At the end of his life, the much beloved and influential Zen Master, Seung Sahn, was asked by one of his pupils the purpose of his life.
“The purpose of my life,” he said, “is finding the purpose of my life.”
Boom. Drop the mic.
Seung Sahn isn’t promoting rumination and, as far as I know, he wasn’t in full cerebral stroke when he said this.
He was pointing to a game changing perspective on life purpose.
One, purpose has fluidity. It can be created and re-created, changing as you and life around you change. Your purpose can change and it can change at multiple levels, such as family, friend, partner, job, today, tomorrow, this morning, and even now as you read this.
Frankly, the levels are limited only by your imagination. The purpose of your life today–and only today– is the purpose of YOUR LIFE. Tomorrow’s purpose may differ.
As a psychotherapist, I encourage some of my clients to play with this idea for a couple of weeks or so. Either before bed or when they first awaken, they ask themselves (sometimes in a journal or voice recording, or even set auto-reminders throughout the day), “what is the purpose of my life today, or for the next 4 hours, or right now, or whatever?” Keep the scale small and pick something different each time you ask the question.
Don’t knock it till you try it.
Guess what they found?
In their daily lives, they noticed they had a more active, alert and open engagement with life. They were more accepting of challenge. More curious. More courageous. More forgiving of their imperfections.
Why? Because they didn’t need the grand answer to the purpose question. The smaller answers to smaller purpose-related questions led to BIG shifts in well-being.
And…more depth in living.
You know what else they discovered?
The contentment that comes with depth in living has nothing to do with their best, most successful, most uniquely peak-performing self.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
It gets better. They learned something else that shifted their perspective on life and purpose:
The question becomes the direction.
In often small, seemingly insignificant ways, questions about purpose, NOT ANSWERS, provide guidance. I’m not bashing answers. Some answers are great…AND…some questions bring more depth to living than answers.
If you want to get serious about life-changing questions, try my free “Launch Your Personal Transformation” email mini course. Meet and answer the ten crucial questions that will compel you to live more vitally. Again, why are questions important?
Because the questions, themselves, spawn direction.
Keeping the question alive seems to be part of the path of wisdom. The holding of the question, over time, builds greater tolerance for and, appreciation of, the inevitable and unavoidable mysteries and paradoxes we encounter and, quite often, a growing freedom from the relentless anxieties that are part of the need to figure stuff out that isn’t meant to be simplified, rationalized or compartmentalized from the rest of life.
Simply stated: embrace your not-knowing side and feel stronger, fuller and more resilient.
There are good questions (life-giving ones) and crummy questions (life-sapping ones).
The difference is important. I’d like to encourage you to attend to the questions you ask of yourself rather than jumping to fix-the-pain-now mode with positive thinking or control strategies. I promise I won’t peddle infinite positivity to you. My friend, you are too rich in spirit and complex in intellect to buy that.
Here’s are some good, life-giving question examples:
- Though I feel crummy, how can I keep myself from completely un-zipping?
- Right now, what can help me feel a little more alive and healthy?
- How can I be more open and curious today?
- Before the day ends, where can I go to feel more connected to other people?
Life-giving questions are compasses.
They direct you to the deeper, fuller end of the pool, where life is not always more comfortable, but more immediate, more alive. They bring movement and expansion. It’s where a lot of good change and growth happens.
Just imagine a short, rotund Zen Master floating on an inflatable raft with a mai tai in one hand, waiting for you at the deep end of the pool.
“Ah, nice question, grasshopper!” he says, smiling. Got it?
Life-sapping questions are compasses too–into our reptilian brain. They keep us stuck and small and ruminating. Here are some:
- Why am I so lonely?
- What the hell is wrong with me?
- Why don’t they treat me with the respect I deserve?
Often, the “why” questions lead to bad places. So be careful.
From life-giving questions, one of two things happens:
One, you make a discovery worth exploring. Let’s not call it an answer because answers imply finality, like you finally made it and the seeking process can end, finally. We’re humans, not video game characters.
With the discovery, it’s your choice to act or not.
Two, no discoveries. You still just don’t know. You’re floating in the pool with no sign of fat Zen master nor mai tai. A client once said to me, “Regardless of circumstance, my purpose is to try find a way to a life-giving question.”
Seung Sahn’s mic dropping words yield a second gem.
Everyone finds their way to “I don’t know.”
No matter if your very countenance drips with purpose and passion, you will find your way to “I don’t know.”
Because your are human and not a robot.
And it’s developmentally healthy and appropriate to encounter your own limitations. In the first half of life, those limitations are potentials for growth and maturity.
In the second half of life, your limitations are potentials for wisdom, acceptance and peace.
Now, I’m not talking about “I don’t know if we should do Mexican or Chinese for dinner tonight,” questions. More like the, “I’m cracker jack badass in my job, but I don’t know how to talk to my kids or partner anymore” type questions.
Seung Sahn called this state of un-knowing “Don’t Know Mind.” Clever dude.
This is the easily misunderstood yet super important part:
Don’t stop at “I don’t know.” Don’t throw up your hands in defeat when you can’t find your life’s purpose. Your rational mind wants to fill in the gap of uncertainty. If it cannot, it wants protection from the discomfort of its limitations.
At this point, you may get controlling or compulsive unless..
You. Just. Accept. That…
…sometimes, we are just not supposed to know. Sometimes, THE BIG LIFE PURPOSE does not present itself and that’s not on us.
Welcome to the deep end of the pool.
Mai tai for you. Or three.
Again, keep going into “I don’t know.” Your knowledge is supposed to have limits AND the journey doesn’t end there. It’s just a beginning. Practice by literally saying “I don’t know” AND remain open and curious and available for something new to happen. Because it will.
You may even find purpose in losing the need for PURPOSE.
No one can tell you specifically how to move forward with this because only you can do it in your way. Go straight into it. I can’t tell you what your experience will look like or what you will feel. The discovery waiting for you is yours alone. Experiment. Be creative. You’re worth the effort and the risk.
I can say anything you feel is perfectly ok…and the upside is huge. Huge! You don’t need 1,2,3 steps.
You just need a philosophy of engagement that keeps you actively open and curious.
So, perhaps, the gift of keeping the question alive and going into the “I don’t know” end of the pool is NOT the ultimate, grand life PURPOSE dropping into our lap to save us but, instead, how our lives gradually transform and enrich and develop resiliency while we swim into the deeper end of the uncertainty pool.
And now…here we are:
If the point of finding purpose in life is to live more deeply, then you don’t need A PURPOSE to do that. You may have a grand PURPOSE or you may still want and succeed at finding one. Great. You may not. Great! You may find smaller purposes that lead to big transformations. Also great. You may also have a rich, robust life with none of the above.
Splendid. Mai tai’s all around.
And…you may have all of the above! No need to make life an either/or proposition. You can devote time to wrangling your life’s purpose while, other times, practice life-giving questions and I don’t know’s.
Pretty soon, I bet you will discover that your questions become your direction.