What is your life really all about? In addition to the natural pursuit of security, pleasure, love, and recognition, what is it that gives your life meaning? In those times when the give and take of everyday life fade for a moment–in the middle of the night, in the sauna, walking alone in the woods, meditating–in those times when you think about deeper questions, what moves you? When you feel a need to be part of something larger than yourself, what calls to you? What is your particular gift to the world?
These are crucial questions for us all. Even if you’ve never thought about it, you operate out of some understanding of the meaning of your life. If you are approaching mid-life or if you’re in a time of crisis and transition, this issue may be just emerging into your consciousness. If you have reached the point in your psychological development where your basic needs are being met, you may find these broader questions becoming an important priority.
I define life purpose as a contribution to the world that uses your whole self fully and gives your life passion, fulfillment, and meaning through dedication to something larger than yourself. It might be work for social transformation; it might be service to people who are in need; it might be living from an attitude of love, or unleashing your creativity, or developing your highest spiritual potential.
I believe that everyone has a life purpose to be created or discovered. It seems clear that at a certain level of psychological development people need to identify and manifest this purpose. Being blocked in this area can lead to apathy, depression, despair, and a variety of other psychological symptoms. It can even lead to physical symptoms. And finding and fulfilling your life purpose can lead to pleasure and satisfaction of a depth that is unmatched by more self-oriented pursuits.
Sensing Your Life Purpose
There is a part of you which understands or creates your life purpose, a wise and loving part of you which is sometimes called the “higher self.” This aspect of you lives in the deeper flow of your life, the meaning underlying the particular events. You may sense this purpose at those times when you are able to be quiet and alone and go deeply inside yourself. You may get a hint of it when you are unexpectedly moved to strong emotion by a scene in a movie or something in the news. A project or an ideal may stir your passion deeply and draw you in; you may find yourself devoting long hours to it doggedly or joyfully. You may be surprised to find yourself passionately espousing a point of view at a social gathering.
For some of you, once you have sensed your life purpose, it will begin to express itself naturally in your life. For others there may a long, hard road to actually manifesting it in the world. This often involves much experimentation, personal growth, overcoming blocks, developing skills and contacts, etc. Gradually over time you hone in on more and more satisfying and influential ways to contribute. It can be especially difficult to make your career an expression of your life purpose, as most of us want. This may require much perseverance and creativity throughout this process. It helps to keep in mind that engaging in this process itself is part of the expression of your life purpose.
One of the problems with our current social order is that it allows only a small minority of people to have life work that is simultaneously meaningful, creative, and financially rewarding. And yet everyone should have this opportunity. The good news is that more and more people are searching for this kind of work, and this is putting pressure on corporations and other institutions to make this more possible. They are slowly becoming more flexible and allowing employees more participation, autonomy, and responsibility. There is also a great upsurge in small businesses which have started in recent years, as people opt out of the corporate world in order to pursue their own visions. So in your search for a career which is not only personally satisfying but also manifests your life purpose, you may also be participating in the transformation of our social institutions.
Life purpose is not only found through career. It may involve serving the world in other ways–through volunteer work, artistic endeavors, loving your children, or the seemingly little acts that can be so important. You may sense that your life purpose has primarily to do with a certain way of being in the world which would permeate everything you do–being caring for those in need, being courageous in the face of hardship, being true to yourself, living simply, daring to speak your mind.
Source of Life Purpose
Which concerns move you to a sense of higher purpose? What do you care about deeply enough to dedicate your life to? It can be valuable at first to explore the source or motivating principle behind your life purpose–not what you might do to fulfill your life purpose, but the deeper reasons behind your wanting to do it. We can view life purpose as having three aspects:
- The “action” is the most obvious aspect–what you actually do in the world.
- The “being” aspect refers to the kind of presence you manifest in the world–loving or angry, courageous or timid.
- The “source” aspect refers to why you would do or be these things–what larger reasons inspire you to your life purpose.
