Stephen Cope Transcript

Stephen Cope Interview

Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of conversations with spiritually awakening people. We’ve done nearly 600 of them now and if this is new to you and you’d like to check out previous ones go to, B-A-T-G-A-P, and look under the past interviews menu. This program is made possible through the support of appreciative listeners and viewers. So if you appreciate it and would like to help support it there’s a PayPal button on every page of the website and there’s also a page with alternatives to PayPal. My guest today is Stephen Cope. Stephen is the scholar emeritus at the renowned Kripalu Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of many best-selling books on the topic of yoga and meditation. For over 30 years his interest has been in bringing important but esoteric yoga scriptures to the mainstream, including most recently the 2,000 year old spiritual classic called the Bhagavad Gita or the Song of God. Here’s a book that I just read and Stephen helped me get both the audio and the physical versions of the book so I was able to go back and forth and listen to and read the book in three days which was great because a lot of times I don’t get to finish books so it really helped having the audio. And he has a new book on the Gita coming out entitled The Dharma of Difficult Times. He’s just finishing that up and it’ll be released later this year. So we’ll probably be primarily talking about this one, The Great Work of Your Life, but we’ll also dip into The Dharma of Difficult Times. And he has another book here that I’ve read a little of, Deep Human Connection. Maybe we’ll touch on some of those points too. And whatever… oh wait a minute, I was just showing those books on the screen. I’m sorry, but you couldn’t see because I had the camera on Stephen. So The Great Work of Your Life, Deep Human Connection. There we go. And of course you know whatever Stephen wants to talk about, whatever comes up, and whatever questions you may ask. It’s all fair game. So I really enjoyed your book, Stephen. I like biographies of famous… not necessarily famous, but sort of important people. And you cover a lot of important people in that book and some very well known, like Beethoven, and others not so well known. And also some ordinary people that have been friends of yours. And the main reason for bringing these people up is to discuss examples of people finding their dharma, or in some cases losing their dharma, not finding it. So since dharma is really one of the central themes of the Gita and the central theme of this book, I was thinking maybe we should start by defining the word.

Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. You know Rick, it’s one of those very subtle, complex Sanskrit words. Very often you’ll hear dharma meaning the truth or the path or the law. It comes from the root “dhr,” which literally means “to hold together.” It means different things in different scriptures. So, different scriptures focus on different aspects of the meaning, but in the Bhagavad Gita, it universally means “sacred calling” or “vocation,” “sacred duty,” actually is the correct translation there. So, throughout pretty much our conversation, we’re going to be talking about sacred duty as the definition of dharma.

Rick: Yeah, and just a little elaboration of that definition that I have always like to use is you can think of it as that course of action which will be most conducive to your spiritual evolution, in a phrase. I mean you could say more, but that’s essentially it.

Stephen: No, that’s exactly right. I like to very often cite the ancient tale of Indra’s net, which I think I did in this book.

Rick: You did. In fact, that’s the first note I have for us to talk about here.

Stephen: Oh, okay. So, just for people who aren’t familiar with the story, it’s a great story that kind of rather nails the idea of dharma and the way it’s used in the Gita. So, Indra, of course, was one of the great gods of the Vedic pantheon, and as with these gods, he lived on Mount Meru. He lived up on a mountain, and the tale goes that he had spread a vast net over the entire universe, and at the warp and woof strand at the vertex of each strand was a gem, and it was that gem’s job to hold together that part of the web so that that part of the web was held together by each individual soul doing its own duty. So, the reason that’s important is that from the beginning, there is this really interesting connection between individual fulfillment or the soul’s fulfillment and the common good, and I absolutely love that because as I’ve studied dharma and worked with my own dharma. It appears to me that one’s dharma actually exists at that very intersection between one’s soul’s good and the common good. And so, I love the Indra’s Net story because there is a way in which it describes our connection, our inner connection that while we tend to think of the self as separate and sometimes isolated, it’s actually deeply bound in with this entire web and in order to hold together your part of the web, you have to do your particular calling, your idiosyncratic calling.

Rick: Yeah, no man is an island.

Stephen: No man is an island, me and Blake.

Rick: Was it Blake or John Donne?

Stephen: Oh, John Donne, rather. No man is an island.

Rick: That’s not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

Stephen: Yeah.

Rick: Go ahead.

Stephen: No, I was just going to say, I love that, and you mentioned my other most recent book that I wrote, which is a study of the way in which the self that we usually think of as under its own power and separate is actually profoundly socially and co-created with other selves. So, you get back to the whole idea of the profound interconnection between all of us.

Rick: Yeah, and as you were saying that, I was dwelling on it a bit and there are sort of like hierarchies of dharma, you could say, I think. I mean, you could even break it down within your body, you could say your liver has a dharma, you know, and if it’s not functioning properly, then the whole of you is going to have problems. And you, of course, are part of a family, and there’s a family dharma, and each member of the family, if they’re out of alignment, or if some of them are out of alignment with their dharma, it kind of throws the whole family dharma off. And then community, and nation, and world, and there are all these levels of it. And, you know, we could say individuals are units of society the way trees are units of a forest, and you know, if all the trees are properly connected with their ground, then we have a thriving green forest. But if they’re not, then the whole forest from above looks gray and withered.

Stephen: Exactly, and this view occurs in many different of the great world’s great wisdom traditions. So in the Christian tradition, for example, many gifts in one spirit is basically the same idea.

Rick: So it’s interesting, at the beginning of the Gita there’s that verse, I should have written it down, but Krishna says to Arjuna, “When a dharma flourishes and dharma is in decay, I take birth from age to age,” and basically to restore the dharma of the world, restore dharma of society. So what that tells us is that, you know, dharma can sort of become a dim, flickering, feeble flame either in an individual’s life or in the entire society, and that flame can be rekindled and brightened through certain measures.

Stephen: And there again, you have a similarity with Christianity where you have Krishna who’s an avatar of Vishnu, and the word avatar literally means “crossing over downward.” So, you know, these emanations of the divine in the Hindu tradition, where we’re always taking human form in order to help out, and it’s very similar to the idea of the Son of God in the Christian tradition taking human form in order to help out. And yeah, and the Bhagavad Gita starts out at the beginning of a great epic war, the Battle of Kurukshetra, which was said to be ushering in the Dark Age, and so along comes Krishna at that pivotal point to help out.

Rick: I think, yeah, the theme that maybe I’ll spring off of what you just said is that there is this higher realm, or we could say celestial realm or divine realm, and obviously it’s not somewhere off far. It permeates everything if we have eyes to see it, but there are actually denizens of that realm who sometimes intervene in human affairs, Krishna being one and Rama another and Jesus another. And there’s a verse that came to me from the Gita which is, “Through yagya you sustain the gods and those gods will sustain you. By sustaining one another you will attain the highest good.” So gods meaning sort of, you know, these higher beings. People might think of them as ascended masters or devas or whatever, but whether we know it or not, you know, we have a relationship with them. And if we neglect that relationship, then we don’t get the support we might otherwise get from them.

Stephen: Yeah. I mean, in the Buddhist tradition there are heaven realms where celestial beings reside, and these are by and large beings who’ve worked through a ton of their karma and in rebirth are reborn into heavenly realms. It’s interesting to me though that very often in Buddhist theology you’ll read about the notion that the human realm is actually the most effective realm from which to attain enlightenment. And that is because there’s just the right mix of pleasure and pain and suffering in order to goad us into our practice, right? So suffering is kind of where it all begins, and that’s where the Buddha begins his teaching. And so as human beings, a human birth is said to be extremely auspicious from the point of that particular tradition, which I love. The Buddha said something like, “The possibility of your achieving a human birth is akin to — there’s a turtle swimming at the bottom of the ocean and there’s a tube, like an inner tube, floating on the top of the ocean, and the possibility that that turtle would poke its head through that tube as it comes up is the same probability as achieving a human birth.” So I love that because it makes us appreciate this realm that we live in and the possibilities here.

