This article outlines a program of steps to guide you in discovering and manifesting your life purpose as an agent of the Great Turning.
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. I believe that everyone has a life purpose, to be discovered or created. It involves (1) a way of being in the world that has a positive influence on family, friends, and perhaps all those you touch, and/or (2) a project (which may or may not be your occupation) through which you benefit other people, society, or the natural world.
This outline is the basis for my class How to Change the World without (Necessarily) being an Activist.
Understanding the Planetary Crisis and the Great Turning
We are in the midst of a planetary crisis growing out of the major historical transition we are undergoing, which has been called the Great Turning by many people. Our current world view and institutions, which are based on mechanistic ways of understanding the world and domination of others and the earth, are no longer working. We are faced with threats of terrorism, ecological disintegration, and social chaos. This is the breakdown accompanying the emergence of a new way of being and a new society.
Gaining a perspective on how our current problems are related to each others and are part of a larger crisis in human history will give you a better grasp on what is happening in the world and how you might want to respond. In addition, as you get in touch with your concerns about certain social issues, your response will be greatly aided by understanding the deeper causes behind these issues and how they are related to each other and to your personal life. For further reading see my book, Transforming Human Culture: Social Evolution and the Planetary Crisis.
How can we understand what is happening in the world today from a larger evolutionary perspective? How is the planetary crisis related to our stage of social evolution? How is it related to overall evolution of the universe?
Waking Up from the Cultural Trance
All societies have a story or myth that helps to define the nature of reality, what is meaningful, one’s place in the world, acceptable and successful behavior, and in general one’s world view. Thus we live in a kind of trance without realizing it. In the current historical transformation, we need a new story that is more workable than our present one. But first we must wake up from the trance that is induced by the current story, see what it is, and the numerous unconscious ways it affects our view of reality, our feelings, and our choices about how to live. See Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, The Universe is a Green Dragon by Brian Swimme.
Welcoming your Pain for the World
Many of us emotionally deny the possibility of ecological disaster, social breakdown, and other threats to our future. We also may repress our feeling responses to the violence and inequities in our communities and the world. Breaking through this numbing and feeling our natural emotional responses to these situations allows for the possibility of a creative and powerful response. Feeling our compassion for the pain and suffering in the world also allows us to sense those situations which most move us to reach out in a helping way, thus pointing the way to our life purpose. See my book Inner Journeys, chapter 7, or Coming Back to Life, and Active Hope, by Joanna Macy.
How Society Affects You
We are all strongly affected by our gender, class, race, subculture, lifestyle, position in society and our culture’s attitudes about all of these. Our lives are also deeply impacted by the economy, the environment, and many other societal factors. Our attitudes about social change are also conditioned by our social experiences.
Even though it is healthy to exercise our individuality, it is also nourishing and empowering to experience ourselves not as separate, isolated persons, but as a part of the vast web of life. This connects us with people in need and with the natural world, promoting our compassion and igniting our passion to help. It also connects us with our ancestors and with future generations, and with the universe as a whole, reminding us that we are part of a much larger story. For further reading see Coming Back to Life, by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown and The More Beautiful World Our Heats Know is Possible, by Charles Eisenstein.
It is also valuable to recognize our connection with the negative forces in the world and those we consider enemies. This can be done by sensing our own dark sides and empathizing with people who seem to be supporting destructive ends. We need to realize that we don’t have all the answers, and we must all work together to create a healthy society. This attitude will ultimately help us to be more effective in working with those who disagree with us.
How Social Transformation Happens
In thinking about how to contribute to social transformation, it is helpful to have an idea of how fundamental social change can come about? What role to social movements or organizations play? What about protest, education, public policy, personal growth, alternative institutions, reform? How can a spiritual or holistic approach aid in the effectiveness of social transformation movements? What are the various ways that a person can make a contribution to healing the world?
It is empowering to envision a positive future—imagining a changed society and the social process that might lead to it. This provides specific goals to work for, mobilizes energy and excitement, and also encourages a hopeful attitude about the impact you can have on the world. See Inner Journeys, chapter 8.
