Purpose

by Dennis Bradford

in intellectual well-being

What is the purpose (value, meaning) of what we do?

Every deliberate human act or action actually has two values. Neglect of one of them is common and causes us to suffer needlessly.

One kind is the intrinsic (internal, inner); the other kind is the extrinsic (external, outer).

It’s easy to illustrate the extrinsic value. Suppose you are walking down the hallway to go to another room. What is the extrinsic purpose of the act of walking?

That’s easy: to get to another place. That place, the other room, is obviously something in addition to, or outside, the walking itself. It’s the goal of the walking.

This is what Aristotle called the “final” cause [causa ut] of the walking, its telos in Greek, which means “end.”. (Interestingly, it’s central to Aristotle’s world view that all things, not just acts, have such ends.)

It’s also easy to understand that every act must have such an end or goal. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t know what to do!

Why, for example, would you eat if you didn’t want to satisfy your hunger or to enjoy the taste of food?

Why would you wash if not to get clean?

Why would you drive in a northerly direction if you didn’t want to go someplace north of your present location?

So getting to the other room is the extrinsic purpose of your walking down the hallway. You are not just walking aimlessly (unless walking aimlessly was itself the extrinsic purpose of the walking).

If asked while walking, “What is the goal of your walking?” or “What are you trying to do?” or “Why are you walking in that direction?”, you’d naturally answer by telling the interlocutor that you are trying to get to that other room.

We don’t just act in a random manner for no reason. We act because we are trying to accomplish something. That something is the extrinsic purpose of an act.

What, though, is the intrinsic value of an act?

Sadly, this other kind of purpose is easily ignored or overlooked.

One way to approach it is to distinguish an act’s “what” from its “how.”

If you were asked while walking, “What are you doing?”, you’d reply that you are going to the other room. That satisfactorily answers the question.

However, if you were asked, “How are you walking?”, you might be puzzled about how to reply.

Notice that one answer might be, “I’m walking mindfully,” in other words, you are paying attention to your walking while you are walking.

You may well not be walking mindfully. You might, for example, be thinking about what you are going to do in the other room once you get there. If so, you would be walking distractedly, without paying conscious attention to what you are doing.

Here is where we become unbalanced. We mistakenly assume or hope that some future moment will be better than the present moment, which is why we are constantly thinking ahead.

Do you understand the problem with doing this?

If you are constantly thinking ahead to the future, you are constantly failing to pay conscious attention to the present moment. What’s wrong with doing that?

The present moment is the only moment we ever have. Put another way, the future always appears as present, which is why nothing ever happens in the future. The future is nothing but a set of thoughts!

If we are always distracted from paying attention to the present moment by thinking about the future, we are in the habit of missing our lives. Our lives only ever happen in the present moment. Our lives never happen in the future.

Separation is always the source of suffering.  Insofar as we are doing one thing while thinking about another, we suffer.

So ignoring how we do something while we are doing it is a terrible habit to be in. It is ignoring the intrinsic purpose of an act.

All deliberate acts have an intrinsic purpose as well as an extrinsic purpose. What is it?

It’s the same in all acts: to bring Being into Becoming [click here for the critical distinction between Being and Becoming].

Other kinds of sentient beings such as other mammal species have no difficulty living in the present moment. Unlike humans, as far as I can tell they don’t have the ability to ignore the present by thinking about the future.

This ability of ours is a precious gift, but we constantly misuse it.

Our distinctive purpose as human beings is to open Becoming to Being.  

We do this by using our minds properly, by focusing our attention correctly.  Sometimes we need to think (conceptualize) to solve problems, but most of the time thinking is not required.

Paying full attention without thinking is living mindfully.  It is nothing other than living without distraction.  If it is necessary to think, think; otherwise, just pay full attention to whatever you are doing in the present moment.

We suffer so much from ignoring the intrinsic purpose of an act that it is as if we are living a dream life. In a sense, we are.

It’s not only possible to wake up from it, it’s simple to do so. “Simple” does not mean “easy.”

Now you are able to understand why it’s not easy: it requires breaking an insidious habit. Every adult who has tried understands how difficult breaking a habit can be.

What makes this habit worth breaking is also easy to understand: there is no suffering in the present moment.

(As I speak, “suffering” is psychological and not to be confused with pain that has physical causes. There can be pain in the present moment, but it’s just pain. I use “suffering” to refer to being uneasy, discontent, dissatisfied, unhappy, dukkha, and so on.)

When we use our minds correctly, we don’t suffer.  The argument for a life balanced between the two kinds of values depends upon this fact.

In other words, we balance our lives when we pay attention to the intrinsic as well as to the extrinsic purpose of our acts. Why is a balanced life better than one that ignores the intrinsic difference?

It’s because there is no suffering when living a balanced life.  Fully enlightened sages never suffer.

Why don’t you resolve to find out for yourself whether or not that is true?

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