Only one of these questions will help you find the purpose you seek
If you’ve been seeking your purpose in life, you’ve probably been asking a lot of questions. You’ve probably also been frustrated by not getting any clear answers. Without purpose, it can feel as though we are lost adrift in a sea of meaninglessness. Typically when we search for purpose, we will look for an activity that will give aim to our life, such as serving others or championing a cause. However, if we make it about something outside of ourselves, then it has power over whether our life is meaningful, and this just isn’t the case. While any activity may be imbued with purpose, an activity is not a purpose unto itself. Because the carrot you are chasing doesn’t actually exist, it prevents you from knowing your actual purpose.
This was a hard lesson to accept in my own life. I used to harbour hope that if I could just find some need in the world that I could fulfill, then my life would have meaning. My endless search lured me into a false identity. I labelled myself a “seeker”, which conveniently gave me permission to stay lost.
A question with no answer
When I was seeking my purpose, I would awaken every day asking the same question:
What am I supposed to be doing with my life?
My mind clung to the nagging thought there was something meant for me to do, if only I could figure out what it was. Then one morning, seemingly out of the blue, my inner being finally divulged the desperately sought-after answer to my unresolved question. And the answer was… drumroll, please… nothing. There was nothing I was supposed to be doing. I was dumbstruck. This was not the answer I had been expecting. My follow-up question was, if this were true, then why was I even alive? Silence. Without any forthcoming explanation, I went back to sleep.
Days dragged into months and each morning I would would roll out of bed in the same apathetic state until one day I woke up to a splinter of light cracking through the darkness. Something had changed. It occurred to me I had been asking the wrong question. “If there’s nothing I am supposed to be doing, yet I am still here, existing day after day, then what is it I want to do?” It was the pivotal shift from when I stopped looking outside of myself for answers and started asking within. That morning, my feet hit the floor with a new vigor. At last I awoke from my slumber. However, I was soon again discouraged as I learned when it comes to finding purpose, it was still the wrong question.
Life’s biggest question
If we look to the definition of purpose, quite simply it means “a reason for being”. In our minds, we all crave to know that we exist for a reason.
Why am I here?
Isn’t this life’s biggest question? The reality is that no one knows why we are here. Our existence is a mind-boggling mystery. Most of us have developed some kind of story that helps us make sense of it so that we don’t go mad, but I doubt that any of us can prove our version is the irrefutable truth. Nonetheless, there is an underlying paradox that drives our search for meaning. Even if we accept the proposal there is no known purpose to life, there is still an innate desire within every human being to feel purposeful. So how do we reconcile this? Simple, we choose a purpose that makes our life mean something to us.
Years ago, I worked with a young woman who was struggling with grief due to the untimely passing of her best friend when they were both teenagers. “I just want to know why,” she demanded. “It’s all so pointless!” To which I responded, “I don’t know if you will ever know the meaning of your friend’s death, but you do have the choice to make it meaningful to you.” It hadn’t occurred to her that she had the option to determine its meaning for herself. This realization finally brought her some peace.
As mythologist, Joseph Campbell, wrote:
Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life.
It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.
Most people who are seeking their purpose “out in the world” waste years, decades even, trying to find some mysterious objective that does not exist. You find your purpose by determining what makes your life meaningful to you. Your life means what you say it means.
If you’re not sure how to choose a purpose that would make your life feel meaningful to you, allow me to offer a suggestion.
Questioning the world
To help people determine their purpose, I offer an exercise in the Vision Program that I cheekily refer to as “poking at the pain”. I don’t give forewarning as to my intent because if people knew what was coming, their minds would try to circumvent the exercise and thus diminish its impact. In essence, I offer a series of straightforward questions designed to highlight the needs you see in the world:
What is “wrong” with the world?
What is it that aggravates you about other people’s behaviour?
What do you hear yourself complaining about most?
These are all variations of the same question meant to point to what you notice. You may be inexplicably drawn to a particular issue or cause. Perhaps you see a need for children to learn about “self-worth” so they know they are valuable. Maybe you are irritated by people who are “fake” in their speech or actions, thinking they need to be more “authentic”. You might be passionate about supporting animal rights because there needs to be someone who “gives voice to those who can’t speak for themselves”. Or you might be quick to anger about people who are “oppressors”.
I ask the above questions because I’ve noticed that we tend to project our own unmet needs onto the world. Using the participant’s own responses, I turn them around and ask if they are doing the same to themselves. Are they questioning their own “self-worth” or “value”? Are they being “inauthentic”? Are they not “speaking up for themselves”? Or are they being cruel to or “suppressing” some part of themselves? Often people are astounded at how accurate these reflections are. It’s not a coincidence. We are all projecting all of the time. Sometimes it’s easier to identify our needs when we are outwardly casting them onto others than to feel into them for ourselves. This is because this is the “pain” part and, as humans, we tend to avoid feeling our suffering as much as possible.
