his sacred duty, but if he fights, he will kill kin, in either case, he will have to go to purgatory in the Hindu view, four lifetimes. And so he’s presented with this dilemma that he cannot solve. It’s greater than his own consciousness and he sits with Krishna through the night as Krishna expounds to him his way through this particular dilemma. And the way through is actually by completely expanding his consciousness so that he understands that the war itself is not really a real external war, but a battle going on within himself. The tale is really about the moral dilemmas that each of us face in life and how we work our way through them.
Brett McKay: Now, I love the set up of the story and that’s why I think it’s so relatable, I think why so many individuals even in the West have related to this, with Arjuna.
Stephen Cope: Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: It’s just like, “I don’t know what to do. I have no idea what to do.” And that’s like that’s most of life. Like, “I don’t know what to do.”
Stephen Cope: Yeah, in fact, he says… Arjuna in the beginning at the end of the first chapter falls to the floor of the chariot and he says, “Krishna, I cannot fight this fight. Conflicting sacred duties confound my mind.” And of course, we run into that all the time, conflicting sacred duties. Should I do A or should I do B? What am I called to do and how do I know what my calling is? It’s a great set up, that first chapter and then there are 17 more chapters where Krishna describes the slow and deliberate process of understanding your calling.
Brett McKay: And that’s what I love about it too, that dialogue he explains the idea of duty or dharma. And then yoga, which in the West, we think yoga is like you’d downward dog or whatever, but yoga, it’s all about taking action.
Stephen Cope: Exactly, yeah.
Brett McKay: And that’s what Krishna tells Arjuna what you have to do. “You have to action to fulfill your dharma.”
Stephen Cope: That’s right. Basically, Krishna teaches Arjuna what he calls the Path of Inaction-in-Action, the Path of Naishkarmya-karman or inaction-in-action, which turns out to be a profound reframe of action. And there are four steps. First of all, Krishna says, “Look, don’t even think about being the guy who doesn’t take action because we all act all the time.” In the contemplative traditions, they talk about actions of mind, speech and body so even your mind is taking action. The four pillars of this Path of Inaction-in-Action are, number one, discern your dharma. That is discern and know your true calling in this lifetime. Number two, do it full out, bring everything you’ve got to the performance of your dharma, of your calling. And third, let go of the outcome. Krishna says to Arjuna, “Whether you’re winning or losing or failing is not your issue, your only issue is have you determined what your dharma is and are you doing it full out?” He says, “It’s better to fail at your own dharma than to succeed at someone else’s dharma.”
And then finally, Krishna says to Arjuna, “Turn this whole thing over to me.” In other words, over to God or over to something bigger than yourself, over to some bigger meaning than your ego or yourself. And so we have the four pillars, discern your dharma, do it full out, the second one is called the doctrine of unified action because it calls you to unify all of your action around your dharma. The third is let go of the fruits and then finally turn it over to God or whatever version of God you have.
Brett McKay: Alright, let’s dig in the deep. You spend the rest of your book, The Great Work of Your Life, exploring these four pillars and you do that by… Through examples of people you’ve worked with personally in your practice, in your work, but also the lives of what we’d consider great individuals who may have… Some of them directly were influence by the Gita, others, they just kinda got the idea. That first pillar, which is know your dharma or look to your dharma, let’s talk about this. How do you figure out what your dharma is in the first place, your calling, your sacred duty in life?
Stephen Cope: Well, this is where most of us get stuck. The truth is that when the Bhagavad Gita was written in that context, everybody was born into their own sacred calling. It was a very complex caste system and you were… Arjuna was born a warrior. It was his duty to be a warrior. That was called svadharma. And of course, that kind of rigid duty to the social order into your birth no longer applies in our culture. Now, we have to dig down inside, look at our circumstances and our life situation and our own gifts to determine what’s our dharma, what’s our true calling. The word dharma is based on the root D-H-R-I, dhri, which means to uphold. And the view that still translates to us is the idea that everybody has a responsibility to their particular set of gifts, their particular set of capacities. And so no longer is the duty to the dharma into which you were born, but now it’s to… As Carol Pearson, the great Jungian psychologist says, “You have a responsibility to your gifts and your own idiosyncratic opportunities that you must fulfill in this lifetime.”
Brett McKay: That reminds me of the idea that I think, Pindar, he’s a Roman poet, he said, “Become who you are.” Like Nietzsche picked that up. You know what I mean?