Rick: Yeah. There’s a quote from Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, who was the Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath in India, and he said something like, “There are some large number of gazillion lives that a person can go through before getting a chance to be human,” and he said, “Once you’ve gotten a human birth, if you fail to reach God, it’s like selling a diamond for the price of spinach.”

Stephen: Oh, that’s so beautiful. That reminds me, and I’m sure you have memories like this too, of when I first heard the Dharma. So I was in graduate school and I was living in Boston, and for some reason I, “Oh, I know what.” So the Dharmadhatu, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s group, Dharmadhatu in Boston, as it was known then, had a meditation center near my home in Cambridge, and I was at Boston College in graduate school, and I walked past it every afternoon and I looked in and there was this huge window looking out into a garden. And I looked in and there were and I wondered what that was. I didn’t know what meditation was, and I kind of wandered in and I asked, I said, “What are you guys doing?” He said, “Well, we’re meditating. Would you like to join us?” So he gave me very, very initial instructions, and I started dropping in there every evening on my way home from school. I think it was five to six every evening I would sit with this group, and then I also began to attend the Dharma talks, and it was the first time I heard the Dharma, Rick, and I was absolutely on fire with the Dharma. I was absolutely to hear the clarity, and you know, I had aspired to be an Episcopal priest after college, and I went to Episcopal Divinity School because there was always something for me that was attracted to God, to to the numinous, to church even. When I lived in Europe as a kid, I was very attracted to the cathedrals. None of my other siblings were, and they thought it was pretty weird. But I went to Episcopal Divinity School, and I was so disappointed to find tons of theology, a lot of how many angels can dance on the head of men, a lot of metaphysics, but actually no practice. They absolutely, in theological school, taught no practice to bring you closer to the divine or to your own divinity, and and there was even very little God talk. So when I encountered the Dharma, I was so lit up by the the concrete practices that that it offered.

Rick: Now I guess I don’t know where Father Keating was at that point, but if you had encountered him, you probably would have gotten some kind of practice you could have done, and not far from where he was right near where you are now.

Stephen: And that was, keep in mind, I’m Father Keating was just getting a start as a kind of well-known author and centering prayer and so forth. I would have eaten that up with a spoon, but it didn’t exist.

Rick: He’s been on Bat Gap for those listening and you want to check that one out, it’s a good one. Yeah, I just want to add something based on what we were just saying. You know, it can be, it can sound a little discouraging to say, “oh, it’s so rare to get a human birth and if you don’t get enlightened, you’ve blown it,” you know. But, you know, there’s a verse from the Gita, Arjuna asks, “Well, what happens, you know, if I don’t reach the goal in this life?” And Krishna basically says, “Well, if you’ve been striving toward it, then you will, you know, when you die, you’ll dwell in the world to the pure and illustrious for a long time, and then you’ll be reborn in an auspicious family, and if you’re lucky, a family of yogis.” So basically, he said, you pick up where you left off. So, you know, people shouldn’t be discouraged if they feel like, “oh, I’m 80 years old and I don’t think I’m going to make it.” If you’ve established a momentum, that momentum will continue.

Stephen: You know, I absolutely believe that, and I also, when I looked over your website after Irene called me, I thought, “Oh my God, I should not be on this program, because I do not claim any special awakening whatsoever.” I mean, I’m a very plodding practitioner, and I have been since I started. I’m a very enthusiastic practitioner and I’m highly disciplined, but when I listened to some of the interviews with people who really claimed special awakening, I thought, “Well, this is going to be a non-starter with Rick.”

Rick: I mean, you know that old saying, “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.” And personally, I think it’s a good quality to underrate oneself rather than overrate oneself.

Stephen: You know, there’s a interesting story about that. A buddy of mine who was a monk in the Thai forest tradition in Burma came back and told me, he said, “Steve, there are three ways you automatically get kicked out of the monastery,” the monastery he was in, which was a Theravadan monastery. Number one, taking anything that is not freely offered, in other words, stealing. Number two, any act of sexual incontinence. And number three, exaggerating your progress on the path. And I thought that was so interesting and instructive, and I try never to do it. Not that I have anything whatsoever to brag about, but I think it’s a wise guideline.

Rick: Well, I think it’s difficult to assess one’s progress on the path. You know, I mean, I’ve known people who were always up on the microphone in meetings talking about their flashy experiences and then they end up totally crashing and burning in life, and you know, so what was that all about? And, you know, slow and steady wins the race, perhaps?

Stephen: Yeah. It does in my world, it does. So, as I said, I’m 72. I’ve been practicing since I was 25, and I have several practices that if I listed my goals in this lifetime would be at the very top of my list. I never list. The first one is meditation. As you see me right now, I’m in my office, which is screened out, but it’s a big comfortable office. And I sit here with my Dharma buddy three times a week. We sit for an hour and a half, we practice a form of Vipassana meditation, and then we’ll spend about an hour talking about our experience and about Dharma. I’ve been practicing this form of meditation for, since I was 25, and I now have to tell you that I exhort my younger friends to learn meditation. Because for me at this age, I’m in a period of what Jack Kornfield calls fruition, which is I put in my hours in a way and the experiences I get in sitting are just so profound, tons of bliss and rapture, not all the time, but very often and very reliably, which gives me a regular experience of profound sense of well-being, the notion that everything is already okay. We used to have this wonderful Rishi Prabhakar. Have you ever interviewed Rishi Prabhakar? Oh dude, you should interview him. Okay, Rishi Prabhakar is a classic non-dual teacher from Canada, and his main motto is everything is already okay. Right? So I love that and I used to have it on my wall, everything is already okay, and forgive the accent, but I have to say it in his dialect. My practice yields this regular touching in with everything is already okay, profoundly so. And so I see for whatever reason, I’m young at heart, I don’t know, but all of my friends seem to be in their 40s and I exhort them to learn meditation so that by the time they get to be older, my age, there’s this opportunity to regularly touch into and know. This is a question of what we call verified faith, and and know that everything is profoundly okay. And I you know, I watch them struggle and I watch them try to learn meditation and the fact is that it takes some work, right, especially early on. It may take some work and like one of my monk buddies says, “you know, hard at the beginning, easy at the end.” Like the ordinary American life which is easy at the beginning, hard at the end. So anyway, I yeah, I love my practice, like I said, I’m a plotter, I work hard, I’m very disciplined, and it does bear just profound fruit for me.

Rick: Yeah, you may have read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, did you ever read that? And he talks about, he takes several examples like the Beatles and Bill Gates and a few others, and how they put in at least to become so good at what they do, and I’m sure that you and I have amassed more hours than that now over the decades. But it’s, you know, in India sometimes people say, “Oh, I will turn to spirituality when I’m old.” You know, and all the spiritual teachers say, “No, no, you really should start it when you’re young,” and, “But I’m too busy, I’m raising a family,” and all. But the point is it’s not a distraction from those things, it’s actually an aid, and if it’s a preparation for daily life, really, and it enhances each day, and it has cumulative effects that sort of sets the whole course of one’s life in a beautiful direction.

