Figure Out What's Next

#33: Your Purpose Revealed

with Stephen Cope
July 6, 2023 | 80 Minutes



Liquid error: Nil location provided. Can't build URI.


On "Inside-Out Career Design" this week, hosts Nicola Vetter & Peter Axtell speak with Stephen Cope

Your purpose revealed! In our conversation, Stephen gives a masterclass on purpose, how to find it, and how to use it for a fulfilling life. Everyone has a unique purpose or calling that is seeking to be fulfilled. What you need is to learn how to find your purpose or calling. Stephen shares deep insights into this universal quest to find one's purpose. He shares practical advice that anyone can use.

In our conversation, we talk about…

  • how he came to realize what his calling is,
  • what the term dharma really means in today‚Äôs world and why it‚Äôs important,
  • why following what you‚Äôre meant to do in this world is the path to fulfillment,
  • the crucial difference between happiness and fulfillment,
  • how the idea of attunement to the still small voice is where true messages come from,
  • how it‚Äôs vital more than ever to nurture your connections,
  • and why living a disciplined, structured life is not constraining but an advantage.

About Stephen Cope

Stephen is the best-selling author of seven practical and life-changing books and 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 Great Work of Your Life, Deep Human Connection, and his latest book, The Dharma in Difficult Times, where he shows us a way through our darkest times of loss, change, struggle, and doubt and gives us a roadmap for the journey to our true calling.

Stephen is a former psychotherapist, accomplished classical pianist, dancer and for almost 30 years a Senior Scholar-in-Residence and yoga teacher at the renowned Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the largest center for the study and practice of yoga in the Western world.

Kripalu hosts almost 50,000 guests a year in its many yoga, meditation, and personal growth programs. It is located on a sprawling 200-acre estate in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

In addition to his role as Scholar-in-Residence, Stephen is the founder and former director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living‚ÄĒone of the world‚Äôs most influential research institutes examining the effects and mechanisms of yoga and meditation, with a team of researchers from Harvard Medical School, University of Connecticut, University of Pennsylvania, and many more.

Stephen is the recipient of both a Tally and an Apple award for his work. In its twenty-fifth anniversary edition, ‚ÄúYoga Journal‚ÄĚ named him one of the most influential thinkers, writers, and teachers on the current American yoga scene.

Connect with

Connect with Nicola & Peter

Books, resources, and people mentioned in this episode

Drop us a note

Any topics you’d like us to cover or guests you’d like to hear? Let us know at [email protected]

About the Inside-Out Career Design Podcast

This podcast is obsessed with answering a single question: Is it possible to create an authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling life you love while building a successful and rewarding career?

Join Nicola Vetter and Peter Axtell, co-founders of the Career Insights platform and creators of the groundbreaking MotivationFinder assessment, as they follow their obsession with answering this question by sharing their insights, discoveries, and life lessons and talking with career experts, leaders, spiritual guides, psychologists, data scientists, coaches -- anyone and everyone who might hold a strategy or answer to the age-old questions of “what’s next for me?” and “what should I do with my life?”

They seek to transform suffering into joy for millions of people stuck and confused in their lives and careers.

Get ready to be inspired, motivated, and above all, to connect deeply with who you are and what you are meant to do with the time you’ve been given.


Stephen Cope  00:00

Most of the people who come to me who are in my courses and so forth, are really struggling with, with getting their hands around that. What is my calling? What am I called to do? Do I have a sacred calling? No, I don't have a vocation, the monks and the priests, maybe they have a vocation, but I don't. The view and in yoga is that everybody has a vocation. And the entire life according to the yoga tradition is about understanding and realizing your particular vocation. What is it that you're called to do in your little corner of the world?


Nicola Vetter  00:39

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Inside-Out Career Design podcast. My name is Nicola Vetter, and I'm here with my co-host and husband, Peter Axtell, and our guest today is Stephen Cope. Stephen is the best-selling author of several practical and life changing books and 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 Great Work of Your Life, Deep Human Connection, and his latest book, The Dharma in Difficult Times, where he shows us a way through our darkest times of loss, change, struggle, and doubt, and gives us a roadmap for the journey to our true calling. Stephen is a former psychotherapist, accomplished classical pianist, and dancer. And for almost 30 years, a senior scholar and residents and yoga teacher at the renowned Kripalu center for yoga and health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.


Peter Axtell  02:09

Stephen knew he had to listen to a profound message from the still small voice inside him and leave a safe and lucrative therapy practice to follow that message. He had to recover from be shattered by the end of a relationship, and then again, by disillusionment caused by the behavior of a charismatic leader he looked up to.


Nicola Vetter  02:32

We've been following him for a decade, read all of his books. And we're so excited to talk with Stephen, who, over the last few meetings, became a friend. And in our conversation, we talk about how he came to realize what his calling is, what the term Dharma really means in today's world, and why it's important. Why following what you're meant to do in this world, is the path to fulfillment, the crucial difference between happiness and fulfillment, how the idea of attunement to the still small voice is where true messages come from, how it's vital more than ever, and why living a disciplined, structured life is not constraining, but an advantage. And now it's time to listen and learn from Stephen. Welcome, Stephen. Wow, what a blast this was. We have already received a blessing from Stephen this morning. And we will share this because we recorded a short body scan meditation, with Stephen Cope. Stephen, frankly, this is a dream that came true as your books have had such a profound impact on our lives. It is an honor to have you on our podcast today.


Stephen Cope  04:14

Thank you, Nicola. That's, that's really very kind of you. And, of course, I love hearing that, you know, as an author, one puts one's books out with as much integrity as possible, and they kind of make their own way in the world. So when they land and something comes back to me, it's a it's a wonderful experience. So thank you for that.


Nicola Vetter  04:40

Absolutely. And there's one book right there that you might see the cover. I have more up here, and we will put all the links of your wonderful and really, truly life-changing books in the show notes.


Peter Axtell  04:56

I might point out this is an audio podcast, too. So what Nicola was pointing to was The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen. For those that aren't watching the video.


Stephen Cope  05:08

I see it there on the shelf, Nicola.