Stephen Cope: That’s right.
Brett McKay: That idea of becoming who you are is looking at your situation. It might not mean… Your dharma might not be like, “I’m gonna be president of the United States.” It could be even smaller than that.
Stephen Cope: Oh, absolutely.
Brett McKay: But if you find that, you’re supposed to go full out with it.
Stephen Cope: Exactly, exactly. I’d like to say, because I’ll tell you the truth, a lot of the time I spend with people looking at these notions is really spent on helping people to discern their dharma. The whole process of discernment. There’re three particular areas that I call useful hunting grounds for dharma. One is, is I often ask people the question, What’s lighting you up? So the first question to ask yourself is, what is it out there in the world in your life now that’s lighting you up, that gives you energy, that fascinates you, that draws you? That is not necessarily your dharma, but it’s a very interesting finger pointing toward Dharma.
The second useful hunting ground I’ve found is very different from what lights you up. The question here is, what do you see as your sacred duty in this life? So sacred duty is something different. It may not necessarily light you up, it may, and I like to… The whole question of duty is complex. I like to say, Your duty is that thing which if you do not do it will result in a profound sense of self betrayal on your part. And that definition of duty moves the locus of duty from the exterior that is duties that are foisted on us that we don’t actually own to our own interior self where the real locus of duty is found.
And then the third area… So we have what lights you up, what do you consider or know to be your sacred duty? And the third area is look at challenges and difficulties in your life because very often, people find their duty or their calling or even what’s lighting them up, arising directly out of challenges. So a divorce, an illness, a change in job. This is another important hunting ground for dharma. So between those three, you have some interesting arrows pointing at your own particular dharma, and I highly recommend that people explore those three areas very systematically.
Brett McKay: The one section in this, when you talk about Look to your Dharma, that really when I first read it, it’s… I think about it all the time, and as you explore the life Henry David Thoreau and him trying to our out his dharma, and the idea that you got from Thoreau is, think of the small as big.
Stephen Cope: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Because I think a lot of people when they confront this question of What’s my calling in life? They typically think it’s gotta be big, it’s gotta be where I’m know.
Stephen Cope: That’s right.
Brett McKay: And that’s not necessarily the case. So tell us about Thoreau’s experience with the Gita and how it helped him find his dharma.
Stephen Cope: Well, this, by the way, is what I call the false notion of the romance of dharma, the idea that it has to be something big, the idea that you have to leave your job selling insurance and move to Paris and become a great painter. That’s a typical romantic notion. The truth is, most people’s dharmas are already somewhere in their lives, they’ve already stumbled into some aspect of their dharma. But Thoreau is an interesting example. Thoreau of course, was a brilliant man. He was educated at Harvard, he spoke many languages, he wrote Greek and Latin, and he, of course, lived in Concord surrounded by the likes of Emerson and the Alcotts and all these great American writers and philosophers.
And he got it in his head early on that he wanted to become a great writer, and so with that in mind, he moved to New York City, which is where the only great writers in America at that time were thought to be and were really all there. And he was a complete failure in New York City. He was a woodsman, he was way too gruff and rough, and he was not accepted into the salons of New York literary society. And finally dejected, he dragged his butt back to Concord, the little town where he lived and grew up and decided when he got back that this was his home, this is where he was gonna put his stake in the ground. And it wasn’t long after that that he went to Walden Pond where he built his cabin on some land that Emerson loaned him, and decided to do his great experiment. He said, I have come to the woods to learn to live deliberately and not define when I come to die that I had not lived.
So Thoreau went to Walden, the teeniest little life you can imagine, a little cabin in the woods by the pond, and one of the few books he took with him was the Bhagavad Gita. He read the Gita daily, he considered himself a yogi, and keep in mind, this is in the early part of the 19th century, and he realized that whatever you’re doing, whatever action you’re taking, whatever your calling is, and now he understood that his calling was to investigate the small life and to keep even getting it smaller, remember he finally had to give up one of his two spoons in his second year at Walden, and to discover how big the small life actually is.
