Do you wonder about life’s purpose?
Like many other teenagers, when I was a teenager I didn’t trust anyone over 30. (In fact, my best friend at the time, Humpty, didn’t even plan to live past 30, although he actually made it twice that long.)
I also didn’t trust anyone who had not seriously contemplated suicide. How could anyone who had never lived deeply enough to question life have anything interesting to tell me about it? Albert Camus thought that suicide was the “one truly serious philosophical problem,” and it is the most important problem. Apparently, sadly, there seem to be many herd-humans (“pannyassers” as our Group used to call them) who never directly confront the question.
Set aside secondary purposes such as your career (like being a teacher or a carpenter), your family and your accomplishments (like public service). Questions about your secondary purposes are also important, but they’re not the topic here.
Outside an identity crisis, many people seem not to wonder much about life’s purpose. Identity crises are stimulated by losses, which are terrible to experience. The good news, though, is that the greater your loss, the more open you are likely to be to getting clear about your life’s purpose.
I am not arrogant enough to claim to know what your life’s purpose is or should be. Perhaps, though, you are like me in that our goals are the same.
As Eckhart Tolle points out [see the resource below], it’s important to question the relationship between time and purpose. Usually, we tend to think that a goal or purpose is something to be fulfilled, if at all, sometime in the future. It’s temporally distant.
Although it may seem odd to do so, please separate time and purpose. Even if you are on your deathbed with only a few more hours or even just minutes to live, there is still sufficient time to fulfill your life’s purpose. Even if you have never lived well for a single moment, there is still sufficient time for you to live well – and that’s true as long as you are experiencing the present moment.
Here’s the problem with not separating time and purpose: the future time at which you imagine your purpose may be fulfilled is not real and will never arrive! Therefore, if so and you fail to separate time and purpose, you guarantee that you will not fulfill your purpose.
The future is always ahead of us, somewhere out there beyond the present moment. Life is lived in the present moment. If you want to think of the future arriving, that’s fine as long as you think of it as arriving in the guise of the present moment. In other words, it’s impossible to live in the future.
Therefore, the question to ask is, “What is life’s purpose in the present moment?”
As it happens, you are now reading this passage, but you could be doing almost anything else. So your purpose could not, then, be some particular activity. Nor could it be something you have gained (such as an achievement) in the past, because the past, too, is not the present moment.
Actually, by itself this insight may lighten your load considerably. If you failed to get that degree or win that job or successfully marry the spouse of your dreams, no matter! What really counts is right now.
Most of us think of ourselves as continuant substrata, which are supposedly entities that endure through consecutive times and have various qualities. Given the dramatic alterations of our bodies, that unintelligible stuff underneath our qualities doesn’t seem to be material. Except when we are in dreamless sleep, the only activity that seems to be almost continuous is thinking. So it is natural for us to identify with a stream of thoughts.
This is unfortunate for various reasons. An important one is that it makes us afraid to stop thinking. After all, if I were to stop thinking, what would I be? Nothing!
So we live with a mind-made sense of what we are, which is a “self” or an “ego/I.” That’s what I am, right?
As great philosophers such as the Buddha and David Hume have pointed out, there is no “self” object (form, thing) to be found either in perception or introspection. So, stuck on the idea of a self and unable to locate it as an object, we seem forced to take it to be a collection of things.
If we have sufficient courage, we then wonder, “What is holding this collection together?” There must be something!
[This kind of argument is called a “transcendental” argument. Transcendental arguments are always susceptible to serious empiricist criticisms. The most notorious one in the history of science was “ether” which, it was thought for theoretical reasons, must be there. Einstein showed us how to change our theory and, so, eliminate the need for positing the ether, which physicists have subsequently dropped.]
Well, no. You are not an object at all, much less a posited object. This whole way of thinking, however popular, is incoherent and fails to stand up to examination.
Furthermore, it’s good that you are not some individual object! If you were, you would be forever separated from all other individuals. Since separation is the source of suffering, this would mean that you would always have to suffer.
As the Buddha seems to have been the first to demonstrate, once you stop clinging to the thought that you are a separate self, there is no need to suffer. [As always, please do not confuse suffering with pain. At least occasional pain goes with living, but suffering is optional.]
So, if this is the first time you have followed the dialectic to this point, you should be wondering, “Who am I? If I am not a separate self, what am I?”
Answer: you are nothing less than Being. (Follow the link to find a list of synonyms and phrases often used to refer to what I am referring to here by using ‘Being.’)
Being is timeless.
If so, instead of being a temporal entity (a continuant substratum or self) in Becoming, you are timeless Being.
Therefore, life’s purpose is not temporal. It cannot be. It is, for example, nothing to be fulfilled in the future. The purpose of timeless Being cannot be in time! There’s nothing temporal about Being.
Instead, life’s purpose is timeless. Actually, it is right here “in” this present moment!
If you are like me, life’s purpose is to bring Being to Becoming.
Unless you are a sage (and I am not), this does not mean that you won’t frequently fall back into normal, in other words, dysfunctional living. You may forget that you are Being and again sometimes think of yourself as a separate entity in Becoming. (That’s just ontological acrasia [backsliding]!)
If so, what changes?
Nothing and everything!
For example, you will continue to engage in the same activities as before, such as washing, sleeping, eating, talking with friends, and so on. You will still perceive houses and sunsets and other people. In that sense, nothing will change.
However, the more you fully realize and absorb the idea that you are no longer a separate human being but Being manifested as a human, the less and less you’ll cling to the old idea that you are a person. The truth is simple: nothing is personal. So you’ll detach more and more from the personal.
The practical implication of this is that you will, more and more, begin treating each moment as an end in itself as opposed to treating it as nothing but a means to something else.
This does not mean that activities will cease to have functions, goals, ends. You may still, for example, eat a peach with the intention of diminishing your hunger. However, that function will become secondary to the primary experience in the present moment, namely, in this case, eating the peach. (I here deliberately am using the same example I used on my coaching CD’s.)
Sometimes, now, you may be in despair. You may feel worthless. You may suffer from low self-esteem. Those feelings will lift, permanently. You’ll realize your True Self [Being] to be infinitely valuable.
There are two ways to do anything: well and poorly.
To eat a peach well, focus on eating it. If, instead, your mind is elsewhere, you are suffering (whether or not you admit it). You are not enjoying life in the present moment if you are not paying attention to what you are doing. If you are lost in thought, you are missing life and, so, living poorly.
In other words, everything changes once you stop reducing whatever you are doing in the present moment as a means to some future end. Since the future is nothing but a set of imaginary thoughts, you stop reducing life to a set of conceptual judgments.
What’s wrong with doing that? Concepts are dead, static, lifeless. Reality appears dead to the mind! Therefore, as you more and more get mind out of the way, you will more and more experience the aliveness, the” thusness,” of entities.
Thich Nhat Han: “Practicing Buddhism is a clever way to enjoy life.”
A single moment of awakening fulfills life’s purpose. Awakening is realizing Being; instead of doing what you have always done, namely, assuming that you are in the world, to awaken is to realize that you are what is the world is doing in the present moment.
Awakening is Being’s consciousness of itself.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended resource: EckhartTolle’s “Finding Your Life’s Purpose” (DVD).