does it really matter what choices we make with our life?
The Gita describes Arjuna as paralyzed by doubt. He has come to a crossroads in his life. He is stuck on the floor of the chariot, unable to act at all.
Arjuna is immobilized in a web of doubt.
“Doubt afflicts the person who lacks faith and can ultimately destroy him.”
This doubt of which Krishna speaks is the outward and visible sign of an inner struggle. And if this inner struggle is not resolved, it will destroy him.
doubt is the central affliction of all men and women of action.
Arjuna is split down the middle. And it will take the entire eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita before he gets to certitude. But what a thrill when he does.
“Krishna,” says Arjuna at the very end of the Gita, “my delusion is destroyed, and by your grace I have regained memory; I stand here, my doubt dispelled, ready to act on your words!”
We can see why the yoga tradition has called doubt “the invisible affliction.” It is slippery. Hidden. Sneaky. Indeed, it is this very hidden quality that gives doubt its power.
I know people who have been stuck in doubt their entire lifetime. They came to this crossroads and found themselves rooted there, with one foot firmly planted on each side of the intersection.
Finally, they put a folding chair smack in the center of that crossroads and lived there for the rest of their lives. After a while, they forgot entirely that there even was a crossroads—forgot that there was a choice.
Brian had been a priest but later found his true calling to be an organ player.
It's like falling in love with someone who is married to someone else, and deciding that it might be enough in this lifetime just to live next door to the beloved.
Lacking certitude. Their lives are colored by doubt.
Freud believed that that “split” is part of the human experience.
But is a life of certitude really possible? Krishna teaches that it is. But the key to living a life true to dharma is a complete understanding of and respect for doubt. Indeed, the only way to get to certitude is to look more and more deeply into our doubt—to shine a light into the dark corners of our self-division.
Arjuna is still stuck—facing a devastating battle, and perhaps his own death. He is struggling with a seemingly impossible decision about all of it.
In desperation, Arjuna has chosen the path of inaction.
He has put down his folding chair in the middle of the intersection. “If I can’t figure out how to act, I’ll do nothing at all,” But he does not feel good about this decision.
This apparent path of inaction is full of action. Says Krishna, “No one exists for even an instant without performing action.” Arjuna’s inaction—our inaction—on the floor of the chariot, the center of the intersection, is action motivated by confusion, paralysis, disorder. It is full of action and the consequences of action.
“So I cannot not act. I guess I see that. But then how do I act? How do I know how to act? What is the right thing to do?”
"Arjuna, look to your dharma.”
“There is a certain kind of action that leads to freedom and fulfillment,” Krishna begins. “A certain kind of action that is always aligned with our true nature.” This is the action that is motivated by dharma. This is the action taken in the service of our sacred calling, our duty, our vocation. In dharma, it is possible to take passionate action without creating suffering. It is possible to find authentic fulfillment of all human possibilities.
Krishna will show Arjuna a path to the authentic self through action in the world. Not through renunciation and withdrawal. Not through retreat—or theologizing. And not, especially, through inaction.
the keys to Inaction-in-Action:
- Look to your dharma.
- Do it full out!
- Let go of the fruits.
- Turn it over to God.
First: Discern your dharma. “Look to your own duty,” says Krishna in Chapter Two. “Do not tremble before it.” Discern, name, and then embrace your own dharma.
Then: Do it full out! Knowing your dharma, do it with every fiber of your being. Bring everything you’ve got to it. Commit yourself utterly. In this way you can live an authentically passionate life, and you can transform desire itself into a bonfire of light.
Next: Let go of the outcome. “Relinquish the fruits of your actions,” says Krishna. Success and failure in the eyes of the world are not your concern. “It is better to fail at your own dharma than to succeed at the dharma of someone else,” he says.
Finally: Turn your actions over to God. “Dedicate your actions to me,” says Krishna. All true vocation arises in the stream of love that flows between the individual soul and the divine soul. All true dharma is a movement of the soul back to its Ground.