So I actually quote from the Tao Te Ching there where it says, Think of the small as large and the few as many. Thoreau discovered in the Gita the notion that all actions have mystic consequences. So, the smallest actions as long as they’re aligned with your dharma, makes some kind of huge ripple in the world. So Thoreau took on the task of investigating his world just as he saw it, and as he found it around his little cabin. And strangely enough, just as the Bhagavad Gita said, Mystic actions connected with your dharma make big splashes in the pond. And so, of course, we now think of Thoreau writing from his little cabin as one of the great philosophers and writers of American life and literature. He once said, which quote I love, “I have traveled extensively and conquered.” And by that he meant that his inward journey in conquer to the soul of this one little town, and by focusing down into the soul of this one beautiful little New England town, he pretty much found the whole world there. You know, when Krishna was born, his nurse looked into his open mouth, and saw the whole universe there. And that’s precisely what Thoreau did at Walden.
Brett McKay: And you make this point in the book, Thoreau’s experiment at Walden was even smaller. I mean, he was basically in the backyard of his parents house [chuckle] and that his mom still brought him cookies and sandwiches. And sometimes people criticize Thoreau for that, like, “Oh, he really didn’t do anything, he just basically backpacked in his backyard.” But it’s like the idea, he went full bore into it and was able to do some amazing work by doing that.
Stephen Cope: Well, and one of the great things about Thoreau was, we all know the quote, “Find your own distant drummer and follow it.” Thoreau caught on to the idea that it’s our idiosyncratic, highly particular calling that has the juice. He said, Thoreau said, “All human beings should constantly be on the trail of their true nature. Because it is in following and claiming their true nature that they connect with the Divine.” So, Thoreau said, “Find your bone,” and here’s a great image of a dog. Find your bone, gnaw on it, bury it, dig it up again, gnaw on it more. So, he found his bone in his writing and in his nature study and it was through being uniquely idiosyncratically his own true self, that he broke into the field of the Divine. And in this he was relentless. So, Emerson as you know his buddy was much more polished, and was a bit of a more professional philosopher, but Thoreau was this rugged individualist. And it was he that really lived out in so many ways Emerson’s own views about living your idiosyncratic truth.
Brett McKay: Alright, so that’s… Look to your dharma, discover your dharma, so you can look to what lights you up, look what’s at your sacred duty or look at problems in your life and then realize and understand that your dharma, your duty might be smaller than you think it is. And that’s okay.
Stephen Cope: Yeah, exactly. In fact, I use the story there of a friend of mine who’s a nurse who kept saying to me, “Steve, I just… I have such a small dharma.” And finally now 10 years later, her life has been turned around because she fully embraces the beautiful work that is her daily work as a nurse, no longer thinking of it as small. So, think of the small as large, and the few as many.
Brett McKay: Alright, so once you find your dharma, you’re supposed to go full out on it. That’s the second pillar. What does that look like?
Stephen Cope: So again, that’s called the doctrine of unified action. And the idea here is that once you’ve found your dharma, you bring everything you’ve got to it. Krishna said to Arjuna, “This is the passion that is not contrary to the dharma.” And in other words, you should be living a passionate life built around your dharma. One of the characters I used to explore this is Susan B. Anthony, who, as a young girl growing up in Upstate New York, realized that she was… Women were in a kind of prison in those days, they had very few rights. And she realized that she didn’t wanna go along with that, with some of the mores of the day in relationship to women. Women couldn’t own property or inherit property, very often were kept in the home. So, she became a teacher, her world began to broaden, but teaching was one of the few professions that women could do back in her day. She became a teacher, and then she became an activist. First of all she got involved in Temperance, which was non-drinking and the Women’s Temperance Movement. And finally, she realized that women were never going to be empowered in our society until they got the vote. And once she realized that, she was onto her dharma, she realized that she was gonna to spend the rest of her life organizing and focusing on this one high goal, which was for women to be enfranchised.
She doubted and she often said, “I probably won’t live to see it, but I’m gonna spend my life doing it.” And then she became an incredibly effective person in that dharma because of unification of action. Everything she did, her writing, her speaking, her traveling, was all organized systematically around her bigger goal. So for example, she lived in Upstate New York and she loved beautiful clothes, but she realized she had to get up on these podiums and speak to auditoriums full of angry pissed off men, and she didn’t wanna piss them off more by wearing flowery clothing so she wore black. At a certain point she had to learn to be a great speaker ’cause she really had to shout down these rooms of upset people. So she took on a coach, she took on Elizabeth Cady Stanton to help her write her speeches and learn to give them.
