A spiritual seeker questions the Sage -
I've heard that you teach I do not need to seek a purpose for my life. Sir, did I hear rightly?
Yes, you heard rightly.
That doesn't sound wise. I feel I need to find my purpose. Nothing would get done without it.
Then, you need to seek a purpose, until you don't need to.
I don't understand.
Keep seeking, you will.
* * *
Three friends were walking along a road. At sundown, they saw a monk standing on a hill. They began talking about the monk, wondering what he was doing there.
One said, "He must be waiting for his friends. He must have gone for a walk from his hermitage, and his friends are left behind. So, he's waiting for them."
A second spoke, "That's not right, for he's never looking back, which one who's waiting for a friend left behind would occasionally do. So, he must have lost his cow. The evening is near, the sun is setting, and soon it will be dark. So, he's looking for his cow. He's looking for where the cow is in the forest."
The third one said, "This can't be right, for he's standing so silently, not moving at all, and it seems he's not looking at all; his eyes are closed. He must be in silent prayer."
The friends argued and argued and, finally, decided, "We must go to the top of the hill and ask the man what he's doing."
They walked up the hill to the monk. The first one said, "Are you waiting for your friends?" The monk opened his eyes and said, "I'm not waiting for anyone." He closed his eyes.
The second friend asked, "Are you looking for your cow, which is lost in the forest?" Opening his eyes, the man replied, "No, I'm not looking for any cow or anyone." He, again, shut his eyes.
Last, the third one said, "Then, you're praying or meditating?" The monk, keeping eyes closed, said, "No, I'm not praying or meditating."
"What are you doing?" asked one of the friends. Said the monk, "Nothing, I'm just standing here."
* * *
The English "purpose" comes from the Old French, meaning "to put forth, forward." "Purpose" speaks of from now and here to there and then. "Purpose" suggests the old joke, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" The reply is, "To get to the other side." Implied is the chicken could not just cross the road, it had to put its aim - so mind - on the other side, so follow the intent out front.
Many of us live in a culture where the chicken could not reply, "I crossed the road without a purpose for crossing the road. I just walked across the road." We are not taught to be able to say, "I live just to enjoy life," or "I live to live," or "I just live." Even when persons meet for the first time, one often says, "What do you do?" The question means not, "Who are you?" The question implies, "What's your job?"
For ourselves, or anything, to cross the road without having the mind already on the other side is nonsensical. So, we live with our mind somewhere else as much or more than where our body is. We live divided lives, trying to be at more than one place at a time. We are purpose-driven, or purpose-pulled, persons. We feel guilty, if we are not aiming to accomplish something or get somewhere, and our self-identity - so sense of self-worth - is linked with living and acting purpose-full. Goal-oriented lives is presented as the sole norm.
Yet, this purpose-drivenness is not about you or enjoying life, it is about being a producer for a consumeristic, materialistic culture, where the exchange of goods, not the enjoyment of life, is foremost. Consequently, desire rather than essence - what is wanted, not what one is - is the measure by which we are judged worthy or unworthy to society. We are cogs in the societal wheel, we are means to ends, and our worth to the whole based not on character but efficiency. This is a reason some cultures push the elderly to the side and ignore them, not even wishing to see them or learn from their wisdom, for they are no longer esteemed of value to the mass machinery.
* * *
The best-selling Christian book, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here For, speaks to this purpose-drivenness. The book remained on the New York Times bestseller list over 90 weeks. Rick Warren, an evangelical minister, published it in 2002. The book, by 2020, had sold over 50 million copies, in more than 85 languages.
In a survey of Christian pastors, The Purpose Driven Life was the most influential book for them. The number two most-influential was the prequel, The Purpose Driven Church.
While Warren may not have meant "driven" in a sense other than motivated, it appears to me that "driven" is a telling choice of words. "Driven" is a Western approach to life, an aggressive one. Hence, we are compulsive doers; we need to justify our existence by what we produce. We are what we do - or, so we have been told. Likewise, "driven" is passive, meaning I am being acted on, even as a car is driven by a driver. So, at the least, it would seem wise not to champion being a driven church or driven person, whatever tint of meaning one applies to the term.
Also, "driven" speaks of what has been called the Protestant work ethic. We would be a more kind world, if the Protestants had stressed equally the universal love ethic.
* * *
We cannot stand for no reason at all. We must be able to answer, "What is your reason for standing there?" And "stand" is a cipher for the entire culture and all we do.
One of the discoveries I found, when a contemplative pastor, was how uncomfortable my parishioners were with enjoying being the church. They needed to remain in action mode, production mentality, to prove they were worth being called a church. Leadership beyond the local church fed this constant need to do something to validate the church was being the church. I will proceed to give one example.
Before I left the ministry, the state convention of which my church was a member started something odd. We leaders were told our congregations on Sundays were to give an account of what they had done the previous week to provide service to others. Each member was to do this. We were to record these numbers and submit them weekly to the state office. Of course, one could be a prayerless and unspiritual being, but if one could show something observable, that was good for the report. How odd - out the window goes Jesus' teaching of not making a public display of one's good deeds. I refused to follow this instruction. I knew it was a violation of members' right to do good without it being profaned in a public demonstration of supposed fidelity.
