Purpose — not something you find
Purpose as an unfolding thread and how to re-connect to it
Purpose in times of transition
In these times of transition and uncertainty so much is written about purpose — how we can live more purposefully and let it guide our actions / decisions / projects / work / life? In a sense we seem to see purpose as a practical and moral compass to guide us, help us make better decisions or at least stop us making bad ones.
It of course all feels more pertinent when faced with significant, life-changing challenges like the ones thrown at us in 2020. But I wonder if the number of hours we spend trying to define our ‘purpose statement’ could be replaced with time spent fostering a sense of curiosity, where are you being led? It all seems rather symptomatic of our obsession with ‘leading with brain’ and our quest to reduce and understand even the most complex and nuanced things. If we can understand it, explain it in 280 characters then it’s worth pursuing.
Like everything else to even try this feels like an act of taming, a ‘de-wilding’ of our purpose. How on earth can something as potentially magical as purpose, especially when considered as our ‘life’s work’ be reduced to something so characterless and one-dimensional as that?
What if purpose was instead something much more alive, a wild untamed presence in us? An irrepressible force that shows up in multiple ways in the unfolding of our lives.
In my own experience *real* purpose is rarely a comfortable experience. True purpose comes from the things that nag us. It is the sort of thing that comes not from focussed attention but the dark hours of our existence. The kind of uncomfortable feeling that stalks you in the middle of the night. It shakes us awake, refuses to go away, even when we really, really, really want it to.
But it has no right to go away.
It is a wild energy not something to be tamed.
And like the wild twin, if we cast it out it will come back some time, some place, somewhere. Usually when we want or expect it least. That is what happens in those moments in our life and career when the heart makes ‘choices’ that even our over-worked brains don’t seem to know how to handle. Those life changing moments, purpose in action, whether we like it or not.
Your purpose as a thread
If we take the time to notice purpose in this deeper way we can track it back further into our life and we’ll see its influence as a regular if not constant presence. Sure, it’ll show up in different ways at different times but it’s from the same root, a combination of our unique gifts and wounds that somehow constellate into who we are right here, right now.
Considered like this purpose is more of a thread, a golden thread if you like, woven into the fabric of who we are. For me this is best articulated by this poem by William Stafford.
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
The Way it is — William Stafford
When purpose is viewed in a reciprocal way, between our deepest selves and our conscious, there is a risk that we become passive. That we might just wait for it to show up again.
Your job is to hold onto the thread — that is not just enough, it is a lot. The world will want you to drop it, to change it. To paraphrase William Stafford, *shit happens*
Here are some ways I try to keep hold of my thread
1. Pay attention
When reconnecting back to purpose I always try and start from a place of gratitude. It is a radical act, it subverts everything. It is also a generative concept, it breaks the negative feedback loop that feeds off our endless pursuit of happiness that lives outside of us.
Pay attention to what you already have, you have naturally been gravitating towards your purpose — you are already living it, there is nothing to find, let alone define.
Even feeling a little lost is OK too. It will rarely make sense to you, let alone anyone else. You’ll make decisions that seem odd and reckless and you won’t be able to stop yourself. There will be times when you forget about the thread, did you even have one? Be kind to yourself. Radical kindness is what is called for in these times of transition.
One day, you’ll notice a frayed end resting in your palm. Pick it up, start again.
2. Create Space
In these super-charged times the concept of space feels like a luxury but it seems that our ability to cultivate time for listening might be a superpower in times like these.
“The Times are Urgent, Let Us Slow Down”
— Bayo Akomolafe
For me and the groups and individuals I work with this means creating space to sit, to simply be, in nature — a 20-minute pause in nature, a wild meditation. 20 minutes is the minimum time as it is the time it takes for the nature around you to adapt to your presence and for me it takes this long to drop in, to shake off the distractions. But from this place of noticing we can start to let in a bigger sense of ourselves, our deep interconnectedness, tap into a little humility, bow our heads, understand what is important.
3. Allow yourself to be surprised
I love the idea of purpose as an unfolding sense of self. A self with many flavours but the same source. If I had a tattoo it would be of this short but beautiful piece by the late Irish poet/philosopher John O’Donohue.
“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding”
― John O’Donohue
It speaks to me of trusting the unfolding of our own purpose and where it is headed. Relishing it’s twists and turns, the rapids and the pools. Not knowing where it is going but trusting and letting go. Not a passive act but an active participant in life.
This doesn’t mean purpose statements are dead
All of this means that you shouldn’t stop trying to articulate ‘your why’ but rather that you should see it as part of the process rather than the end point in the journey. It is always going to be a ‘point in time’ articulation of the thread as it shows up at the time. See it as something not written in a tablet of stone but rather in the flow of where you are at. Trade off the crafting of the perfect statement with a commitment to doing the work, creating the space and paying attention. Feeling your purpose and living it in the actions you take on an everyday level is where the magic happens.