Everything she did was aimed like the narrow point of the spear toward her bigger goal. And so, her life became a kind of guided missile of energy, and she was a perfect example of this doctrine of unified action, “Bring it, bring everything you’ve got.” As a writer, I do that. I try to do that every day. I sit down and bring it. And you’d find out as a writer that your life ends up becoming organized around your dharma in the sense that you have to take good care of yourself, you have to sleep well and eat well, because when you get up at 8:00 in the morning and arrive at your desk, you wanna be ready. So, this doctrine of unity in action has served me, and it’s the second important pillar of Krishna’s approach.
Brett McKay: And then you also highlight… It also… This idea of unified action means deliberate practice, like learning how to do, you fulfill your dharma the best you can.
Stephen Cope: Yes, exactly, yeah.
Brett McKay: And I loved… I didn’t know about this guy, but Camille Corot…
Stephen Cope: Camille Corot, yeah.
Brett McKay: He’s a painter that sort of exemplified, you thought was deliberate practice in the Gita way.
Stephen Cope: Yeah, so Corot is a fascinating figure. He was a great French landscape painter who… Well, he was fascinated by painting as a kid. And from the beginning he started painting outdoors. This is called plein air in French. And then like most of the artists of his day, went to Italy for his training, but he soon caught on to this idea of what we now called deliberate practice. And what deliberate practice means is that you intend and organize all of your actions around your dharma, around your calling to eventuate in the mastery of that calling. So, Corot was one of the very first painters who, when he was painting in Rome, for example, he would paint the Palatine Hill and he painted over and over and over again every day from the same view point, but with different kinds of light. And what he was doing was deliberately practicing how to capture the light, the special light of Italy. And deliberate practice, we now know that most of the people that we think of masters and geniuses, actually are the result of practicing their craft deliberately. And what that means is you practice with the intention of improving. You practice in such a way that you get regular feedback, you create loops of feedback.
So you have not only your own eyes, but someone else’s eyes on your work. You immerse yourself in the culture of that particular crowd. So, Corot immersed himself in the culture of painters. You let go of the idea of perfectionism and take risks. So there’s a whole series, and I lay this out in my book of things that are considered now deliberate practice. And we know that almost any kind of mastery takes approximately 10,000 hours to master. And paradoxically, I found that this is also true of meditation. So those monks that you read currently and that the Dalai Lama brings with him to his big conferences, they’ve practiced their meditation practices and their breathing practices for 10,000 hours just like Corot did. And Corot, as a result, became one of the greatest masters of French landscape painting. Monet said, at a big exhibition once he said, and all the great painters were there, he said, “There’s only one master here and that’s Camille Corot.”
Brett McKay: So it sounds like this… And from the Hindu perspective, this idea of going full out, it’s about focus. It’s what you do in the contemplative of practice.
Stephen Cope: Exactly.
Brett McKay: It’s learning how to focus.
Stephen Cope: It’s all about focus and concentration. And if you read the other scriptures of yoga, The Yoga Sutra, for example, it lays out a very clear series of steps in which the mind becomes increasingly concentrated on the object of attention, and in this case, in Corot’s case, for example, painting. It can be anything. I’m writing a chapter right now on Marian Anderson, the great black contralto, and looking at the way in which she systematically promoted the mastery of her voice by becoming increasingly concentrated on the most subtle aspects of the way in which the body produces sound.
Brett McKay: So the next pillar, so you go full out, the second pillar, the next pillar is, let go of the fruits. And this is probably the most well-known idea from the Gita. I’m sure people have heard some version of it, but it’s…
Stephen Cope: Right. That’s right.
Brett McKay: What Krishna told Arjuna was, “You have a right to the work, but not to the fruits.”
Stephen Cope: Exactly. This is a toughie. And I use… In this particular section, I use John Keats as an example. Because Keats, by the time he was 18, Keats who was then in medical school and was really bad at medical school, discovered that his true calling was to poetry. So by the age of 18, he said, “I’m spending the rest of my life dedicated to poetry and I intend to be the greatest poet in the English language.” He was determined to, as he said, “wear the laurel wreath,” which is the wreath the victor. And his career faltered around that, because it turns out that grasping and craving and clinging to an exalted outcome is probably the worst thing you can do to actually inhibit that outcome. I teach a lot of young musicians up here at Kripalu, and one of the first things I noticed about them is they’re all tied up in knots trying to perfectly execute their musical charge, whatever it is, piano or voice, and it turns out that grasping and craving and clinging, holding on to outcome in that way with kind of a death grip on it, actually inhibits fluid performance, inhibits what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow states. And of course, people are so resistant to this idea thinking that, “If I’m not grasping to success in business or to perfection in my music, then how am I ever gonna get anywhere?”