For instance, the action part of my life purpose currently involves leading groups and classes, helping more people to use Internal Family Systems Therapy for self-therapy, and teaching classes on finding your contribution to social transformation. For the being part, I am working at being loving, creative, non-striving, and connected to spirit. The source level for me comes from my conviction that we are faced with a planetary crisis at this unique time in human history, which will result either in a brighter future or an unprecedented disaster. I am also dedicated to creating a healthy society, one which is based on love and reverence for the earth, in which everyone is free and has access to the good things in life. My choices for my actions spring from this source.
There are many possibilities for one’s source level. People have been dedicated to:
- Living things and the earth
- The future of the human race
- The children of the world
- People who are dying (or some other group of people in need)
- The liberation of a particular oppressed group
- God or spirit (however conceptualized)
- The creation of beauty
- The freeing of the human body
The source level involves a dedication to something larger than yourself, a concern which involves more than just your daily struggle to achieve happiness and security. It lifts you out of the usual self-centered mode and into a realm where you are part of larger and more meaningful concerns. You feel deeper, more open, more real. You are touching on the essence of life.
Even though the source of your life purpose will be something larger than yourself, it may grow out of some of your own most intense personal concerns. You may be dedicated to ending child abuse because of the way you were abused as a child. You may care deeply about social justice because of your own disadvantaged background. You may want to end the nuclear threat because your own child is having nuclear nightmares. Your personal life crises and trials can provide the juice and passion behind your life purpose.
People who are in touch with the source of their life purpose are sometimes able to act freely and courageously without the usual fears and limitations of their personal egos. This is because they are committed to something larger. They are not trying to prove themselves, or protect themselves, or hold onto anything they have gained. At least in moments, they have transcended these concerns and are living from a higher place. This is a wonderful feeling!
Life Purpose is also a central aspect of spiritual development. True seekers desire union with the divine not for their own gratification, but in order to bring back the wisdom and riches they have gained for the good of humanity. The goal is not simply to know God, but to live in the world from that knowing, to bring the divine into form.
Sometimes people experience their life purpose as a spiritual “calling”. They feel called to be a certain way in the world. They sense that a higher power desires to work through them to accomplish certain ends in the world, a divine power who has chosen them to act as a channel for its love or wisdom or purpose on the earthly plane.
This can take extreme, obvious forms, such as channeling written or verbal material which the person does not claim authorship of. Occasionally a person will even feel that they are receiving direct instructions from a divine presence. However, most of us experience a calling in subtler ways–feeling a strong passion for some ideal, being unexpectedly moved at certain times, receiving creative inspiration that seems to come from somewhere else, vaguely sensing a project that needs to be birthed through us.
The experience of being called has been profoundly meaningful to me. Given my scientific background, the idea of having a calling was quite foreign to me until I was introduced to it by Jean Houston. In her workshops she frequently suggested that we consider the idea that a higher power could move through us to accomplish a purpose in the world. When I have tried this out experientially during her exercises, I have been deeply moved, feeling a yearning and attunement and a passionate sense of direction, even while at first not believing in the concept.
The strength of my sense of calling was brought home to me by the following incident. I went through a period of 4 or 5 months during which I was unable to open and connect spiritually. At this time, I was scheduled to lead one of my own socially-oriented Empowerment Workshops. On the morning of the workshop, I took a few minutes to open myself to a deeper sense of my purpose in doing it. I closed my eyes, grounded myself, and almost immediately was flooded with that sense of peace and loving connection that had been missing those months. I realized that because this work is my calling, the higher connection was available to do the work, even during a time of spiritual drought.
To feel called in this way, to feel something nobler moving through you, to open yourself and allow yourself to be taken, is an exquisite experience. You feel both humbled and lifted up. You know that you are not of great importance, but you feel yourself as part of something vast and meaningful. “Oh the wonder that bubbles into my soul!” writes D. H. Lawrence about such a time.
In my Life Purpose Workshops and other work with people, I hear over and over again: “I’m very concerned about the world, and I want to do something, but I’m not really a political person. I don’t like writing letters, or canvassing, or going to political meetings. What can I do?”
