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The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling

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From the Senior Scholar-in-residence and Ambassador for the famed Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health comes an incisive and inspiring meditation on living the life you were born to live.
In this fast-paced age, the often overwhelming realities of daily life may leave you feeling uncertain about how to realize your life’s true purpose—what spiritual teachers call dharma. But yoga master Stephen Cope says that in order to have a fulfilling life you must, in fact, discover the deep purpose hidden at the very core of your self. In The Great Work of Your Life, Cope describes the process of unlocking the unique possibility harbored within every human soul. The secret, he asserts, can be found in the pages of a two-thousand-year-old spiritual classic called the Bhagavad Gita—an ancient allegory about the path to dharma, told through a timeless dialogue between the fabled archer, Arjuna, and his divine mentor, Krishna.
Cope takes readers on a step-by-step tour of this revered tale, and in order to make it relevant to contemporary readers, he highlights well-known Western lives that embody its central principles—including such luminaries as Jane Goodall, whose life trajectory shows us the power of honoring The Gift; Walt Whitman, who listened for the call of the times; Susan B. Anthony, whose example demonstrates the power of focused energy; John Keats, who was able to let his desire give birth to aspiration; and Harriet Tubman, whose life was nothing if not a lesson in learning to walk by faith. This essential guide also includes everyday stories about following the path to dharma, which illustrate the astonishingly contemporary relevance and practicality of this classic yogic story.
If you’re feeling lost in your own life’s journey, The Great Work of Your Life may provide you with answers to the questions you most urgently need addressed—and may help you to find and to embrace your true calling.

Praise for The Great Work of Your Life
“Keep a pen and paper handy as you read this remarkable book: It’s like an owner’s manual for the soul.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
“A masterwork . . . You’ll find inspiration in these pages. You’ll gain a better appreciation of divine guidance and perhaps even understand how you might better hear it in your own life.”Yoga Journal
“I am moved and inspired by this book, the clarity and beauty of the lives lived in it, and the timeless dharma it teaches.”—Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart
“A rich source of contemplation and inspiration [that] encourages readers . . . to discover and fully pursue their inner self’s calling.”Publishers Weekly
“Fabulous . . . If you have ever wondered what your purpose is, this book is a great guide to help you on your path.”—YogaHara

From the Hardcover edition.

304 pages, ebook

First published September 25, 2012

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About the author

Stephen Cope

31 books124 followers
Stephen Cope is the director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, the largest yoga research institute in the Western world—with a team of scientists affiliated with major medical schools on the East coast, primarily Harvard Medical School. He has been for many years the senior scholar in residence at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, and is the author of four best-selling books.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 273 reviews
Profile Image for Angela Risner.
334 reviews14 followers
December 21, 2013
Finding this book was very crucial for me. For years, I've been trying to fit myself into an expected mold. My parents were born during the Great Depression. They came from very poor families, and to them, success was a job that didn't involve physical labor or coming home covered in dirt. My dad wore a suit and tie to work. That was a measure of success.

I was raised to want to work in an office. Actually, my parents wanted me to become a pharmacist, but I couldn't imagine anything more boring. I was artsy. I majored in music. And then I ended up working in an office. This is what I was supposed to do.

But it wasn't. And for twenty years, I forced it to work. But I was never completely happy. And over the years, I became ill. From the recycled air in building where you couldn't open the windows. From sitting 8+ hours per day, 5 or more days per week.

We weren't made to do that. Our bodies were never meant to be so stagnant. Now that I'm finally healthy again, I don't ever want to go back to corporate. I don't want to sit for 8 hours per day. I want something that allows me to be active and yes, even to get dirty.

Stephen Cope had a similar journey. Trained as a psychotherapist, he went to the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health for a four month retreat...and never left. He found his dharma, his calling, there as the Director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living.

Cope has written several books, but this was the first of his that I've read. I plan on reading the rest, too. This book focuses on the Bhagavad Gita and the lessons Krishna taught to Arjuna:

1. Look to your dharma. Discern, name, and then embrace your own dharma.
2. Do it full out! Do it with every fiber of your being. Commit yourself utterly.
3. Let go of the fruits. Relinquish the fruits of your actions. 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."
4. Turn it over to God. All true vocation arises in the stream of love that flows between the individual soul and the divine soul.

