For all the heartache it came with, the coronavirus pandemic was an unexpected blessing; I emerged feeling more connected to my mortality and hungrier to live with purpose.
But this threw up difficult questions. The two biggies were:
- How do I figure out my purpose?
- In fact, what on earth do we even mean when we speak of ‘purpose’?
Self-help gurus and social media influencers are only too quick to answer the first question while glossing over the second. They nonchalantly throw out instructions such as, “to figure out your purpose, first find your why”.
But to live with purpose, surely I would need to understand its essential nature? That might save me looking in the wrong places and making hasty conclusions.
In this article I want to take this higher level view.
What is purpose? Is it a grandiose mission? Does it involve standing up for my beliefs? Is it something to do with ‘starting with why’? Consider your preconceptions: what ideas or images pop up in relation to purpose?
The parable of the three stonecutters
In helping to understand the nature of purpose, the parable of three stonecutters offers food for thought:
A man comes across three stonecutters. Under the midday sun, each of them is chipping away laboriously at a large block of granite.
He asks the ﬁrst stonecutter what he’s doing. The stonecutter barks back, “I’m cutting this stone, can’t you see? Let me work!”
Approaching the second stonecutter, our curious man asks the same question. Pointing to the wall taking shape, he says, “I have to build walls like this because it’s my job. How else am I supposed to put food on my family’s table?”
Finally, the man turns to the third stonecutter and asks the same question. With a smile on his face, the third stonecutter replies, “I’m building a cathedral!” Sweeping his arm over the wall, he explains, “Decades from now, my grandchildren will worship in the grandest cathedral in the land. And I will have played a small part in building it.”
To me, this parable shows that purpose is an attitude, an internal experience, and a way of being. It’s not only what we do but also how we do it:
- The first stonecutter is ill-tempered, betraying an internal resistance. Perhaps his disconnection from the meaning of his work blocks him from experiencing purpose.
- The second stonecutter, at least, has an answer: he’s doing this to put food on the table. But his attitude stems from pure pragmatism. By compartmentalising his activity, and framing it as a means to an end, perhaps he also cuts off the flow of purpose.
- The third stonecutter describes the possible ripple effects of his work, transcending immediate self-concern. His activity on the material plane is a manifestation of who he is and what inspires him. I imagine this person would feel most in tune with their purpose.
Of course, this is just my interpretation, and I’m sure the parable will speak differently to others. I draw three main lessons from it.
Firstly, purpose is an embodied experience. It’s energy which flows inside us only when we’re present and tuned into the moment, the person in front of us, or the task at hand.
The second lesson follows from the first: having a reason for doing something – in other words, ‘having a why’ – isn’t the same thing as being tuned into purpose. Whys live in our head, while purpose emerges from our heart. But this doesn’t mean they cannot coexist in harmony.
Lastly, purpose reflects who we truly are and what we truly care about. We don’t get to choose what this looks like, but we do get to choose how it will be expressed on the material plane.
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Purposeful grocery shopping
These three lessons hold true regardless of what I’m doing at any given moment. In other words, grandiosity of action is not a prerequisite for purpose. Take the simplest example of going grocery shopping, an errand I often find myself dreading.
My first decision is whether or not to drop into the present moment and the task at hand. To my wife’s frustration, I often choose not to do so, bringing an unbearable sense of impatience to the supermarket aisles. ‘Grocery shopping’ has become the enemy – an obstacle I need to fight through so I can get on with the rest of my day.
If I can be a little more present, my rational centre can then come back online. I remember why I must endure this weekly torment: for instance, so we can make delicious, nutritious meals for the week instead of relying on unhealthy takeout. At best, this turns the experience into a neutral one. It isn’t inspiring, but neither is it agonising.
But when I also listen to my heart, and tune into purpose, shopping becomes a very different experience. Can I hear the whispers of unfettered gratitude each time I pick up an item? Can I notice the humanness and vulnerability of those shoppers around me? Can I see this moment in the shops as a microcosm of my life, and approach it with grace, openness and acceptance?
The distinction between inner purpose and outer purpose
It’s easy to forget that we’re only ever doing one thing at a time. What I call ‘doing the groceries’ entails thousands of different actions: opening the car door, sitting down, reminding my partner to put her seatbelt on, and so on.
Each of those actions is an opportunity to slow down, allow purpose to flow, and express something of that purpose.
“We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”
I realise this presents something of a paradox: if our sense of purpose is related to the quality of energy we bring to each moment, is there any point fixating on plans, visions, goals and material strivings? For me, the answer is a resounding yes, otherwise I unwittingly usher in a form of nihilism.
Eckhart Tolle’s distinction between inner purpose and outer purpose helps us resolve this dilemma:
“Your life has an inner purpose and an outer purpose. Inner purpose concerns Being, and is primary. Outer purpose concerns doing, and is secondary.
Your outer purpose can change over time. It varies greatly from person to person. Finding and living in alignment with the inner purpose is the foundation for fulfilling your outer purpose. It is the basis for true success.
Without that alignment, you can still achieve certain things through effort, struggle, determination, and sheer hard work or cunning. But there is no joy in such endeavour, and it invariably ends in some form of suffering.”
~ Eckhart Tolle
These words ring true for me. When I fixate on my outer purpose without staying connected to the solid foundation of inner purpose, I flounder.
This distinction opens up a new understanding of purpose, and we can now revisit the first question I posed at the start of this article: “How do I figure out my purpose?”
Given everything discussed so far, this question now appears to be framed wrongly. Increasingly, I’m finding it more useful to ask, “How do I wish to express my purpose?”
As Tolle says, the answer to this question (my outer purpose) will change now and then. After all, I’m constantly in flux: as I undergo various life transitions, my roles, relationships and passions will shift. But my inner purpose won’t change because it’s tied to the essence of my being.
I currently have several outer purposes, reflecting the multifaceted nature of purpose. Not only am I a son, husband, friend and colleague, but I’m also an aspiring writer, amateur pianist, and passionate grocery shopper 🙂
These outer dimensions of my purpose will come and go with the sands of time, but my inner purpose will always be alive and untouched within.