Nicola Vetter  05:13

So Stephen, one of the big questions we are trying to answer here on the Inside-Out Career Design podcast is what's next? What's next for my life? Or my career? Or even the bigger question, What should I do with my life? So we are curious about you, Stephen. What were those moments in your life and career where you really had to sit down and had no choice but to figure out what's next for you. We call them the what's next moments.


Stephen Cope  05:48

The what's next moments. That's great, Nicola. So I have been studying lives, great lives and ordinary lives. For so many decades now. And I've noticed something true about most of these lives, that's true of mine is that there are two kinds of what's next moments, there are the little steps that we take almost on a daily basis to true up our connection with who we really are in this world. And very often those little steps lead to big leaps. But the big leaps don't come out of nowhere. They're usually the accumulation of little movements. And if you've read my book, The Great Work of Your Life, you know, with people like Robert Frost and others, you can look back and see these little movements toward actualizing, the true self our sense of true vocation. And then you can see these big ones and usually the big ones get most of the press. But I'm also a big fan of the little ones. I call my best friend Brian, I we have a thing about we call it moving the marvels forward a little bit every day. So, you know, as a kid, I don't know if you guys played marbles. But there was a whole marble culture I'm older probably than most people here. But the idea of moving the marbles forward just a little bit every day. And then occasionally get these big leaps. I remember the big leaps, particularly like before I made the leap out of my practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy in Boston, which I'd done since graduate school until I was 40. I remember a moment sitting in my living room in Jamaica playing outside of Boston. Knowing that I was on the edge of something big and literally hearing that voice in my head. Okay, Steve, now you're finished with your psychotherapy career. And you're ready to move more deeply into a very explicit life of meditation and yoga and spiritual study. And so it's time to take a sabbatical from your practice. And go to at that point, I was going to go to an Episcopal monastery, I ended up at Kripalu the largest yoga center in the country. But there are a few of those kinds of moments and they're wonderful, and it really makes you believe in trusting your inner guidance, that inner voice.


Peter Axtell  09:00

I just want to ask one part of this because we speak a lot at What's Next about the, what we call, the egoic voice. You know, the chattering voice the monkey mind. How does one discerned How did you know that you weren't dealing with just your egoic mind and coming from the I think you call it the still small voice? How did you differentiate between those two? Someone's trying to figure out is that really what I'm supposed to do? Or is that just my mind chattering, can you speak to that?


Stephen Cope  09:32

Sure. And in yoga, really the whole practice of yoga is about increasing attunement to the subtle world, to those subtle voices and the subtle body and beginning to differentiate from the chatter to really appreciate when you're connecting with something of a higher vibe. ration. And it's a process like I'm 74 I've been doing it my whole life, almost my whole life since I was 25. And I can tell you, it's like tuning in a radio channel and you slowly figure out where it is on the dial, you begin to hear it faintly, and then it tunes in even more strongly. There is absolutely no question that with practice, with a lifetime of practice, maybe your attunement to that channel becomes so clear that you absolutely know when you're getting the egoic mind or the the chatter. There are a number of great spiritual teachers who've talked about this process in detail. And I don't confine myself just to the eastern contemplative traditions. One of the great Catholic saints, Ignatius Loyola is probably the most important teacher on what he calls discernment of spirits in history, or certainly in Western history. And he, Ignatius Loyola discovered on his own, that, when you're hearing, the higher mind, the higher intuition, there's always a competent at a slight sense of what he called consolation. In other words, there's a sense of well-being, when you're hearing the egoic mind, it leads to what he called this constellation. So you may have a moment of getting really excited, oh, I'm gonna, I'm gonna date that person and I don't know have wild sex, or I'm gonna have a big party tonight, or I'm gonna buy myself a really expensive watch. That may light you up for a minute. But what it leaves behind the aftertaste is not so sweet. So Ignatius Loyola, I love his book called on discernment of spirits. And it's what 500 years old, but it's absolutely brilliant. So, this attunement to the higher voice can be found in virtually every really sophisticated wisdom tradition. So is there in yoga is there in Buddhism, it's there in Christianity? And, again, it's a process of learning to attune.


Peter Axtell  12:39

I'm so glad you clarified that point. Because my own experience and what we have taught other people is that when you start to feel agitated within you, it is your egoic voice, their opinions wanting to keep you unhappy, wanting to keep you dissatisfied. But you explained it so well, there you have a sense of we have recognized you feel it this unease in your body. But you also said at the end of that you don't feel some sense of, of satisfaction, I guess. And the other one, when you feel you're saying when you feel that, like you've gotten the message that is attunement, that is the, I would say, the voice of wisdom, I guess they didn't you don't have any of that agitation in your body. Thank you, that's a key point. We're gonna pass that on to our students.


Stephen Cope  13:29

No, it's absolutely true. You know, in the in the Buddhist tradition, and the yoga tradition, this sense of unsatisfactoriness is called Dukkha. Dukkha, the Pali word literally means arrived or unsatisfactory. And you can begin when the mind is colored by grasping aversion and delusion, the so called Three poisons in Buddhism and yoga. It always leaves an aftertaste of unsatisfactoriness. However, when the mind is colored by loving kindness, compassion, joy, it leaves an aftertaste, a glow of, of profound and deep well-being. So that's the surest that's the telltale sign.


Peter Axtell  14:27

And didn't we all just wake up this morning hoping to have a little more well-being today that maybe we did yesterday, every human wants that.


Stephen Cope  14:34

Absolutely. You know, I've been so interested in this question of well-being. There's a lot of talk now and scientific study of happiness. And that's wonderful. I'm all for it. Happiness is a mind state. It's a mind state that comes and goes, and there are certain behaviors and endeavors that actually we know systematically cultivate a sense of happiness, okay? The Buddha was called the happy one. They asked him who he was, Are you a god? Are you Who are you, he said, I'm, I'm awake, I'm an awake human being. But the people around him called him the happy one. Because he'd cultivated loving kindness, sympathetic joy, compassion, generosity, of what we might call the virtues. So there's, there's a lot of interest now, especially in positive psychology on on happiness. But I've gotten interested in something, a slightly different construct, which I call fulfillment. So fulfillment is a is a deeper ardency, it doesn't always mean you're happy, I'm not always happy, even when I'm working very hard at my writing, or at my teaching, but those bring along with them something slightly different, which is this deeper sense of ardency and of fulfillment, I feel a sense of being full in the best way, not in a heavy way. But being filled up with light and love and joy. And so I've gotten very interested in a lot of my writing is really about fulfillment. And, yeah.


