Stephen Cope ’71
“We each have the gift of deceiving ourselves.”
Stephen Cope ’71 can hardly get down the hallway without someone homing in for a bear hug. Granted, colleagues see him less now that he’s emeritus: for 30 years, Cope was the scholar-in-residence here at Kripalu, the renowned yoga retreat in Stockbridge, Mass. As the hugs keep coming, so many people—yoga instructors, cooks, landscapers, administrators—freely tell me that they love Steve, that he is special, that he is the soul of this place.
At the end of the hall, finally, we ease into a large room with generous windows. About 50 folks have come to listen to Cope speak on discerning their dharma, a word that, depending on the tradition, translates as “destiny,” “action” or one’s “essential nature.” Cope sits up front and calmly asks us to relax our shoulders and soften the muscles around our eyes. Then he talks about becoming who we are—“no small task,” he says, “since we each have the gift of deceiving ourselves.”
He mentions the Bhagavad Gita and Susan B. Anthony, Robert Frost and the movie Moonstruck, Jonah and the whale and John Keats, Emily Dickinson and Project Runway (a show that “lights me up,” he admits).
Each example ties to the imperative of living your dharma in spite of detractors and distractors. Cope cites this great truth: “If you bring forth what is in you, it will save you. If you do not bring forth what is in you, it will destroy you.”
Cope has done a lot of bringing forth in his time—first by moving past his own upbringing. He comes from a long line of Presbyterian ministers, and is one of five siblings raised in small-town Ohio. “Early on, I knew I was gay,” he says, “and knew I had to get out of Dodge.” Cope came out while at Amherst, at age 20: “I never got insulted once. I did get avoided, though.”
Cope majored in anthropology as a way to study Latin America. He was already fluent in Spanish, and in his junior year, he went to Colombia to do an ethnographic study of a fishing village. After Amherst, Cope joined the Minnesota Dance Theatre, went to Episcopal Divinity School, got a master of social work degree at Boston College and began a psychotherapy practice. One day he walked past a Buddhist meditation center in Boston and felt pulled to go in.
“I was swept away by the genius of Buddhism, the empiricism of it,” Cope recalls. His books, including Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, The Great Work of Your Life and Soul Friends, have all embraced this mix: Eastern contemplativeness and Western psychology.
Cope founded Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living and pushed to “do the science,” as he says, on how yoga affects the mind and body. Kripalu has since partnered for studies with Harvard Medical School, Penn State, the Department of Defense and more, and has also launched yoga programs in schools, prisons and hospitals. All this outreach, to quote Cope, feels “more and more like our calling—our dharma.”
Whittemore is Amherst Magazine’s senior writer.
Photos by Adam Mastoon and Charlie Pappas