The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling
Thomas Merton says, “What you fear is an indication of what you seek.” In my case I think this is certainly true. And deep in middle age, I can feel the seeker in me become just ever-so-slightly desperate.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Arjuna has many excellent questions for Krishna—questions to which we, too, would like answers: Who am I, for God’s sake? And how can I authentically express all that I truly am?
If you look around, you might notice that suddenly you’re seeing the Bhagavad Gita everywhere. Everyone still reads it in World Lit courses, naturally. But more than that. I’ve heard that it is rapidly replacing The Art of War on the bookshelves of corporate executives. I hope this is true. It indicates that we’re finally beginning to bring spiritual practice into the center of our everyday lives—moving away from the misapprehension that spiritual life only happens in church, or on the meditation cushion, or on retreat. Or that full-time spiritual pursuits are strictly the province of those living a so-called religious life. No. Arjuna is the archetype of the spiritual man in action.
In fact, the Bhagavad Gita was written precisely to show us how to make the world of action (the marketplace, the workplace, the family) an arena for spiritual development. Indeed, it portrays the “battlefield” of life—real life, everyday life—as the most potent venue for transformation.
Reading the Gita brings into stark relief a misapprehension we have about our everyday lives—a mistaken belief about the nature of fulfillment itself. Our fantasies about fulfillment often center around dreams of wealth, power, fame, and leisure. In these fantasies, a fulfilling life is one in which we acquire so much freedom and leisure that we no longer have to work and strive. Finally, once we’ve worked most of our lives to extricate ourselves from the demands of ordinary life, we can relax by our own personally monogrammed swimming pool—with the gates of our country-club community firmly locked behind us—and there, at last, find true happiness, and real fulfillment, perhaps contemplating the clear blue sky.
People actually feel happiest and most fulfilled when meeting the challenge of their dharma in the world, when bringing highly concentrated effort to some compelling activity for which they have a true calling.
Fulfillment happens not in retreat from the world, but in advance—and profound engagement.
Doubt, as understood here, really means “stuck”—not skeptical. Doubt in this tradition is sometimes defined as “a thought that touches both sides of a dilemma at the same time.” In yogic analysis, doubt is often called “the paralyzing affliction.” Paralysis is, indeed, its chief characteristic. It follows, then, that doubt is the central affliction of all men and women of action.
Krishna—slowly, over the course of their long dialogue—will reveal the broad outlines of an exciting program, a path through the maze of the active life that will come to be called the Path of Inaction-in-Action—or Naishkarmya-karman. 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.
Here are the central pillars of the path of action—the path of karma yoga—as expounded by Krishna. Here are the keys to Inaction-in-Action: 1. Look to your dharma. 2. Do it full out! 3. Let go of the fruits. 4. Turn it over to God.
“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.”
Remember Krishna’s teaching: We cannot be anyone we want to be. We can only authentically be who we are. “The attempt to live out someone else’s dharma brings extreme spiritual peril,” says Krishna. Extreme spiritual peril! If you bring forth what is within you it will save you. If you do not, it will destroy you. And what, precisely, is destroyed? 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.
Without the balm of real fulfillment there is a growing emptiness inside. Finally, it requires a heroic effort to simply go on with life in the face of this emptiness. The light in the eyes goes out.
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: No one really cares except us. When you scratch the surface, you finally discover that it doesn’t really matter a whit who else you disappoint if you’re disappointing yourself. The only question that makes sense to ask is: Is your life working for you?
“Think of the small as large,” wrote Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao te Ching. Thoreau is the great American genius of this aphorism. Think of the small as large. “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.”
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. Right size is everything. Think of the small as large.
The fear of leaping is, of course, the fear of death. It is precisely the fear of being used up. And dharma does use us up, to be sure. 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.
Dharma is born mysteriously out of the intersection between The Gift and The Times. Dharma is a response to the urgent—though often hidden—need of the moment. Each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. It tears at our hearts. Others don’t see it or don’t care. But we feel it. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform. This little corner of the world is ours to save.
“The ignorant, indecisive and lacking in faith, waste their lives,” says Krishna. “They can never be happy in this world or any other.” Ouch.
An interesting aspect of fulfilled lives is that the people who are living them seem to have learned how to gather their energy, how to focus—how to, as we might say these days, “bring it.” Like Hokusai, their lives begin to look like guided missiles.