Nicola Vetter  16:30

So how did you realize what your calling is? It's a big question. I know.


Stephen Cope  16:36

No, it's a huge question. And I've kind of devoted my life to it. There are a number of areas that I call very fertile hunting grounds for calling. So when I talk about calling just so your people understand, I'm talking about it from the point of view of the of the great classical yoga tradition, the vedantic tradition, and written about in the Bhagavad Gita. And the word for calling there is dharma. Dharma is a is a very complex Sanskrit word. That means you'll often hear it, meaning path, truth law. But in, in the Bhagavad Gita, the Scripture that I'm most devoted to, it always means sacred calling, or sacred duty. And so when I talk about calling, I'm not just talking about work, or artistic mastery, I'm talking about what's at the very center of your life's work on this planet, right. Now in this lifetime, so there, there are a number of what I called fruitful hunting grounds for that, because most of the people who come to me who are in my courses and so forth, are really struggling with, with getting their hands around that, what is my calling? What am I called to do? Do I have a sacred calling? No, I don't have a vocation, the monks and the priests, maybe they have a vocation, but I don't, the view and yoga is that everybody has a vocation. And the entire life, according to the yoga tradition is about understanding and realizing your particular vocation. What is it that you're called to do in your little corner of the world? So the three areas that I always point students do our number one, what lights you up? Okay, now that seems very mundane and simple. And it it goes right back to follow your bliss. Remember, Joseph Campbell, but it's actually very profound. If you pay close attention to what lights you up, that's a finger pointing at dharma. It may not be Dharma itself. But you know, there's a great Japanese pointing fingers pointing at the moon. It's not the moon, it's a finger pointing at the moon. What lights you up? So I always have students make a list of, okay, right now, today, what's lighting you up? And on it, there'll be all kinds of things. Some are very mundane. Oh, I'm watching this TV show. And I love this character. And I'm particularly devoted to the British Royal Family and I love chocolate. But in among those mundanities are nuggets like Oh, my writing, my yoga practice, my puppy. And so one finger pointing at the moon is what lights you up.


Peter Axtell  19:49

I would posit that what lights you up is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say a flow state. I bet you have something to say, we're going a little sideways here, actually not, that flow states are probably the ultimate state of being and feeling. So I would think that it can be deep contemplation, deep meditation, but can also be playing the guitar, the piano anything. So I bet there's a correlation to what you're talking about what lights you up and flow states? I bet.


Stephen Cope  20:23

Oh, absolutely. You know, I love Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and all of his work. He was he is brilliant. I think he's still alive.


Peter Axtell  20:34

No, he's not, he passed in California last year.


Stephen Cope  20:38

Okay, I didn't realize that. But, of course, a flow state is when our, our effort and our effort and our behaviors merge with awareness, time disappears. And we have a sense of no longer being the doer of our actions, we have a sense that we're simply channeling you know, our music or writing or whatever, and everybody, these flow states arise in almost every kind of endeavor that involves mastery, you know, anything from building a stone wall to conducting a great orchestra, the whole trajectory, any endeavor that we're called to, eventually bears fruit in the form of mastery, like a deeper understanding. And that almost always gives way at times to these, these great states of flow. You might call it effortless effort. Again, time disappears, we're completely merged with the activity that we're engaged in. And those are very pleasurable states. Those are very pleasurable states. So yeah, you're right to point to flow. So let me just continue with lit up, that's the first one I point people to but the second one, changes the color of the water a little bit, I asked the question, what duties Do you feel profoundly drawn by at this point in your life? And of course, people much prefer the question what lights you up, but the question of duty is absolutely essential. And my definition of duty is, duty is that thing, which if you do not do it in this lifetime, you'll have a profound sense of self betrayal. In other words, duties are really called forth from our own nature, our own idiosyncratic calling. And some of them seem and are called forth from the outside. But the most important duties are really called forth from within. And if we don't do those, we feel this sense of self betrayal, letting myself down. So that's the second hunting ground for dharma. If you can penetrate those layers of I don't want to do that, you know, often we think of duty as something that's obligatory, and it's an obligation. And we undertake it grudgingly. But if I think of duties in my life, they're there to the people I love there to my own gift, whatever those may be. There to them right now to my puppy to, to myself to take care of myself. That's a duty. So lit up duty. And then the third one is, I ask people what, what challenges or difficulties are you facing in your life right now because very often, those challenges a divorce, a change in career, a loss of some kind, challenges and difficulties can often be fingers also pointing at a true calling. So for example, I write in The Great Work of Your Life about Marion Woodman, the great feminist, Jungian analysts, the greatest feminist and analysts of the 20th century. Good friend of mine and we talked together and when she when she was diagnosed with bone cancer, she said to me, Stephen, I'm dedicating whatever's left of my life to understanding and getting to the bottom of and if it's God's will, healing this bone cancer. She closed down her practice. Her dharma at that point in her life, was to take herself deeply into this thing that was going on in her body, be with it, understand it, love herself in spite of it. Now, in her case, she was healed, miraculously, according to the doctors, very often these difficulties that can be important moments that wake us up to some aspect of reality that we've been pushing away, can force us to have a deeper understanding of how it works, how the world works.


Nicola Vetter  25:38

I think it's also very closely aligned with the second part with the work, what duties do you feel drawn to in this time, those two parts are closely aligned, I think, if I can give you an example from my own life, thinking about this, I think the challenge was when my father was all of the sudden paralyzed from head to toe overnight, because of a dirty needle. So he caught the Guillain Barre Syndrome, which is a very rare autoimmune illness. And I felt, and this is number two, then from number three, coming to number two, I really felt that duty to take care of him and my mom at that time.


