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Disorienting Dilemmas: How to Find Your Purpose and Act on It

Best-selling author Stephen Cope on the opportunities to be found in chaos.

Key points

  • Today's disorienting dilemmas have unleashed a wave of personal power.
  • We can only fulfill our greatness through interconnection.
  • Finding your authentic calling allows you to unfold in the world.

Stephen Cope is a best-selling author and scholar who specializes in the relationship between the Eastern contemplative traditions and Western depth psychology. Among his seminal works in this area are Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, The Wisdom of Yoga, The Great Work of Your Life, and Deep Human Connection. In his latest book, The Dharma in Difficult Times: Finding Your Calling in Times of Loss, Change, Struggle, and Doubt, Stephen shows that crises don’t have to derail us from our purpose; in fact, they can actually help us to find our purpose and step forward as our best selves.

Mark Matousek
Stephen Cope
Source: Mark Matousek

For almost thirty years, Stephen has been a scholar-in-residence at the Kripalu Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the largest center for the study and practice of yoga in the Western world. We talked about how yoga can help us through today's confusion, and Stephen's unique take on the hero's journey.

Mark Matousek: Your new book is called The Dharma in Difficult Times. Why is this book relevant to what we’re going through today with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine?

Stephen Cope: I began writing this book before all the hardship of the last three years, but during the Covid crisis, ended up doing a fairly thorough rewrite. The pandemic unmasked a profound amount of social injustice, racism, and unfairness in this world, and what we are seeing in Ukraine now is more xenophobia and delusion. The book ended up speaking more directly to some of our current core issues than I imagined at first and will hopefully help people through them.

MM: This is your second book based on the Bhagavad Gita. Why did you return to that Indian classic?

SC: Yes, because I consider that the most important text of yoga. My first book on the Gita concerned itself with finding your bliss in the way Joseph Campbell expressed that term. Now, we have a book about sacred duty, which is something a little harder to realize than bliss. This one is written specifically for the yoga community in the West so they could utilize a scripture to move beyond a culture eaten up by narcissism; by the preoccupation with I, me, and mine.

MM: What does sacred duty mean?

SC: Sacred duty, or his place in the world, is what Arjuna, the protagonist in the Gita, had to face. We don’t particularly like to hear about duty, but Krishna explains it to him in ways that still resonate with us today.

We live in an interconnected world where we are surrounded by injustice. We see this play out in many ways. So, what’s our duty—our sacred duty—when faced with that fact?

I start the book with an idea that comes from transformational education called the “disorienting dilemma.” This term reflects the notion that in the course of our lives we inevitably encounter a dilemma. The world treats us in a certain way or we confront something in the world that doesn’t fit into our view of how the world is or should be. In order to come to terms with it, we have to refashion our very view of how the world is and what our role is in it.

We live in a country with a number of structural disorienting dilemmas. The most important one is slavery and the racism that preceded it and followed it. In my writing, I apply the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita to the experience of slavery and racism in America. This is done by starting with Henry David Thoreau in Concord in 1830, and then moving to Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the great Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

MM: Which makes these lessons from the Gita more culturally accessible.

SC: Yes, I think so. Then I write about a brilliant young Civil War soldier, the great preacher and self-freed slave, Sojourner Truth, and Marion Anderson and her concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Martin Luther King and then current-day activist Ruby Sales from Alabama also feature in the discussion. I look at each one of these lives and the way in which they dealt with the disorienting dilemma of racism, xenophobia, and slavery. In each case, it’s very different, but each one of the cases elucidates a different aspect of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.

MM: How does this wisdom land differently in the East and West?

SC: The core difference is that in the West, we’re fascinated by the idea of self-fulfillment, yet we haven’t fully understood the deeper notion of how to get there. We can only truly fulfill the greatness that’s inside each of us as human beings if our work in the world contributes not only to our own good, but to the common welfare of humanity. This is essentially what Thoreau said in his great essay "Civil Disobedience." Through writing about Thoreau and each of the characters I use as examples, I show the way their work in the world profoundly affects the welfare of others.

MM: What lessons from the Gita are especially useful in a moment like this?

SC: There are four pillars of Gita’s teaching. The first pillar is finding out what our contribution to the world is. This is our dharma, our sacred vocation, our sacred duty. It is our calling for this lifetime. Our soul knows what this is and it is our job to find it.

Having discerned that, the second pillar is to bring everything you’ve got to this dharma. This is called the “doctrine of unified action.” You unify all of your actions around what you know to be your authentic calling in the world, whatever that is.

The third pillar is to let go of the outcome. It’s better to fail at your own dharma than to succeed at the dharma of another. This is a hard one for Westerners who are so driven by success, but it brings so much authentic power to our lives.

Then finally, the fourth pillar is to turn it over to God, or turn it over to something bigger than yourself. Dedicate yourself to what you are doing, allow it to challenge you, but turn over the fruits of your action to something larger than yourself. Those are the four pillars of the Bhagavad Gita.

MM: Can you break that down for folks unfamiliar with the Gita?

SC: Sure. Gandhi said, “If you want to know what a life based on the Gita looks like, read about my life.”

Dive into where you find truth and soak yourself in spiritual wisdom. This includes tuning into your inner voice and working toward engaging with the part of your mind that’s awake, alive, and has vast perspective. Some call this Buddha mind. Taking refuge in spiritual teachings can help you find your true calling.

Pillar number two is to peer carefully into the chaos of difficult times for your calling. Here I write about Thoreau and how, from his own little village in Concord, he managed to change the world. It was from his one night in jail to protest slavery that he wrote his brilliant essay on civil disobedience.

There are two major points to make about pillar number two. The first one is to look at your own surroundings for where you can you make a difference. This is what Thoreau did. The second point is to look for the gift in the wound. Harriet Beecher Stowe is my example of that. She wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a way to come to grips with the death of her two-year-old son Charlie, who tragically died of cholera. In her grief, she began to identify with slave mothers whose children had been ripped away from them on the auction block. This wound made her an absolutely fearless champion of abolition.

The third pillar is to understand that personal fulfillment and the common good must arise together. In writing about the duty inherent in this fulfillment, I use the story of Charles Russell Lowell, a brilliant young soldier who left his studies at Harvard to sacrifice himself in the Civil War. I use that chapter to look at the contemplative tradition’s view of war. It’s almost always seen as a sin, but occasionally there is something called a just war. A just war can be a war in which you fight against a whole population being enslaved.

The fourth pillar is understanding that you are not the doer. When you turn it all over to a higher power, you have the experience of being a channel for something that’s bigger than you are. Accepting the fact that something is being done through you, makes one very humble. You may not even understand it while it is happening, but it can have a profound outcome.

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