Cope uses the stories of Jane Goodall, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ghandi and man others, as well as his own friends to illustrate what happens when dharma is embraced or pushed aside.

There are so many great points in this book, I can't share them all, but here are a few favorites:

•"Dharma," he says,"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 with conduct itself, either in a general way or in relation to each particular circumstance." The word dharma in this teaching, then refers to the peculiar and idiosyncratic qualities of each being.
•Remember Krishna's teaching: We cannot be anyone we want to be. We can only authentically be who we are. 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.
•The false self is a collection of ideas we have in our minds about who we should be.
•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?
•With the name came a flood of regret. It was not the tidal wave of hope and relief he had counted on. Learning to embrace The Gift at midlife is complicated. Because naming The Gift and celebrating it also means grieving for lost opportunities. They mean facing squarely the suffering of self-betrayal.
•We in twenty-first-century American have strange dreams and fantasies about retirement. We imagine a life of leisure. The Golden Years. But what is this leisure in the service of?
•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.
•"Like Henry James' obscure hurt and Dostoevsky's holy disease, even Beethoven's loss of hearing was in some sense necessary or at least useful, to the fulfillment of his creative quest." Mysteriously, The Gift issues forth out of The Wound. It does not quite heal The Wound, but it makes sense of it. It gives it meaning. And meaning is everything.
•He teaches that our decisions about our actions flow inexorably from our understanding of who we are. And if we do not know who we are, we will make poor choices.
•Ghandi 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.
•"If you don't find your work in the world and throw yourself wholeheartedly into it, you will inevitably make your self your work. There's no way around it: You will take your self as your primary project. You will, in the very best case, dedicate your life to the perfection of your self. To the perfection of your health, intelligence, beauty, home or even spiritual prowess. And the problem is simply this: This self-dedication is too small a work. It inevitably becomes a prison."

Even before I started this book, I had already begun to pare my lifestyle down. I had the lifestyle of someone who could buy many Kate Spade handbags and lots of pretty toys. But I don't want to do the work that brings that anymore. So, I have adopted a lifestyle that allows me to stay away from the corporate world (for now at least.) My goal is to live as simply yet comfortably as I can. And I no longer measure myself against other people's definition of success. It's okay if your definition of success means having a certain car, home, or lifestyle. It's okay, too, for me to define success as being able to breathe in fresh air, to go to the Yoga classes I want to, and to not be chained to an office.

Highly recommend.

Profile Image for Kelly.
413 reviews1 follower
December 8, 2012
This book centers around the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text, and the concept of dharma, one's true calling in life. Cope uses the story and characters in the Gita to frame 11 different biographical chapters about famous people who have followed their dharma and serve as perfect examples of how to find one's own and why it is important to do so.

I found this book very interesting in terms of the history of the famous figures (such as Keats, Frost, and Goodall) and the study of how each discovered and nurtured their true callings. I also learned a lot about dharma itself and what it means. I was disappointed with the lack of inclusion of "ordinary" figures. Cope does cover them, but compared to the amount of content on the famous figures it is slight. He stressed a few times that even if it's "stamp collecting, no matter what your dharma is, it is important and you should consider it your great work. However, I found it interesting and a bit insulting to be honest that he did not focus much on these "stamp collectors". If your dharma truly was that, how seriously can you take yourself when most of Cope's focus is on brilliant musicians, poets, writers, and the like? He tells us not to worry, that no matter what we do it is important but you wouldn't really know that based on where he spends most of his time in this book. I actually skipped the last 2 chapters of the book and only skimmed through Beethoven because by that point things were getting a little monotonous.

Despite all that, I was inspired by the book. I know a life in books (reviewing them, reading them, recommending (or not recommending) them, encouraging children to read them) is my dharma but I also wonder is motherhood my dharma also? Can you have two dharmas? Cope doesn't address that at all from what I remember. Overall, this was the first book I've read in the yoga genre and I find it fascinating that the term "yoga" encompasses so much more than the physical poses. Cope has written other books in the genre and I think I'll read them to learn more about the yoga tradition.
Profile Image for Elisabeth Plimpton.
170 reviews144 followers
April 14, 2021
This was an interesting read for me! I love reading yoga books, and I had just recently read the Bhagavad Gita for my yoga teacher training which helped me understand this book better as it refers to the teachings of the Gita. This book had a lot of great messages about not only finding your dharma (life’s purpose) but also living it everyday. The book used many famous historical figures as examples of how they lived their lives according to their dharma. I felt I learned a lot from this book, and it inspired me to continue exploring my dharma.