I see making a contribution to social transformation as an aspect of one’s life purpose. It is possible for you to make an important contribution by following your talents, your interests, and your deepest sense of calling. Even though there is a need for people to do the nitty-gritty, routine electoral work, to organize and demonstrate and speak, you can make the greatest impact by following your heart wherever it leads. (Of course, some people’s hearts lead them to do the more traditional political work.)
For example, my friend Diana is very interested in culture and aesthetics, likes to read, and in the early 80’s was concerned about the nuclear threat. Diana’s friend Hetty was working with the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Touring Museum Exhibit, a show designed to raise people’s consciousness about the nuclear threat by demonstrating what happened in 1945 when we bombed those cities. Hetty was in charge of coordinating volunteer work for the museum and needed someone to do research on what Japanese culture was like just before l945. She saw this as a perfect opportunity to use Diana’s interests, and so she recruited her for that task.
In that way Diana found her contribution for that time. Since then she has moved on to contribute in other ways. This story could be multiplied thousands of times over with innumerable variations. It is a matter of finding the right match of your interests, your talents, the issues which concern you, and the people and projects to work with.
Now this is a contribution that was clearly political, but there are many other less obvious ways to contribute that are just as important. For example, many of the problems of our current society stem from the way it devalues the inner life of the human psyche–emotions, dreams, images, higher consciousness. If you are involved in exploring or promoting inner development, I believe that you are contributing to social transformation, even if you don’t think of it in those terms. The same goes for fostering an attitude of cooperation rather than domination, promoting natural living, respecting diversity and change, and other basic attitudes. Looked at from the right perspective, it is possible for everyone to find ways to contribute to social transformation which utilize their deepest sense of life calling.
If your life purpose involves your career or an action project (as opposed to a way of being), then you will probably need to do considerable searching in order to actualize it in the world. This searching may take much time and energy, but it will be well spent. You’ll be learning about yourself, influencing others, and contributing to the world while you look.
The search invariably involves trial and error, as you experiment with many different actions and projects, all of which stem from your deeper life purpose. You will get information from each project about how it feels to you and how well it seems to contribute to the world. Those efforts which don’t work out should not be looked at as failures or indications of your lack of worth. They are simply part of the inevitable feedback you receive from life as you learn more about how to manifest your purpose.
The search also involves a process of successive approximation, where at first you find something that only partially meets your criteria for a fully satisfying contribution. Perhaps you find a volunteer project in an area of interest which allows you to gain skills and experience. After that you can get a paying job in the same field which also gives you increased responsibility and autonomy. During this time, you develop higher level contacts and refine your ideas of exactly how to use this work to make a social contribution. This might then enable you to move into a situation that really uses your creativity in higher service.
As you gain experience, your interests and skills will become refined, and you will create newer and more exciting ways to fulfill your purpose, ways that use more of your creativity, that reach more people, that flow from your deepened understanding of what is needed. Each time you will find or create a situation that fits you better and allows you to have a greater positive impact on the world. Throughout this process, you continually refer back to your higher self. Each decision involves evaluating your feedback from the world and consulting your inner guide so that you remain true to your life purpose and avoid traps and sidetracks.
During my searching I have engaged in many different activities:
- Leaving my career as a computer scientist to become a psychotherapist.
- Offering free coaching sessions to help people find their social contributions.
- Doing administrative and organizational work with three different organizations, each of which combined psychological, spiritual, and social concerns.
- Leading workshops and classes on personal growth, social transformation, and life purpose.
- Writing books on Internal Family Systems Therapy and developing advanced techniques.
- Leading Interactive Therapy Groups.
Some aspects of these projects didn’t work out, some worked partially and led me on to more appropriate efforts, and some have been very successful. Some were right for a while, some I am still pursuing, and some I may return to at a future time. All of them have evolved from one form to another over time, and I’m constantly coming up with new ideas for projects to pursue.
Even after finding a satisfactory contribution, your interests and concerns will probably change in the long run. People who are working creatively at their edges tend to move on to new projects after a while, even if the underlying thrust of their purpose remains unchanged. Each time you move on you will need to search again, in both the inner and outer dimensions. The search for your life purpose is never completely finished; it becomes an exciting and continually evolving endeavor throughout your life.