A Guide to a Life of Purpose
That purpose could be a lot of things:
- To make the lives of people better through coaching, writing, podcasting
- To serve an audience, a small team, a group of people in your community
- To raise kids who are self-sufficient and happy with themselves
- To help others feel empowered to speak out, to pursue their dreams, to feel heard
- To help those in need, those who are suffering
- To be a good person to everyone you meet, so that they might feel the magic of kindness
- To dedicate your life to helping others get enlightened so that they are freed from suffering (the Bodhisattva path)
And millions of other possibilities. You don’t have to be making a living off of your passion — as long as you feel you are doing something meaningful, and you care deeply about those who you’re serving.
The training has to be about something bigger than yourself. It’s not just about self-improvement, but growth to serve others.
Two big reasons it’s important to have some kind of purpose bigger than yourself:
- You need a deep reason: If you don’t have a deeper reason for doing the training, you’ll wuss out when things get hard. And when things get hard, that’s when things get really good. That’s when true change happens.
- You need to get out of your closed-in world: Much of the time, we’re very concerned about ourselves. About how we look, about what people think about us, about whether we’re being treated right, about why they have to be like that to us, whether we’ll get what we want, about whether we’re good enough. Our self-concern is natural, but it closes us in to a very small world of self-concern that makes us less happy, less content.
Let’s look at these a little closer. And then talk about how to find your deeper purpose, and beyond that, how to live a life of purpose.
A Deeper Reason to Push Into Discomfort
Imagine this: you decide to go into a weeklong meditation retreat, because it would be nice to be more mindful. Sounds really nice, right?
But then you get to the retreat, and after a brief intro, they have you sit and meditate. Then walk a bit, in silence, meditating as you walk. Then sitting in meditation. Repeat until you eat in silence. Go to bed early, because tomorrow you’re going to meditate all day, speaking to no one. As you get to your room, you realize this is way harder than you thought when you fantasized about it.
You get through the second day, but again in your room, you start to think about escaping. You don’t want to do this anymore. You don’t really care about this meditation enough to keep doing it when your hips are sore, your back is tired, your mind is tired.
This is a key juncture: do you quit or do you keep training?
The truth is that if you can push into the discomfort, with love, and keep going … it’ll be an amazing breakthrough for you, an opening up of your habitual patterns. It’ll be a place of growth, of learning, of tremendous change.
This is the kind of training that you need to put yourself in if you want to grow. Not a meditation retreat, necessarily, but any kind of practice that makes you want to retreat. It doesn’t have to be hardcore, just something that causes you to be uncomfortable, that causes your old habitual patterns to come up.
At this point, if you have something you care about — a group of people you really love, who you want to serve — you can stay in this place of discomfort and growth.
If you don’t, you’ll probably run. Because why put yourself through that?
You need the deeper reason.
A Way Out of Our Closed-In World
Besides giving you a deeper reason to push into discomfort … having a purpose expands your world.
Most of us live worried about ourselves most of the time, worried about whether or not:
- We get what we want
- We’re in discomfort, pain, illness
- We have bodies we like
- Other people are treating us nicely or fairly
- People think highly of us or not
- Things are difficult, stressful, overwhelming
- Things go the way we like, things are orderly, things are pleasurable
And so forth. We want what we want, we want others to be nice to us and think highly of us, we want to be happy and good looking, etc.
But this is a narrow world. It’s small — focused only on ourselves and what we want or don’t want.
Having a bigger purpose, focused on helping others, broadens that world. It expands our view so that we’re thinking of others andourselves, and how we are all interconnected.
It’s a much more fulfilling way to live.
How to Find the Purpose
That’s all great, but how do you find your purpose if you don’t have a clue where to start looking?
There are two guiding principles:
- Clear away all distractions, and
- Listen deeply
If you don’t have a clear purpose yet, if you haven’t found work or an activity that gives you fulfillment and meaning … it would help to make looking for that your main purpose. Your entire focus is on seeking a purpose.
So clear everything out, and have no distractions. Simplify things so that you can start looking. Clear your schedule as much as you can, drop your commitments to the extent that you can (as they’re not meaningful to you anyway).
Then do this:
- Make a list of everything you do right now. Which ones give you meaning and fulfillment? Which don’t?
- Make a list of things you’ve done in the past that have given you meaning. Are there any connections between them? Any connections to the ones on your current list?
- Open to suffering in your life. Things become more meaningful when you’ve been through suffering — it’s not something to be avoided, but something to work with, something to grow with, a path to deeper meaning. Think about the most meaningful experiences in your life — they probably involved other people, and they probably involved some kind of suffering.
- Take time in silence. Out in nature, on a couch meditating. Use the silence to listen — to your heart, to the infinite, to your deeper consciousness. Really listen. Open yourself to not knowing.
- Open to the not knowing even as you interact with others and read books and online articles. What are people saying that feels meaningful? What inspiration can you find?
- Open yourself to others: their challenges, their feedback.
- Listening, listening … then pick something and take action. You won’t really know until you get started, so pick anything that feels remotely right: volunteer, work at a non-profit, write a blog or a book, start recording something, find someone to help as best you can. Get started, take action, and see what happens.
You do not have to have the perfect answer to get started. That’s a need for perfection, a need for knowing. Instead, embrace not-knowing, and just start.
How to Live a Life of Purpose
Once you’ve found an approximation of your purpose, some kind of meaningful activity … now it’s time to live a life of deeper purpose.
There’s no one way to do that … but here are some ideas:
- Start to cultivate a list of guiding principles. Gather them from books, from things that speak to you, from things you’ve learned over the years. These are not things you need to be hardened around, but values and ideas that seem to guide you well. Keep the list somewhere visible. Live by these principles as much as you can, adjusting your behavior regularly if needed, tossing out or revising principles as you learn, not holding to them too tightly.
- Keep your purpose front of mind. Every day, reflect on your purpose. How are you living it? How can you go deeper or expand with it? What one or two things can you do today to serve that purpose?
- Set an intention with each task. If you’re going to write an article, record a video, clean a church floor, see a patient … start that activity by setting an intention to serve the people you care deeply about with love, mindfulness, devotion, or whatever you want to bring to that activity. It helps to set the intention, because the activity becomes filled with purpose, instead of something not very meaningful.
- Have regular reviews. I’ve found that it’s one thing to have an intention, but it’s another to actually live it. We forget, we get distracted, we fall into habitual patterns. To get us back on track, it really helps to have regular reviews. For example: have a 5-minute review at the end of the day — how did you do today? How can you get better? Maybe write 1-2 sentences in a journal. Or just reflect on it. Do the same each week: plan out your week on Sundays (for example), but also review your past week. How can you adjust for the upcoming week? And each month, and each year. Put these on your calendar and don’t skip it when the review date comes up!
- Have people hold your purpose in their hearts. Find at least 1-2 other people (and ideally more) who will hold your purpose in their hearts. That means: you tell them about it, they care about you and what you’re doing, and they’ll ask you about it, maybe support your mission in some way. They’ll challenge you if they feel you’re not doing everything you can or living your best life. They’ll share their mission with you. They’ll be on the journey with you, because no one fulfills their deepest purpose alone.
- Connect to your fulfillment. Reflect on the meaning you get from fulfilling your purpose. Don’t just go through the motions — feel it, deeply. Feel the love you’re offering (and receiving) as you push into this purpose. See the good you’re doing for others. Live your life as love.
It’s not something that happens overnight, and it’s not always simple to live a life of purpose. But putting these ideas into practice, you’ll feel a greater sense of meaning in your life.