Stephen: Yeah, I love the cumulative effect thing, and the thing is that stress also has cumulative effects, right? So you can either take the path of the cumulative effects of stress or of awakening, as you might call it, or meditation. You may have read in my book, I can’t remember what’s in that book because I wrote it 11 years ago, or 10 years ago, we once did a study of some of the greatest young musicians in the world. Kripala Center, which is my home center, is right across the street from Tanglewood Music Center, which is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. So we’re friends with them, and they asked me to be on their faculty for three years, and I taught yoga and meditation to these brilliant young musicians every summer. And we studied the effects of meditation on their performance and also on their psychological profile with our team from Harvard Medical School, and we discovered that the students who are in our training, that is yoga, meditation, and so forth daily, did not become crazy-stressed the way the others did. So the others, this is a training program that’s like medical school for highly advanced musicians, right? And part of the training that I gave them, actually, Rick, was we read the Bhagavad Gita together. And these are kids who are dedicated to concentrated mind, and of course meditation is just about training the mind to attentional training. But these are kids who, from the age of three, have been playing their instruments, and have these minds that are so fine-tuned in terms of their capacity to concentrate. But what they didn’t have was the third pillar, what I call the third pillar of karma yoga, which is let go of the outcome. So in the book that you held up, The Great Work of Your Life, I’m looking primarily at what I call the four pillars of karma yoga. And karma yoga, karma literally means action. Karma yoga is the yoga of action or the yoga of selfless service. And the four pillars that I describe are number one, discern your dharma, that is find out what your calling is in this moment of your life. Number two, do it full out, that is to say bring everything you have to it. This is sometimes called the doctrine of unified action. Unify your actions around that dharma. Number three, let go of the outcome. And number four, turn it over to God. Well, number three is a huge stumbling block for so many people who have already mastered the capacity to profoundly concentrate, but have not mastered the capacity to let go of the outcome. And that grasping, that holding on to the outcome for these beautiful young musicians created so much suffering. Because we know grasping is the root of suffering. And there are two different kinds of grasping. Number one is called reaching, and number two is called guarding. So if you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career like these young musicians have or are about to, there are both. There’s reaching for these optimal performances that they imagine, and there’s guarding their own reputation and their own achievements so far. And so when I was teaching them the Gita, when I was teaching them about let go of the fruit, boy, that was a real stretch for them. “What do you mean let go of the fruit?” That’s the whole thing is holding on to the outcome.

Rick: Yeah. Let’s go through all those four, but since we’re on that point, I’ll read the Gita verse, it’s chapter 3 verse 35. “Because one can perform it, one’s own dharma, though lesser in merit, is better than the dharma of another. Better is death in one’s own dharma. The dharma of another brings danger.” Oh, excuse me, wait a minute. I just read the wrong verse.

Stephen: No, that’s a good verse to read.

Rick: That’s a good one too.

Stephen: Yeah.

Rick: Okay, I didn’t even write down that. The other verse I’m thinking of, which I forgot to note down, is “You have control over action alone, never over its fruits. Live not for the fruits of action, nor attach yourself to inaction.” And we’ll get back to that other verse a little bit later. But the key thing is you have control over action alone, you know, and if you put your full gumption into your action, then chances are the fruits will be ideal, or will be as good as they can be. But you don’t have control over that, you know?

Stephen: Exactly. And I end up talking about this a lot because of our culture of Grasping. But the contemplative traditions had this fascinating different point of view about mastery. So my young musicians, or recently I met with a group of hedge fund experts and masters, I’m constantly interacting with people who have this level of mastery, but they will say back to me, “Well, without this clinging, this craving, this holding on to achievement, to my achievement, to my outcome, I will not succeed.” And so I say to them, “We know now that the clinging and the grasping and the holding on, it actually comes from the limbic system, from the more primitive part of the brain, and there’s another way of doing that which you’ve already referred to, which is what we call deliberate practice.” So for the musicians, I say, and for the hedge fund guys, I say, “Take on your practice, if it’s music or hedge funding or whatever, do it deliberately, do it like a craftsperson, build a little bit every day, move the marbles forward every day, and then when you’re performing, let go of the outcome. Step into yourself, let go of the outcome, and bring everything you’ve got to the moment, because grasping to the outcome simply takes you out of the moment, and if you’re not in the moment, none of the magic can happen.” Now I will tell you that, dude, once the kids get onto this, I say kids, these are 22 to 26 year old people, kids, yeah, once the kids get onto this, they fly, they soar, it’s such a relief for them to realize that they can rely on their craftsmanship, right? And they don’t have to rely on their craving.

Rick: Yeah, and there’s a distinction between motivation and grasping. You can have a burning motivation for something, but it doesn’t mean you’re clinging to something that’s not in the present, you know? Think of like Lindsey Vonn going down a ski slope. If she’s thinking about, you know, winning a gold medal at the end, she’s going to crash. You know, she has to be laser focused on every single, you know, gate that she’s going through, and then, you know, maybe she’ll win the gold if she does that, or maybe she won’t, but she definitely won’t if she’s got her mind other than what on what she’s doing at the moment.

Stephen: Rick, that’s such a great story. Because we’re the same age, I can use this other story from the Olympics, which is Michelle Kwan. Remember Michelle, the famous figure skater who won gold? There was a moment when Michelle Kwan was defending her title at the Olympics, and all of the chit-chat was about her defending. She’s the champion, she’s defending it. Now, that’s a perfect example of the aspect of grasping called protecting, right? And along comes this younger skater named Sarah Brady, and in the pre-interviews, Sarah Brady was saying, “I don’t have anything to defend. I’m just going to go out and have a good time. I’m going to really enjoy myself. I’m going to be there.” Well, of course she won, right? Because she was fully in her moment, she was enjoying it. And so, that’s another kind of sports analogy, I think, to the whole thing.

Rick: Yeah, good. All right, let’s backtrack a little bit. And you mentioned the four pillars. Let’s go through them one by one. But the first one is about discerning your dharma, and you have a point in your book about, I think it’s three components of dharma discernment. So, let’s go through what those components are.

Stephen: Okay. Again, I know what I currently say they are. I don’t know what I said they were 10 years ago, but these for me are, there are three areas that I think are fruitful hunting grounds for dharma, especially because, you know, as you and I both know, when the Bhagavad Gita was written, you were born into your dharma. So, Krishna was born a warrior, and it was virtually impossible to change your dharma in that time, or the time when the Gita was written, which would have been maybe 200 BCE, before the common era. I just lost track of the question.

Rick: Discerning your dharma, figuring out, how do you figure out what your dharma is?

Stephen: That’s right. So, for those of us in the West, it’s a different question. It’s discerning what our dharma is, and the three, what I call fruitful hunting grounds are, first of all, I will always ask people this question, what lights you up? This is an energetic thing, right? And I’ll very often ask people to make a list of what’s lighting you up right now. Don’t censor it. Even mundane things, like what TV program lights you up, or movie, or what book are you reading? What’s lighting you up? Very often on that list are elements of their dharma. So, that list is not dharma itself, but it’s pointing in that direction. So, first of all, what lights you up? So, if I made that list right now, there would be some very mundane things on it, like the current mystery I’m watching is actually lighting me up, and some very serious things. The second area I ask people to look at is, and this is a very different question, what’s your duty currently? What do you consider your duty at this point in your life? And, you know, the lit up question is a totally fun one. People really get off on that. But the duty question is complicated. People will usually ask me, “What do you mean by duty? Define duty.” So, the way I define duty is duty is that thing that if you do not do it, you will feel a profound sense of self-betrayal. So, in my parlance, duty is prescribed from within, not from without. There are many things that other people will tell us are our duties, but what is it that if you do not do it, you will feel a profound sense of remorse, or even self-betrayal? Very often — excuse me, I got a little cough, I’m going to take one of these guys. Very often, on the list of duties, there are some duties that we know right away, right? That the baby falls into the swimming pool, and you know that it’s your duty to save the baby. There are other duties, our duties to our families, our duties to our loved ones. What’s our duty to our country? What was our duty during COVID? Did we have a duty other than taking care of ourselves? So, this is a really important and juicy question, what’s your duty? And then the third hunting ground that I use very often is, what difficulties or challenges are you facing right now? Because very often, you probably read the chapter on Marian Woodman, which is titled, When Difficulties Arise. One option is to take those difficulties as your dharma. So, in that chapter on Marian, Marian, one of the greatest Jungian analysts of the last century, got bone cancer, was told she would die, she decided, “I have a new dharma. My new dharma is getting to the bottom of that question about my bone cancer. Am I going to die? Maybe, if so, then it’s coming to terms with that, but I’m going to do everything I cannot to.” Of course, she survived, she survived brilliantly to live another 20 years. So, she took that difficulty as her dharma. So, what’s lighting you up? What’s your duty currently, and what difficulties are you facing that might actually spawn off of a dharma?