Orientation to Your Life Purpose
In order to orient you to the discovery work that follows, we start by looking at your interests, talents, and values, and your ability to feel your desire for life purpose.
First you need to discover your most important interests and inclinations—the kinds of activities you enjoy, the kinds of settings you prefer, the kind of technology you like to work with, and the sorts of people you like. Also consider geographic area, commuting, travel, and other preferences. This understanding will lead you to activities that spark your excitement and enthusiasm, work that taps your creative edge, and a lifestyle that is deeply satisfying. See Wishcraft by Barbara Sher, chapter 3, What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles, chapter 4, or Inner Journeys, chapter 11.
Innate Gifts and Skills
An important step in finding your life purpose is recognizing the gifts you were born with to help you in carrying it out—your talents, strengths, and special personal qualities. It is also important to recognize the skills and knowledge which you have acquired during your life. See references above.
What is most important to you in life? What ways of being do you value most? In work, in relationships, in your inner life, in society. Exploring this issue sets the stage for discovering your life purpose. See Making a Living While Making a Difference, by Melissa Everett, Step 4.
Feeling Your Desire and Passion
It is very helpful to feel in a clear way your desire to find your life purpose. You may first sense as a general yearning for more out of life or a vague dissatisfaction with your life as it is. Try to sense the desire itself and then the excitement and passion that are aroused when you are discovering and actualizing your life purpose. This goes beyond intellectual understanding. It is often felt in the body or as a spiritual sensing. This fuels your search for life purpose and provides commitment, focus, and courage.
General Direction of Your Life Purpose
First, it is important to discover the general direction of your life purpose without yet worrying about specific projects. You may discover the area in which you would like to make a contribution or the core values and meaning that underlie whatever you will do. For example, art, sustainability, integrity, or education. You might discover two or three areas that are important.
Way of Being, Learning, Healing, Growth
Your life purpose may involve a way of being in the world, for example, being loving to all people, being deeply attuned to the earth, trusting your inner knowing, or being courageous. In a slightly different perspective, your life purpose may involve learning certain things during your life or meeting important challenges in your personal growth. It might mean healing yourself from childhood wounds or perhaps moving toward spiritual realization. This might then lead you to help others heal or grow in similar ways. See Discovering Your Soul’s Purpose by Mark Thurston, chapter 4.
Some people sense that they have a spiritual calling toward a way of being? This step involves exploring the depths of your psyche to uncover this. See Discovering Your Soul’s Purpose.
What are the things that concern you most deeply about your community or the earth, about people or society, the issues that stir your passion and commitment? For instance, you might be concerned about global warming or the oppression of third world people. You might want to help handicapped children or participate in the creation of cooperative community life.
Your Life Path
It can be helpful to view the larger flow of your life in terms of its meaning, seeing how the events of your life form a coherent pattern pointing toward an overall purpose, allowing your own personal myth to unfold.
Finding Your Life Purpose Project
Now you refine your life purpose and social contribution by generating and evaluating ideas for projects, such as being a sustainability consultant to corporations or educating children about conflict resolution. These projects should not yet be tied down in too specific a way. For a project to be right it must meet three criteria: (1) It must resonate with your deepest sense of meaning. (2) You must have the talent to be successful at it, perhaps in collaboration with others. (3) It must be needed in the world.
Validating and Expanding Existing Contributions
It is important to recognize the ways in which you may already be contributing to the world. For example, you may be living out values that promote a healthy society or influencing people positively in your everyday contacts or in your work. Recognizing this helps you to appreciate the value of your life as it is. You can then become more effective by doing what you do with the conscious intention of changing society, perhaps even making an organized project out of it. You might choose to remain in your current work situation and transform it so that you are making a social contribution. For example, if you do corporate personnel work which you enjoy but doesn’t feel socially valuable, instead looking for a new job, you could remain and work to bring different values into the corporate culture. For a wise discussion, see Making a Living While Making a Difference, by Melissa Everett, Step 10.