Krishna quickly adds: Do not worry about the outcome. Success or failure are not your concern. It is better to fail at your own dharma than to succeed at the dharma of another. Your task is only to bring as much life force as you can muster to the execution of your dharma. In this spirit, Chinese Master Guan Yin Tzu wrote: “Don’t waste time calculating your chances of success and failure. Just fix your aim and begin.”
The word yoga, in all its various iterations, always and everywhere means “to yoke.” In the case of the yoga of action, it means to yoke all of one’s being to dharma. To bring every action into alignment with your highest purpose. To bring everything you’ve got to the task.
When one examines Frost’s life closely, it becomes clear that this man became more and more himself through a series of small decisions that aligned him with his voice. He had a gift, of course. But his power came into focus through his commitment to this gift, and through a series of decisive actions taken in support of it.
have often heard artists describe this “cutting along a nerve.” Sculptor Anne Truitt said, “The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.” Frost found the experience exhilarating.
The unification of life’s energies around dharma is a central pillar of Krishna’s teaching to Arjuna. Krishna teaches that one must attain “singleness of purpose.” “For those who lack resolution, the decisions of life are many-branched and endless,” he exhorts Arjuna (as you will recall). For the mind that is “disunited,” he says, life is full of suffering. Indeed, under such conditions of disunity, it becomes impossible to bring forth dharma at all. Rather, says Krishna, “The wise [must] unify their consciousness.” In this chapter we will explore the stunning possibilities of the unified mind.
Bringing forth what is within you is mostly about creating the right conditions. These conditions themselves give birth to dharma.
under 600 curious eyes.’ ” The Tao te Ching says, “[The Master] doesn’t glitter like a jewel … [but is] as rugged and common as a stone.”
Susan felt her own life’s energy begin to connect with the bigger stream of social concern and suffering. “I believe our happiness is increased by yielding momentary self-gratification and doing all in our power to render others happy.” In its most mature form, dharma inevitably puts the energies of self in the service of others—in the service of something bigger than self.
Susan never denied the existence of God. But her beliefs were secularized and lodged in the world around her. When she was once asked, “Do you pray?” she responded, “I pray every single second of my life; not on my knees but with my work. My prayer is to lift women to equality with men. Work and worship are one with me.”
“When a person is devoted to something with complete faith,” said Krishna to Arjuna, “I unify his faith in that form.”
Finally, as Krishna teaches Arjuna, when you come to know the world, you also come to love it. It’s simple: You love what you know deeply.
Over the course of hundreds of years of practice, yogis had discovered that clinging to outcome has a pernicious effect on performance. Clinging (or grasping) of any kind disturbs the mind. And this disturbed mind, then, is not really fully present to the task at hand. It is forever leaning forward into the next moment—grabbing. And, not being present for the moment, it cannot fully devote its powers to the job at hand.
Krishna speaks about this with vivid psychological insight: “Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action,” he teaches, “are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.” The yoga tradition systematically investigated this anxiety about outcome. It found that grasping has three pernicious effects on the mind. They are: first, disturbance; then, obscuration; and finally, separation.
Try this: Sit down to meditate when you’re caught up in a moment of craving for food or sex. Notice the quality of the mind. Crazy! One can see that the mind is stirred up, restless—or, as yogis would say, “overheated.”
Second, grasping in any form is said to “obscure” the mind. What does this mean? Simply that when the mind is caught up in grasping it does not see clearly. It is obscured.
So: Disturbed. Obscured. Separate. Krishna has captured these very insights in his teaching to Arjuna: “When you keep thinking about sense objects,” he says, “attachment comes. Attachment breeds desire, the lust of possession that burns to anger. Anger clouds the judgment; you can no longer learn from past mistakes. Lost is the power to choose between what is wise and what is unwise, and your life is utter waste.”
Grasping exerts its pernicious effects even in the most refined areas of human endeavor. And wherever it shows up, yogis rightly found that it creates suffering, and that it has a disabling effect on performance. What is the antidote? Krishna counsels “detachment.” “Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment,” he teaches, “and you will amass the wealth of spiritual awareness.” But here is an important proviso: not detachment from the passionate involvement in the task at hand; not detachment from one’s dharma. Detachment from the outcome.
When there is no obsessive concern with outcome, with gain of any kind, we are able to become completely absorbed in what we’re doing—our actions and thoughts undivided by worry. All of our energy can become concentrated on the task at hand.