Well, it turns out that the contemplative traditions have a completely different view of that, and that is the idea that it’s not grasping that actually eventuates in mastery, it’s aspiration itself. So, to aspire to something is to learn to deliberately practice it as a craft, and of course, this is what Keats had to go through. Keats had this big competition with one of his poet friends, and they were both gonna write these great long epic poems, and as a result of his grasping for it to be the greatest, Keats realized he was inhibiting himself. So, Keats himself came up with something that he called negative capability, wherein he realized that the systematic regular, non-sexy practice of practicing his craft without any fanfare and without getting ahead of himself in terms of wanting to be the greatest poet in the world. Actually that was the formula for greatness.
So it’s a paradox, he called it negative capability because he said you have to let go of those grandiose ideas, you have to stand on the edge of the cliff of your skill and be willing to take risk and be willing to fail and be willing to go into the mystery, and it’s out of that soup that actually comes greatness. And so, once Keats got on to that, of course, he wrote some of the great… He did write some of the greatest poetry in the English language. Unfortunately, he died when he was, I believe, 27 of tuberculosis, but in those short, almost 10 years of writing, he became indeed one of the great poets.
Brett McKay: I mean, I think it’s such a powerful idea, ’cause as you just said, it is a paradox, but you see, it’s a universal idea. You see it in other faiths and other philosophies, stoicism kind of have something similar to that.
Stephen Cope: That’s right.
Brett McKay: And Buddhism, you have the same thing. Like, you can even say in Christianity, there’s that idea, and grace is probably like that. You care, but you don’t care about the outcomes, right, like you…
Stephen Cope: That’s classic TS Eliot, let me care and not care.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s how I described that idea, it’s like, you care but not care, that’s…
Stephen Cope: Yeah. Yeah.
Brett McKay: And I’ve experienced that a few times, and when I have experienced it, it’s the most amazing feeling in the world, and then I’ve just been trying to get back to that, but it’s really hard ’cause you’re… It’s so easy to go fall back to it, like, I gotta grasp for the outcome, I gotta get this…
Stephen Cope: Exactly, exactly.
Brett McKay: It’s so hard, it’s like you just… You know like a… I don’t know, it’s almost like a drug where you experience it, you just spend the rest of your life trying to… You start grasping at the… [chuckle] It’s kind of a paradox and you start grasping at, not grasping [chuckle] at the problem.
Stephen Cope: That’s right, that’s right. Well, you know what’s funny, Brett is that grasping and craving, of course, in Buddhism, as in yoga, is seen as the root of suffering, and yet it’s so built into our nature that there are… As you go through the stages of refinement toward enlightenment, let’s say in the Buddhist tradition, there are multiple stages at which you have to let go of even grasping for highly refined ecstatic states. You have to let go of grasping for enlightenment itself. Grasping itself becomes more and more refined until you have to let go of those final stages of it, and that’s when you fall into enlightenment. I mean, the Buddha himself, of course, before his enlightenment was… Had been practicing for six years in the forest this amazingly difficult ascetic feat, so he was eating half a grain of rice a day, and this was called the ascetic Buddha, and it wasn’t till he let that go… He let go of the grasping, ’cause it was grasping inherent in the way he’d set up his practice and finally he let it go. He sat down, he accepted that bowl of milk from Sujata, the farm girl, and that was when he became enlightened.
Brett McKay: And another character you explored for this idea of letting go of the fruits is Beethoven, and Beethoven, a student of the Gita, and he faced… For the most of his life, he had a tough life.
Stephen Cope: Oh, men.
Brett McKay: You talk about his father was basically abusive towards him since he was a boy, he was awkward socially, and then at the height of his career, he starts going deaf, and he basically almost… I mean, he started contemplating suicide at this point.
Stephen Cope: That’s right, that’s right. I mean, talk about having to let go, Beethoven had one huge gift which was, he understood from very early in life that his calling was to music, and he also was already on the Thoreau idea that it was his idiosyncratic view and understanding and insight and genius that was gonna lead him to fulfill his dharma in life, which he did wonderfully. You know, Beethoven… It wasn’t until Beethoven discovered Bach that… And Bach was long dead when Beethoven discovered him, but when he heard Bach’s fugues, he said, “Oh, my God, you can do that? You can actually do that?” It freed him to claim his own idiosyncratic genius, and he lived for that and he lived through it, and he lived magnificently, and yes, he had a quote from the Gita under the glass of his desk. And that was a shocker to me because I’m a huge Beethoven fan and I’d never heard that until I read this little footnote in Maynard Solomon’s biography. Oh, yeah, Beethoven, the Bhagavad Gita.
