“The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” – Robert Byrne
Okay, good to know. So now what? We’d all be lying if we were to say that we’d never felt that hopeless sting that comes from not being exactly sure about our life purpose. It’s uncomfortable, it’s confusing, and it can be downright deflating. During these moments, we may ask ourselves, “what the heck am I doing with my life? I haven’t had this light bulb ‘A-HA!’ moment I hear all these influencers and leaders talk about”. Yet it begs the question, what exactly are we expecting and why are we expecting it? What do we think knowing our life purpose will do for the quality of our lives?
Some of us are waiting to wake up one day and be struck by a revelation of what we must do with our lives. Some of us may feel guilty that we don’t feel fulfilled and satisfied with a good-paying, important job, or one of the many roles we play as mother, father, partner, friend, or mentor. Others of us have submitted to the idea that we may never have that lightening bulb moment.
And should we be surprised by these thoughts? No. Why? Because since our childhood we’ve been hearing from our parents, guardians, teachers, and coaches that we need to find our true calling and meaning in our lives. We’ve watched influential leaders throughout the world give charismatic speeches about how they found their passion and because of that were able to be so successful. Our teachers would ask us what we wanted to be when we grew up, as if there was a specific destination we were meant to reach in order to feel complete, and purposeful. We have completed stage after stage of our lives, seeking out this elusive feeling of fulfillment and meaning, and yet many of us still feel as though we haven’t found it—as if there is something to be found at all.
Yet here’s a question we can consider. What if our life purpose is not one static passion or destination, but rather an ongoing process? Rather than seeking out or chasing after our life’s purpose, our purpose may be present right in this moment. In practicing mindfulness, we give ourselves the opportunity to begin learning more about what motivates us, what makes us feel enthusiastic and passionate, and what behaviors we can adopt to help us feel more engaged in our day to day lives.
So for just these next few minutes, let’s set aside the idea that our life purpose is a destination, passion, or talent we must uncover. Let’s take the pressure off of ourselves to find this eternal “life-changing” purpose, and let’s focus on ourselves, right now, just as we are.
Oftentimes when we’re thinking of our life purpose, our mind immediately goes to the future. We start conjuring up this image of ourselves, smiling, fully engaged in whatever we’re doing, walking with confidence, carrying ourselves with peace of mind and self-assurance. Yet while enticing, that visual is just a snapshot of a moment that can only come to pass if you choose to do the emotional and mental work now. Similar to any process of growth and development in our lives, we cannot make that visualization into a reality without doing the spiritual and mental work first.
That work starts in the now. The present moment is the only reality we can work with, without reliving the past through our own filter or hypothesizing what the future may bring. We can’t know how far it is we need to go without knowing where we are now and without practicing mindfulness. To reflect on this, try to carve out some time for yourself on a consistent basis, when you have minimal distractions around you; it could even be when you’re taking a shower, washing the dishes, or cleaning up the house. Ideally it would be sitting in a relaxing spot where you can sit silently without any disruptions.
During these moments, try to see yourself from afar, as if you were a stranger observing yourself. We’re much better at observing and judging the behaviors of others than ourselves. You could even name that person you’re viewing objectively as someone different from you. As you look in on this person’s daily routine and habits, notice what judgements and thoughts emerge. Watch them as they’re at work, going through each task, participating in meetings, and talking with customers and colleagues. Then as objectively as possible, consider the person you’re watching and how they are impacting the world around them. Who is that person, how do they behave, and what do they like to do?
If it helps, you can write down your observations of this person, the good and the bad. Give yourself permission to be honest with yourself, without taking any of your observations personally. This process and this journey is only between you and you, so consider yourself worthy and deserving of your own honesty and reflections.
Still viewing ourselves from afar, objectively, consider whether this person’s decisions and behaviors are their own or if they are reflections of what this person believes is expected from them. Now, we all pick up certain expectations, norms, and perspectives as we grow up and evolve, yet every now and then each of us faces a resistance between what we want and what we think others want or expect from us. The most classic example comes from our parents’ expectations. Sure, some of their expectations seem to flow along with our own wants and aspirations, yet every so often there can be friction; the line between what they want and what we want can be blurred. This can happen with our friends, our mentors, and partners.
