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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.

Final Note:

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.

"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."

Those fateful words, a message to us all, begin this first of two posts on the Bhagavad Gita and Stephen Cope's The Great Work of Your Life. My exposure to the Bhagavad Gita comes via Stephen Mitchell's translation, a recommendation that several years ago came by way of Tim Ferriss' podcast. It is of course no substitute for the actual book and some have been quick to point out that this is just a translation and not the source.

It is what I have at hand though and when read with Stephen Cope's book provides a deeply engaging look at how we should be envisioning and living our lives. Believed to have been written in the second century BCE, the book continues to inspire to this day. Cope's book outlines some of the famous individuals in history who have been inspired by the works including Thoreau, Emerson, Jung, and Gandhi to name but a few.

Like many of the great books of humanity, the Gita is something that will read differently to everyone. This post does no justice to a book I've only read once (and assuredly requires multiple visits) but at the same time will perhaps expose others to it.

As that opening quote suggests, one of the key takeaways is that we must find ourselves first, be confident in how we proceed in the world, and be true to who we are. The Gita tells the story of Arjuna, a prince caught in the middle of two warring factions, seeing the hopelessness of it all. Krishna, appearing as a charioteer, describes the way of the world and the place that all people have within it. A place that we all share that should fundamentally be based on selfless action.

"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 inaction."

Cope does an excellent job diving into the truths of these words. We are often caught clinging to results in everything. To be wealthy, to be successful. We tend not to focus on the purity of the action itself. In a way, creativity can be guided along this path as well. Do you create for the sake of creating or are you in it for something else? It is of course not an easy path to take. In today's day and age, we are bombarded with messages that run counter to this idea. We idolize those who are successful in the form of many guises. Capitalism runs on the notion that if you work hard enough you will reap the rewards; the idea to work/create simply for the sake of it seems to be lost.

Is this an outdated idea then? Are we really to believe that someone can sit down with the Gita and take these ideas to heart?

I don't think it's outdated but rather something we all can strive towards. Something we can lay down in the back of our mind as we make decisions every day on what we want to do with our life. Echos of Buddhism reverberate in the Gita with the idea that we must work to abandon our desires and what we cling to:

"Abandoning all desires,
acting without craving, free
from all thoughts of "I" and "mine,"
that man finds utter peace."

Buddhism recognizes that craving and clinging ultimately lead to suffering as outlined in the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth outlines the anxieties and stresses we encounter when trying to hold onto things as they are constantly changing. Our desire for stability leads us away from peace.

The Gita is a book written for everyone. Easily accessible and interpreted as one pleases. The messages are universal which is both a pro and con. On the positive side, you can read through this book at your own pace and interpret it as necessary for your point in life. As a con, it can feel difficult to interpret what the implications actually are. How does one abandon all desires? In my next post, I will dive into Stephen Cope's book and hopefully close the loop. Through interpreting the Gita, it also provides the "how" while sharing stories from many individuals in history inspired by the book.


For a brief introduction to Stephen Cope's book check out this earlier post. Spirituality is a big part of my reading so if you are interested in a few other books check out this post. Want to go even deeper? Here are five books on mindfulness worth checking out.

Updated: May 19, 2021

First, I want to thank A.A. Knopf for sending a free copy of Joan Didion's Let Me Tell You What I Mean over.

My first encounter with Joan Didion came with her powerful book The Year of Magical Thinking. I had no previous experience with her writing and didn't fully know what to expect; to say I was rocked would be an understatement. And perhaps to my own dismay, I found that book so powerful that I've now pegged any further reads to that experience. It really is an unfair hurdle to set and partly why going back to Didion's older works for me is a struggle.

As I piece together this book, following on the heals of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I am starting to see the writer that Didion truly is. I should have started here. To see the sharpness in her writing and ability to critique while also opening herself up to the flaws that she sees in herself. It wasn't common for writers to be forward with their own weaknesses; the idea that Joan herself didn't believe she would be a writer and yet became it guided by this thirst to understand what she was thinking.

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."

One of the essays I found particularly good was her look back at Hemingway and his life as a writer while focusing on the nature of writing and what death means to your legacy. Hemingway was clear that upon his death he wanted none of his letters published; they did not represent the writer that he was and for him, his writing had to be fully by his hand; edited and such. Of course, his letters were published as were additional unwritten manuscripts begging the question as to whether this is truly his writing?

If someone else comes along and edits the writing does it still hold enough of the original essence to be considered their writing?

As a writer/reader it always feels insightful to peer deeper into the minds of our heroes and yet perhaps this voyeurism does a disservice to those we admire. Perhaps deep down that is always a fear of a prolific writer; that control is lost and your legacy is left to others to fill in the blanks and perhaps try to make a bit more money on what you left behind.

If you haven't read anything from Didion before I'd encourage you to start with her essays first before diving into something like The Year of Magical Thinking or Blue Nights. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is viewed as one of her finest works. This gives you a chance to see her writing outside of the incredibly poignant emotional rollercoaster that Didion can bring to the page.

I'll leave you with one last quote from Didion herself; an insight into writing and how we interpret books. Something I'd never given thought to but perhaps could change the way we view our interaction with authors and books.

“In many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

I haven't covered Didion here on the blog before but encourage you to check out my previous Instagram posts on Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking. You may also appreciate Rebecca Solnit if you haven't already read anything by her. Check out my Instagram post on A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

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