Brett McKay: And he hid them, I think the quote was just about knowing your duty and then once you know it, you know what to do.
Stephen Cope: Do it.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Stephen Cope: Do it full out. Exactly.
Brett McKay: I think that was one of the most powerful ideas from the Gita, this idea of not remembering who you are.
Stephen Cope: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Like Krishna says to Arjuna, the reason why you’re conflicted and the reason why you’re anxious is like you forgot who you are. I think this leads toward that final part of the final pillar, which is turn it over to God or turn it over to something bigger than yourself. I think that this idea of remembering who you are, that’s related to that idea.
Stephen Cope: Well, this is actually where in many ways, the Gita really starts there. One of the very first things Krishna says to Arjuna is, “Dude, you don’t have a clue who you really are, you’re stuck in this little box, this little idea of self, this little idea of ego, and you don’t realize that in your true nature you have the same consciousness as Brahman.” This is very central to the Hindu view and the yogic view is the idea that each individual soul or atman is in its very essence one with Brahman or the divine consciousness, consciousness itself. And the idea that’s very different from a lot of Western religion is that you can actually realize this true nature, this part of yourself that knows and sees and comprehends and understands and attains the same kind of consciousness that we call in that tradition, Brahman or the divine.
And again, this marks it as quite different in many ways, although there are many Western theologians who write from the same place. Eckhart, not Eckhart Tolle but the original Eckhart, back in I think the 13th century, who stressed that view that we’re all made in the image and likeness of the Divine. And in most of the contemplative traditions, it’s understood that there’s a very systematic path of claiming that consciousness and of becoming one with that consciousness and a lot of it involves systematic path of moral purification.
But in that particular chapter, I use both Gandhi and Harriet Tubman, and I love the Harriet Tubman story because Tubman had no formal education whatsoever and like so many, she was a slave on a plantation in the south, and as so many slaves were in those days, she was educated by listening to Bible stories at night around the fire or the hearth or whatever. So she was actually remarkably well educated in a lot of the things that really count. And she escaped from her plantation and followed what they call followed the drinking gourd, followed the North Star, found her way to Philadelphia, which was a safe city, and then out of the blue, experienced this call from God, and it was nothing less than God knocking on her door saying, “Harriet, I want you to go back to the plantation and free others.” And she was like, “No way, not me. That was tough enough the first time.” And God kept knocking, that inner voice, that divine voice kept assailing her and finally she said, “Okay, I will do it, but you’re gonna have to lead me because I do not know how to do this, I’m not trained to do this.”
Well, Harriet Tubman became… They called her the engineer because she engineered the freedom of so many fugitive slaves, she’d bring them back north, she’d go down undercover back into dangerous territory and free five or 10 or 15 or 25 slaves and lead them to safety, not just to Philadelphia, but she’d led them all the way to Canada, and then when they got to Canada, they would stop on the bridge, the whole group of them. And by the way, the people who followed her knew that she had a kind of connection with this inner voice, she called it a sixth sense that was infallible. So if she said, Stop, you stop. If she said, Hide behind the tree, or duck or bury yourself under that mound of dirt, you did it because she was connected in that way, she was being guided. And then when they got to the bridge in Canada, they’d all stop, and they’d have a prayer service where she would turn it back over to God and say, “This was not me people, this was God. So pray to God, worship God, begin to listen to that… To your own still small voice inside and allow yourself to be guided just as I have.”
Brett McKay: And I think she was an example of action requires faith, but faith also requires action.
Stephen Cope: Yeah, exactly. No, she was a woman of action her whole life.
Brett McKay: The other character you talked about is Gandhi, which is interesting about Gandhi, he’s Indian, he’s Hindu, and he became sort of this embodiment of the Gita, but he didn’t discover the Gita, he had to go to England and [chuckle] be amongst the English to finally… That’s when he first discovered the Bhagavad Gita.
