The secret to discovering the deep purpose hidden at the core of your life can be found in the two-thousand-year-old classic, the Bhagavad Gita, writes Stephen Cope in The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling (Bantam Books, 2012).
Cope, who is the director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, takes readers on a step-by-step tour of the revered tale of fabled archer Ajuna and his divine mentor Krishna. The story weaving includes accounts of people Cope knows personally along with those of people he’s read, such as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, while highlighting the central principles of the Bhagavad Gita.
‘Yogis insist that every single human being has a unique vocation. They call this dharma,’ Cope writes in the introduction.
While Cope’s inspiration may be from an ancient source and many of his human examples famous, his language is that of the everyday. The stories unfold as if they’re happening simultaneously, such as that of Cope’s college friend Ethan and poet Robert Frost.
The central pillars of the path of action, that is, the path of Karma yoga as expounded by Krishna are: Discern Your Dharma; Do It Full Out; Let go of the Outcome; Turn Your Actions Over to God. ‘Dedicate your actions to me,’ says Krishna.
Writer Henry David Thoreau looked to his dharma and was able to ‘think of the small as large.’ His attempts to ‘sparkle in the literary salons of New York’ fell flat until he went home to Walden Pond.
‘Thoreau now saw clearly that the journey of a writer was not the outer journey to New York, but the inner journey to his own voice. He was going to be himself, and to hell with the naysayers.’
Cope says: ‘Our actions in expression of our dharma—my actions, your actions, everyone’s actions—are infinitely important. They connect us to the soul of the world. They create the world. Small as they may appear, they have the power to uphold the essential inner order of the world.’
Other people whose lives Stephen Cope describes in the book are Jane Goodall, Susan B. Anthony, Camille Corot, John Keats, Marion Woodman, Ludwig van Beethoven, Harriet Tubman, and Gandhi.
‘These great exemplars of dharma each took a craftsmanlike view towards life: Do your daily duty, and let the rest go. Poke away systematically at your little calling. Tend the garden a little bit every day. You do not have to exhaust yourself with great acts. Show up for your duty, for your dharma. Then let it go.’
In the chapter titled ‘Unify,’ Cope says ‘Perhaps the most demanding practice in a life of dharma is the ongoing practice of unification—a process that Susan B. Anthony had mastered… Eventually, everything that is not dharma must fall away….’
To clear the way to your own great work you may be interested in a book called You Can Buy Happiness (and it’s Cheap): How One Woman Radically Simplified Her life and How You can Too by Tammy Strobel (New World Library, 2012). She does a really good job of combining personal stories with research. Part of that research revealed that ‘…materialism distracts us from two main facets in life that actually make us happy—strong relationships and doing work you love.’
Strobel downsized her life in order to live in a very small house with her husband and their cat in Portland, Oregon. The book isn’t all about small houses on wheels though. It’s about simplifying one’s life to get to what really matters. It’s an upbeat book that definitely made me happy while reading it.
If you’re wanting to read more about Thoreau whose work influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., here’s another book from New World Library: The Green Thoreau: America’s First Environmentalist on Technology, Possessions, Livelihood, and More edited by Carol Spenard LaRusso (1992, 2012).
LaRusso has selected illustrative passages from Thoreau’s lesser-known essays and books as well as from Walden, published in 1854. One hundred and fifty years after his death, ‘the clarity of his vision seems marked especially for our time.’
Mary Ann Moore is a Nanaimo poet and writer who leads weekly women’s writing circles called Writing Life.