Part II - Look to your Dharma
Dharma = “religious and moral law,” “right conduct,” “sacred duty,” “path of righteousness,” “true nature,” and “divine order.”
Dharma is the essential nature of a being, comprising the sum of its particular qualities or characteristics, and determining, by virtue of the tendencies or dispositions it implies, the manner in which this being will conduct itself, either in a general way or in relation to each particular circumstance.
those very essential and particular qualities.
Scientists now tell us that every brain is like a fingerprint—utterly unique.
every person’s dharma is like an internal fingerprint. It is the subtle interior blueprint of a soul.
the discernment of dharma is a difficult, even agonizing process. It is only born out of our wrestling matches with doubt, with conflict, and with despair.
In the caste system of ancient India, roles and dharmas were prescribed at birth. Arjuna was born into the warrior class.
We live in a different kind of culture which emphasize personal self (interests).
however, when we drill down into this issue, we discover that our dharmas, too, are in many ways not personal.
Krishna, in his teaching to Arjuna:
You cannot be anyone you want to be.
Yes, our inner possibilities are fantastic beyond imagining.
But you can only expect a fulfilling life if you dedicate yourself to finding out who you are.
To finding the ineffable, idiosyncratic seeds of possibility already planted inside.
Thomas Merton: “Every man has a vocation to be someone: but he must understand clearly that in order to fulfill this vocation he can only be one person: himself.”
So how do we discern our dharma? How do we discover the magnificent inner blueprint?
- Trust in the gift.
- Think of the small as large.
- Listen for the call of the times.
Two - Jane Goodall: Trust in the Gift
Gifts. Each of us has them. Their source is as much a mystery as anything else in life.
Randy did not become a race-car driver. And I did not become a concert pianist. Would we have been happier, more fulfilled, if we had?
It’s important to remember that The Gift is not itself dharma. It is only, as the old saying goes, a finger pointing to the dharma.
Trust in The Gift must be nurtured by parents, teachers, friends. The moment must not pass by unnoticed. We must be encouraged to identify with our gifts.
We have a responsibility to The Gift. The Gift is God in disguise.
“I had a mother who not only tolerated but also encouraged my passion for nature and animals and who, even more important, taught me to believe in myself”
She describes how, early in her years at Gombe, she had to follow the troop of chimps through the brush for hours or days at a time to get a single chimpanzee sighting. She waited patiently with them through dark nights for almost a year before a single chimp would even come within a hundred yards of her. Her patience was a maturation of the possibility she exhibited back in England as a four-year-old—resolutely watching that hen.
I thought: Well, where was the struggle? Where was the doubt?
I really had trouble believing her story could be that good. But then I realized: This is what a life of certitude looks like. Rather than conflict and drama, all of Goodall’s energy went into her creativity, until finally she ignited into that bonfire of contribution to the world. Jane’s experience is what we might call the Direct Path to Dharma. It can happen. It is magnificent when it does.
What happens when our gifts are not met with the same remarkable understanding and perspective that Jane encountered?
About Brian (the priest):
“you have to understand that we don’t always get what we want. This is what adulthood is all about,” echoing almost perfectly Brian’s mother’s view. “Your mother knows more than you yet do about life. And I believe, too, that this is what God wants for you."
Brian surrendered to the call heard not by himself, but by his parents and teachers. What resulted was much more serious than anyone could have imagined. It was the silent tragedy of self-betrayal.
If you bring forth what is within you it will save you. If you do not, it will destroy you.
Energy is destroyed first. Those shining eyes. And then faith. And then hope. And then life itself.
When a life is founded on self-betrayal, the habit of self-betrayal proliferates until we are at peril of not remembering who we are at all. There is a slow deadening of spirit as we try to pick up the burdens of adulthood without the energy of The Gift. Our work can be motivated by obligation, by hunger for the external rewards of accomplishment, or by strongly reinforced ideas about who we should be in this lifetime. But none of these motivations has the authentic energy required for mastery of a profession. So, all of these motivations lead slowly to a downward spiral that tends to crash, as it did with Brian, at midlife.
