Many religions describe their spiritual leaders as having been awakened by a divine calling—a vocation in the most literal etymological terms. God/A Higher Being struck a match in the dark of night, whispered in an ear deafened by the hum of expectation, touched a lost soul’s shoulder to guide her back onto the path.
I can’t admit to ever having experienced a vocation of this nature, but sometimes it’s blatantly obvious that Someone is trying really hard to tell me something. And in those cases, even my loudest inner voice shuts up for a moment to listen to the thing it knows is more important than my repeat-soundtrack of guilt, criticism, and worry.
Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself stumbling upon callings—or, to keep things straight, let’s call them “nudges”—of this nature in a higher than normal frequency. I’m an intuitive and generally spiritual person, so I tend to over-interpret things as “signs” to begin with, but I don’t think anyone would question that words like these were—and coming in my prefered mode of communication, reading—bore some sort of significance:
Divine action is always new and fresh [. . .] Responding to the “freshness” of divine guidance requires a certain docility of the will, flexibility, and a kind of radical trust. This trust is particularly required, because [. . .] when we are led by the spirit, the guidance we receive is often shrouded in darkness.
You are too strong for fear.
The Universe has your back.
Three wholly different circumstances gave me these words: instructions to step back, to “radically trust,” to allow the Universe to have its way with my back. Three instances, too, of instructions that are one thousand percent against my nature to push, strive, and approach all with a veil of skepticism and doubt. No one will make things happen for myself but me, I’ve come to believe, so why should I remove my blinders and be swayed by those who will only sabotage the mission in life I’ve given myself? I have my own back—no one else, not even the Universe—is what I tell myself when fear comes my way. And yet, these teachings seem to be saying that in order to really do my work, I need to work a whole lot less.
The context for the first quote here is meaningful for understanding why all three’s synchronicity hit me so hard and made me so defensive. It comes from a brilliant book by scholar and founder and director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living (yes, that’s the real name) at Kripalu, Stephen Cope. In it, he retells the story of the Bhagavad Gita, the greatest Hindu text about a soldier (Arjuna) who encounters God (Krishna) and discovers his divine purpose, or dharma. Cope’s exegesis isn’t purely scholarly, though, for he’s also showing us all how to discover our own dharma through, as this passage suggests, doing the opposite of what most of us, including Arjuna, think we ought to to find the “answers,” our passion, a sense of true satisfaction and happiness. Rather than grasping after everything hoping something will stick, working so hard that you don’t even know what the heck it is you’re doing, the “great work of your life” (per the book’s title) will come to you. But there’s a catch: You have to be open to receive it. With less—stuff, distractions, “networking” events—you can do more, because “to decide for something”—to live your dharma—”means at times to decide against something else.”
I was thinking about this the other morning on my way to yoga class. Still pretty groggy from the night before (I’d seen friends, then somehow turned a five-minute email check into an hour of “let me just edit these few chapters, real quick”), I questioned why the heck I was bothering to go to class when I was so tired. My muscles wouldn’t be cooperative, let alone my mind. It was spinning in a furious whirlpool over the deadlines I had approaching the coming week, the emails I hadn’t sent, and whether it had even been productive to send the ones I had the days before. My Sunday blog post had yet to be conceived of hence nowhere near written; nor was any semblance of prepared foods I could eat during the busy workweek ahead. I’d set myself up prematurely to not have an embodied asana practice before I even stepped on the mat.
That’s when the true aha moment set in. My yoga practice, among other things, was something I chose to prioritize for myself long ago, and as had happened that day I often turned to it by some involuntary habit: not a rote gesture, but something willful, even if that will wasn’t always jiving with my mood. I chose it over sleep, over more time reading the novel I was just getting into, over having another five minutes of screen time turn into hours. My strong body didn’t have to worry about what my monkey mind (the citta vrittis) was rambling on about. I’d make it through and feel great afterward, especially when class opened with the teacher’s dharma talk about the nature of change: how scary it can be to let go of the stories we tell ourselves about what’s right or wrong, to release the fight-or-flight tension in our hips that holds us back from potentially falling, and remain open to receiving whatever’s ahead. (This, plus a just-fast-enough vinyasa sequence.)
Whether I liked it or not, I chose yoga that morning—or maybe it chose me, becoming the clarion call I needed to hear what the Universe had been trying to tell me about slowing down. I showed up for something I thought I knew and found something greater: a spark that was lit by an unseen hand, a whisper to rise from bed so I could hear my teacher’s words. This is what the act of deep listening has to offer us. Not a quest or mission, but a gift of ease. “We cultivate well-being by relaxing into the life we have right now. [. . . And] when we feel welcomed, we show up more,” writes Jillian Pransky in her new book. I now see my showing up for even the smallest things as an invitation to simply dwell in the presence of right now. Who knows what kind of grace will show up to meet me there.