“When consciousness is unified,” says Krishna, “all vain anxiety is left behind. There is no cause for worry, whether things go well or ill.”
“Do your dharma passionately, but let go of the fruits.” This is, for me, where the story of Keats’s life becomes truly exemplary.
Keats discovered early on that he could hold on to nothing. And so his koan—the central question of his life—became how to live life fully without holding on to it. How to have it without possessing it. “Kiss the joy as it flies,” says William Blake. In order to become a great poet, Keats would have to work through the problem of grasping. The evidence that he finally did learn to live in the stream of impermanence is written—at his instruction—on his very tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
The first encounter with dharma is very often described as falling in love. When we see our dharma—smell it, feel it—we recognize it. It is chemical. Undeniable.
Keats was posing as a poet. This is what we do in the early stages of finding our dharma. We try it on. As W. H. Auden noted, “human beings are by nature actors who cannot become something until they have first pretended to be it.”
He was writing massive amounts of poetry. But was it good? At one point, during a period of three weeks he wrote well over a thousand lines of poetry, without flagging. And yet, he was not satisfied with the work. He saw that he was writing in the spirit of cramming. In the spirit of greed. “A clenched fist was at work,” he said.
He slowly began to see how his own longing and craving for success may have been undermining the quality of his work. Certainly, he saw how his craving for fame and “laurels” created a kind of anxiety that infected his work.
(“Those who are motivated only by the fruits of action,” teaches Krishna, “are miserable!” Miserable! “They are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.”)
Keats, in a brilliant intuitive move, now attempted to work out the problem of grasping through the protagonist of the poem he was writing. He has his main character—Endymion—face the challenge of failure in his quest. And how does Endymion work it out? He enters what Keats called “the Cave of Quietude,” a retreat into the depths of consciousness. In quiet retreat and contemplation, Endymion realizes that success and failure are not the measure of life. He sees the way in which both light and shade, success and failure, and praise and blame, are all parts of life. He sees, even, the ways in which beauty can be revealed through sorrow, and through life’s losses. He decides to choose complete surrender to the endless richness of the moment, whatever the moment brings. He decides to embrace both sides of life—the light and the shadow. This was a pivotal moment in the development of Keats’s creative consciousness.
Endymion—this one poem—represents almost half of the poetry Keats published in his short lifetime. Its writing occupied him through nearly one-quarter of his poetic career. And it was not, as I have said, an outward success. But it was an inward success. He realized that his having written it mattered more than what he had written. It was the process of bringing everything he had to the table that transformed him.
He would later say, “That which is creative must create itself.” He discovered, as all great artists do, that there was something impersonal at work. Something at work that was not him. And to surrender to this larger force gave him a new kind of freedom, and a new sense of faith in the process itself.
Arjuna) that he was not the Doer. That which is creative must create itself. Mastery of his art required humility and a capacity for surrender—a receptivity to experience, and to sorrow as well as joy.
Indeed, he discovered, as did Shakespeare, that throwing oneself passionately into work brings a changed relationship with time. This was true immortality.
With this came a first glimpse, for Keats, of a sublime truth. He realized that the most precious fruit of his art would be the way it allowed him access to the innermost character of a person or thing. He saw that poetry was merely a vehicle—a way to know the world. A way to know the soul of a person, a landscape, or any object of beauty. He realized that he did not need to possess any of it. He only needed to know it. And this knowing was what brought not just happiness, but bliss, rapture, and authentic fulfillment.
The question he had been asking—“Wherein lies happiness?”—now had its best answer. “A fellowship with essence!!!” he would exclaim. With this insight, Keats had solved the central riddle of his life: how to have a full experience of life without possessing it—without owning it, without grasping it, without holding on to it.
Hard upon the heels of this discovery came another: Grasping for an object actually interferes with knowing it. The discovery that holding on too tightly disturbs the mind, and finally interferes with the mind’s capacity to know. This is, of course, the very insight that Krishna teaches to Arjuna.
Keats’s poetic consciousness now began to move beyond what the contemplative traditions often call the pairs of opposites: gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and ill-repute. He saw how the poet must be open to all experience, light and dark. He saw the importance of leisure, as Frost did. And he began to learn to wait patiently for a gradual ripening.
fame comes only to the man who has learned to be indifferent to it.
