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Stephen Cope on Finding Your Calling

Aug 31, 2023 ● By Sandra Yeyati
Stephen Cope on Finding Your Calling

photo courtesy of Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health

Specializing in the relationship between Eastern contemplative traditions and Western psychology, Stephen Cope has been a scholar-in-residence for more than three decades at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, the largest residential yoga center in North America. He also founded the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, a global network of scientists that researches the effects and mechanisms of yoga-based practices. Cope is a classically trained pianist, dancer and psychotherapist, as well as the bestselling author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, The Wisdom of Yoga and The Great Work of Your Life. His latest book is The Dharma in Difficult Times: Finding Your Calling in Times of Loss, Change, Struggle and Doubt.

Why is it important to find our calling?

In classical yoga, there’s a view that everybody has a vocation. The earliest myth that supports this dates back several thousand years to the Vedic tradition in India and involves the god Indra, who is said to have cast a vast net over the entire universe. At each vertex of this net there’s a gem, and that gem is an individual soul whose job is to hold together the net at that point.

This introduces the view that each of us has a responsibility to contribute our gifts in such a way that we hold together our little piece of the net. If we don’t, the net starts to unravel. Dharma is Sanskrit for sacred vocation or sacred duty, which comes from the root dhri, “to hold together”. It’s this fascinating notion that we have a responsibility to our own idiosyncratic genius, which sustains not only us by providing a fulfilling life, but also the whole world by taking care of our corner of the world.

How can we find our life’s purpose?

The practice of yoga and meditation is about increasing our connection with the subtle, internal world. Thoreau called it the distant drummer. While our culture constantly draws us out and distracts us, Eastern contemplative traditions invite us to quiet our monkey mind and listen inside to that still, small voice that is attuned to our deepest needs and to the way the world works. It’s that awake, or enlightened, part of the mind that can connect you to your true calling.

There are three questions that people can ask themselves. First: What lights you up? This an energetic experience in our bodies when we come close to the occupation or endeavors that are important to our soul. Get familiar on a day-to-day basis with what lights you up, then slowly move toward those things and integrate them into your life.

Second: What duties do you feel called to? I don’t mean those onerous things that are imposed on us by our culture. I mean a duty that if you don’t do it in this lifetime, you’ll feel a profound sense of regret and self-betrayal.

Third: What problems or difficulties are you facing in your life right now? Difficulties can point you to something that might be your dharma. Marion Woodman, a good friend and feminist who was diagnosed with bone cancer in her mid-60s, decided to close her psychoanalytic practice and devote the rest of her life to being in relationship with the cancer, investigating it as her calling. Very often, somebody’s calling is something really difficult they’re experiencing, like an unhappy marriage or dissatisfaction in career, and their dharma is to investigate what this means for their life.

How do we follow the still small voice when it feels like we’re stepping off the cliff?

Robert Frost stepped off a series of smaller curbs that added up to a cliff. He was concerned, as we all are, about security, making money and keeping his family safe, so he became a teacher. But there was a point at which he had to give up teaching and follow this deep voice that said, “Poetry is your calling.” He was 38 when he made the final decision to let go of other sources of income, and when he did that, his poetry came alive.

What advice do you have for fulfilling our life’s work?

In the Bhagavad Gita [Hindu scripture], there are four pillars of dharma. The first is discernment—finding your calling in this lifetime. The second—the doctrine of unified action—is to bring everything you’ve got to whatever you decide is your calling. Third is to let go of the outcome, also known as relinquishing the fruit. The ancient yogis discovered that if you’re grasping for a particular outcome, it takes you out of the moment and into some future fantasized moment. By letting go, you empower yourself to be more present to the possibilities of the moment. The fourth pillar is to turn the whole process over to God or to something bigger than just yourself. My friends who don’t believe in a higher power or god understand that concept of dedication to the planet, to humanity or to all beings.

Are you hopeful about the future?

Very hopeful. The contemplative traditions discovered that human beings who were jivanmukta, or soul-awake, were special versions of human beings in that they had capacities of compassion, lovingkindness, joy, generosity and selflessness. Those qualities, which are developed in the practice of yoga and meditation, add to the common good. I’m hopeful that as we become everything we can be, we will have the capacity to solve some of the huge problems that we have. As reckless as we are these days with our world, human beings have very often risen to the challenge of complex dilemmas and resolved them. As we come together, we start manifesting unified action. The power of human beings working together for the common good is almost limitless.

Sandra Yeyati is the national editor of Natural Awakenings.

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