The Wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita for Navigating Change

by Janet Arnold-Grych 

If you are one of those rare individuals who glide effortlessly with change, I salute you. Most of us would rather endure paper cuts and lemon juice than part with the familiar—even when we really need to. Change, big and small, is an everyday occurrence, yet we are often startled by its arrival and disappointed by its reminder of impermanence. The Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text written around 300 CE, suggests that we may be looking at change from too shallow a vantage point.

We cling to the feelings of comfort and control that accompany stability or predictability. This steady state makes us feel efficient, secure, important—of course I know how to get there or how to do that. I got this. We assemble those feelings of security through our experiences with the outside world—and it’s a subjective assembly.

Everything our nervous system captures is run through our filter. “Behind the senses, we have the mind, which synthesizes the input from the senses,” says Yoganand Michael Carroll, Senior Faculty of the Kripalu School of Yoga. “The mind emphasizes some perceptions and ignores others, creating a samskara, or, in modern terms, a story.” We tend to like the stories that show us to be smart, brave, insightful, strong. So we selectively capture and interpret information that reinforces our desired narrative. It’s like the tale of the elephant and the blind men who had never before encountered an elephant. Each touched only part of the animal and felt their experience to be the truth. Each, however, lacked the objective understanding of the totality of the animal.

Change messes with our story. It removes us from that place of knowing and makes things feel chaotic. When we seek to distance ourselves from change and the feelings it evokes, we are more likely to manipulate people and circumstances to keep the ego undisturbed and remove that discomfort, agitation or fear. “The mind takes all that is coming in from the senses and ignores anything that doesn’t give meaning to the ego,” says Yoganand, “and it enhances everything coming in that validates the ego. Then the mind tries to influence the flow of the elemental forces to perpetuate the story, to hold it together. “

The friction between our desire for the predictable and the mutability of life makes us feel a bit lost. Rather than rail against change, which the Gita says is inherent in all things, the key is to broaden our view by becoming less self-focused, less ruled by our ego. Change the inputs and you change the story. That shift occurs when we deepen our level of consciousness. The only place of unchanging truth, says the Gita, is internal, where we come into alignment with the Self.

Use all your power to free the senses from attachment and aversion alike, and live in the full wisdom of the Self.
—Bhagavad Gita, 2.68 

Central to diving deeper is the ability to be more detached from our external experiences. Detachment does not mean that we shrug our shoulders at life, but rather that we begin to put a little distance between what is happening and our reaction to it. We apply the lens of nonjudgmental observer, because that view offers us a greater range of choice and, ultimately, growth. “The spiritual practice propagated by the Bhagavad Gita is to shift identity from ego to purusha (self), from the field of action to the observer of the field,” says Yoganand.

As we become less reactive, we move to a level of consciousness deeper than that ruled by our change-fearing ego. Of course, the journey to a broader view takes some practice. Eknath Easwaran, Hindu scholar and author, suggests that we can begin to build useful detachment in a number of ways.   

The most essential is meditation. Meditation strengthens our ability to move inward and become the compassionate observer, rather than the helpless subject of daily change. The Gita emphasizes the importance of meditation.

The practice of meditation frees one from all affliction. This is the path of yoga. Follow it with determination and sustained enthusiasm. Renouncing wholeheartedly all selfish desires and expectations, use your will to control the senses. Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become stilled in the Self.
—Bhagavad Gita, 6.23–35

While meditation is central, Easwaran suggests that there are ways we can also feed our training when off the cushion. These include

  • Reinforcing the ability to focus, and being more one-pointed in our attention
  • Choosing the type and amount of stimuli to which the nervous system is subjected. Changing the inputs can change the raw material that is processed.
  • Embracing simplicity a bit more so the mind is less likely to want
  • Becoming less rigid in everyday likes and dislikes. Even things like shifting our schedule or allowing someone else to order our food can make us more pliable.
  • Focusing on intent, and holding lightly to praise or disparagements that accompany outcomes
  • Becoming less I-focused by engaging in more selfless service. Offering service, without any expectation of personal benefit, loosens the hold of the ego.

Opening to change is about letting go—of ego, expectation, fear. Change is inevitable, and will continue to arrive on our doorstep. By establishing a deeper level of consciousness, we can navigate it a bit more gracefully.

Find out about upcoming programs with Yoganand Michael Carroll at Kripalu.

Janet Arnold-Grych is a yoga teacher and writer whose work has been published in Elephant Journal, Huffington Post, Third Coast Digest, and other outlets.

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