And I knew that this mastery itself must have brought him a sense of fulfillment. It was his dharma. He was pursuing it with everything he had.
Keats began to frame death in an altogether new way. He saw death as “the supreme experience—Life’s high meed.”
This reframing of death is his final embrace of “the world as the vale of Soul-making.” “Do you not see,” he wrote to George, “how necessary a world of pain and troubles is to school an intelligence, and make it a soul? This school is a place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”
“Keats always had the sense that his greatest poems came from somewhere beyond him. That he was just the channel for them. And his life’s work was to prepare himself to channel these poems. At the end, of course, he was full of despair that he had not fulfilled his destiny. His hand was withering. And yet ‘this living hand’ had written some of the finest poetry in the English language. This living hand, though dying, was now immortal. Through his art, he had conquered time.”
One day we’re cooking along nicely with our dharma, with the work of our lifetime. And then, wham! Life knocks it all to Hell.
When difficulties arise, see them as dharma.
Krishna would continue. He would teach Mom that grasping and aversion are twins: They are mirror images of each other. They both involve a rejection of how it is in this moment.
The impulse to eschew the unpleasant leads to avoidance; avoidance leads to aversion; aversion leads to fear; fear leads to hatred; hatred leads to aggression. Unwittingly, the oh-so-natural instinct to avoid the unpleasant becomes the root of hatred. It leads to war: war within, war without. Entertaining aversion is a slippery slope.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
The “night sea journey” is the journey into the parts of ourselves that are split off, disavowed, unknown, unwanted, cast out, and exiled to the various subterranean worlds of consciousness. It is the night sea journey that allows us to free the energy trapped in these cast-off parts—trapped in what Marion would call “the shadow.” The goal of this journey is to reunite us with ourselves. Such a homecoming can be surprisingly painful, even brutal. In order to undertake it, we must first agree to exile nothing.
Marion discovered an underlying theme in her clients’ dreams. She discovered that her addicted clients lived divided lives—lives split between body and soul, between perfection and imperfection, between light and dark. Healing came about through integrating these “pairs of opposites.” She came into an understanding of the way in which longing for our idealized images of life separates us from our true selves and from our true callings.
In his search for psychological and spiritual survival, Beethoven had combed the world’s great literature. And perhaps not surprisingly, he had bumped into the Bhagavad Gita. He read it intensively. He made notes from it—and from other great Hindu scriptures—and kept these sacred phrases in plain view under glass on his desk.
Most interesting to me in Beethoven’s particularly vivid dharma story is the way in which authentic dharma turns suffering into light.
We can see now that Beethoven had begun at a very tender age to enter into the phase of mastery we have called “deliberate practice.” His early efforts had all of the hallmarks: He practiced in chunks of four hours; he practiced with the intention of improving his performance; he broke complex musical tasks down into their component parts; whenever he could, he used trainers and teachers—and all kinds of feedback—to improve.
Beethoven was not an intellectual. His quest was more urgent than that. He was grasping for psychological survival. “I have not the slightest pretension to what is properly called erudition. Yet from my childhood I have striven to understand what the better and wiser people of every age were driving at in their works.” This was not a pose. Beethoven was never interested in high-blown metaphysics, but only in practical solutions to the problems of living. This quality of inquiry marks him as a real yogi. He might have said, as Thoreau did, “even I am at times a yogi.”
“Submission, deepest submission to your fate, only this can give you the sacrifices—for this matter of service,”
He began to understand that The Wound itself is an aspect of The Gift. They cannot be divided.
During these years, Beethoven embarked on a new phase of his spiritual journey. He read voraciously, studying the core scriptures of many of the world’s great religions. He discussed his existential questions with a small circle of friends, through the vehicle of his “Conversation Books.” He developed a series of notebooks through which he communicated with his friends—intimates who were some of Vienna’s leading citizens, writers, philosophers, musicians, civil servants, journalists. He investigated various views of God. Above all, during these difficult years, Beethoven increased his sense of dedication to his own duty. “God sees into my innermost heart and knows that as a man I perform most conscientiously and on all occasions the duties which Humanity, God and Nature enjoin upon me …” Humanity, God, and Nature: These became Beethoven’s spiritual pillars.