Stephen Cope  26:33

Absolutely. So that's exactly that's exactly right. So I watched as my mother, as my father slowly developed Alzheimer's, and as my mother dedicated her life, to taking care of him. And occasionally, I tried to dissuade her from doing so much and maybe hiring help and maybe facility for a memory care facility. No, Stephen, no, this is my duty. I want to do this. Very often, you know, our duties can appear to be wearing us out. But what would you rather wear yourself out on than your sacred duty? Right? This is this brings to mind Whitman. So when Walt Whitman is the peak of his career, he just published Leaves of Grass, Emerson proclaimed him the great poet of America. And all of a sudden the Civil War erupted. And he found himself in the in the hospital tense of the Civil War, because his brother George had been wounded, and he went to Washington to see him. And there was his duty, his duty was to bring his poetic skills to the experience of the war. So he called himself a soldiers missionary, he went from tent to tent, writing letters for the soldiers reading to them reading poetry, reading scripture. His duty appeared before him, and it wasn't what he thought. And it wasn't beautiful. Except it was beautiful to him. And he spent the rest of his life writing brilliant poetry. He became the bard of the Civil War, right. And when Lincoln died, he wrote, oh, captain, my captain. And when lilacs in the dooryard bloom and so a lot of Whitman biographers will say, Well, he ruined himself, he wore himself out. Now he, he felt his duty deeply. And in doing it, he actually changed our very ideas about what the civil war meant spiritually, and for the soul of America.


Peter Axtell  28:52

So we can probably spend at least two hours discussing what Dharma is, and the four pillars of the Bhagavad Gita of which you are a scholar for the last 20 years that you write about in your fantastic latest book, dharma in difficult times, as well as in your book, The Great Work of Your Life, which of course, as I said, is a lifetime book for me personally. So we're always striving to make our podcast deep, and yet practical for our listeners. So we want them to walk away with something they can use in their daily lives. So I'd love for you to start with what dharma means from a Western perspective.


Stephen Cope  29:31

Sure, absolutely. The idea is that we all have we all have a purpose. That's for being here. And that's the result of the particular highly idiosyncratic gifts that only we have. Right now. The archetypal myth around dharma. I'm going to start here because it's very useful goes all the way back to the second century in the Vedic era. And I know this is the speaking to today, but I will get there. In a such a powerful myth, it's the myth of this great God who lived on Mount Meru. Indra was the Thunderbolt God. And it was said that Indra had cast a vast net over the entire universe. And it's a warp and woof strand of that net of eat the vertex of each warp and with strength, there's a jump, there's a tool. That tool is an individual's soul. And it's that souls job to hold together the net, right at that point. And if that soul is not doing his duty, his work in the world, then the hole that begins to come apart begins to unravel from that particular point. So in the in the East, in, in yoga, especially Dharma is always is always achieved and performed, not just for the individual, good, not just for an individual self-realization, but also for the common good. It's the very point where your own gifts and capabilities come together with the world's need, right? Dharma the word itself is taken from the root THR, which means to hold together. So the idea here is that each one of us has a calling, in a small way, not a huge, fantastic way. So small way, in our little world. What are we doing to hold together the net? Well, what we're doing is our dharma, our piece of the work, right. And it's our obligation in this life to seek that out understand, to look deeply into who we are, and what our opportunities are, and maybe what our privileges are, and, and where the worlds need is, and to bring those together in our lives. Again, there are many, many myths about dharma. And you know, oftentimes people think that our Dharma has to be something dramatic and huge. And in fact, it's just not like that. It's, it's just, who are we and what are we doing? So I'm a writer. So I, I attempt in every way to write in a way that brings a contribution to the world's need right now. Which is why I wrote my latest book, The Dharma in Difficult Times, because we've been through very difficult times. And it turns out that difficult times bring a lot of gifts. Right? And so the question is, what gifts have they brought to you? How have they opened your eyes to the reality of the world and, and how are you contributing to healing the world in the wake of, of these difficult times? So Dharma is also sometimes thought to be your work or your job, and it's way bigger than that. Right? So I have my sister orally lovely sister, she has a job which is fairly perfunctory. And I said it for 20 years. It's not her Dharma, her Dharma is raising her son. And she has done a magnificent job of raising Dustin. And that's what lights her up. That's her duty. That's a challenge. It's, it's all three of those coming together. And it's where she pours out her love into the worlds of dharma is the one place we can bring everything we've got all of our talents to offer, both for our own soul. Because the soul wants to achieve mastery the soul wants to bring forth what's within. You know, I often quote that great line from the Gospel of St. Thomas. If you bring forth what is within you, it will save you and if you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you. Right. And not just you but the whole world. Everything starts coming apart at your little, your little gem of vertex, right? So, in the eastern contemplative traditions, this is seen as a serious matter, it's what life is about.


Peter Axtell  35:11

So, you bring up a really good point that we often bump into people, I think I think my calling my dharma is, and they get very frustrated, because they say, I can't find my dharma, I can't find my calling. I think what you just addressed? Do you think that your sister sees her the job that she does that? Maybe it's not the absolute most wonderful thing in the world she could do? Does she see that as a part of her Dharma in order to take care of her son? It's all one thing, as opposed to separate?