Rick: A few thoughts about that. I was thinking, as I read your book, at one point you said you could be really close to your dharma and not realize it. You could be one percent off, and you’re not going to hit the mark, kind of like if we’re one percent off when we send people to the moon, they’re not going to hit the moon. I thought about all the millions of people working in Walmart and Amazon warehouses and places like that, and I wondered how many of them really are feeling lit up by that. Or, maybe a small amount are. I know in our local Walmart, there’s a lady who kind of stands at the self-serve registers, and she’s just really lovely to interact with. She’s always so happy and cheerful and gregarious, and so on. But most of the people working there, it doesn’t look like this is what they looked forward to when they were a kid. And then the duty thing, maybe you have a family to support. You have to have a job, and the only thing you can find at this point is to work in the Amazon warehouse, even though it doesn’t light you up. So your duty may not concur with what lights you up. So let’s address those two before we say anything more.

Stephen: Yeah, I know those are really important questions. So on the duty one- First, I think for a lot of people, their job is not their dharma, right, because of the way our system is organized. So I have a younger sister, for example, who had a pretty “crapola job” for most of her life. She’s now just a little younger than I am, but her dharma has really been raising her kid. She adopted a boy, and she really put everything she had into the dharma of raising Dustin and did a magnificent job. And now it’s all about his kids and his family, and it’s actually provided her with an amazingly rich life. So there are a couple misconceptions about dharma that are important to look at, and one is that your job is your dharma, and that’s definitely often not the case. If it is, you’re pretty lucky. And another one of those is what I call the romance of dharma. Maybe I talked about this in the book. The romance of dharma is the notion that you need to leave your job selling insurance and go to Paris and paint, right? So that may be the case, but for the most part, and I know I said this in the book, people are already mucking around somewhere in the field of their dharma. Like most people have already at least got a little string on it, right? So a lot of what I do in helping people discern their dharma is about aim. Okay, let’s really aim the thin point of the spear at exactly where it needs to go. What are the other dharma misconceptions? Oh, that you only have one dharma. No, you can have multiple dharmas at the same time. You can also have consecutive dharmas run out of steam. So I had a dharma when I was younger. I was a very good pianist as a young man, and I often thought that that would be my dharma, and I put everything I had into it, and it wasn’t my dharma. It’s somebody else’s dharma. I don’t know why. It’s a mystery, but it didn’t turn out to be my dharma. I have a piano at home and I play. So dharmas run out and new dharmas then arise. Very often, that by the way is a very interesting time between dharmas when people are really clear and then it runs out. And usually people try to hold on to that one and getting them to let go and open to. At that point, I’m always asking people to look for the open door. Like, stop trying to go through that closed door. Where’s the open door in your life? Look there. There’s always an open door. So anyway, there are a bunch of misconceptions like that about dharma. The first one that you asked me was, “Is this a class thing? What about the people at Walmart?” It certainly is a class thing to a certain extent. I mean, we’re privileged people. I’m a privileged person by dint of the family I was raised in, the kind of opportunities I’ve had, even my capacity, my ability to hear the dharma, to go to meditation retreats. I consider that part of my dharma is helping people who work at Walmart who haven’t heard the dharma. So part of my dharma is helping to mainstream some of the ideas, the very idea that there is such a thing as dharma, and that you could find it. It’s available to everyone, and I dare say there are plenty of people working at Walmart who have found a way to embody everything they’ve got in that job. But also, you and I would both, and I’m sure this is why you’re doing what you’re doing, like to spread the idea of this possibility to as many people as as we can. And this has been amplified, I think, over the period of COVID, so that at Kripalu Center, so for those who don’t know, Kripalu, which is my home base, is pretty much the largest residential yoga center in America. We see between 40 and 50,000 people a year there in our programs of meditation and yoga, and over the course of, we can accommodate 650 people a night. It’s a huge operation, right? But over the course of this wave of interest, deeper interest in social justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’ve actually begun to modify our very mission and to take it off the hill, our retreat center, which is rather expensive to come to, and take it out into the community. And for me, that’s a very big part of dharma. Krishna says later on in the dharma that one’s own individual fulfillment and the common good arose together, they were born together, and I really do believe that that whatever your dharma is, it will eventually draw you. Let’s say it’s stamp collecting, which is something I used in the book as an example, which we think of as a fairly isolative thing. Whatever it is, as you master your dharma, it will pull you toward the need of the world, the call of the world right now. So maybe you’re a stamp collector or designer and you end up designing a whole series of stamps on conservation or on racial equity or whatever it is. My view is that if you’re doing your dharma and holding it the way perhaps you and I hold it, it draws you to the need of the time. Just as Arjuna was drawn to the most important battle, the most important moment was this battle that was said to, it was going to tear the very fabric of the universe. That’s where dharma, that’s where Krishna ends up doing his dharma.

Rick: I saw a CNN series on Lincoln not too long ago, and at one point towards the end of the series, the commentator quoted somebody who was a, you know, writer in Lincoln’s day. They said, “He just came out of nowhere, and he just showed up at the right time and did what no one else could have done. And then when the war was over, he was gone.” And if you look at Lincoln’s life, it was very improbable that he would even become president, you know, much less president at such a critical juncture. But, you know, I think a number of people you cite in your book, a number of examples I can think of, are people who just seem to be emissaries from some kind of higher, you know, realm, like we were talking earlier, who have a mission, and it’s a significant mission writ large on on the world stage. And of course, there are millions, millions more who we’re never going to hear of, but, you know, they too have a place, a purpose, which might not be earth-shaking, but which, in their way, could be extremely significant if they can find it. And I think we want to dwell a little bit more on this thing of how to find it. One thing that, just one more quick point, is as you were speaking, I was thinking about what some people have said about automation. Some people look at it sort of in a negative way, like, “Oh, it’s just going to put everybody out of work.” But you can take that same sentence and say, “Great, it’s going to put everybody out of work.” You know, if there were proper distribution of wealth and sharing of resources and so on, you know, people wouldn’t have to do all these drudgery jobs. And who knows what creative endeavors they might, you know, feel called to pursue.

Stephen: You know, I’m thinking right now of a dinner I did in New York for this group of hedge fund guys. And this was a group of men and women, both very highly successful, who after the 2008-2009 crash came together as a group and asked themselves, “What are we doing in this industry that’s exploded our entire economy?” And of course, the more challenged people in the culture always get the the shaft. And most of them had considered leaving because they felt leaving their industry because they felt it was corrupt. But this group that we put together for a while helped them to see that they could actually go back into their industry with this idea of dharma and actually make a lot of corrections that made it much more equitable and much less corrupt. To me, you know, I wrote the chapter on Walt Whitman for this reason. It’s entitled, “Listen for the Call of the Times.” “Listen for the Call of the Times.” So, Whitman had just published “Leaves of Grass” and Emerson had raved about it and everybody was thrilled about his success as a poet. And Emerson said, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Whitman, whom I absolutely adore, was tuned in to the call of the times. And when his brother George was injured in a hospital in Washington, Whitman went down to the hospital. He visited George and he felt the call of the times. He felt that he could leave his career in poetry and become what he called a soldier’s missionary, which meant he would read poetry to the soldiers. He would write letters home for them. He then turned his attention toward this huge wound that was happening right in front of him and decided to dedicate himself to that rather than to his brilliant career. And he became then the bard of the Civil War. And if you’ve ever read his Civil War poetry, it’s absolutely stunning. I challenge you not to sob reading it. He used himself up in the process and he was never the same. But he became a figure much bigger than himself as a result. And of course he wrote about Lincoln when Lincoln was shot. And it’s a very moving story about somebody who relinquishes the golden globe that we all think we want and turn to the need that he saw in front of him. We’ve all seen this this past year with with medical workers. I had a friend, Toby, who left his hospital in Akron, Ohio and went to the worst situation in New York City where the morgue trucks were lining up outside the the hospital. And he devoted three months of his work as a as an RN there. That’s listening for the call of the times, right? One of your components of dharma discernment is the intersection of the gift and the times, which is just what we’re talking about.