There were so many great quotes. I wish I had highlighted them all. Here is one I liked from the 19th century French saint, Teresa “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” 💕
Profile Image for Pamela.
Author 8 books140 followers
February 16, 2013
I enjoyed this book, although there's nothing terribly deep about it. For me it functioned more as an emotional boost, a pat on the back for having chosen an impractical pursuit that means a great deal to me over a more predictable work life. Sometimes you gotta get those props. The book's message is: You have to find your dharma (life path) and commit to it... hard to argue with, but if you're someone who has no idea what that path is, or runs into serious obstacles (like the need to put food on the table) in attempting to pursue it, I'm not sure what this book could do for you. The anecdotal passages on figures like Keats, Robert Frost, and Beethoven are all interesting, and Cope's writing style is competent and easygoing.

The main reason I'm glad to have read this book is that it has introduced me to the Baghavad Gita--and sent me to the original. Bought Eknath Easwaran's translation and am looking forward to exploring.
Profile Image for Marla.
449 reviews19 followers
December 29, 2012
This is a feel good book about finding your inner dharma (purpose in your life, or "what lights you up.") It's practical wisdom...bring forth what lights you up and it will save you, or deny it and be unhappy. It cannot be successfully denied. It's totally accessible and doesn't require any knowledge of eastern philosophy, although it's obvious that's what he's basing the book on. The best part of this book for me, was it's interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita, which is extensive. I reread the Bhagavad Gita side by side with it (I highly suggest this) and I saw it in a whole new light. The chapters are examples of people who found their dharma and lived it...Susan B. Anthony, Beethoven, Jane Goodall, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost among others. It's very inspiring. Especially if you're an aspiring writer. Really 4 3/4 stars. I grew a little weary of all the examples he gave. I pretty much knew what he was getting at along about Walt Whitman. But they are all interesting biographies. It's well written. 1/4 star off for what is in my opinion, a cheesy title and cover.
Profile Image for Lesley.
88 reviews
November 3, 2012
I'm embarrassed to read his books in public because the titles are so cheesy, but I really enjoy his writing about yoga and psychology. In this book, Cope tells the story of the Bhagavad Gita and cites the lives of many famous and "ordinary" people to illustrate how people can live out Krishna's advice.

This book does not so much serve as a "guide," though. Its "help" comes more as a revelation... like Svadhyaya, the study of self reveals ... it's all so familiar. You know this already. You just have to remind yourself that you know.

Cope writes, "we are not called to everything. We are just called to what we're called to. It is inevitable that authentically good parts of ourselves will not be fulfilled. What a relief."

Profile Image for Saiisha.
77 reviews47 followers
June 22, 2016
Loved this book!
It was recommended by someone on my book club (https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...) and my interest was piqued by their mention that it was based on the Bhagavad Gita. Although the book itself wasn't about the Gita, Stephen Cope used the Gita as the framework to showcase 11 great lives, including my favorites - Thoreau and Gandhi. And also a few others I knew a little about (Jane Goodall, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, John Keats and Beethoven), and a few I didn't know much about (Marion Woodman, Harriet Tubman, Susan B Anthony and Camille Corot).

I also appreciated that he weaved in some stories of ordinary people finding and following their Dharma, like a poet friend from college, a priest, and a dean.

I could find a lot of parallels between the journeys of the people mentioned in this book and my own journey of finding and following my Dharma. My Dharma is in helping older souls discover their Dharma (http://www.nestintheforest.com/discov...), so I was surprised that I hadn't run into this book earlier, but now it has me looking up other books by Stephen Cope :)
Profile Image for Laura.
55 reviews1 follower
December 6, 2019
Wow, what an amazing read this was!

This book was recommended to me during a time where I am actually at a crossroads in my life by a yoga teacher I greatly admire. I didn't really realise I was at this crossroads until I read the book.

The power of Stephen Cope's writing is that he takes his own exploration as a starting point to guide you as the reader on a journey of some of the most incredible dharma stories. He blends great philosophical concepts, interpretations of old scriptures in a modern-day society, and practical examples, which makes this not only a pleasure to read, but also an incredibly insightful book. Cope's writing is concise and very accessible, making this book suitable for a large audience. And that's a good thing, as I believe everyone should read this book.