Without the balm of real fulfillment there is a growing emptiness inside.
More and more often, I found myself thinking, ‘This is where I belong. This is what I came into this world to do.’
She says, “Of course, it is usually called the voice of conscience, and if we feel more comfortable with that definition, that’s fine. Whatever we call it, the important thing, I think, is to try to do what the voice tells us.”
a sense that she is not the doer of her actions, but that God is working through her. “I always have this feeling—which may not be true at all—that I am being used as a messenger. There are times before a lecture when I have been absolutely exhausted, or actually sick, and terrified that I am going to utterly fail the audience. And those lectures are often among the best. Because, I think, I have been able to tap into the spiritual power that is always there, providing strength and courage if only we reach out.”
For Brian, By the time he was forty-five, he was depressed. Being a priest required a heroic effort for him: mammoth amounts of self-will
True mastery, authentic dharma, is not possible without the kernel of The Gift at the center.
The false self is a collection of ideas we have in our minds about who we should be. Sometimes these ideas—most often planted in childhood—can be so strong that they override our capacity to see who we actually are, or at least to fully embrace it. They become a kind of learning disability. Our capacity to see the world clearly is thwarted.
Brian is an exemplar of the quiet suffering of the false self.
mediocrity, lack of interest, lack of enthusiasm, lack of soul-connection to work. This eventually begins to invade even the sphere of play, for as Thoreau said, famously, “Play comes after work.”
But there is something resilient about gifts: Their light is never fully extinguished. Our gifts are so close to the core of our being that they can never really be entirely destroyed.
Brian discovered deep in midlife that his gift of music was still calling.
There was a growing ache, a growing unwillingness to live out the rest of his days without going for it. The older he got, the less able he was to maintain the ruse of the false self. As we get deeper into life, we become more aware of life’s finitude. We discover the truth taught by Krishna: You cannot be anyone you want to be. Your one and only shot at a fulfilled life is being yourself—whoever that is.
Furthermore, at a certain age it finally dawns on us that, shockingly, no one really cares what we’re doing with our life.
This is a most unsettling discovery to those of us who have lived someone else’s dream and eschewed our own.
Perhaps he would be a truly lousy—or even unhappy—church musician. Was he willing to take the risk?
There is no way around it: Dharma always involves, at some point, a leap off a cliff in the dark.
Three - Henry David Thoreau: Think of the Small as Large
“Be resolutely and faithfully what you are"
“Be humbly what you aspire to be … man’s noblest gift to man is his sincerity, for it embraces his integrity also.”
“One should be always on the trail of one’s own deepest nature. For it is the fearless living out of your own essential nature that connects you to the Divine.”
Krishna’s counsel about dharma: “A man’s own calling, with all its faults, ought not to be forsaken."
Unlike Jane, Thoreau was not a celebrity in his own day, but seen as “an irresponsible idler, a trial to his family, and no credit to his town”. In short, Thoreau was seen as a loser.
Walden, his masterpiece—now read by virtually every college sophomore—languished on bookstore shelves for years. Indeed, the first edition of 2,000 copies took eight years to sell, and there wasn’t a second printing until just before Thoreau’s untimely death in 1862.
Thoreau did come to value The Gift. But he made one largely unknown and yet fascinating stab at “fitting in” early on in his life—one attempt to be who he thought he should be rather than who he was.
Thoreau had already begun to find his footing as a writer. He’d discovered that he was not, as he had thought, a poet, but a prose artist.
Thoreau was a colossal failure in the city. But the story of this failure, and of Thoreau’s thirteen months in New York, is revealing. It shows the unconventional nature lover attempting to develop a writing career in the conventional way.
“Thoreau is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous, manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior.”
Throughout his entire year in New York, Thoreau never managed to publish more than one slim book review, in spite of his powerful determination to be published with the big boys.
the pain of rejection forced him to reach even more deeply into his own unique gift. Who am I? What is my voice? What do I have to say? Digging down into his own inner world, and longing for his roots in the woods of Concord, Thoreau—from his tenement in New York—wrote the brilliant sketch on “the first sparrow of spring,” which would become one of the most famous passages in Walden.