“Arjuna,” he says, in effect, “we have a Divine nature that we only faintly recognize. Our true nature is unborn, undying, unmanifest, inconceivable to the ordinary mind.” Unborn? Undying? What does this really mean? Well, it’s not easy to grasp. It means that those aspects of our lives that we take to be our True Self—our personality, our body, our career, our house, our stories—are not our True Self at all. Our True Self is our soul. This soul is immortal, and is not limited to present forms. Our present bodies and personalities are only temporary shelters, fleetingly inhabited by our souls. These ephemeral forms are, alas, short-lived. The True Self, however, is immortal. It cannot be destroyed.
[The Self] is not born, It does not die; Having been, It will never not be; Unborn, enduring, Constant, and primordial, It is not killed When the body is killed.
Krishna teaches Arjuna an enduring view of the self taken directly from the Vedantic stream of yoga philosophy. In this view, all individual souls (or atman) are one with the Ground of Being (or Brahman). Because we are One with the great sea of being, we are all just a single soul, “One without a second.” Our True Nature is identical to the nature of Brahman: sat-chit-ananda, or being-consciousness-bliss.
“Creatures are unmanifest in origin, manifest in the midst of life, and unmanifest again in the end.” Another series of obscure phrases from our friend Krishna. To put them in ordinary words, we could say that we manifest from lifetime to lifetime in particular forms: particular bodies, personalities, stories. But these forms—these lifetimes—are transitory.
This teaching is slippery. Indeed, all of the classic yoga texts declare repeatedly that it is a teaching that really cannot be grasped by the mind at all. But (and yogis all agree on this) it can be realized. It can be known intuitively. Indeed, each of us has intimations of our True Nature from time to time throughout our lives—moments when we know utterly that we are One with all of life. William Wordsworth, in one of his greatest poems, referred to these moments of knowing as “intimations of immortality.” These “intimations” sometimes spontaneously arise in our consciousness in moments of quiet—in moments of contemplation, in meditation, in yoga, or just in sitting on the beach at twilight watching a sunset.
De Caussade nails this point: “This work in our souls cannot be accomplished by cleverness, intelligence, or any subtlety of mind, but only by completely abandoning ourselves to the divine action, becoming like metal poured into a mold, or a canvas waiting for the brush, or marble under the sculptor’s hands.”
How do you know the will of God? And when you do think you know it, how can you be certain that it’s not just your own will in disguise?
“ask for guidance.”
“listen for the response.”
“When you get a response, check it out.”
“Once you do begin to get clarity, wait to act until you have at least a kernel of inner certitude.” Wait to act.
“If you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going.”
One does not seek credit. The credit goes to God—the real Doer. Says Krishna: “Those who follow the path of service, who have completely purified themselves and conquered their senses and self-will, see the Self in all creatures and are untouched by any action they perform. Those who know this truth, whose consciousness is unified, think always, I am not the Doer.”
She believed that any person who sought to could be guided by God’s hand—just as she had been.
Gandhi and his fellows had deftly painted the government into a corner—all without violence of any kind. Even Gandhi himself was surprised at the power—he would later call it Soul Force—of this kind of action. What began that day was his development of the art of satyagraha (literally, “clinging to truth”) that would, over the course of the next two decades, change the face of the world. “Thus came into being,” wrote Gandhi much later in his life, “the moral equivalent of war.”
Gandhi insisted upon returning love for hatred and respect for contempt.
The transformation was largely the result of one thing: his discovery of, and devotion to, the principles of the Bhagavad Gita. Gandhi himself would later emphasize: It was not just that he knew the Gita, but that he actively put its precepts to work in his life.
“Every moment of Gandhi’s life is a conscious effort to live the message of the Gita.”
A central pillar of his later teaching was that fearlessness is a prerequisite for nonviolence. “Nonviolence and cowardice go ill together,” he said.
“It’s perfectly all right to admit that you’re afraid,” she said. “There’s no shame in fear. But try this: Whenever you’re threatened, instead of running away, stand firm, and repeat the mantra, Rama, Rama, Rama. This will turn your fear into courage.”
When the mind is still, says Krishna, the True Self begins to reveal its nature. In the depths of meditation, we begin to recognize again that we are One with Brahman—that we are that wave that is nonseparate from the sea. Memory is restored!
Gandhi was discovering the power of simplification and renunciation. He stumbled onto a truth widely known by yogis: Every time we discerningly renounce a possession, we free up energy that can be channeled into the pursuit of dharma.