Transforming Your Lifestyle
You may want to contribute to social transformation by changing the way you live your life to be more in line with what is required for a healthy society. You may consume less, create community around you, live in a more cooperative way, connect deeply to the natural world, or many other options. You may develop and manifest personal qualities and make personal choices that reflect your social values.
Integrating Sides of Yourself
Many people have more than one concern about the world and perhaps a number of talents or important values. It can be helpful to explore how these areas may be integrated in choosing a project, so that as much as possible of you is included. This integration may also occur in a later step Successive Approximations.
It is time to generate a list of possible projects—careers, jobs, volunteer projects, programs of learning and growth. Brainstorm as many projects as possible that fit your deeper sense of purpose. Don’t limit yourself by being concerned about feasibility yet. Tell your friends about your life purpose and ask them for ideas.
Sensing What is Needed
Since your life purpose is a contribution to the world, it involves sensing what is needed—what is needed by people you interact with or want to help, your community, nature, or the world. Your choice of life purpose will be influenced by what you sense is most needed in the world as well as by what you best have to offer. Your intuitive understanding of what is needed informs the discovery of your life purpose during this phase. As you explore how to manifest your purpose, you will learn more about what is needed as you get feedback from the experiments you try. You can also sense what is needed in each moment as you continue on your life purpose path. Some things can’t be planned ahead; they must be decided in the moment as you progress.
If your life purpose is oriented toward a way of being, you may prefer to sense what is needed in each moment as you interact with people and the world. To the extent that you are fully open, you will spontaneously manifest the personal or spiritual quality that is most needed in each situation.
It is important to envision actually carrying out your life purpose, making your social contribution, and also to imagine a sequence of actions that would lead to that goal. This could be a guided meditation, or it could be written out as a life plan or a flow chart of specific actions or a business plan. This creates excitement and passion, makes your ideas more concrete, and provides a guide for taking action. It is useful even if you end up deciding on a different project. See Wishcraft by Barbara Sher, chapters 6 & 8.
Checking into Your Depths
When considering projects, it is helpful to be able to check inside yourself to that place of depth where you can feel your deeper purpose. In this way, you can investigate to see whether or not an idea really resonates.
Actualizing Your Life Purpose
In order to get started making your life purpose happen, it can be useful to decide on a first step of action that isn’t too threatening. It can be as small as making a single phone call. It may be useful to take on a small project that you know you can do. This will give you some experience and build your confidence.
At this point you have a sense of what you are looking for, a specific job, a certain type of organization, a particular kind of apprenticeship, a kind of business you want to start. You conduct a thorough investigation of the possibilities, through internet research and talking to appropriate people. It is important to cultivate the skills for critical researching. See Making a Living While Making a Difference, Step 5.
Even if you are starting something new, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Consider looking for an organization that you could join or finding collaborators to work on a project together. They can complement your talents and provide community and support. If there isn’t an organization focused on what you want to do, consider starting one.
Once you are started, there are a variety of ways to maintain your momentum–planning your actions week by week, making commitments to yourself, checking in with a friend, using a support group, rewarding yourself for taking risks, keeping track of your progress, remembering why this is important to you. Working with a buddy, a group, or a coach can be very helpful in this.
Experimenting with Projects
It is often necessary to try out a project or direction by attending meetings, doing volunteer work, taking a job, or beginning a business. This needs to be done in a spirit of experimentation, knowing that you may need to test a number of possibilities before you will find one that really fits you and is also needed in the world. It is important to give yourself permission to move on when something is not working out, so that you are not afraid of getting stuck in the first thing you try.
Revisiting Earlier Steps
You will get feedback from your research and experiments–internal feedback about how well a given project resonates with your deep purpose and external feedback about how much the world seems to need this contribution. When this feedback is negative, it may indicate that you need to change your approach, or you may realize that you should go back to the discovery phase and explore further.
You may not find your ideal life project right away. You may have to go through a process of successive approximations, 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 might get a paying job in the same field which also gives you increased responsibility and autonomy. During this time, you develop better contacts and refine your ideas about how to use this work to make a contribution. 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.