Stephen Cope  35:47

Yeah, she does. But partly because she knows me, right? So she's read my books. And she, we talk about this all the time. And it, it really helped her because for the longest time, she thought, I'm just, I don't have any vocation, I'm just raising this kid and doing my job as a secretary. And so providing her with this reframe of No, you're doing your you're doing your work in the world, and you're brilliant at it. And you're brilliant at it because you love it. Because you're dedicated to it, you're bringing everything you've got to it. And you mentioned earlier, the four pillars of dharma. So I should say what those are. The four pillars of Dharma are, first of all, discern what your calling is. So in our earliest case, it was finally realizing, Oh, that's my calling. And then do it full out, discern it, do it full out, that is bring everything you've got to the job, to the work, to dust, to whatever it is, don't leave anything on the table. Right? This is called the doctrine of unified action. Unify yourself around that piece of work in the world. The third pillar is let go of the outcome. Right, Krishna says to Arjuna in this great scripture of the Gita it says success and failure are not your concern. You don't even know what real success or real failure mean, your only job is to do your dharma full out how it lands in the world. Not your problem. So for example, I wrote the Dharma in difficult times, it was clear to me it was what I was called to do. At that time, I couldn't write a book like that if I weren't called to do it. It's too hard. That was my calling. The book is not done. Well. It turns out, people don't maybe want to read about difficult times. I don't know why. But that's not my worry. I don't understand what the role of that was. But I know it was my dharma. So it's out there. And then the final pillar is discern your dharma. Do it full out, let go of the fruits. And the final one is turn it over to God or turn it over to something bigger than yourself. Right? You could, I mean, I do happen to have a relationship with higher power. Not everybody does. But everybody is in relationship with important things that are bigger than they are maybe their church or their, in my case, Kripalu the institution that I helped to develop over three years. So those are the four pillars. And that I found that people love the simplicity of that, I get that right. Discernment, unified action, letting go with the fruits. That's the That's the toughest one, by the way, what do you mean, let go with a link to the outcome. No, not doing that. I was working with a group of hedge fund people down in New York, and it's a way of letting go the outcome is the outcome, right? And, but they finally got it, they finally got that the experience of letting go of the outcome, not trying to control where it goes, frees them up to be present in the moment, and to be more brilliant at what they do. Right? So, in the summers, I teach a lot of very brilliant young musicians from all over the world. And I teach them the story of the Bhagavad Gita. And likewise, they're like, no, don't tell me not to worry about the outcome. Well, they discovered that when they stop grasping and clinging and holding on to this flute Sonata has got to be perfect. All of a sudden, they're freed up to be fully present for their performance. And it goes padre, right? So that's a paradox that it takes a while to understand. But letting go of our clinging to outcome does free us to master to master whatever we're doing.


Peter Axtell  40:14

I want to put a fine point on this. Because I think I've got a big yet another Stephen Cope aha moment. Many people have convinced themselves that I hate my job. The famous Gallup Poll still is that around 70% of people who are unhappy at work, are you positing that if with this worldview, you could reframe what you are doing at work and saying, I'm going to guess something's going on with me, I can feel it. I'm going to do my work full out. Maybe I would have gratitude that I even have a job. Did I even get a paycheck when there's a billion people in the world who would gladly change places with me? So is that what you're saying? Instead of I hate my job, I hate my job, I gotta find the right job. For now, I will do this full out, to pay attention to what my dharma might be, it might not be this, it may be this. And that attitude can be transformative. And maybe that will open a space where somebody might see another job that they like, or they might turn out to actually like the job that they've convinced themselves that they hate. Is that what you're saying?


Stephen Cope  41:29

Beautifully, beautifully articulated Peter. Exactly what I'm saying. Look at Arley. Arley felt so downtrodden, downcast. Oh, Steve, you're a writer, you're a great writer, and I'm just a mom. When she turned that around and realized, no, I'm a mom. I don't have kids. I have a puppy whom I love. But she has kids, she turned that around, reframed it decided that she was going to practice bringing everything she had to the job and let go the outcome. I mean, okay, this isn't necessarily a guarantee or a necessity, but her kid turned out to be an amazing human being. And the process of reframing it for Arely was so freeing. What I find you guys is that most people are already mucking about somewhere in the area of their dharma. Either by accident or circumstance, people have stumbled into something approximating their dharma, but what they need to do is aim, aim is everything when it comes to dharma, right? Aim at it and claim it. And that's what Arley did. She started aiming at that. And she started claiming it. That's my dharma. And that's what Whitman did, too. Right? He, he carried a leather satchel in it, he had emblazoned on it, it said, soldiers missionary he named he named his Dharma for all the see on the soldiers missionary, beautiful. So very much a lot of the work of, of dharma is about aim. And, you know, there's, again, these the myths about this are bound and one of them is what I call the romance of dharma, the romance of dharma is the notion that you have to quit your job selling insurance and move to Paris and paint. Okay? That might be true, but probably not. Right? Probably not. It's most likely that you need to look around you and find out what it is in your corner of the world. Maybe it's at work, maybe it's not, is calling out to you as a way that you can bring everything you've got to the world and to your life. So aim, absolutely essential.


Nicola Vetter  44:08

So, our people are asking and trying to figure out what's next. What are some more tips, recommendations that you can give our audience how they can go about this? I mean, the Bhagavad Gita of course, it's a wonderful source and what you've just said, but perhaps you have even some more nuggets?


Stephen Cope  44:39

Oh, I have tons of nuggets.


Nicola Vetter  44:41

I know.


Peter Axtell  44:42

I'm sure you do.


