On Finding My (Our) Purpose
As I ran through the familiar bushland of Manly Dam Reserve yesterday, I listened to a podcast conversation on ‘Finding Your True Calling’. It’s a conversation I’ve listened to before. A few years ago, as I was grappling with the question(s) of my vocation and purpose (in the midst of grappling with broader existential questions around meaning, faith, and spirituality), I read Stephen Cope’s book titled ‘The Great Work of Your Life’. The podcast conversation is, in essence, a kind of summary of the book. Cope — a trained psychotherapist and scholar of yoga — seeks to address the perennial question of ‘finding’ one’s true calling or purpose by turning to the pages of the Bhagavad Gita. Rather than providing a dense, intellectual exegesis (analysis) of this monumental text, Cope explores the narrative and its meaning for us today through engaging with figures (both historical and current) who embody core aspects of its teachings: Mahatma Gandhi, Jane Goodall, Walt Whitman, Susan B. Anthony, John Keats, Harriet Tubman, and others (including his own). It’s a worthwhile read. And, if you can’t be bothered to read the book, the conversation between Cope and Tami Simon provides a thorough introduction to the key themes in the book.
Re-listening to this conversation sparked a frenzy of thoughts and memories. In hindsight, I can see that this fairly simple and easy-to-read book was an important source of wisdom as I grappled with the question of purpose. Likewise was reading the Bhagavad Gita itself, which I highly recommend (Eknath Easwaran’s translation/commentary is ideal for those who’re reading it for the first time). Alongside these, the Quaker educator and activist Parker J. Palmer’s ‘Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation’ and Eastern Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’ were also key sources of wisdom.
I won’t go in to detail here about everything I took away from these books (that’s for you to do, if you so wish). But, reflecting on them and that particular moment in my life, a few important things stood out for me as my ‘purpose’ and vocation has crystallized over time.
We live in a culture where ‘finding’ and ‘creating’ one’s meaning or purpose is front-and-centre. Yet, we’re more depressed, anxious, and aimless than we’ve ever been (I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the crisis of meaning we face in the West). Underlying this quest is the implicit notion that we live in a meaningless, purely material universe; that our ‘place’ in this universe is largely a result of the unguided, mechanical processes of evolution. We’re merely brief flickers of emergent consciousness in a dark, ever-expanding cosmos. And thus, it’s up to us to conjure up meaning for ourselves. Cue, all sorts companies, organisations, and (suspect) individuals trying to convince you that their ‘answer’ will provide you with what you’re searching for (advertising is, after all, mostly concerned with forming particular desires in you in order to sell you stuff that will supposedly satisfy said desires… which we all know is rubbish).
In rightly critiquing this, some of my religious friends go as far as completely trashing the ‘expressive individualism’ which also underlies the quest, including the related notion of authenticity (i.e. our cultures emphasis on the importance of authenticity in crafting a meaningful life). Whilst I can understand this (particularly in critiquing the shallower expressions of ‘authenticity’), I see it a little differently.
The right question to ask, rather, is this: what does this desire for authenticity and finding/creating purpose point toward? Stripping the shallower (or more nebulous) expressions of these desires away, I can only come to one conclusion: the inherent, human desire to live a meaningful life. And, this is far from being a bad thing! Instead, the subsequent question arises: what can satisfy this very human, existential desire for meaning?
The ever-evolving conclusion that I’ve come to, at least at this point in my life, is this: nothing.
Gulp. Sounds a bit depressing at first glance, doesn’t it? But, don’t be mistaken. By nothing, I literally mean no-thing. That is, no object: whether that be material thing/s, a person/s, or some kind of final, clear-cut answer. Of course, these things can contribute toward making one’s life meaningful. But, as the great yogis and mystics teach us, life is impermanent. If we place ultimate meaning, value, and/or purpose in these things, we’re on shaky ground: we could lose all our possessions, status, those we love, and/or our beliefs/answers to hard questions could crumble apart in the face of new information. And, when this ‘ground’ gives way, we’ve got nothing left to stand on. In response, we do the usual human things: we clutch for something to attach our purpose (or meaning, identity, and so on) to and, as a result, we experience extra layers of suffering on top of the inevitable layer of pain which comes with being human.
Instead, I’m convinced that it is only something transcendent which can satisfy this very human desire and orient it rightly. For, only that which is transcendent — that which is not contingent on space, time, and the flow of life — can satisfy desires which, in themselves, are transcendental.
For me, this looks like hinging my purpose and sense of meaning on living into what philosophers and theologians alike have termed the transcendentals: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. I capitalize these words as, in my understanding (which sits within the broad school of classical theism), that which we call God is none other than Truth, Beauty, and Goodness itself (and from which all that is true, good, and beautiful springs forth). A key part of this is prioritizing the (what I would also term ‘transcendent’) notion of compassion. Through lived experience and through investigations into the great spiritual/religious traditions of human civilisation, I’m convinced that compassion is, perhaps, the highest virtue and embodiment of truth, beauty, and goodness. So, when the question/s of meaning, vocation, and purpose come up, I ask myself this: how am I tangibly embodying truth, goodness, beauty, and compassion in how I live each day? How am I practicing fierce compassion towards self, other, all living beings, and indeed the entire cosmos? Life is impermanent and inevitably painful, yet I know that each moment presents me with an opportunity to live this out. And, I’m convinced that living into these transcendentals is to participate in God.
Which, brings me to my final point. Rather than being things which I ‘create’ or ‘find’, these transcendentals have paradoxically found me. It is not so much that I’ve discovered them, but that they (or, one could say, God) has gripped my very being. We all know that experience of gaining deep insight or coming up with a fresh idea: it is not so much ‘us’ that creates the insight or idea, but rather the insight or idea comes to grab a hold of us. And, we ignore it at our own peril. Hence, meaning or purpose is something that we all participate in rather than create as individuals. Finding ‘my’ purpose is, rightly understood, the same process as finding our shared purpose. It’s something which is undoubtedly ‘individual’ in nature, yet is simultaneously larger and more expansive than my own individual purpose alone. This is why I cannot separate my own vocation and flourishing from the wellbeing of all living beings.
This points to further (metaphysical) questions about the nature of consciousness and our universe. Are we really just mechanical creatures; flickers of consciousness in a vast, material, meaningless universe? Or, does the very nature of our consciousness and, I would argue, its transcendental structure point towards the immateriality of reality? That is, that a Greater Mind (or ‘Mind at Large’) undergirds and permeates the entire cosmos? If you’ve read anything I’ve written or follow what I share, you’ll be aware that this question is currently ‘at the forefront’ in the fields of philosophy of mind, consciousness studies, and neuroscience.
Finally, I’ll say this: we must hold everything lightly. Whether that be our beliefs, the stuff we have, or the relationships we share. For, we know that impermanence and change are inherent features of our experience and this universe. And, when we’re able to hold these things lightly, life becomes less ‘graspy’ and far more playful. This is not to negate the great suffering that many experience, nor does it do-away with the pain we experience (for we know that constantly seeking to avoid pain only exacerbates suffering). Rather, I’m able to perceive this life and indeed each experience as a kind of playful opportunity to learn and to grow. If my purpose on this earth is to participate in and grow infinitely more into that which is Good, True, and Beautiful, then every experience — however good or bad — becomes an opportunity to be truly present and mindful to what I am being taught.