As for me, I have highlighted a couple of quotes that seem to point me to my dharma. Stephen Cope, I'd say your mission is accomplished.
Profile Image for Jennifer Louden.
Author 28 books232 followers
September 19, 2012
half way through Stephen's brilliant new book and I know I will a) be quoting it and using it extensively in my own teaching and b) that it is changing how I see my own life. The timing, for me, to be reading this feels like a tap from God.
Profile Image for Kris.
161 reviews11 followers
January 20, 2013
This book was an incredible read. Cope has gone great lengths to share his research of influential people of our present and past and how they found and lived their true callings.

This is a book I will read again and know each time I will find new insight into myself.
Profile Image for Steph.
16 reviews
November 6, 2019
I cried reading most of it. My heart was vibrating from all the truth.

A dear friend gifted me this book and I don't think I'll ever be able to thank her enough. I got this book during a period of intense transition and searching for what comes next.

I can't recommend this book enough for people going through transition and on the soul searching path.
Profile Image for Dianne Lange.
151 reviews4 followers
February 21, 2013
"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."
November 28, 2022
There's so much here, I imagine I'll be coming back to this book again through the years. Very inspiring in a grounding way.
February 20, 2013
Good book, love Stephen Cope. Anything that is an examination of the Gita would interest me. Great inspirational true life stories. With that said, I feel like he could have gone even deeper. Not just to listen to the call of our dharma in the world but the inner dharma we are all called to do as well. Our dharma of going into the scary battle of seeing the ego do it's work (especially in those difficult situations of life and difficult people) and switching from it's autopilot reactions to more beneficial responses. This is where we really win the battle.
Profile Image for Jake Lyda.
32 reviews2 followers
July 2, 2020
An amazing companion to the Bhagavad Gita. It’ll definitely be Gita-Great Works, Gita-Great Works every quarter year for the rest of my life.
Profile Image for Lauren Moore.
23 reviews
November 14, 2020
This is a deeply inspiring book. Its one I will read over and over again. Highly recommend!
5 reviews
December 29, 2020
I found this to be an amazing book! I have gone back and re-read sections frequently.
Profile Image for Deb in UT.
1,225 reviews16 followers
October 15, 2020
I purchased this book from Amazon after hearing Brooke Castillo mention it on one of her 2016 podcasts. It's not exactly what I expected, but it was still helpful to me. It's full of examples of people in their process of finding their "true calling" more than a list of steps any individual could take. Even so, there is definitely power in example.

The guiding aspect of the book is embedded in the stories that show "the four pillars of dharma." Cope goes through the pillars one by one. Throughout the book he retells the story of Krishna and Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita in a very simple, understandable way as Arjuna learns how to deal with himself in the face of battle. Cope gives examples from famous people's lives, from composites of people he has known, as well as from his own life. He does some explaining of each principle.

For my own reference. These are the four pillars Cope mentions:

"*Look to your dharma
*Do it full out!
*Let go of the fruits
*Turn it over to God"

I've been thinking a lot about my own life's purpose. I like how Cope mentions some people may already be living their dharma but not recognize it. They might not be choosing it or doing it deliberately. Perhaps I've been one of those people. Choosing the small, simple life one is already living might be enough of a dharma. This book definitely has led me to introspection.

Again, for my benefit, I'm going to write about some things this book helped me consider:

I was thinking about the definition of dharma. Apparently, it has complex meaning. Cope puts individual quotes around these separate groups of words but says it can be translated as "religious and moral law, right conduct, sacred duty, path of righteousness, true nature, and divine order." I was thinking I could translate it to my own faith as meaning God's plan for me, keeping the commandments, stewardship, talents, and righteous desires.

"Doing it full out" could be translated into my own faith as being truly converted; behaving with all my heart, mind and strength; covenant keeping; faith in action; and daily discipleship.