Finally, the unhappy writer—floundering, separated from himself—had to go home, tail between his legs. He returned to Concord—to his woods, to his pond, to his father’s pencil factory, and to Emerson’s house. “Be humbly who you are,” he wrote upon arriving home.
Thoreau’s failure in New York was a life lesson. Be who you are. Do what you love. Follow your own distant drummer. “A man’s own calling ought not to be forsaken!”
Failure is a part of all great dharma stories. We only know who we are by trying on various versions of ourselves.
“Be resolutely and faithfully what you are,” said Thoreau—not who you think you should be. Thoreau’s early struggle was to be “right-sized.” Not too big, not too small. It was his resolute embrace of a right-sized self that became for him the doorway into a full life.
“Think of the small as large,” wrote Lao Tzu.
“See yourself as a grain of sand,” suggests Chögyam Trungpa, the Tibetan crazy-wisdom guru, “see yourself as the smallest of the small. Then you can make room for the whole world.”
By May of 1845, Thoreau was home from New York City and back in the woods at Walden Pond—building his cabin.
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.
Walden Pond was where Henry David Thoreau would intentionally conduct this inner journey to himself.
At this crossroads in his life something fascinating happens to Thoreau: His powers as a writer explode. Two days after moving to Walden Pond, he wrote a lengthy entry in his journal about his personal experience of “self-emancipation.”
As young Thoreau connected once again to himself, he felt reunited with the world.
Mahatma Gandhi would make the same discovery, imprisoned in India just a hundred years later. And Nelson Mandela’s resolute and resilient inner freedom—even while in shackles—finally did in fact liberate millions. Both Gandhi and Mandela were dedicated readers of Thoreau.
Thoreau now wrote excitedly in his journal, “The whole is in each man.”
The mystic relationship of the individual to the universal is absolutely central to the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita.
Alan Watts imagined this web as a multidimensional spiderweb. He said, “Imagine this web in the early morning, covered with dewdrops. And every dewdrop contains the reflection of all the other dewdrops. And, in each reflected dewdrop, the reflections of all the other dewdrops in that reflection. And so on ad infinitum.”
Each jewel in Indra’s net represents both itself as a particular jewel, and, at the same time, the entire web. So, any change in one gem would be reflected in the whole.
Sir Charles Eliot: “Every object in the world is not merely itself but involves every other object and in fact IS everything else.”
It is, therefore, the sacred duty of every individual human soul to be utterly and completely itself—to be that jewel at that time and in that place, and to be that jewel utterly.
The action of each individual soul holds together the entire net. Small and large at the same time.
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.
In unleashing his own freedom, Thoreau did free a million slaves. He discovered that his authentic words had real power.
Finally, Thoreau was able to fully declare himself—to clearly name and celebrate his dharma: “I am a mystic, a Transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot,” he declared.
“Do what you love!” he wrote exuberantly. “Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”
Thoreau said: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
Ellen said to me one day, “I think my dharma is to create a safe space for people. To create a safe container in which people can thrive and be themselves. To be a kind of home base for folks—especially those who have no other home base.”
Ellen continues to wrestle with the process of naming and claiming her dharma. What is my life really about? Does my little dharma really matter? These doubts, when their tracks have been laid down early, become remarkably intractable. And they create suffering.
On the one hand, we secretly daydream about being famous, being glamorous, being renowned for some great work. On the other hand, we fear that our small lives—such as they are—don’t amount to a hill of beans. So there they are: the devil—grandiosity. And the deep blue sea—devaluing. They are both unhappy ways to live.
In New York, Thoreau was reaching too high. He had an idea of greatness. But it became a rigidly held concept that disconnected him from his true greatness, which was both smaller and larger than he thought. At Walden, however, Thoreau was right-sized. At Walden he undertook just a small experiment. He was near enough to home to get his daily delivery of cookies. He was comfortable enough, yes. But he was just a little uncomfortable, too. There was a stretch. Just enough of a stretch. And right in that balance, Thoreau found the correct size for his life. And his dharma exploded with energy.
