Wanted: email from the universe telling me what I’m here to do.
Oh for a life purpose that comes packaged up with a job title, a marketing plan and a training path. For a bolt out of the blue, an ‘aha’ moment where it all becomes clear.
It does exist, surely. There are those who just know from a young age what their passion is and go about pursuing it single-mindedly until it is infused into the very fabric of their lives.
This, however, is rare. It’s much more common to fumble through life on what seems like a random trajectory. More guided by circumstance and happenstance than deep conviction. To wake up at 30 (40, 50, 60… whenever), asking “is this really it”?
Life can be a demanding beast. Expecting that we find the strength and resilience to get up every morning, pay the rent, get fed and watered (and even feed and water other humans if they’re in the picture) and keep up some semblance of leisure and fun time.
So it’s no wonder that the deeper questions of satisfaction, service and meaning can go into hiding for months or years at a time.
And this brings us to the core question – what is life purpose anyway?
It may be experienced as the unfamiliar opposite of not having arrived somewhere yet. The thing I haven’t done yet, the me I haven’t shown, the potential yet to be realised. The life unlived that seems, somehow, to be mine.
It may be understood as something you do, like a job or a role in society. It often gets talked about in this way, as something intrinsically linked with professional (or academic or creative) activity or perhaps a role such as mother or father.
There may be a more philosophical or spiritual interpretation of the question. Life purpose as a way of being, as self expression through the small ways I bring myself to the world each day. As a moment-by-moment, evolving sense of connection with the world and with others.
To be searching for something.
When life purpose becomes a point of focus, it tends to mean that some change is longed for but that the direction is as yet unclear. That there’s some confusion right now and a desire for a more clear destination. That there’s an empty space in life where something especially meaningful, unique and satisfying is circling in the distance.
That place of seeking, confusion, hope and longing is the one these tips are written for.
Of course when it comes to life purpose we want some quick fixes and concrete plans. We want answers. Timeframes. Words that make sense. For someone to please just tell us what to DO.
Sadly, this is not how life purpose works. By its very nature, it unfurls in a somewhat cryptic manner. If it was obvious and delivered in a neat little package, it probably wouldn’t feel meaningful enough to devote oneself to.
So if an evolving life purpose is indirect, semi-hidden and a little mysterious… how do we proactively engage in its discovery and manifestation?
By walking alongside it to find out the direction of travel. By listening to its native language, rather than trying to enforce our own. By dropping timeframes and goals for long enough to perceive the less obvious nudges that come our way.
When a sense of purpose is wavering, it’s tempting to apply logic; to make lists and search for the most direct route to action. But sometimes cognitive and logical approaches block the path to clarity. They deepen the sense of frustration and confusion, because they are counter to the process of discovery at hand.
So drop the ideas of productivity and decipherable answers for a moment, and try out these alternative means of discovery.
Get yourself back to nature
No, I’m not talking about a naked, tree hugging experience. But it can be helpful to step into the great outdoors with a different frame of mind. Rather than listening to a podcast in the background or charging along a well-trodden path to get your 10k steps done, try something more imaginative. Think of a question or a focus, and take it out for a walk. Rather than waiting for some kind of inner tannoy message telling you what to do, allow yourself to notice what you notice. Things that we aren’t consciously sure of yet are – necessarily – somewhat unconscious. And the language of the not-yet-conscious (not yet verbal) is often metaphor.
Nature is full of information that corresponds exactly to the state of seeking something that’s not quite clear yet. With a question loosely held in mind, the things that you notice whilst out wandering can become meaningful. You might notice the particular shape of a leaf, the way a bird was flying, the expression on the face of someone you passed on the path. It doesn’t matter what it is and it doesn’t have to seem important. But when you get home, jot down what you noticed. Do some writing, seeing what ideas, thoughts, imaginings you can reel off based on what you noticed.
And leave it at that. Even if it’s not a direct answer to the question you asked, trust that something happened in your brain as a result of this process. Something more tangible will probably pop into your head all of a sudden when you’re walking down the aisle at the supermarket in three days time.
Be more dog, more toddler, more pointless
Being a serious, productive, sensible grown up all the time is not particularly conducive to creative new dreams. When schedules are tight and responsibilities are pressing, it takes guts to take time out with no agenda. Time out for exercise, time out for reading, time out to cook a meal… this is great, but it’s still designed for achievement. Time out for watching TV? Yes it’s great to wind down, but it’s not exactly going to set your world on fire.
To play, to explore, to try things out just for the sake of it. These are reflexes that are so very present in childhood that we can easily lose along the way. But it matters. And that kind of time without goals or structure is proven to be the time when the brain goes into ‘creative mode’, when it starts to integrate and unpack the information that we’ve been absorbing or thinking about during the rest of the day.
A great way to approach this can be to get inspired by your childhood. Not the aspects of your childhood you’d bring to your therapist, but the moments of simple joy and absorption. Consider what you loved as a child, or whether you have any memories of being totally absorbed in something that seemed just amazing to you at the time. Take some element of that experience into the present day in a way that doesn’t serve any particularly worthy purpose. Build a tower and knock it down, do a jigsaw, roll down a hill, doodle in a notebook as if it was your only distraction from the most boring maths lesson of your life.
Oh, and the dog part? Being totally present in this moment without needing to think or do or question. Lying down for a sleep in the middle of the day, just because. Now, you might be exasperated at that little idea, but surely you can make time for that, even if it’s just once a year?
However you approach it, the key to finding your purpose is to take a break from your logical, grown-up, driven self. To create new pathways that get you out of habitual thinking and doing. To make space for something new by being different rather than trying to force yourself into a new paradigm by using the same behaviour that created the old one.