Rick: And you say the gift cannot reach maturity until it is used in the service of the greater good. And I’m thinking of Beethoven now who was kind of a obviously incredible genius but also a rather mixed up guy and was suicidal at many times in his life. But he had this sort of clear urge that he had this gift that he had to give to the world and he couldn’t kill himself because he had to give this gift and it kind of kept him alive. The sense of service to the greater good.

Stephen: Beethoven knew that he had an exceptional gift and he felt a responsibility to gift which actually gives me shivers right now because as Beethoven was going, going deaf he seriously considered suicide and he went away to the country and he wrote his great declaration in which he said “no, I’m not going to die. I’m not going to kill myself. I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to this gift that I’ve been given.” And of course, he had a relationship with a higher power. He was brought up as Catholic I believe or as a Lutheran I’m not sure about that but he was brought up in the church of course and he had a deep relationship with a higher power and he could not, he could not turn away from his gift. It’s a beautiful story and then of course he wrote those, those glory like the, the ninth symphony which, which moves from the dark to the light joyful, joyful we adore thee. He had every reason to be cynical and to complain and yet in reaching down to his deepest conflicts he discovered this joy.

Rick: He was totally deaf when he wrote the Ninth, wasn’t he?

Stephen: Totally deaf, totally deaf. Halfway through his career he was.

Rick: Where? Fifth? Sixth? When did he go deaf?

Stephen: Yeah, like in the early even 1815. By then I think he was almost fully deaf.

Rick: I wonder which symphony that would have been when he really went deaf.

Stephen: Well, I can tell you that at the at the rehearsal of the Messiah, oh no, that was Handel. What am I thinking? I’m thinking of something. Anyway, I’ll have to check that out but he went deaf earlier than we usually think.

Rick: Yeah, the point about him having a calling or being connected with the divine if that’s how you put it. And I’ve often I’ve always thought that, you know, when, when some great movie comes out that introduces a profound concept to humanity like Star Wars you know or E.T. or something like that I always think, you know, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, these guys, they may or may not know it but they’re actually, you know, kind of an instrument of some larger intelligence that wants a certain concept to be popularized in the world.

Stephen: Yeah, I mean look that’s Krishna’s whole point is that if, if you’re on to your dharma you’ve surrendered your life and your work and your action to a higher power and now you’re just a channel and you know honestly and I, I don’t like to exaggerate this but I experience this all the time. Like I’m just finishing a new book, Rick and and a book the, the writing of a complex book like the the one you read and so forth, it just kicks your butt all over the field. Right? For, say, those books take me about four years to write and my motto is “suit up and show up.” I simply suit up every day almost six days a week. I show up here, my agreement with myself is if I don’t feel like writing I don’t. I almost always feel like writing and then stuff just comes through and I don’t know even where it comes from and sometimes I’ll go home and say to my partner Susie, “Susie, where did that come from? I have no idea.” It’s like such a cool thing or I’ll get up and go to the bookshelf and pick up just the right book. It happened to me this morning when I was preparing for this. It happens all the time and I know it’s related to my practice. I know it’s related to my letting go. One of the great golfers, I can’t remember who used to say, “the more I practice the luckier I get.” So the more I practice the luckier I get.

Rick: Yeah, I was in Belgium in 1974 teaching a course that was training TM teachers and I would have this experience where someone would ask a question. I wouldn’t really know the answer but I’d start speaking and then the answer would come. And you know, I asked Maharishi about that and I said this happens to me. He said, “Yeah it happens to me too.”

Stephen: No, go ahead.

Rick: I was just going to read that quote of “If you bring forth what is within you it will not only save you, it will save the world” which I think relates to what we were just saying. But maybe you were going to comment on the previous point before we go down to that.

Stephen: No, this is actually a quote from the Gospel of Thomas which is not a Canonical Christian Gospel. It’s one of the Gnostic Gospels. That is now very well respected and so Thomas was a Gnostic which which makes him very much like a yogi because in the yoga tradition the whole emphasis is on vidya, on knowing, is on jnana, on knowing and that was the context there. But he writes “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” And I absolutely love that. That’s the thing about I. I know that that’s true. And I’ve seen it in action. My own dear father who was weighted down by his responsibilities to family and he was a college dean and president and stuff and yet he had all of these possibilities, and all of these great ideas that never came to fruition. And I don’t want to say it destroyed him but on a certain level I think it it did. And I hate to see that if you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you.

Rick: There’s a similar verse in the Gita. Actually, chapter 6 verse 6, it says he who has conquered his self by his Self, capital S alone is himself his own friend. But the Self, capital S, of him who has not conquered his self, lower s, will behave with enmity like a foe.

Stephen: There you go, that’s exactly the same thing I… What is that?

Rick: Chapter 6, verse 6

Stephen: 6, 6, okay. You know, we should say to the viewers that there are many translations and commentaries on the Gita and sometimes they can sound quite different. I like the way that one sounds. I’ll have to double check that in my own translation.

Rick: Now someone might ask, “Well, how can the Self, capital S, the Atman, the universal self, how can that behave with enmity like a foe? Why would that not either be neutral or have our best interests in mind. But I think that behaving with enmity like a foe could be an indication that it does have our best interest in mind because it doesn’t want us to do what we’re doing. It wants us, like you were saying earlier, suffering can be an impetus or an incentive for enlightenment. If you’re off the track, nature is going to slap you around until you kind of get the message.

Stephen: Well, just a sidebar on that. Ignatius Loyola, who was the one of the greatest Catholic saints and was the Catholic saint who wrote about discernment, talks about that exact issue. That if you’re off the track, spirit will swat you around a little bit and we’re to get you back on… By the way, anybody who hasn’t studied him, that’s a great place to go, especially if you happen to have a Catholic background.

Rick: Yeah, go ahead.

Stephen: You brought up the issue of suffering. And honestly, what I see so often at Kripalu is that people who are suffering are broken open in a way that makes them extremely open to new information. If we look at Arjuna at the beginning of the Gita, Arjuna was broken open. And whether he was on a seat or the floor or on his knees, he basically says to Krishna, “Let me be your disciple, tell me what to do.” And so I think this is one reason that the Bhagavad Gita is such a vibrant scripture even 2,000 years later. I’ve studied the Yoga Sutra and a lot of the other great yoga scriptures. But this is the one scripture that every villager in India knows, the story of Krishna and Arjuna. And it’s so human because Arjuna is so broken open at the beginning and a lot of great spiritual writing actually begins with the protagonist in a state of breakdown or being broken.

Rick: You know before he says “I am your disciple, tell me what to do,” he goes through this whole logic of why he shouldn’t fight this battle. And then he says, “I will not fight” and he drops the bow and sits down. And so he’s kind of stubborn at that point, he’s adamant- “I’m not going to do it.” But then Krishna starts in on his logic And kind of masterfully gets him to the point where he kind of realizes that he needs help and he’s open to it.

Stephen: Here’s a question for you. I know you’re studying the Gita with a great master. And Gandhi, you know from reading my book, that Gandhi believed the Gita to be his textbook for life. And he said, “If you want to see what a life guided by the Bhagavad Gita looks like, look at mine.” And in his commentary he says he cannot believe that Arjuna would actually end up fighting in a battle because anybody who’s actually been cooked by the theology and the experience of the Gita would be incapable of harming. So Gandhi’s view in his commentary is that by the end of the tale the whole thing about warfare has been completely reframed and it’s not actually about a real battle and that Arjuna does not fight. Now in the Mahabharata, Arjuna does fight and he does kill people and he kills kin. So does the guy who’s teaching you have a view on that?

