“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau’s quiet desperation is very palpable in modern societies. In the corporate world, large, open-plan offices allow the infections of stress and anxiety to spread rapidly and corner offices usually come with prescriptions for mental or physical health problems. We are not only quietly desperate but miserably successful (or successfully miserable, whichever way you want to put it).
The Bhagavad Gita is an approximately 5,000 year old Indian scripture describing a dialogue between the warrior prince Arjuna and his charioteer and friend, Lord Krishna. Though ancient, this text offers some very valuable wisdom for our times. Here’s 3 lessons from the Gita that could help transform your perspective.
1. Forget about finding your purpose
“The enjoyments born of the touches of things are causes of sorrow, that have a beginning and an end; therefore the sage, the man of awakened understanding, buddah, does not place his delight in these.” (1)
This might sound odd in a society where ‘finding your passion’ is regarded as the entry ticket to a happily-ever-after. It’s not that we shouldn’t do things we enjoy doing, but rather that the idea of expecting some activity or possession to bring us fulfilment is misplaced. Consequently, not enjoying what we do is one of the major causes of stress and discontent in our lives.
What is needed is a shift from viewing an activity as a potential source of contentment to making it an expression of our joy. But how to do that? This brings us to the next piece of knowledge from the Gita.
2. Give up the fruits of action
“…this idea of works and their result, desire of result as the motive, the work as a means for the satisfaction of desire, is the bondage of the ignorant.” (1)
Working to fulfil the desires of the ego leads to suffering. Another odd one in the modern context where the importance of being goal-oriented is widely advocated and well documented. But with what result? Tension and nervous break-downs at missed targets and failed projects and discontent about low bonuses and lost promotions. And that’s not even taking into account that annoying tendency of desires and goals to endlessly replace themselves with new ones, rendering any happiness attained through them, necessarily transitory.
Is working towards a goal bad then? Not at all. But making our happiness conditional on its fulfillment is.
Shall we kill desire then? No, because that itself is a big desire. So what could replace this core driving force for doing works in the world? What could replace the motivation provided by the promise of a bigger pay-check or title? Well, when contentment comes from some other place than the results of work, then work becomes an expression of joy. But where would this contentment come from if not from the fruit of action?
3. Yoga, the right basis for action
“Fixed in Yoga do thy actions, having abandoned attachment, having become equal in failure and success; for it is equality that is meant by Yoga.” (1)
Establish yourself in yoga, then act, says the Gita. This does not mean sitting at your work desk in ‘lotus position’ or adopting a ‘tree pose’ to close out meetings (although that could be fun). Yoga means union – with our higher nature. It is a shift from ‘me and mine’, the hallmark of compulsive action, to conscious action based on a more holistic perspective.
Established in yoga, rid of the fear of suffering, we can take full strides and do whatever needs to be done. As Krishna tells a dejected and hesitant Arjuna on the eve of the great battle of Mahabharata: treating alike happiness and misery, gain and loss, victory and defeat, fight the war.
Trying to change the outer situation without first mastering the inner, is futile. Rather than hankering after egoistic desires in the hope of happiness, first strive to find contentment and equanimity inside yourself, says the Gita. The only solution is to explore inwards and find our natural completeness. To find out what made the yogis and sages over the ages, so blissed-out that they forgot all their petty personal problems and also forgot themselves.
Then all of life is like a play (what the ancients called leela) with no room for either quiet desperation or miserable success.
(1) Quotes from ‘Gita in the Vision and the Words of Sri Aurobindo’, Sri Aurobindo
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