Lessons from The Bhagavad Gita

Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot called burnout “civilization’s disease.” And it’s certainly true that our version of burnout – fueled especially by technology –can feel very modern. But the questions of how to be mindful and how to live a life that’s fulfilling and meaningful have been at the core of virtually every religious and philosophical tradition. This month Thrive Global launched in India. As Arianna Huffington noted in her open letter to India, the country has many challenges, but it also holds many lessons for all of us. “Its ancient wisdom and spiritual traditions are now at the center of a global conversation about what it means to live a good life,” she wrote.

And much of that wisdom can be traced back to the Bhagavad Gita, believed to have been written around the fifth to the second century, B.C. It’s an account of an epic conversation between a young warrior, Arjuna, and God, in the form of Krishna. While it might appear to be a very mystical text, it actually contains many lessons that are still relevant 2,500 years later. Here are four of them.

1) Finding Purpose and Meaning in our Work

As Arianna describes it in Thrive, the Bhagavad Gita explores three different kinds of lives: one of inaction, no goals and no achievements; one of constant busyness and never-ending action; and one that’s not just about acquiring achievement and status for ourselves, but a life of goodness and connection to others. “The second life,” she writes, “which is how we have been defining success—is obviously a big improvement on the first, but by itself it becomes driven by a hunger for ‘more’ that’s never satisfied, and we become disconnected from who we truly are, and the riches inside us.”

And of course it’s the third life that’s the one filled with purpose and meaning, one in which we take pride in our work, and we would do it even for no reward at all.

Through the words of Krishna to Arjuna, we are told that it’s best to do the work we love, and if this seems impossible, to love what we are doing. We can do this by being detached from the results. This doesn’t mean not doing a good job, but, rather, feeling pride and joy in the process itself: You have control over doing your respective duty only, but no control or claim over the results. The fruits of work should not be your motive.” But, he also adds, “you should never be inactive.”

So the lesson is that, while you should always have an outcome or result in mind, being detached from it — not defining yourself by its success or failure — will make you all the more effective. In other words, we’re more than our resumes and to-do lists.

2) What To Do When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

Ever feel overwhelmed, like there’s too much to do in too little time? That’s a pretty good description of modern life, with technology ever-accelerating the pace of our lives, both at work and at home. In the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna is filled with doubt on the battlefield. His head is overloaded with information that he finds difficult to digest. His senses are assaulted by the sound and fury of the battle. His mind is unfocused and his emotions are out of control.

We can all relate — we all find ourselves overloaded by information, our exhausted eyes glued to our devices, our attention distracted and bombarded by buzzes and alerts and notifications. The noises are different, but the task of trying to focus and think in the midst of a storm is a challenge we share with Arjuna.

As a practical method for handling information overload, Krishna calls for a reflection-break, counseling Arjuna on the art and practice of meditation so that he can effectively master his own mind. The busy mind, Krishna argues, is a mob of unprocessed thoughts and emotions. The only way to deal effectively with this mob is to create distance between the mob and the observer.

Once we become the observer we can see the mob without being part of it. This observer within us is like the screen on which a filmed drama is projected. There are a lot of sensations, a lot of twists and turns of information and emotion in this drama — a riot of sound and color — yet the drama of the film does not affect the screen.

Krishna’s solution to information overload is the rigorous discipline of observing one’s thoughts and emotions as though they were no more than images on a screen. This isn’t an innate ability we’re born with — it’s a skill we can all nurture. We can gain the serenity and composure of the observer with constant practice and a calm disposition. This is the practice of watching our thoughts, and having a calm, neutral stance toward our emotions, whether they’re of joy or sorrow.

Krishna is urging Arjuna — and us — to acquire the habit of a reflective consciousness rather than a reactive mind. In short, his message for our time is: once in a while, be quiet, and get out of the hurricane by entering the eye of the storm.

3) The Mind of a Leader: Seeing Challenges For What They Are

Focus, calm, decision-making, perspective — these are qualities we’d all agree that any good leader needs. And yet, in our distracted, hyper-connected, always “on” digital age, they’re also qualities that are increasingly hard to come by.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna that his most persistent problem is his preoccupied mind. And preoccupation is especially perilous in a leader. It narrows their perspective and prevents them from understanding that the most significant part of the problem is not out there in the world, but inside of them, in their anxiety and worry and preoccupation.

It is not that there are no problems in the external world; of course there are problems. But when a leader adds the burden of their own worry and anxiety to these problems, they become even more challenging. Krishna urges Arjuna to observe the very nature and composition of his mind. A mind constantly distracted with worries and preoccupations cannot see the truth of a situation.

So Krishna tells Arjuna that he can’t solve his most persistent problems by simply thinking through them — because it’s the thinking itself that’s the problem! Krishna’s message to Arjuna is very clear: his most persistent problem is a mind that clings to fear and anxiety as a way of justifying its existence. This kind of mind will lose its identity if its most persistent problems are solved, so this mind doesn’t want to let go of its fear and anxiety.

What this means is that no problem exists without the mind’s active participation. So Krishna urges Arjuna to approach his problems with an open and unoccupied mind, one uncluttered by reactions, memories of the past, or anxiety about the future.

This pure mind reflects the light like a mirror, which doesn’t react to or become conditioned by what it reflects. This mirror-like awareness will allow leaders to see the true nature of a challenge, which is the first step to solving it.

4) Resolution for the New Year: Kill Off What’s Not Working

New Year’s resolutions are about the future, but they’re also about the past. To see how we want to improve, we have to take stock of what’s working and what’s not working. And to do that well, we need to be ruthless about it.

Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, we see Krishna repeatedly encouraging Arjuna to wage war and kill his enemies. And that gives rise to a question that’s common to many people first reading the Gita: why would a godly incarnation like Krishna encourage killing?

But, as with virtually all sacred texts, there are layers of meaning going on. And in this case, “killing” means more than bloodshed. It’s also being used as a way of actively weeding out our bad habits or distancing ourselves from toxic people. It’s about being willing to sacrifice what is not working in order to better focus on what is working and achieve our purpose.

This is a perfect lesson for the new year — while not a resolution itself, it’s a principle that can undergird your resolutions for how you can thrive in 2018. Let go of what’s not working, kill off habits that are counterproductive or weighing you down. It will speed up your progress through the new year.