Stephen Cope  44:43

Yeah, two more are. A couple more are what I call open doors and closed doors, like pay attention in your life to what doors are opening and what doors are closing Okay, so for example, the first thing that comes to mind is my, my book Dharma in Difficult Times, I spent a fortune marketing that book, right? I've never marketed in any of my other books, all of my other books sell upwards of 100,000, right, which is a lot in the publishing world. This one, like a few 1000, and I spent a fortune on. And I just, I realized, Steve, you're trying to go through a closed door, I don't know why the door is closed, it doesn't matter. Most of us out of an attempt to control or the ideas we have in our head about who we should be, spend a lot of our time trying to go through doors that are actually closed. I had a great dream repetitive dream for a long time when I was in psychoanalysis years ago, that there was this door in my basement, and I knew there was something special behind it. But it was surrounded by barbed wire, and all these obstacles, and I couldn't get into it. And I tried. Finally, I discovered that there was an opening right next to the door that allowed me access freely, without any struggle. So I counseled people to pay attention to what doors is the universe opening to you? And what would happen if you went through them? And what doors are closed perpetually? And what would happen if you pulled that energy back and put it somewhere where the doors were actually opening? Now I know that sounds all a little mystical. But it's actually incredibly useful. You know, when doors are closed, sometimes you have to let go, you just have to let go of that. That's not working. And sometimes you have to do it without knowing exactly what the next step is. So in pursuing Dharma, there are never any guarantees, right? I write a lot about Robert Frost who had to all along the way, he had to give up things in order to make room for his true dharma to come in. So he had this question that we all have about security, okay. I'm gonna be a poet. Well, that doesn't pay any bills, I'm gonna have to be a teacher too. So I'm gonna have to teach school. And slowly, he realized he was going to have to take this leap and give up his teaching career at the local secondary school and dedicate himself take the risk to dedicate himself fully to his genius for poetry. As soon as he did that, it I believe, I believe age 38 it exploded, his career exploded, right? He went to England for two years, he came back almost a hero. He bought his farm at Dairy, near New Hampshire, where there was no pretense at all that he was a farmer. He bought that farm so he could have the leisure to do his poetry, right. So sometimes walking away from the closed doors feels pretty darn risky. And I counsel people there if you possibly can. I'll give you an example. In my own life. I left my psychoanalytic psychotherapy practice when I was 38. No, no, when I was 40, I'm sorry. I started leaving at when I was 38. But I had intended to go to for Kripalu. Right? It first was the monster and then it was for Apollo. But I needed to try it on to have a little more sense of sort of surety about it and certainty. And so I went and spent some time at Kripalu I spent weekends there. I spent a few weeks there at one point I tried it on, like a suit of clothes. And that really helped to provide enough certainty that I could leave everything I built in the city and move free just for a year to Kripalu. Now, that move was pivotal in my life. It changed everything it was it was a fabulous move, but it felt very risky. So I did what I could to mitigate the risk by trying it on. But then I had to, I'll never forget driving out of Boston. With the remnants of everything I owned my bike and a few suitcases to Kripalu. I mean, it was, it was miraculous. I trusted that still small voice. And I'd learned to trust it by the end, and I and I took the leap. And so when you look back at those leaps, sometimes it's like, well, it wasn't that big a leap a bit. It actually was.


Nicola Vetter  50:28

It has also again to do with the four pillars, the letting go, right. Now, since you mentioned Kripalu several times, could you just tell our audience a little bit more about it. And I will preface this with a little story of myself if I may.


Stephen Cope  50:50



Nicola Vetter  50:50

Because when I had a difficult time, and that was before, what I just mentioned with my father happened. I just didn't know where to turn to. And I went to a Buddhist retreat, silent retreat in Germany. And I never forget how much that helped me there was also at the end of the retreat, a seminar, a weekend seminar about death and dying. And little did I know that six months later, I really, really needed that knowledge because my brother at the age of 52, had a sudden cardiac arrest. And it truly helped me to overcome those difficulties. I loved him dearly. And just to deal with it and to be there strong also for my parents, and his wife and his daughter. So you never know sometimes why things happen to you or why you decide to you listen to the still voice and you decide to go there. And this leads me to Kripalu.


Stephen Cope  52:23

I'm so sorry about your brother. 52 is ridiculous. I, my mother lost her brother, my dear Uncle Bill when he was 56 to a heart attack, and it was devastating. It was devastating. But I'm so glad you found your way already to that retreat. Did you go back while you were doing your grief work?


Nicola Vetter  52:48

Well, I did. I did also go here, to the US, and found a community here.


Stephen Cope  52:59

That reminds me, this is just a sidebar, and then I'll get to Kripalu. In Buddhism, there's a teaching called the four holy messengers. And of course, the story is that the Buddha was a highly revered Prince, his father, upon his birth, it was forecast foretold that he would either be a great spiritual leader or a great warrior king. And his father much preferred that he become a king. So he didn't want him to expose to suffering to a lot of the realities of the world. And the Buddha in in, not quite midlife, I think it was in his late 20s, began to encounter what he called the four holy messengers, which was a sick person, an old person, a dead person, and a holy person. And each one seeing, being confronted with the reality of each one of these aspects of human suffering caused him to rethink his whole life and to look deeper to look more deeply at how does this world work? What is suffering? What's the root of suffering? How can I attenuate suffering in my own life? So the death of a beloved brother can be a holy messenger, it can actually bring an opportunity to look more deeply. For example, in that case, at the fact that everything changes, everybody dies. The fact that we are all contingent beings living on to a certain extent on the edge. So I had a loss, and it was just like your case, it was a loss that drove me to Kripalu. I was in a relationship for 15 years that broke up. I was devastated. I felt like I was coming unglued. mood and I sought out spiritual community at that point and in the form of Kripalu. Now, for those who are listening, Kripalu is probably the largest yoga retreat center in America. It was originally an ashram was founded by Amrit Desai and his teacher, Swami Prabhavananda. It went through a transformation from an ashram to a 501 C 3 educational organization in 1994. When the teacher the head teacher, Amrit Desai was asked to leave because of because of bad conduct, the kind of classic bad conduct that we've seen among gurus in the West and the East. And at that point, I had been there five years as a as a student and a teacher. And that was in 1994. So we've transformed this organization from a religious organization to a place for deep spiritual practice, particularly in the modes of yoga and meditation. And we see I think, 40,000 people a year at Kripalu, it's a beautiful Jesuit retreat up on a mountain in the Berkshire's in the glorious Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts. We have hundreds, I think 800 programs a year of different kinds, yoga programs and meditation programs and personal growth programs. But it's one of the largest retreat centers in America. And I've been privileged to have just stumbled on it when I was 40. And become a major player in the development of the institution. And I'm now the scholar emeritus there, I've been senior scholar in residence for many years. And I'm now an emeritus.


Peter Axtell  57:11

I wanted to circle back to this point for our listeners. And I'm wondering when you first went to Kripalu, and we're talking about certain doors opening and certain doors closing. And the word ease, came to popped, it popped into my head. So do you think there is a thread of someone trying to figure out what's next, to be on the lookout for something that might have a sense of ease to something that is easy? Do you think there must be some connection there? I don't want to miss this point.


