A Purposeful Life


Other people have a purpose, I alone don’t know.  

I drift like a wave on the ocean, I blow as aimless as the wind.

     From Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20 - trans. Stephen Mitchell

How often have you been encouraged by book, article, or meme on FaceBook to find your life’s purpose? It’s almost as if your purpose is to find your purpose. This approach presupposes that any dissatisfaction I am experiencing will magically disappear when I find this elusive “purpose.” I confess to having often been caught in that subtle trap of assuming that my life is not quite enough just as it is; that there is something vital I have overlooked that is causing me to have a somehow lessened experience. Even now, at age seventy-two, I find myself occasionally wondering what my “purpose” for these later years might be.

Inevitably such musings lead me into the tall grass of mental confusion and angst. What if I haven’t yet found that “bliss,” – that central driving force that the gurus insist will complete my life? What if I never find it? I’m doing work I enjoy, but is this really “it?” Is it altruistic enough? Does it help lead to world peace and save the environment? Is it loving enough? … all questions the conditioned mind uses to fuel its habitual insistence that I’m not quite good enough just as I am; that there is always something for which to seek in order to “complete” my life.

The search for purpose is easily used to distract us from paying attention to the purpose inherent in the present moment. Taoist thought offers an alternative to this pervasive cultural myth. Perhaps, says Lao-Tzu, purpose is not something to be sought but is actually an inherent quality of each and every life. And perhaps this inherent quality is as natural as breathing – nothing special, simply that which accompanies our experience in every moment, if we are paying attention. There is the rub, paying attention.

If there is some particular “calling”, some over-arching direction for my life it will be discovered, not by intensive searching but by calm and relaxed attention to the present moment. However such mysterious callings are often driven by unconscious motivations of “specialness” and can be a real ego trap unless they are undertaken with a light touch. Dedicating one’s life to a cause, a purpose, a transcendent mystery sounds exciting and compelling, but in this area I suggest we proceed with great care. It is entirely possible that this slippery thing called purpose is far more “ordinary” and does not yield itself to search, but instead waits quietly in each magical breath, waiting for us to pay attention, waiting for us to be willing to take the next little step along the path of our life.

Our life’s path is not something from which we can stray nor is our life’s purpose something we can fail to achieve. The path is always the next small step and the purpose is always inherent in that step. I did not choose to be alive. That is a mysterious gift from an equally Mysterious Giver. Perhaps my purpose is to experience it all to the very depths of my being. In doing so, I truly believe that I will discover “purposeful” activities as a matter of natural course. My purpose is to do these dishes. My purpose is to travel thousands of miles to visit my new granddaughter. My purpose is to walk through the forest this afternoon. My purpose is to listen carefully to my spouse right now. What more purpose could I want than to see, each and every moment, the beauty and opportunity that is set before me?

Relax, enjoy, pay attention, breathe, and let the Tao flow without constriction through your day.

Blessings to us all.