I concluded that the church is filled with leaders who must get others purpose-driven to validate their roles and themselves - after all, that is what they were appointed for and get paid for. Good producers make those above them in the pecking-order look good.
* * *
In 2017, I resigned from my last public job, without a job to go to. I was working for a Hospice. When it hired me, I joined a joyful team of caring workers. I was informed I would work 40 hours weekly, sometimes a little less. I was put on salary, so would get no overtime pay. In two years, the team became a sad-looking and stressed-out group of complainers. The joyfulness was gone. The demands had so increased, partly due to insurance regulations and partly consequent a successful suit against the agency for misappropriation of funds. Since my being hired, I was working from before sunrise and into the night, often without a break or lunchtime, and on weekends. I left. I have not regretted it for one moment. Leaving was one of the best choices for myself and my health I have made in my almost 60 years. I made a choice for a non-driven life.
* * *
So, spiritually waking up entails realizing several things. First, you cannot add anything to your worth by anything you have done, do, or can ever do. If you think otherwise, you will always be needing to reach the next aim, never doing enough. Second, admitting the mass hypnosis, by collective consent, that you are principally here to be a doer and, so, must keep doing and doing and doing, until you can do no more. Third, recognizing the illusion that life, so your life, has a purpose apart from the flow of life itself - find it, do it.
* * *
Now, you could say, "You mean I'm to have no purpose at all? That's ridiculous." True, that would be ridiculous. I am not saying that. I am speaking of what Taoists refer to as wu wei, a Chinese concept central also in Zen Buddhism. Wu wei is "not-doing" or "non-doing." Alan Watts, in What is Tao?, defined wu wei as "not forcing." Mirriam-Webster speaks of wu wei as applied practically -
[T]he practice advocated by Taoism of letting one's action follow the simple and spontaneous course of Nature (as by keeping to a minimum governmental organization and regulation) rather than interfering with the harmonious working of universal law by imposing arbitrary and artificial forms: doing or making nothing except in conformity to the Tao [i.e., the Way, or Nature's way].
Hence, in acting naturally, purpose is not imposed on anything. Instead, purpose and action arise from the way things are. Purpose arises from the Way - Life - itself. We do not need to live purpose-driven, we only need to live - if driven by purpose, that separates you from the flow and action becomes unnatural. Life, then, if we wish to use purpose, becomes its own purpose. Things get done, not out of a sense of purpose, but out of union with life and enjoyment of it. One realizes her worth, not by what she does, but for being herself. When she loves being herself, action will follow from herself, not a sense of needing to find a purpose or discover a meaning for her life. Again, if one wishes to speak of purpose - if you enjoy being, enjoying life, purpose will find you.
This act of being provides flexibility and natural reflex to life. You are doing when it is time to do. You live with spontaneity. So, we are not speaking of laziness. And, as to the flexibility, purpose becomes a fluid thing, for life is fluid. There is no fixed purpose for anyone to find, partly for life is not static. Purpose can change from moment to moment. Relax.
Alan Watts, in What is Zen?, speaks of this fluidity of the environment, of which we are. The ecosystem does not merely surround us, we are it, as much as the sky, a rabbit, a tree, a bee, wind, a stream, or a sunset -
The world is a Rorschach blot, full of movement and wiggles. Only when we see straight lines and grid-iron patterns do we know people have been around. People are always trying to straighten things out, and so we create straight lines!
Hence, purpose can be shifting, for all things are shifting. How we sense our need to act can move from moment-to-moment, and even in significant ways over a lifetime.
* * *
A friend enjoys gardening. She feels close to her God in the garden. The garden can teach her as much about the way to live as any book. The Way is right there in the garden, I was thinking, while reflecting on this writing. A garden is a Book of Life. How does a garden grow? Observe a plant, does it ever hurry? Is a bud driven to become a bloom? How does the rain, soil, light, and pollination contribute together for growth? There are many lessons on how to live all around us, and we can listen. We can listen best by scrapping the old belief that we are here on Earth to control and conquer Nature. Instead, we are part of Nature, we are Nature. Nature is our teacher. One of its lessons comes from the observation of how Nature never seems in a hurry. Nature evolves, always is in change, never driven to prove itself in any way or become itself. Nature is itself.
* * *
You can practice purposeless action. Take time to do something without any sense of having to do it or seeking anything from it - at minumum, if you do it for a purpose, let the purpose be only for the enjoyment of doing it.
* * *
A wise Zen story -
A student asks his teacher, "Master, what is enlightenment?" "When hungry, eat, when tired, sleep."
* * *
And for those who meditate - simply meditate. If you have aspirations that inspire you to meditate, that is okay, but keep them in the background. And, if it helps, do not speak of doing meditation. The word "meditation" can become a word that indicates you must have a reason to meditate outside of the joy of the act itself. Meditation can become purpose-full. In meditation, the act is meaningful, while the consequences are the fruit of intimacy with the action.
* * *
*(C) Brian K. Wilcox, 2020
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher FirstBooks. The book is a collection of poems based on mystical traditions, especially Christian and Sufi, with extensive notes on the teachings and imagery in the poetry.