"Let go of the fruits" makes me think about process rather than product. I recently read another book about practicing and living the journey rather than focusing on end results. For most of my life I've been a perfectionist and that hasn't served me. I have looked to success and longed for it without always putting in the work. I haven't always enjoyed the journey. It's so much better to learn step by step, "line upon line, from grace to grace." Accepting reality and our circumstances and working with them can lead us to our great work. Resisting or denying reality "adds pain to pain." I like Cope's example of his mother's reaction when his father learned of his Alzheimer's verses Marion Woodman's response to her cancer diagnosis. They are examples of denial verses acceptance. I also liked learning more about Beethoven and his struggle with deafness which he learned to accept and then thrived.

"Turn it over to God" translates easily into my own faith. Cope tells of the Bhagavad Gita story, "Arjuna, you do not know how to act because you do not know who you are." He talks about our divine nature. He says, "In the yogic view, as in Wordsworth's, it's through remembering who we really are that we are liberated." Of course, that yogic view presented in this book is a little more complicated than my personal view. "The whole world is in each one of us," Cope says. I believe in that connection, but not necessarily literally. "Becoming one" is part of my own faith, but it's a oneness in "spirit, mind, and purpose." I'm still learning about this idea.

In this fourth pillar he also mentions the lessons to "walk by faith" and "take yourself to zero." Again, walking by faith is something clear and obvious to me. Sometimes we have to step into the darkness or just follow the small area of lantern light we have. I'm okay with trusting and action despite not knowing everything all at once. I pay attention to results (evidence) in my life while I'm walking in faith.

Cope uses Gandhi as the example for "take yourself to zero." Gandhi exemplified getting oneself out of the way and "letting God do the work."

I'm glad I own the book. It's thought provoking. I like the examples and the truths. It has reminded me that I need to take time to consider my gifts, my desires, my work, as well as to choose to deliberately and truly live my life.
August 22, 2020
Most books I’ve read on spiritual awakening have focused on how to “Be” in this Life. I felt like I got excellent input and perspective about “Being” but felt a bit daunted by the question “but what do I do to become this enlightened (“woke”) Being?” I am delighted to have found this book by Stephen Cope on what to Do in this Life in order to achieve our highest Being. The foundation of Cope’s explanation of Doing is the story of Arjuna and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Layered on top of this foundation are numerous examples of people who have Become their greatest selves through Doing what their own heart or inner voice implored them to do (Jane Goodall, Robert Frost, Thoreau, Whitman, Susan B Anthony, Harriet Tubman, just time name a few.) The book is part history, part biography, part spiritual teaching, part memoir. I listened to it on Audible and when the last sentence was read, I immediately went back to the beginning and started listening again.
Profile Image for Heather.
395 reviews29 followers
May 23, 2019
Recommended by my yoga instructor, I initially began reading to follow along with concepts she was talking about during the discussion sessions of our class. I really enjoyed the examples of Keats, Jane Goodall, Robert Frost, Beethoven, Harriet Tubman and Mahatma Gandhi along with examples of more ordinary folks finding and following their Dharmic path. So much thought-provoking advice, I will likely re-read and transcribe notes. I liked the generalized intro to the Bhagavad Gita, as well, as I was not familiar with the text. Cope’s writing was clear and easy to follow. Good for those seeking greater understanding of self, and for learning about what Dharma is and isn’t.
Profile Image for Misty.
53 reviews4 followers
June 14, 2020
This book took me a long time to read - not because it was dense or boring - but I had to sit with each chapter, reflect as I went. It was a morning devotional of sorts. It has left me with hope and a belief in dharma. An awareness of the need to let go of the self. It was a big step on a journey I didn’t know I was on.
Profile Image for Hannah Henson.
172 reviews2 followers
July 24, 2022
I enjoyed this book and reading about all of the different people’s individual dharma stories. I learned a lot I didn’t know about many historic figures. The book was certainly inspirational and Cope’s writing was elevated, while still being approachable. I only wish I’d finished this book knowing what my own dharma is.
Profile Image for Katie Allen.
66 reviews1 follower
December 25, 2022
One that I'll be returning to again and again. Wowza.

If you're questioning your path/career/calling, I highly recommend this one.
Profile Image for Tara.
7 reviews7 followers
May 18, 2022
This book can change the way you show up to life each day. And to who you are, rather than to who you believe or wish yourself to be.
Profile Image for Mary.
2 reviews
October 10, 2019
I found this book easy to read and I learned some great points from it!
150 reviews1 follower
February 17, 2023
Great book if you're looking how to settle into your Self and true calling based on the Bhagavad Gita.
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