Renunciation was never meant to be for its own sake, but for the sake of dharma.
The yogi’s chief concern is with the art of living, systematically cultivating energy and health.
More than anything, he is concerned with living an optimal human life.
Optimal health and well being are not for their own sake, but rather to be used in the service of others.
Gandhi was ecstatic. “I had learnt,” he said, “the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts. I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder.”
He came to believe that a human being is really just a trustee of all that he has—that his gifts are entrusted to him for the good of the world.
“My study of English law came to my help,” he said. “I understood the Gita teaching of nonpossession to mean that those who desired salvation should act like the trustee who, though having control over great possessions, regards not an iota of them as his own.”
Gandhi grasped the paradox: The more he gave away, the more he had.
“He who devotes himself to service with a clear conscience, will day by day grasp the necessity for it in greater measure, and will continually grow richer in faith … If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will steadily grow stronger, and will make not only for our own happiness but that of the world at large.”
Gandhi’s experiments in truth, and in simple living, now became supercharged. He became fascinated with the results of simplification: The more he gave up, the freer he felt, the more energy he had, and the happier he was. The simpler he got, the simpler he wanted to
During this period, Gandhi says about the true satyagrahi: “He will take only what he strictly needs and leave the rest. One must not possess anything which one does not really need.
She saw it, most of all, among her friends. “We’re all constantly preoccupied with ‘How am I doing?’ ‘How am I measuring up?’ ” she said to me. And she realized that no matter how well-perfected it was, her self was never going to be enough. She would forever have to struggle with her aging body, her aging mind, and the increasingly limited accomplishments of her day-to-day life. She would never be enough!
This insight is brilliantly expressed in the Tao te Ching. “Hope and fear,” it teaches, “are both phantoms that arise from thinking of the self. When we don’t see the self as self, what do we have to fear?”
See the world as your self. Have faith in the way things are. Love the world as your self; Then you can care for all things.
“There comes a time,” he wrote in the peak of his maturity, “when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effects. This comes when he reduces himself to zero.”
Gandhi’s meaning was simple: Only the human being who acts in a way that is empty of self can be the instrument of Soul Force. And it is only Soul Force that can establish a harmonious world. Human beings alone are helpless to resolve conflicts without it. With it, however, Gandhi came to believe that harmony is inevitable. Because harmony, Oneness with all beings, is our true nature.
Gandhi discovered to his delight that when his own self was not in the way—when he was not clinging to any fixed views about the outcome of his actions—he could be hugely creative. He was free to move on a dime, very much as Harriet Tubman moved.
Eknath Easwaran wrote about this phenomenon: “Gandhi was the most bewildering opponent any nation ever faced. Every move he made was spontaneous; every year that passed found him more youthful, more radical, more experimental. British administrators were baffled and exasperated by this little man who withdrew when they would have attacked, attacked when they would have withdrawn, and seemed to be getting stronger day by day. No one knew what he was going to do next, for his actions were prompted not by calculations of what seemed politically expedient, but by a deep intuition which often came to him only at the eleventh hour.”
In the face of the fiercest provocation, he never lets himself forget that he and his attacker are one. This is the true spirit of ahimsa, or “nonviolence.” But ahimsa is more than just the absence of violence: It is the presence of justice and of love. Gandhi always made it perfectly clear that “the satyagrahi’s object is to convert, not to coerce, the wrongdoer.”
“Greater courage is required of the satyagrahi,” he often said, “than the run-of-the mill soldier with a gun in his hand. Any coward can be brave when holding a rifle.”
Dharma is very much like Gandhi’s mantra. Rama, Rama, Rama. Eventually it takes on a life of its own. It does things spontaneously that you had no reason to expect. It begins to drill down into the deepest parts of your mind. Soon you begin to see that this dharma is not just any old stick of bamboo. It is a magic wand. A wish-fulfilling wand. It is a way to know—to interact with, to be in relationship with—the deepest parts of yourself. It is a vehicle to know the world.
“Abandon all supports,” says Krishna to Arjuna in one of his great final teachings. “Cast off your dependency on everything external, Arjuna, and rely on the Self alone.”
We work first because we have to work. Then because we want to work. Then because we love to work. Then the work simply does us. Difficult at the beginning. Inevitable at the end.
“We can do no great things,” wrote the nineteenth-century French saint, Teresa, “only small things with great love.”
“… we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.