Similarly the assumptions and opinions imposed upon us throughout our lives can become the leading narrators in our minds. For example, if we were constantly told we were bad at mathematics growing up, we may have concluded long ago that we would never be any good at math. Likewise, people may have always complimented you on your artistic creativity growing up; that can also be a narrative and filter you carry with you up until today. Those stories and narratives thus live on into our current lives and impact our current decisions. Think about what stories and opinions, both negative and positive, that have stuck with you up until now.
Going back to our observations of this person you’re viewing objectively, consider whether the current life they lead, and the decisions and behaviors they currently engage in are more to satisfy the expectations of others rather than of themselves. What habits and paths might they feel a constant resistance toward, yet continue to follow?
Again, this can be a conversation only between you and yourself. However uncomfortable or disturbing it may feel, challenge yourself to think about this and don’t judge yourself; each and every one of us, at some point or another, has done something in our lives solely for the purpose of satisfying the expectations of others.
These questions and reflections on your current self and how much of that is in line with what you think you want versus what you really want leads us to another big question. That is—how do you want to see yourself? If you were able to shed your occupation, your relationships, and roles, what would you like to see in and about yourself? We’re keeping this question intentionally vague because we want to be able to allow whatever images, values, feelings, or sensations to emerge on their own.
Some of us may see ourselves as humble, kind, and joyful while others may picture ourselves assertive, courageous, and steadfast. We may picture ourselves doing a specific activity we’d love to spend more time on, or in a new environment that challenges and excites us. We may even picture ourselves embodying the values and habits we wish we lived by more often. Whatever it is that we’re imagining, let that serve as a clue to what your many purposes are.
It’s often said by many thought leaders and influencers that the actions that we find easiest and most intuitive to take are all clues to what we should be doing in our lives. Consider what forms of value you bring to yourself and those around you? What would others say about your attributes and contributions? It may be that you’re an incredible listener, that you are able to fix anything, that you’re pragmatic and reasonable, or that you’re generous and assertive. Whatever it may be, how can you use those innate skills and talents of yours more often? If you were to use those talents more often, what would that mean for your current life as it is? However uncomfortable or uneasy that answer is, we owe it to ourselves to face it and at least acknowledge it.
In our quest to understand our purpose on this Earth and in this life, we often assume that when we’re living out our life purpose, we’ll be happy. Yet consider this; does every action that brings you fulfillment and satisfaction make you feel happy while or after you’re doing it?
We may be disappointed when we realize that not everything we’re here to do in this life is joy-filled and pleasant. And, in fact, by making happiness and joy a criteria of defining our many purposes, we limit ourselves from seeing all of the impacts, big and small, we have already made and can continue to make. Happiness, like all other feelings, is fleeting and temporary. Satisfaction and fulfillment gleaned from an experience or action, on the other hand, continues to live within us and offer us insight, peace of mind, and clarity.
Challenge yourself to consider this; think of a few projects, jobs, or activities you’ve done recently that weren’t necessarily fun, but gave you great satisfaction and fulfillment. Think of the people, things, or situations in your life that bring you the most satisfaction and notice if there are any common threads that run through each of them.
As we think about the answers and thoughts that emerge to each of these questions and considerations, we can keep in mind that it’s okay if more than one specific goal, direction, or passion rises to the surface. It’s normal to feel pulled in different directions; we’re each so complex and multifaceted that of course different parts of us will gravitate toward different influences. So while it’s our tendency to seek out one purpose or goal, let us not forget to also pause from time to time to notice the present moment and just be. Perhaps, after all, our biggest overarching purpose is to explore inside of ourselves and strive to understand our own being.
Allow all of these different passions, common values, and interests to create a path for you that encourages you to manifest the type of experiences that will reap those same interests. Our life purpose isn’t necessarily a destination, it’s the path we construct for ourselves, piece by piece. Let those experiences shape you as you understand yourself more and more. Consider your life to be a mosaic that you have the creativity, power, and opportunity to put together little by little with the bits and pieces that catch your eye and speak to you.