Rick: I don’t remember if you’re referring to Swami Sarvabhapiyananda. I’m taking some Gita classes with him. I don’t remember if he’s commented on that. I think he may have commented that it was in his opinion it was a real battle and not just a metaphor. But I wonder what Gandhi said about World War II which was going on during his activity. And I think he was sort of, you may correct me if I’m wrong or someone else can correct me, advocating a Satyagraha non-violent approach. But I don’t think you could have done that with Hitler or with the Japanese at that point. They were the aggressors and they weren’t just going to say, “Oh, we were wrong, we’ll back off.” Yeah, sometimes you have to meet force with force, violence with violence. It’s interesting in the where Krishna shows Arjuna his divine form. It’s terrifying to Arjuna because it’s not an entirely rosy picture. He’s sort of seeing the dynamics of creation in a cosmic way. And there is as much creation as there is destruction because the two of them are counterbalancing forces. So some people might take an exception to that and feel like we should just always be passively resistant. But in my own personal opinion, I don’t think that’s always going to work. And certainly I was lucky to get a high draft number and didn’t have to go to Vietnam. And I think it would have ruined me to go to Vietnam. I was not the soldier type and so I’m really glad I didn’t go and it ruined a lot of people. And that was probably an example of a war that shouldn’t have been fought but probably there are wars that need to be.

Stephen: In the Hindu tradition as well as the Christian tradition, war is wrapped with all of these prohibitions like “there are only a very few reasons for an actual  just war.” In the Buddhist tradition, all war is destructive but there are a few exceptions. One of them is if a whole race of people is being oppressed. There are three or four exceptions and I believe that Nazi Germany falls into one of those, the oppression of a whole race of people. Anyway, it’s an interesting question. I always ask people who are reading the Gita because my own view is similar to yours. That there are a few exceptions, although we wish that perhaps during the Second World War, there were a great leader like Gandhi who knew how to engage his satyagraha campaign against the Germans.

Rick: I don’t know if a satyagraha campaign would have worked. You know one thing about the Hindu scriptures is they really throw you a lot of curveballs and they don’t let you sort of settle into a comfortable perspective and just sit with it. So for instance, towards the end of the Mahabharata, most everyone has been killed and it comes down to a battle between Arjuna, I think it’s Arjuna, and Duryodhana. Perhaps it’s Bheema and Duryodhana. I don’t know. It’s going on and on and they’re starting to violate dharma more and more. They’re starting to fight after dark and do things like that. That was against the rules. Now Krishna supposedly is God. He’s calling the shots and this battle between the two protagonists at the end is interminable. And at one point, Krishna points to his thigh indicating that, I think it was Arjuna who said, “Hit him in the leg, break his leg” and that was verboten. That was against dharma and yet this guy who’s supposed to be God is telling him to do that. And so, these books, if you take them seriously, they just don’t give you a solid ground to stand on very often. This actually brings in another point that I wanted to read from your book. I think it was Keats’ negative capability- the capacity to be comfortable in uncertainty. Certitude is to look more deeply into our doubt. So these books kind of crack open your certitude over and over again.

Stephen: I love that story about Keats. I think I tell the story that my roommate in college believed he was a reincarnation of John Keats. So I got to learn a lot about the guy and I wrote about it in the context of grasping because the young Keats was grasping profoundly after he wanted to be the greatest poet in the English language. And he endeavored to do that. He brought everything he had to the battle and he wrote some great poetry. But it wasn’t until he let go of that grasping, just like my young students at Tanglewood, and he discovered the negative capability, that grasping itself was actually interfering with his art and with his performance and having let go of it. He then proceeded to write his sixth last great poem, some of the greatest poems in the English language dwelling precisely in that that space of mystery and, and not knowing. The great scripture on that, by the way, is the Tao Te Ching. That is all about not knowing and at my age, I’m less and less interested in being the one who knows right. When I was younger, I went to Amherst College which is a very fine school in Massachusetts. And I reconnected with my English professor there who taught me to write 50 years ago and I hadn’t seen him in 50 years. He was a very distinguished professor there. He left after teaching for 52 years, went to Maine and opened a candy store. And his motto now is “live unknown.” He doesn’t want to be anybody, he doesn’t want to be a big deal anymore. He left Amherst because he was a big deal, And now he sits in a candy store reading Marcus Aurelius. which of course is fabulous stuff and I have become to be very attracted to this idea of “live unknown.” You know, Thoreau said “Simplify, simplify.” Most everything is a distraction, and I think this is partly an age thing. I don’t know how I got off on this right now, Rick.

Rick: Well, You mentioned your roommate in college and I think you called him Ethan in your book. I wanted to bring him up because he was an interesting example and he was the guy who thought he might be a reincarnation of Keats and he was really into Keats. You and he used to take long hikes and sit on mountaintops gazing at sunsets talking about Keats and poetry. And this guy just totally was into that whole world. But he found out that his father had gone and mortgaged the farm to send him to college. And he felt that he had to somehow pay back that debt and thereby got into medical school. And he went to your room or you went to his room and he sobbed for hours over this decision that he was changing the course of his life and going to medical school, basically selling out on his dream of being the next Keats. And then you ran into him sort of serendipitously years later and he was going through a very bitter divorce from some debutante that he had married, a socialite. And he had become an alcoholic and he barely recognized you. There was a just a glimmer of the old Ethan when you looked in his eyes. And so that might be an example of “that which you don’t bring out will destroy you.”

Stephen: That’s the reason I put that story in the book. It was a noble thing what he did and I think that very many of us have sacrificial callings that actually are dharma and we don’t understand that. So in my new book that I’ve written, I really struggled with this question of “did Arjuna fight or didn’t he?” The Gandhi thing. I wrote a story about a great young civil war soldier who was an unlikely hero and yet he gave everything he had and became a hero. He won the battle of Cedar Creek which literally turned around the 1864 election in Lincoln’s favor because Lincoln was about to lose. And the last scene that I talk about is his funeral where they talk about sacrifice. It’s is a great mystery. It’s at the center of the Christian Mystery. It’s very much in the Bhagavad-Gita, the idea of sacrifice. What is the sacrifice that is dharmic, that actually incorporates your calling? And what is the sacrifice, like the one of my friend Ethan, that doesn’t turn out to be dharmic? I don’t have the answer but I do know that some sacrifice will be required. And here’s one reason why. Once you get on to your dharma, you discover that there are many other very attractive things in your world besides your dharma. I’m a writer now, I’m There are other things that would be have been fun, but they weren’t my dharma. I wasn’t called to them and that doesn’t mean they’re bad. There’s some very good things in there. But I had to give them up and to that extent there’s been a good deal of sacrifice involved in this. And I wouldn’t give it up for a second. But it just raises the issue of sacrifice.

Rick: Yeah, in my teens, I was a rock and roll drummer, semi-professional and loving it. Great fun but then I had the opportunity to go to a one month course and become a TM teacher. I thought “I gotta do it” and so I told the band I’ll be back or you come with me. But then they replaced me and when I came back, I went and drove an ice cream truck, went to teacher training, and, boom, got into that and became a very successful meditation teacher. And did that for 25 years and then at a certain point, that became untenable and it was very hard to leave. You know, I’d always drilled into my head that this was the most evolutionary thing I could do. I ended up doing computer consulting and desktop publishing and I was crawling around under people’s desks plugging in cables and all. I thought, “Is this what I’m meant to do with my life?” But then I got into a little web design and search engine optimization. That all contributed, plus all the meditation stuff before it, to what I’m doing now which I feel is the most dharmic thing I’ve ever done. So you never know where something that kind of sucks might end up really being beneficial later on.