Stephen Cope  57:47

Oh, absolutely. That's a beautiful point. I will tell you that personally, the older I get, the more that is an absolute hallmark of what I should be must be doing next. Right? It's, it has to have that sense of, of ease. And the classic story about that Peter is of course, the Buddha under the Bodhi tree when he became enlightened, had just suffered through a number of years of really grueling ascetic practice, right. He was denying himself he was eating one grain of rice that day. And prior to the writing of the teachings of the Buddha and the writings of the Bhagavad Gita, spiritual practice was seen as an ascetic practice that was about that was difficult, grueling, all about giving up, giving up human pleasures, and so forth. So the Buddha's finally said, Okay, I'm gonna die if I keep practicing this way, this way of renunciation. And he accepted a bowl of milk from a young farm girl, he sat under the Buddha tree. And he had or the Bodhi tree and had this wonderful memory of himself when he was just 12 years old, sitting under a rose apple tree and his father was plowing the field, his mother was sitting by knitting. And in that moment, he remembered having a sense of profound happiness, and a sense of profound well-being. And he realized, in that moment, there was nothing wrong. And he hadn't done any ascetic practice to deserve that. He began to call this the middle way. And he began to understand that the hallmark of the Middle Way is precisely the sense of ease and balance, and it doesn't require heroic renunciation in order to become who we really are. So the great story of the rose apple traffic of all the time. Because we all will, if we're lucky. And I wrote about this in Deep Human Connection, had an experience as a child, where I had that experience of profound well-being, right, everything is okay. So, so yeah, look for the open door, the ease and I'd say run from the sense of the heroic self-renunciation. The Buddha did.


Peter Axtell  1:00:45

Now, you just made me think of another question, as usual, Stephen, when people say, I want to know who I am, I'm trying to find out, I know that you told me that people go to Kripalu and that 75% of them, say, I'm trying to figure out who I am. Can you give me your definition, or if you had to say to someone, these are the components that would make up who you are? This, I really want to know that.


Stephen Cope  1:01:16

So we all have certain stories and narratives about who we are. And a lot of those narratives are really about who we've been told we are, who we think we should be, who our parents thought we should be. I, for example, came from a big, very successful wife's family. And my family had very strong ideas about who I should be, how I should look how I should marry, how I should dress, what kind of career I should have, I should be an international lawyer like my father wanted to be. So that's a huge stumbling block that many of us in the West begin with, where we're burdened with these histories, these stories that we've been told about who we should be and what we should live up to. Very often, people come to us at interesting points very often in the in the 20s. And in the 40s. And in the 60s, that the age 20s and 40s and 60s, people go through an identity crisis and a profound interest in Well, who am I really who there's this longing for authenticity, right? There's, there's very often that's accompanied by a sense of struggling to be who I'm supposed to be. It's just too hard. Oh, my God, it's so hard to struggle to be who you're supposed to be. But is there anybody who I am really, and this very often brings people to a point of, I want to, I want to shed some of this baggage of who I think I am who I'm supposed to be this, this, the Buddha called it clinging to views and beliefs, clinging to our views about who we should be clinging to our views and beliefs. It's called duty and it's seen as one of the central sources of suffering. And so people come and they're surprised to find that they can spend a week or three weeks or a month at Kripalu settling down and discovering a sense of profound well-being that already exists at the core of themselves without there having to do anything or prove anything, or prove anything to the world or satisfy other people's expectations in any way. Wow. That's such an amazing experience to just come and realize that who you are truly has very little to do with what you achieve in the world necessarily. That, you know, the there's already this already okayness inside that we're not taught. I mean, I grew up in a in a very Puritan family that was filled with you know, well, actually, my family was Presbyterian. And you know that Calvin was the great founder of the Presbyterian Church and Calvin espoused these views of Hugh Hume of Hugh who human beings are, he said, a human being is a five-foot worm. If that's what Calvin said, Well, that's a human being as a five foot worm, Calvin believed that we were all ultimately see if I can remember the language. We're all ultimately, like worms and an absolutely denied the sense of made in the image and likeness of God that saturates his own religion, that we're actually beings of light that were already awakened enlightened in our true nature. We're already really very okay. Which, which, you know, the Calvinist point of view, led my whole family down a garden path of struggling to be better, always struggling to be more and better and more and better, and pushing away their own already okayness Wow, what would happen if you just sat down? So, we had this is by the way is a great debate in the contemplative traditions between what are called the dual and the non-dual points of view. So, the duelists very often believe that the path to spiritual growth is a systematic path of moral purification. That leads through not just one lifetime, but many lifetimes. The non-duelists among us believe that everything is already okay. Right, and that our job in this lifetime is to is to see that and to embrace it and to live from it. So when I was first at Kripalu, again, it was an ashram, which is like a Hindu monastery, a yoga monastery. Oh my god, we were, we were doing so much to improve ourselves getting up at 4:30 every morning practicing for hours, doing the weirdest diets working at selfless service for 60 hours a week. And all of a sudden, Amrit Desai gracefully invited in this brilliant non-dual teacher named Rishi Prabhakar, who was then a Canadian monk, brilliant teacher of non-dualism. And he came in Rishi Prabhakar came in with his little retinue of saffron robed monks. And basically, he said, Why are you guys working so hard? He said, he said, You're already okay. You know, everything's already okay, you're already in light, and fine. Everything's already Okay, was a complete 180 degree turn from kind of where we've been. And it was a brilliant teaching that I'll never forget. And I've tried to live from that. From that, ever since. And, and notice, even in myself, the tendency to slip back into this notion that I have to improve myself in fundamental ways I have to change in fundamental ways I have to effort to be better. off that's, that's, that's okay. But be careful. That's a slippery slope. Be careful, the attitude with which you're doing it. Look, don't get me wrong. I live a very disciplined life. But that is in service of my dharma. Okay, I'm a writer, and a teacher. And you can't master those things unless you live a disciplined life. So I don't live a disciplined life in order to make myself a superior human being. I live it so I can serve my, my dharma. And it's very, very fulfilling.


Peter Axtell  1:08:57

Beautiful, beautiful.