What I’m reaching for with this exercise is to reveal what I call your “point of separation”. For most of us, when we were young, we experienced some kind of trauma that caused us to start believing lies about who we are. Based on the lies, we created stories about ourselves that weren’t true. I call them our “not enough” stories. We started to believe a story that we weren’t worthy or that our voices don’t matter. We were told we were inappropriate or there was something wrong with us, so we suppressed our authentic selves. These stories all reflect our deepest wound, which is the separation from our true self.
The reason to “poke at your pain” is not to relive the trauma of it or to get stuck in the past, it is to spotlight where you have been inadvertently maintaining separation from who you really are. As written by spiritual poet, Mark Nepo, “You cannot set upon the journey of becoming a whole person until you know where and how you are divided.”
The tension we feel as a result of this internal division creates the perception there is an unfulfilled need within ourselves. It is this gap that lingers in our awareness throughout our lives. Without understanding the origin of this internal chasm, we may try to fill it using external measures such as acquiring money, accumulating things, pursuing relationships, chasing goals, or even sacrificing our lives to service. However, nothing outside of ourselves will ever soothe the pain of living apart from the truth of who we are. The only antidote to this affliction is the return to wholeness within.
The question of my humanity
In my personal story, my wholeness began to fracture around my age of nine with the breakdown of my family unit. After a couple of years of turmoil, my mom, who was struggling with her own wound, made a decision to walk out on our family. I came home from school one afternoon and she was just gone. A year later, my dad, similarly wrestling with his own pain, evicted me from our family home and left me and my belongings on the street. Of course, at that young age, I did not have the benefit of maturity to understand that my parents were suffering and that their behaviour had nothing to do with me. As would be expected of a child, I was devastated. In the aftermath of the second abandonment, I made an unconscious decision to abandon myself. At the age of 12, I ceased living.
The impact of this situation was that I became incapable of feeling any kind of emotion. I trudged about little more than a vacuous shell. When I look back at photos of my younger self, I cringe at the lifelessness in my eyes. Most days then, it was a stretch even to feel numb. In this anesthetized state, I questioned my own humanity.
What kind of person can’t feel anything?
I thought myself abhorrent. I decided I wasn’t even worthy of being alive. Ouch. It still stings a little to say that, even after all these years. Thankfully, later as an adult, my quest to find purpose is what brought me back to life.
Reorienting to a different question
My search began like most everyone else’s. I ventured down many paths trying to find what would make my life seem meaningful. After years of several dead ends, I finally hit the proverbial wall. My crisis rendered me into a sobbing mess. “What’s wrong with me? I just want to be inspired!” I cried. I had had these outbursts many times before, but this particular time I actually heard myself.
I just want to be inspired.
Not “I want the world to be inspiring”.
Not “I want to inspire others”.
But “I want to BE inspired” from within myself.
What I really wanted was to shed my soul-suffocating encasement of a lie and allow the energy that creates worlds to light me up from within and pour through me into existence. I wanted to feel inspired. This was the meaning I had been searching for.
My zombie-like existence had been my way of attempting to avoid my pain, however, my suffering was not about what my parents had “done to me”. (If only I could get back all the money I spent on therapy.) They weren’t the problem, the real source of my pain was that I decided to believe a lie about who I was – that I was not whole unto myself.
It requires a great deal of energy to maintain the lie of separation. We drain our life force to our wounds in a multitude of ways – we hide from them, ignore them, numb ourselves to them, distract ourselves from them, justify them, obsess about them, even attempt to heal them. As we continue to divert our energy to these tactics, we deplete ourselves.
If you have been previously unaware of how you’ve been shunting your energy to your wound, your search for purpose is an opportunity to reclaim your power. Your wound is not who you are, it represents the lie you’ve been living. The lie of separation. Instead of focusing on the wound, ask yourself what the wound has caused you to want to live.
What has my point of separation caused me to want?
Your deepest wound is the place where you’ve been living the furthest away from the truth of who you are. When you reorient yourself to living back into your truth, that’s when life feels meaningful. You can then infuse that meaning into anything you choose to do, including your work.
It’s the question of purpose
In actuality, purpose is arbitrary. There is no assignment you’ve been given. There is no task you are here to achieve. There is no one you are here to save. There is nothing you are here to do. Simply, you are here to be. This is your real work.
Now when I am asked what I “do” for work, I tell the truth. I say that my only real job is to be inspired. This is my version of wholeness. Every person will have their own unique way of expressing their wholeness for themselves.
If you want to determine your purpose in life, ask yourself:
Who am I here to be?
You will know you have arrived at the right answer for yourself because it will awaken you to your entire life. It will mean something to you. Not only is your purpose who you are here to be, it is actually who you’ve always been. You are already whole. Your answer is just a reminder of that truth.
Now that you have answered the actual question of purpose, your search is over. Welcome back to being you.