Welcome to Part 2 of the Bhagavad Gita discussion as we dive into Stephen Cope's The Great Work of Your Life. An excellent companion piece to the Bhagavad Gita, outlining the fundamental tenets of the Gita while also sharing stories of many of those influenced by it in history. Cope's book provides a guidebook for those who find themselves uncertain about diving straight into the Gita.
Cope's book begins with a great quote from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas that parallels much of what the Gita pronounces:
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
If you recall the previous post, this aligns closely with the idea that "it is better to do your own duty badly, then to perfectly do another's; you are safe from harm when you do what you should be doing." Not physical harm but rather the mental ruminations that can carry us off in the form of regrets of an unlived life. Many historical figures make their presence felt in this book, including Thoreau, Emerson, Gandhi, and Keats. Cope walks us through each of their lives while reflecting on the essential teachings of the Gita.
As we meet Arjuna and Krishna on the battlefield, we see that Arjuna is filled with doubt about his future. Taking up arms against his fellow humans seems pointless, while Krishna points to Arjuna's doubts as one of the biggest challenges people face. Doubt leading to inaction tends to carry us off the path we are meant to be on. It takes us away from our path, and as Cope describes it, "our little corner of the world [that] is ours to transform."
Cope describes the story of Robert Frost and finds parallels in the ideas of choice with one of Frost's most essential and famous poems, The Road Not Taken. At the end of the poem, we find a few of the most famous lines in poetry:
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
Much analysis has been done on this poem but Cope points to the importance of simply choosing. Regardless of the direction, a path was selected, and that was the difference.
"What Frost makes clear in his poem is that the act of choosing is the most important thing. The act of moving forward is what matters."
Have you ever had those moments in your life where choosing made all of the difference? It didn't even matter if you chose the wrong thing but moving in the direction that felt right was all that mattered. Cope refers to this as the task of unification. A practice that we must carry with us all of our life based on choices to align ourselves with who we truly are.
"Perhaps the most demanding practice in a life of dharma is the ongoing practice of unification. Unification means simply that everything in your life must line up around the spine of your dharma."
And of course, how could we forget the famous lines from Annie Dillard: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."
The key message is that we must choose, and we must act.
We then return to that second passage from Part 1: "You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions' fruits. Act for the action's sake. And do not be attached to the inaction." We must act but work to avoid the desires attached to those actions. As Cope notes: "But let go of the outcome. Be alike in success and defeat."
This is arguably one of the most challenging aspects of the Gita; how do we simply let go of outcomes if we've been raised in a world to strive for success? Who are we, if not people who view success as the inevitable outcome of a life of hard work? Cope reflects on this through the latter half of the book noting that we often don't recognize that grasping itself is another form of doubt. "Grasping, or clinging to a particular outcome splits the mind from the present moment."
I've often found this to be a challenge for creative activities. We start with clear intentions, an outlet for our creative energy that, with a bit of success, can slowly morph into something else as we grasp for just a bit more success. Our initial clear intention then becomes split, as Cope notes, and doubt allows itself to creep back in. One of the things I have found helpful is to set aside time to re-evaluate what our initial creative endeavors are regularly. Perhaps every month, you can sit down with a pen and paper and write down your purpose with your creative outlet and if you are staying true to it. Cope focuses on John Keats, the famed English poet who wrote furiously before his death at 25.
Keats, forced to come to terms with his tuberculosis, was also forced to think deeply about his own writing and what it meant to him. Was he focused on money or the art of writing? As Cope notes on Keats: "What alone mattered was the activity of writing, the kingdom of his own creation which he entered every time he sat down to work." Writing for Keats was ultimately his purpose, and when we look back on his life, we don't note his wealth; we note the incredible language that came out of his poetry.
The book itself is a great read, and I highly recommend it to anyone unsure how to tackle the Bhagavad Gita. It opens the door and makes for an excellent companion book while also working through whatever version of the Gita you may have. Cope ends with these thoughts as we all try to find our way in the world:
"You only have to love your little corner of the world. But you have to do it intentionally. And full out. And you have to get yourself out of the way. Then you can care for all things."
Be sure to check out Part 1 of our discussion of the Gita if you haven't already. If you are feeling inspired and want to dive into more books on spirituality I recommend this post here. I find mindfulness to also be a clear path to working on our cravings; this post outlines five books on mindfulness worth checking out.