Four - Walt Whitman: Listen for the Call of the Times
this story gives us the opportunity to look at the third—and in many ways the most complex—hallmark of dharma-discernment: the intersection of The Gift and the The Times.
"Leaves of Grass", his masterpiece, was widely viewed as obscene for its overt sexuality. Whitman himself was—like Thoreau—seen as a loafer, a failure.
Whitman found what he believed was his truest calling, as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War.
he visited thousands of sick, wounded, lonely, and dying young men in the hospitals of the Union Army. He brought them fruit, candy, cigarettes, writing paper. But mostly he brought them himself. His tender spirit. His generous nature. His broken heart. And by the conclusion of the war, he understood that these suffering men and boys had called forth something within him more precious than even his gift for poetry.
Whitman’s work in the hospitals used him up. It wore him out. It ruined his health, and initiated a slow slide toward death. But he never regretted it—or counted the cost. “I only gave myself,” he told a friend. “But I got the boys.”
The Gift cannot reach maturity until it is used in the service of a greater good. In order to ignite the full ardency of dharma, The Gift must be put in the service of The Times.
Arjuna finds his dharma calling him to the center of the greatest cataclysm of the age.
If you bring forth what is within you it will save you. Yes. But this saving is not just for you. It is for the common good. If you bring forth what is within you, it will save the world. It will rescue the times. It will save the whole people. Likewise: If you do not bring forth what is within you it will destroy you. But not just you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy the whole people.
he obsessively edited and revised Leaves of Grass. Whitman was stuck. Stuck in his own past.
He was forty-seven years old. His life was about to change.
Careful attunement to dharma will demand that we reinvent ourselves periodically throughout life. Whitman, as it turned out, was a master at self-reinvention.
Whitman began to see that his mere presence, his tenderness, his attention, had an enormous healing effect.
John Holmes told Whitman that he believed without question that Whitman had saved his life.
Whitman had found a new calling—a calling for which he didn’t even know he was searching. He described it to his brother Jeff: “I cannot give up my Hospitals yet,” he wrote. “I never before had my feelings so thoroughly and (so far) permanently absorbed, to the very roots, as by these huge swarms of dear, wounded, sick, dying boys.”
As it turned out—and as is so often the case in these matters—his whole life had been a preparation for this dharma. It was a calling that used all of him—itinerant poet, nurse, surrogate father, mother, brother, angel.
“I write you this letter, because I would do something at least in his memory—his fate was a hard one, to die so—He is one of the thousands of our unknown American men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss made about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious and royal ones of this land, giving themselves up, aye even their young and precious lives, in their country’s cause"
Whitman gave his boys the gift of acknowledging the nobility of their sacrifice. He faced death with them.
his poetry he declared over and over again the very same truth that Krishna taught to Arjuna: “Our bodies are known to end, but the embodied self is enduring, indestructible, and immeasurable … Weapons do not cut it, fire does not burn it, waters do not wet it … it is enduring, all-pervasive, fixed, immovable, and timeless.”
As we age it seems harder and harder to let our authentic dharma reinvent us. We imagine somehow that the risks are greater. We tend to think that leaping off cliffs is for the young. But no. Actually—when better to leap off cliffs?
The fear of leaping is the fear of death.
It is the fear of being used up.
But why not be used up giving everything we’ve got to the world?
This is precisely what Krishna teaches Arjuna: You cannot hold on to your life. You don’t need to. You are immortal. “Our bodies are known to end, but the embodied self is enduring, indestructible, and immeasurable; therefore, Arjuna, fight the battle!”
The Gift is not for its own sake. It is for the common good. It is for The Times.
Krishna says, “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.”.
Whitman was used up. The photographs of him before and after the war show him stunningly aged and transformed. Through his work in the hospital tents he gave himself away. But he also found himself.
The Civil War saved the Union. But it also saved Walt Whitman. It saved him from a life trapped in self. It called forth from him his highest, noblest vision of mankind.