I stole the title of this post from Sheila Heti's first novel by the same name. I love the title of this book. Consciously or subconsciously, I think many of simply want to know the answer to "how should a person be?" Volumes of philosophy, stacks of advice columns and millions of poems have been devoted to variations on this question.
Over the holidays, marooned inside with a head cold in Zagreb, I found myself asking with some urgency: "How should a person be?" The holidays often bring about spells of reflection, if not spells of congestion, for me - not all of them constructive. I'm at a crossroads in life, finishing off a PhD and embarking on new journeys, so such a junction sometimes requires us to reflect on beingness. But maybe there are ways reflect constructively on the question of how a person should be?
Some of us might find our physical bodies guide us on how to be. Some find that gardening teaches the best lessons on how to be. Some of us might be drawn to ancient texts when in doubt on how to be. Maybe if texts have survived thousands of years, I often think, they might contain secrets on how to be in ways the fast pace of modernity has forgotten.
Yoga has been a path I have followed for much of my life now when I'm unsure of how a person should be. Although there's variations on what yoga is to different people, the practices of meditation, attentive physical movement and self-study have often guided me on "how a person should be." So, when riddled with self-doubt over the holidays, I reread chapters of Stephen Mitchell's translation of The Bhagavad Gita, a text that has been central to yoga for some time. Written in India sometime before the 2nd century, The Bhagavad Gita, whose title means "Song of the Lord," comprises 700 verses and makes up part of the epic Mahabharata. It tells the story of Krishna, who guides Arjuna to find his way in life. Krishna is the name for a wise immortal. Arjuna, technically, is a prince. But he may as well be regular guy, who is lost in the world, and totally confused about how a person should be.
Sometimes called a Smriti text, or "that which is remembered," The Gita has offered consolation to many. Mahatma Gandhi read The Gita daily. He writes, "when doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to The Bhagavad Gita and find verse to comfort me, and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow."
If The Gita comforted a guy who led a non-violent resistance to successfully free India from colonialist rule, I figure it must have a lot to offer on the question of how a person should be. Trouble is, or perhaps it's a blessing, The Gita never gives a clear answer on how a person should be. But as Gandhi says, the book brings "fresh joy and new meanings [to the question] everyday.
When reading The Gita, I remembered Yann Martel once sent this book, along with a hundred others, to the last Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. For those who don't know Stephen Harper, he wasn't a leader known for his passion for the arts. But Yann Martel figured he must have had some quiet time on his hands to read a few books. So, Martel started sending him some of his favourite literary works..With every book, he sent a letter describing why he found each so wonderful. Over the course of a few years, 101 novels, plays, poetry collections, religious texts, graphic novels, and children's books landed in the PM's mailbox. Sadly, Martel writes it was a lonely book club. He never received a personal reply from the Prime Minister. Did Stephen Harper ever crack open the spines of The Gita, Anna Karenina or The Selected Poems of Rilke? We wonder.
But Martel persisted to "inspire stillness in Stephen Harper" After all, "to read a book," Martel writes, "one must be still."
"To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Gazing upon a lake in autumn or a quiet winter scene – that too lulls us into contemplative stillness. Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, but we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by (3)."
So over the holidays, inspired by Yann Martel, Sheila Heti and Mahatma Gandhi, I nestled in my bed in Zagreb with the Croatian winter wind hitting the windows, I read The Gita in stillness. I read it for consolation on how a person should be. But perhaps just as much, I read it to be still. Maybe you know the line from Patajali's Yoga Sutras- "yogas chitta vritti nirodha," which means, more or less, get it together and be still. Maybe part of seeking "how a person should be" means learning how to be still. So I got very still, and I listened to what Krishna had to say.
In chapter 18, verse 47 he says to Arjuna:
"It is better to do your own duty badly,
than to perfectly do another’s;
you are safe from harm when you do what you should be doing."
Most translations of The Gita translate "dharma" throughout this section as "duty." Maybe that's common because in The Gita, the main character has been called to fight in a war. But the word "duty" needn't be about fighting in a literal way. Rich in nuance, the word "dharma" varies depending on context. It might mean responsibility, good conduct or noble behaviour. Right behaviour, according to scripture, or "dharma," sits in with the subtle laws of nature that make life and the universe possible. What are those laws of nature? That takes intense life-long studying. For that reason, in Buddhism, "dharma" can mean "teaching."
In The Gita, Krishna instructs Arjuna to recognise his "swa-dharma," or his own duty, his own personal responsibility, his own noble response to how a person should be. Any person's swa-dharma, anyone's path in life will differ from the next's. It is better, says Krishna, to find your swa-dharma and perform it badly, than adopt someone else's swa-dharma and perfect it. For example , the wolves have their way to be. The ash trees have theirway to be. The oceans have their ways to be. We wouldn't ask a wolf to be an ocean or a dogwood to be an orchid. Maybe it's like saying - be easy in your role, in your being, even if you're not doing it perfectly.
In Classical Sanskrit, the noun "dharma" comes from the root dri, to hold or to keep. So perhaps part of the teaching, part of the responsibility we have to life, might simply be to keep going with our imperfect swa-dharma.
Trouble is, in this confusing world of pulls and prods, it's sometimes hard to know what that swa-dharma is.
So, here's a practice.
Go to a still place, a place where "the edges of perception" might "whisper" to you - as Martel says. Perhaps that place is near a snowed over tree, or an iced-over stream. Ask to the stillness of the stream, "what's my swa-dharma?" Or, hey ash tree, "How should a person be?" You might have to take a long time to listen for an answer. You might have to go back a few times., maybe everyday for a while. But when you hear something - anything - even a hint of a whisper from the edges of perception - even if its in another language, listen. The voice might not be human. You might hear the trees, icicles and rivers speaking, or not speaking. Go back to your desk, or to your studio, or to your workshop. Take out your notebook or your tools - whatever they are - then write or paint or play or hammer away. Make something without lifting your your instrument. Whatever appears, let it happen. Let yourself answer to what the stillness of the stream told you or didn't tell you. And trust your response for now, even if it's not 100% clear and imperfect.
And then tomorrow, keep going.