Stephen: That’s such a great point, Rick. I’ve discovered that for me in my writing career, I get something I call “dharma assignment.” The Bhagavad Gita was a dharma Assignment. I realized I had to write a book about it. I’ve been teaching it for 15 Years. I had something to say. I loved it the period of time when I was writing That. I had this profound experience of Certitude: “I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m about every day. It’s unified action. Then there’s a period after that of stumbling around for a while before I get another dharma assignment and it can take a year or two or longer. And that’s a period when I’m in doubt and when I’m living in the mystery and when I’m living in the gray area. I much prefer the period of certitude to that next period when I’m fussing around to try to figure out what comes next. But they go together, they’re two sides of the same coin and you have to begin to appreciate the factor of doubt. We think of doubt as as an afflicted state. But in discerning your dharma, doubt is very full of all kinds of stuff that usually arises when something’s changing. When you’re unclear and you have to examine it, you have to open it. I read a gazillion biographies for this book and for the book I’m working on now. What you tend to see, like Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial and Martha Graham on the stage, you see them in their moments of certitude. But you don’t see them in their moments of doubt, which are also really important to Understand. So when Mother Teresa died, remember how people were shocked when they discovered her diaries. She had been through these long dry spells when she no longer had faith. Everybody was shocked. It’s not shocking that doubt goes along its other side of the coin, of faith. It has to be valued, it has to be investigated just like in the contemplative traditions. The instruction with all afflicted states like grasping, aversion and delusion is don’t push them away. Move toward them. Investigate doubt, go into it. What are the angels on this side saying and the angels on that side saying? So that’s one thing that’s come out of my career. I’ve really learned how to use doubt more.

Rick: Yeah, several thoughts there. Jesus was experiencing doubt in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was Crucified. Eventually after he pondered that for a while, it was like “All right God, thy will be done, I’ll go with with your call.” This is a great quote from Nisargadatta which is related to this. He said “the ability to appreciate paradox and ambiguity is a sign of spiritual maturity”. Obviously Arjuna’s doubt was extreme, he was torn between his heart and his mind. His mind said “This is my dharma, I have to do this and x-y-z. These are all the reasons these guys need to be defeated,” But his heart said “You know I love these people and some of them are my relatives and teachers.” So it was there was all- what’s unresolvable. There was this conflict and it’s interesting what Krishna’s advice was to him. He basically said “Transcend the duality, “nistrai-guṇyo bhavārjuna”, “be without the three gunas.” Chapter 2, verse 45- and “so go to the transcendent.” And then three verses later, “Established in yoga, perform action.” Once you’re established in unity, then you perform action and all these irresolvable conflicts get resolved. And you find a course of action that is of larger than the dualities.

Stephen: I absolutely love what you just said. There’s a parallel to that in the psychoanalytic world which they call the third way. In Psychoanalysis, when you’ve entered a paradox, it’s irresolvable. When you’ve encountered a duality, “should I go “x” or should I go “y?” The attempt is always to look for a third way that actually unifies “x” and “y.” I wrote a whole chapter in the book that you haven’t finished about Charles Darwin who encountered just this kind of paradox. He was on his five-year voyage around the globe on the Beagle with his mentor Robert FitzRoy, a Fundamentalist Christian and the captain of the Beagle. Darwin keeps getting closer and closer to believing this blasphemy of evolution and FitzRoy is in his ear all the time saying “No, it was all about the flood and God created the world.” If you watch Darwin, he moves from that duality to this beautiful third way where he declares that the universe operates by predictable Laws. But those laws were created by God and it’s all to the glory of God. So rather than “x-out the divine” he includes it. If you read late Darwin, it took him On the Origin of the Species. He sat on it for 20 years because he was afraid it was going to hurt his wife and his family who were profound Christians. Until finally, he came to the third way and his late writings are absolutely sublime. What you were talking about is getting this much bigger perspective. Can you widen your perspective? That’s always a good thing to do.

Rick: Personally, I try to take a God’s eye view of things which doesn’t mean that I can see things as God does. But I can at least conceive of what God does. In fact, right now on my screen I have different pictures of galaxies flashing as my desktop picture. And when you think about all the dramas that are taking place and all the conflicts and unhappiness and suffering, it’s all contained within the totality which we could call God or Brahman. There’s a Vedic saying that Brahman is the eater of everything, meaning that the totality consumes or includes all conceivable diversities. If we can tap into that to some extent, intellectually, intuitively and experientially in our personal lives, it makes them run much more harmoniously.

Stephen: “All is Brahman.” All is and that’s a beautiful non-dual teaching. I’ll give you a story about that. I was once invited to the home of a wonderful noble teacher who lives near my city. We were asked to bring food and I brought an Indian dish that had chicken in it. I don’t know what I was Thinking. It was all vegetarian, of course, and his wife was aghast. She said to me, Steve, chicken isn’t a vegetable.” And her husband, who’s the great teacher said, “All is Brahman, chicken is Brahman. That’s Brahman.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s so perfect.”

Rick: Reminds me of a funny story. I was on my TM teacher training course and One guy was sick and his friend was picking up dinner for him. He went through the dinner line and got the food and there was chicken on it. My sick friend who’s from Texas picked up the chicken leg as if it were radioactive. He held it up in front of the serving lady and he said, “My friend, don’t eat dead birds.”

Stephen: That’s very good, so all is Brahman.

Rick: On this point of doubt and hesitancy and ambiguity and not always being cocksure of oneself. I think we could swing around again to say that once you have “found the groove,” found your dharma, then you pursue it with one point of dedication. So it’s not like we’re always going to be wishy-washy about things, but there might be “gear shift moments” where we’re not Accelerating. Actually, if you tie in Jyotish, the astrology thing, they have all these dashas and sub-dashas and sometimes when you go from one mahadasha to another, your whole life gets mixed up and then it kind of gels again on the other side. But I just wanted to read a quote from your book. This is from English explorer, W. A. Murray: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy. The chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans. That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves to all sorts of things, occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the Decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamt would come his way.” I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s concepts. I used to think that was from Goethe but I guess this guy was inspired by Goethe, He quotes Goethe as having said “Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius power and magic in it.”

Stephen: I don’t know if you’ve experienced this but I have definitely experienced the way in which the field shifts when I commit. So I wrote the chapter about Robert Frost precisely for this reason. Because Frost had a few moments in his brilliant career as a poet when he took what he thought was a leap off a cliff as a way of committing to his practice. One of them was giving up teaching because he’d had a foot in both camps, teaching and poetry, when he bought that farm in New Hampshire and gave up teaching. Everything shifted for him and the farm and dairy he bought, not to farm but actually as he said, to farm poetry and his poetry just exploded. When he left America, there was a huge risk with his whole Family. He went to England for two years where he could only focus on writing his poetry. I believe he was 38 at that point and he’d had very little success but it was that Risk. There’s always a little risk because we don’t really know. It does feel like jumping off a cliff. But my experience is once you jump Off, it’s more like just stepping off a curb. But you don’t know that at the time so you definitely have to take it,

Rick: There’s something very Joseph Campbell about that. In fact, Campbell was one of George Lucas’s inspirations in Star Wars. You can think of stories like Star Wars where this scruffy little band of rebels takes on the the empire and against all odds or Lord of the Rings where Frodo and a few hobbits go out and they don’t have a chance in hell of Succeeding. But once they make that commitment and start doing it, then all the help comes from unforeseen places and they end up winning the day.

Stephen: Yeah, synchronicity that you didn’t expect or could not have predicted. It’s uncanny and very often it’s just at the point where people are ready to give up. But then, “Okay, I’ll give it one more shot.” The Christians would call this grace. The great writer Annie Dillard who is one of my favorites says about writing, “You bust your butt over and over and over again and then just when it feels like it’s going to fall apart, there’s this wave of grace. And it’s not that you’ve earned it. It’s just that’s the way it works.”

Rick: This loops us back to one of the points we started with. Put another way, we’re not alone. It’s not just these meat puppets in this material world doing what we can, crashing against sort of random, meaningless processes and there’s all these strata of creation and impulses of intelligence operating on so many different levels. Whether you want to think of it as God, big G, or gods or guardian angels or Devas. But these things I firmly believe play a part in our lives and either thwart our intentions if our intentions are misguided or assist and support them if they’re in attunement with dharma. “God helps those who help themselves” is the saying. I thought of a great example of this the other day. Maybe it’ll come to me. I don’t know but forget it for now. Do have to take the initiative before the support can be offered?

Stephen: Yeah, exactly right. That’s the path and I also experience that kind of support, not all the time but enough of the time that I have verified faith in it.

