I’ve fallen back in love with the Bhagavad Gita recently (specifically Eknath Easwaran’s translation). I remember crying the first time I read it over a decade ago. And then, for some reason, I put it down and aside from reading a passage here and there over the years, I didn’t really pick it up again until a few months back.
The Gita deals primarily with the notion of Dharma. While the word dharma has a nearly infinite number of definitions and associations, when I use the word I'm referring to the idea that we each have intrinsic gifts and proclivities that, if embraced, cultivated and used, will help us contribute to the welfare of the world in an utterly unique way.
I studied with my teacher for 10 years in Philadelphia and he would often joke that this style of teaching was the "broken record" style, where he would just repeat the same handful of teachings over and over and over. Lucky for me, because of that, a lot of his words are imprinted pretty deep in my consciousness.
One of his favorite ways to answer a question that had a "should I do this or should I do that" kind of tone was simply to say "you are unique." In other words, there's no right answer, because you are the only person who has ever and will ever be you. Sure, it sounds ridiculously simple. And it is. But when you stop and think about it - like REALLY think about it, it's also kind of mind-blowing.
The fact that the universe has never seen an expression like me or like you before and that it never will again means that there's nobody who knows what's best for us except us. And yet we spend an insane amount of time and energy doubting ourselves and questioning ourselves - looking at other people's lives and trying to figure out who's got the right answer.
Nobody does. Because each and every one of us is unique. So only you have your "right" answer and only I have mine.
Conceptually speaking that sounds pretty palatable. Practically speaking, it's not always an easy space to live from. I find myself consistently amazed at how much commitment is required to align and re-align with this fact and then to actually trust the path that my feet are on.
Stephen Cope wrote a wonderful book about this process of self-trust called “The Great Work of your Life." In it he relates the Gita’s message to different people’s journeys - some famous and some “ordinary.” Two of the people whose lives he examines are Jane Goodall and Henry David Thoreau.
He writes, “Unlike Goodall, young Thoreau was not a celebrity in his own day. Far from it. He was widely seen as an ‘irresponsible idler, a trial to his family, and no credit to his town.’ In short, Thoreau was seen as a loser. I fell in love with Thoreau is graduate school. I loved how this guy had apparently embraced his inner loser.”
I, too, have always had a bit of an intellectual and spiritual crush on Thoreau. As someone who loves to be quietly immersed in nature, I admired how far he’d followed that path, especially in light of it making him a total weirdo in the eyes of society.
Thoreau wrote, “A man tracks himself through life. One should be always on the trail of one’s deeper nature. For it is the fearless living out of your own essential nature that connects you to the Divine.”
It's this tracking of ourselves that I believe is a huge part of the process of personal and spiritual evolution. In moments of confusion and doubt, the most powerfully cutting question for me is always, "what can I give?" And then the great challenge is to commit to that offering in the face of all the voices of doubt and criticism - those coming from inside and those coming from outside.
This challenge isn't new. It's not a modern problem. It's an essential element of the human condition - one that the Bhagavad Gita speaks directly to, reminding us that "it's better to strive in one's own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is every lost in following one's own dharma but competition in another's dharma feeds fear and insecurity." (3.35).
In the end, perhaps it just takes a bit of time to get comfortable being an original.