Bhagavad Gita #1

posted September 15, 2010

Our editor has our book, and so I am sitting on my hands. To pass the time, I am reading the Bhagavad Gita. Just for fun. OK, also because it’s part of my yoga teacher training, but details.

I love this text. I love the central idea, which seems to me to be stated perfectly in Chapter 2:

You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake.
And do not be attached to inaction.

Self-possessed, resolute, act
without any thought of results
open to success or failure. (2.47-48 translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Such a wonderful ideal for writers and songwriters, performers, mothers, lovers–all of us. And how hard it is to live this way! Open to success or failure? Are you kidding me?

And yet, when one begins a novel, how else can one be? Who has been able to start any endeavor without the knowledge that failure is at least a possibility. I certainly felt this way when I tried to get pregnant, and I have felt this way every single time I sit down to write a song. Most of the work I do as a writer is in silencing the voices that tell me how doomed my nascent writing is.

The Bhagavad Gita is one of the central poems in the Mahabarata, a sacred Indian text written sometime between the 5th Century B.C.E and the first century CE. It may have been an independent poem inserted within the greater work; at any rate, its title means “Song of the Blessed One,” and it takes place on the battlefield of Kuru at the beginning of a war between two clans, the Pandavas (good guys, led by Arjuna) and the Kauravas, evil cousins. But Arjuna pauses right before he is to enter the field, stricken with doubt and confusion. Why should he kill his relatives? He drops his weapons and his charioteer, Krishna, who happens to be god incarnate, begins a dialogue that turns into a meditation on the nature of life, death, duty, nonattachment, love, and yoga, which is defined here as “skill in action.”

Renunciation of action is giving up, says Krisha; doing what Arjuna wants to do, which seems like humble peacemaking but is really unskillful inaction, shirking duty, fleeing his dharma. (I won’t at this point go into why this is so––peacemakers, suspend your disbelief; stay with me!)

Renunciation of the fruits of our actions, on the other hand, is not only the path to enlightenment: it is nirvana itself, in the moments in which we let go. Gandhi says (referring to the Gita), that this kind of renunciation of our fruits “is the central sun around which devotion, knowledge, and the rest revolve like planets.”

Better to do one’s own dharma badly than to do someone else’s perfectly (3.35)is another way the Gita states its theme. I can only be Nerissa. I can’t be my yoga teacher, or Joni Mitchell, or my grandmother. I can try to be someone other than me, and in some ways I might seem like I am succeeding, but ultimately I will be cheating myself and the world out of the particular image of God that is in me and only in me, not to mention passing on a lie. And that dharma, whatever it might be, might not please me all the time, just as Arjuna does not want to fight and is full of conflict. I might wish to practice asana like my teacher; to write songs that reach millions of people like Joni Mitchell; or be perfectly kind and never lose my temper like my grandmother, but this is not who I am. Or it might be, but for me to cling to the outcome of my actions and have in mind specific ideas of what the outcomes should look like is wrong thinking. However, I can take disciplined action to practice my asanas, practice my songwriting, practice kindness and compassion. This is yoga: skill in action. Or, put another way, practice.

Our Suzuki violin teacher Emily Greene said to Elle yesterday, “Elle, do you know why we practice?”
Elle: No.
Emily: To make it easier.

Douglas Brooks writes, “How we experience ourselves in the act determines our experience of bondage or freedom.” (p. 64 of Poised for Grace) And so when I practice asana, it’s about the moment that I come into the pose, working to align with the optimal blueprint of my own body—letting go of how “perfect” the final pose is. Was I aligned? That is what matters. Moreover, there are ALWAYS actions to take, even when the actions can seem completely fruitless. Today Jay drew with marker all over our hardwood hall floors. This was just after both he and Elle completely trashed the house right after I’d spent about an hour tidying it up. I got mad, thinking, “I do all this work for nothing! Like Sisyphus!” But life is about cleaning up messes. Life is messy. Generating new life is extra messy. We will always have messes, just as we will always have the Brahman and the untouchables. Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you,” and I would argue that the yoga is in how we treat them; how we keep giving even when it feels fruitless. Besides, it is good for our souls to give. It helps me remember (as I am in the act of giving) that that poor person is me, just as the Brahman is me. When I clean the marker off the wood floor with a heart full of gratitude, seeing the situation for what it REALLY is (that I am so so blessed to have two creative, lovely kids, not to mention a house with gorgeous wood floors, arms to scrub with, sponges to scrub with, knees that bend) I am in heaven; I have reached nirvana.

Ch. 6 verse 2
Know that right action itself
Is renunciation, Arjuna;
In the yoga of action, you first
Renounce your own selfish will.

Abhinavagupta’s wonderful analogy about the gambler—that it is easy for a gambler while gambling to feel like a king, but this doesn’t make him one—is perfectly stated for this point. I have many desires that are not wholesome, and usually they fall into the category of wanting to do nothing when doing something would be preferable. I want to sleep a little longer instead of getting up to mediate. I want to keep reading the newspaper when the phone rings and I can see that it’s a friend who might need me. I want to keep eating when to do so would mean less food for others, and more than my body needs.

Renouncing my “own selfish will” is crucial for me to have a good day, fulfill my dharma, align with the divine, my optimal blueprint; be useful to others. To align myself with God’s will is my daily aim. In fact, I begin each day by asking for my thinking to be divorced from self-seeking motives. I begin each day by turning my will over to the care of the Self (God, for me, but the God who is in all of us) and not to my self. I can easily delude myself into thinking that some action I would like to take is a good one if I don’t take the time to center myself.

Over and over again, I find that when I let go of my own will and surrender to the greater will, what I know intuitively is God’s will for me, I grow, I have a great time, I feel of service, I feel useful, I feel like an arrow who is hitting its mark, AND I feel like the archer. I see much farther, the way one gets a much clearer lay of the land when one climbs to a higher vista on a mountain. Just to be clear, I don’t always know what the divine will is, but usually I can tell because it’s What Is rather than What I Wish It Would Be! It’s my kids drawing on my floors with Sharpie rather than filling the empty recycled journals with clever drawings and wobbly letters that spell out their names.

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