Rick: There’s a Sanskrit saying, which I don’t know the Sanskrit of, but the English is that “the means collect around sattva” and sattva is the word for purity. And if we think of it in terms of purity of intention or purity of life or the kind of spiritual purity that gets cultured as one stays on the path, the means collect. You know that old saying of the guy with the rain cloud over his head and it’s always raining wherever he Goes. Well, some people actually have sunshine over their heads even though it may be raining all around because they have generated an influence which earns them support of nature or support of the divine, support of God, whatever.

Stephen: You know the Christian translation of that is from the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor or the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Which brings us to this a whole aspect of of the yoga tradition and the Buddhist tradition about purity of action that is extremely unpopular in in our culture, in our world. The notion of living a holy life.

Rick: why is that unpopular?

Stephen: Well, in the mainstream world, resisting when they talk about it in the Gita, Resisting a ton, resisting sensual pleasures and excess and so forth, it’s just not the way our culture is organized right now. So I’m very devoted to the idea of the blessed or the pure of heart, for they shall see God. The notion that you have to live in the world in a certain way and look at our culture right now. People don’t even want to take the vaccine. But we have this thing about freedom. Robert Frost said “Freedom is moving comfortably in harness.” And I really believe that and I also believe in living a disciplined life and living a holy life to the extent that I can. And see the way in which it bears fruit. I talked earlier on about this experience of fruition that Jack Kornfield talks about this stage of life where the fruition is partly the fruit of having lived well and having followed the yamas and niyamas. In our world and in the yoga world, you kind of have to teach the yamas and niyamas last because people don’t really want to hear a lot about ethical practice.

Rick: It’s very central. One thing Swami Sarvabhihananda sometimes says is “You can have ethics without enlightenment But you can’t have enlightenment without ethics.”

Stephen: There’s the great Buddhist story about the guys who rode the boat all night long. They were trying to cross the river metaphorically and they’re going all night long. They wake up and they’re in the same place. Why? Because they haven’t untied the boat from the shore and untying the boat is the first part of the path.

Rick: Or if you’re trying to fill the bathtub, you better put the plug in or else the water is going to drain out as fast as it comes in.

Stephen: Which is a great energy metaphor.

Rick: Yeah. Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda’s teacher, used to talk about energy a lot and not squandering it, sort of being impeccable in one’s behavior. There’s that verse in the Gita, “For many branched and endlessly diverse the intellects of the irresolute, but the resolute intellect is one pointed.” You can imagine scattering our attention to the winds like buckshot or something. It just doesn’t have the oomph to hit the target, is too Diverse, too Scattered.

Stephen: I once did a study of American self-help literature going all the way back to the 1850s. It turns out that this very notion of focus of concentration on energy is one of the most enduring notions in our self-help literature. You go to the seven habits of highly effective people and one of them is “Winners focus, losers scatter.” Just the very word that you use. Emerson said, “A man becomes great through concentration of effort.” And the entire tradition of yoga is precisely about that, about concentrating, focusing, gathering energy and aiming it in the right direction. Yeah.

Rick: Yeah, and we’re not saying that everybody needs to wear a sackcloth. I mean, all these scriptures we’re referring to basically talk about balance. There’s plenty of verses in the Gita like that. Balance of mind is yoga. This yoga is not for him who eats too much or too little, sleeps too much or too little. And the Buddha has the middle way where you do things in balance. So we’re not saying everyone should become a recluse but there’s such a thing as appropriateness in life and not doing things to excess which are not going to provide fulfillment. People should learn that or do learn it sooner or later so you can enjoy life. You and I were talking before we got online about things we like to do, like walk with our dogs or play pickleball or this or that. We have friendships. You wrote a whole book on the value of deep human connection. So it’s not a matter of deprivation or austerity. It’s just a matter of appropriateness.

Stephen: It’s a matter of wisdom. In the Buddhist lexicon, upekkha means equanimity, means balance. It’s a matter of balance and upekkha is said to be the wisdom function of the four Brahmaviharas. Are you acting wisely? Are you acting skillfully? That’s all. What I love about the Bhagavad Gita. At one point, Krishna says “This is the passion that is not contrary to the dharma.” When you find your dharma, you can bring all your passion it’s way to live a passionate life. So I live a very passionate life. I do and I love art and music and poetry and dance. And yet it has to be done discerningly. It has to be done wisely.

Rick: I think the key again, because we can lose track of how how to do this, is basically self-realization or getting down to your your foundation and then acting from there- “Establishing yoga, perform action.” There’s another verse, Yogaha Karmasu Koushalam, “Yoga is skill in action.” So it has practical utility or application in regular life. It’s not just for yogis in caves or anything like that.

Stephen: Yeah, and it produces an experience of fulfillment that is so Profound. I’ve become very interested in the difference between happiness and fulfillment because our culture right now is pretty focused on happiness. But fulfillment is something different. It’s slightly different than happiness. If I look at the end stage of my book, it’s difficult sometimes. I don’t get enough sleep but the the fulfillment that fulfilling my dharma provides me is there. It’s this deep experience of ardency and love and transcendent joy. It’s not always happiness though.

Rick: I was going to ask you, based on the last point you just made, what would happen if there was a big solar flare and the book you’ve been working on got fried and and carbonite servers got fried and everything else? What would that do to your fulfillment?

Stephen: It’s so interesting you asked that question, so interesting. I’ll give you the back story. I’m working on my sixth book right now and it’s another book on the Bhagavad-Gita. My fifth book was Deep Healing Connection which is actually a very good book and it got a lot of great reviews. But I moved to a different publisher and, I don’t want to blame this on the publisher, it did not get the editing that it needed. What’s happened is interestingly, Rick. The backstory is that I’ve been writing for 20 years and over the course of that 20 years people’s concentration levels have actually dropped. People’s capacity to engage with complex material has attenuated profoundly. So a book that you might have published well people won’t read. The only book I’ve ever run into problems with is that book. It sells fine but it’s not a bestseller like my other books and I suffered because of it. I suffered because it wasn’t fully cooked when it went out. So I determined that this book that I’m writing now, I would find the fulfillment in the writing of the book. Not in the publishing or the success of it and this is classic Bhagavad-Gita. Let go of the fruits such that, if in fact what you said happened, if carbonite exploded and the book was gone, I would be left with that same profound sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. I’ve done it, like I really love what I’ve been about for the last four years, what it’s had me read and what I’ve written. John Keats said, “If my poems were burned up the next morning after I’ve written them, I still have the satisfaction of having done my work in the world.” I can tell you that I intentionally did that with this book. It’s Happened, so that’s the answer to your Question. Long, I’m sorry.

Rick: A good Answer. Well, I better let you go. But we can do another one in a year or two if you want and talk about the book that will have been published by that time. I really have enjoyed getting to know you.

Stephen: I’ve enjoyed this so Much. Rick. It’s just great to have a conversation and and you’re a great interviewer and you’re you’re right there with the the question and the feedback in the conversation. So I would love to do it again at some point.

Rick: Thanks to those who’ve been listening or watching. I’ve been talking to Stephen Cope and, as always, I’ll have a page on my website for this interview and it’ll have links to his books and his website and all that. Then while you’re there on the website, check out the other menus and see what’s what. We’re just building a new section which is books that have been recommended by various people in the BatGap forum on Facebook. What else did I want to say? Oh yeah, the next interview coming up is Anita Moorjani who was supposed to be last week but had to reschedule and following her Lawrence Freeman who’s a priest. He’s over in France and he’s done a lot of work with the Dalai Lama and others. So I’ve started listening to his talks and he sounds great. I look forward to that conversation. If you’d like to be notified whenever a new one of these comes out, you can do it in several ways. Subscribe to Youtube or you can subscribe to the email that we send out. There’s a link for that on the BatGap site. So thanks for listening or watching and thanks again, Stephen.

Stephen: Thank you, Rick, my pleasure indeed, thanks everybody.

Rick: We’ll be in touch.

Stephen: Okay, bye for now. Thank you, Irene.