Nicola Vetter  1:09:00

Stephen, as we come to an end, because we need to honor your time, I just have a pressing last question. What I see in the world these days is loneliness has become an epidemic, especially since COVID. And this book illustrates clearly why we need connection more than anything else. And why it's so important for the development of our minds bodies and spirits, our happiness and satisfaction in life as you say, and I just love how each of those five chapters ends with things to ponder, which makes it so practical for people. So what do you suggest people could start with right away right now to form deep connections with others, just a few? Probably, short tips?


Stephen Cope  1:10:06

Well, a couple things. First of all, just like I said about Dharma, so relationships are dharma as well. Keep in mind, that pay attention in your life, to who's lighting you up. That's a very important moment. Because when we come close to a being who's lighting us up, it's for a reason. I sometimes tell the story of my best friend is, is a guy named Brian, who's a realtor and a carpenter and very different from me, we couldn't be more different. But I was in a men's group with Brian. And when I first moved to Albany, 14 years ago, and he was sharing in the men's group that night, and there was something about his beautiful share, and he was crying about a divorce that was upcoming for him. And he, there was something there that lit me up. And so I followed it up, I went over and met him, got to know him. And I think I'd already begun to trust my instincts about this. So Brian is now become the very best friend of my life. This is not a romantic relationship. This is two men, I'm gay, he's straight. This is two men who just totally love one another and want to support one another's growth in every way, right? So I would say to your folks out there, pay attention, even if it feels even if you don't understand it, intellectually, pay attention to who you're drawn to, and who fascinate you, and move toward that as much as you can just trust those little, those little awarenesses. And then you have to become an active participant in building a friendship. Okay, I had a partner for 15 years, I haven't had a partner since I was 40, that's now 34 years. I've lived verily very, very happily, by deepening friendships, not necessarily romantic friendships. But what I've discovered is you really have to put in the work and the effort to cultivate depth in these relationships. And that takes time. You know, the, the research says it takes about three years to cultivate a friend. And that is about my experience. But the way that pays you back over time, like I've now become, you know, Brian son's godfather, I was around when little Keane was born, and now he's like my godson. I'm part of that family. It, it bears in these relationships that we put time and energy and love into bear fruit over time. Because our very nature is so social, our very nature is to be connected. You know, I talked in the book about how Freud believed that the very essence of the human being the baby, is the search for pleasure. And if you look at our culture, you might think that this is true at the very core of our nature, is the search for pleasure. But Heinz Kohut, whose work I base this, this book on the year preferred to Nicola said, no, no, no. The human being above all, is searching for connection. And it's only through connection that we grow. It's through connection, in the earliest instances in our mother's arms, through days, that we begin to, that our own brains begin to develop. But throughout life is human connectedness that actually stimulates our growth, the growth of our personalities and our brains and our spirits. And you know, you know about the grant study at Harvard. This, some of their findings were just released. No, nobody's surprised. But they started out studying I think it was a class of in the 30s or 40s, at Harvard, that class of graduating class of men. And they followed them all the way through their laws, and then their kids’ lives. And now I think they're either on the third or fourth generation. My friend George, valiant from Harvard was the head of that study for quite a few years. He no longer is. Yeah, George Vaillant. He was one of my mentors. It came in Cambridge. A brilliant scholar. And of course, it all comes down to you know, George valiant wrote a book called adaptation to life in which he described the discoveries of the grand study. And, and of course, what we discover is the people that have the most well-adjusted, happy, productive, fulfilling lives are people who've spent time really deepening connection, human connection with family and friends, and creating around them a surround of relationship, you know, Heinz Kohut, who's the great champion, and he's unacknowledged because, you know, he's he was such a difficult writer to understand he wrote, The, the recovery of the self, that's not quite the right title, the restoration of the self. But Kohut believed that, in order to become a fully alive human being, you have to surround yourself, you have to systematically create around yourself a surround of relationship, but certain kinds of relationship. So in the book, I go into five, or in the original hard cover copies, six different kinds of relationships, that Kohut says we must cultivate, in order to be everything we can be. So these are containment, twinship, mirroring, adversity, conscious partnership, and what I call the mystic friend can read all about this in, in the book that Nicola has mentioned. And it is, I have really dedicated my life when I met Brian, I realized, like the goal that relationship friendships are, and that's when I was inspired to write that book on deep human connection. And does that answer your question?


Nicola Vetter  1:17:08

Absolutely. And, you know, Stephen, the thing is, with this book, you don't hold back on anything. And it felt like when I read it, it just felt like, I knew you before we were going to speak and so thank you so much for being you.


Peter Axtell  1:17:30

Stephen, is there anything that we didn't touch on that you really want our audience to know, as we close this wonderful conversation?


Stephen Cope  1:17:38

Um, I would just say, dive into your life as much as you can inhabit your life. All of the, you know, the full catastrophe, as Jon Kabat Zinn would say Full Catastrophe Living. I see so many people now who don't bring everything they've got to their lives. And it's like, Why? Why would you not bring everything you've got to this day, to this life? Bring it all, bring it now. And I think that's all I would say. And I want to thank you too, because we're gonna be friends, I can tell. I love your points of view. And you are doing your dharma you guys, this is your dharma. It's connection. It's connection.


Nicola Vetter  1:18:34

It is. And I'm so glad that we connected. Stephen.


Stephen Cope  1:18:39

Likewise, likewise.


Nicola Vetter  1:18:40

Thank you. And let's do this again.


Stephen Cope  1:18:44

We'll do it again, for sure. I'll look forward to that.


Peter Axtell  1:18:47

We hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as we did. If you did, could you do us a favor and hit the like button and subscribe to our channel. It will help the channel grow and get more amazing guests like Stephen. To learn more about Stephen, head to, where we share links and more. Again, that's


Nicola Vetter  1:19:17

Thanks for joining us today. And please share this episode with someone you care about someone who might need help in times of struggle and uncertainty. And if you are trying to figure out what's next for you join us for one of our live online workshops, where we teach how to successfully reinvent your career in midlife. To save your spot in our next workshop go to We'll see you there, or for another episode here. Thanks for joining us today. We'll see you next week for another episode. Same time, same place.