Stephen Cope: He did. And he discovered it in English. He did not discover it in Hindi or Gujarat. I believe he was born in Gujarat province, and he was immediately taken by… It was like he recognized in that scripture the spiritual genius of his own culture, which don’t forget, in Gandhi’s day, that culture had been downtrodden by 300 years of British colonial rule and in so many ways had lost the spiritual self-esteem of their culture. So Gandhi gets to England, and he’s introduced to the Gita, and he begins to light up with an understanding of the spiritual genius of India and the subcontinent of India. Then of course, he goes to South Africa, where he puts all of the teachings of the Gita. The Gita is, as he said, his guidebook for life. And he said, “If you wish to know what a life based on the Gita looks like, look at my life ’cause my life has been entirely based on the Gita.”
So he went to South Africa, where he understood the Gita to be talking about non-separateness. And he began working with Indians who’d lived in South Africa, and who were hugely dominated and colonialized by their Dutch colonizers. So he got his first taste of helping to resist in a non-violent way in South Africa before he came back to India where he became the champion of non-violent resistance, what he called ‘satyagraha’ or ‘soul power’.
Brett McKay: And the idea that you hit with Gandhi was turning everything over to God. And he had this idea, Gandhi had this idea of you gotta take yourself to zero.
Stephen Cope: Yes, yeah.
Brett McKay: It’s not about you anymore. It’s about something bigger than yourself.
Stephen Cope: Exactly. Gandhi took literally what Krishna speaks to Arjuna in that very first chapter where he says, “Arjuna, by the way, you are not your body.” And Arjuna’s of course terrified of being injured in this war, and Gandhi’s took literally, “You’re not your body, and you needn’t be terrified of being injured or even killed in the line of duty, in the line of doing your dharma.” So, much of take yourself to zero for Gandhi was really take your ego out of it, take your own self-importance and aggrandizement out of it. Rather, look at the good of the whole. So Gandhi was all about looking at the good of the whole, looking at the good of the whole community. He was Martin Luther King’s predecessor in understanding the importance of what King called the blessed community.
So yeah, that was Gandhi. Take yourself to zero. And of course, he did. He didn’t count the cost to himself of so many of his actions. He didn’t count the cost of going to jail or doing a fast. He was quite willing to die. That last fast that he did, he almost died when the Hindus and Muslims had again begun to war on each other, he went on a fast until it’d stopped, and there was take yourself to zero. Gandhi was incredibly creative. He didn’t see himself as living inside this little box of fear, which allowed him to be hugely creative in the way he moved, and he was constantly frustrating and freaking out his own supporters because he’d do stuff that nobody had ever thought of before or tried before, and it was just because he’d been freed from what they call in the tradition, grasping to views and beliefs about how things should be. He was much more interested in how things are.
Brett McKay: Well, Stephen, it’s been a great conversation. For those who want to explore the Gita more, is there a translation in English that you recommend for folks?
Stephen Cope: There’s a great translation that I prefer using and it’s by a guy named Eknath Easwaran, E-A-S-W-A-R-A-N, who actually has studied… Well, he’s an Indian scholar, who moved to United States in the ’50s and became a professor in Southern California, I believe at Berkeley, and from there, translated the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita and some of Buddhist texts. And it’s an extremely practical, but also accurate and a guide to the Gita and the Upanishads. And part of it is that he accompanies his translations with an essay for each chapter that really helps you to understand frankly, and you know this now that you’ve read the Gita. You can’t read it without a guide because there’s so much sophisticated philosophy thrown in it. It’s a little bit of a dog’s dinner in that way in the sense that you really need a guide to wade through it. And I found Easwaran, I think partly because he understood the Western mind ’cause he’d lived here, is particularly useful. And there’s a fairly new edition of it you can find on Amazon.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s the translation. I have it. It’s very…
Stephen Cope: That’s right.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the commentary is very useful.
Stephen Cope: So useful.
Brett McKay: Where can people go to learn more about your book and your work?
Stephen Cope: They can log on to my website, which is www.stephencope.com. I am the Scholar Emeritus at Kripalu Center, which is the largest center in America for the study and practice of yoga in Western Massachusetts. Unfortunately, we’re locked down with COVID right now, but we will open again and I teach a lot at Kripalu. I teach all over the country. But you can find my events on my website there.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Stephen Cope, thanks for this time. It’s been a pleasure.
Stephen Cope: Total pleasure, Brett. I’m delighted to meet you and we’ll talk again.
Brett McKay: That was Stephen Cope. He is the author of the book, The Great Work of Your Life. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, stephencope.com. Also, check at our show notes at AoM.is/gita, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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