At the Wisdom 2.0 conference I heard several speakers talk about their life’s calling, and others refer to life’s purpose. Our society speaks about people’s life’s purpose as though it’s a real thing out there to be discovered, to give life your life meaning. In fact, there are books such as A Purpose Driven Life, Finding Your Life’s Purpose. Whoa! Stop right there. Let’s think about this a bit.

While that may all sound good on the surface, I see some serious underlying problems. Would people inherently wonder what their life purpose was if others weren’t continually pushing their own need for a calling? What happens if you feel you have found your life calling, and then life suddenly derails you, sending you flying off the tracks of your calling? Are we looking at purpose or a calling like it’s some permanent aspect of our life? Does having a life purpose or calling create expectations and attachments? Do you see where I’m headed?

Often we just accept societal memes without really examining them. Let’s break this one down and see if purpose is as useful as people seem to believe. There have been times in my life when I felt I had a calling, a purpose in life. Generally it was a goal that was really important to me, and it turned into a passion. My attention centered on it, and because I was having success and things seem to just roll naturally in that direction, it felt like some kind of calling. But one of the first things we learn in Buddhist practice is everything is impermanent. You can count on change if nothing else. Inevitably, for various reasons, usually out of my control, my calling had to change. I have had to shift gears, and send my life in a new direction despite my supposed calling. Because I considered it a calling, I discovered firm attachments that made transitions into life changes difficult.

Over time and looking in hindsight, it’s clear that a life calling is but a fabrication of the mind, one which can create all kinds of expectations and attachments, and indeed suffering. That’s not to say what I was doing was wrong, that the subject of the calling was off, but I really wonder at the useful of such a meme. It’s good to have goals, as long as you embrace them with open hands, without attachment, especially to outcomes.

And what if a person doesn’t have a calling, doesn’t know what his/her life purpose is? Can we just follow the directions our lives take, going with the movements, the changes as they occur, and not fuss as to whether it has purpose or meaning? Often I hear a lot of angst over, “I don’t know my life’s purpose. What does it all mean?” I really wonder how much of that is pressure from society, religion, and the spiritual quest, and how much stems from a need for meaning, from attachments and craving?

I feel fortunate where I am now in life. I have no desire to look for purpose in my life. I don’t feel the compulsion of a calling. I am content to follow this journey we call life and see where it leads moment by moment. It is a feeling of peace, of openness that I didn’t have while being driven by goals, by a calling, by a purpose in life. I’m relieved to have dropped such notions, and for me they really were notions, and instead just be in whatever life brings each day.

I worry when I hear “spiritual leaders”, people regarded as sages and full of wisdom, speak in terms of finding purpose, finding your calling. What if there is no purpose? What if you don’t have a calling? Are you going to be the dog chasing his own tail? Do we have to have a purpose? Does our life have to have “meaning?” I think we should asks ourselves what we really mean by all that. What is driving the need for meaning?

That’s not to say there is something wrong with goals or direction, intent. Having short term goals and direction is useful, as long as we aren’t clinging to expectations, as long as we are open to changes and shifts that will inevitably occur. Life can throw a rock in the waters of resolve at any minute.  Expect change, because change is the norm.

Maybe it’s ok to be without purpose or calling and see what life hands you.

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  1. Linda on March 11, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    We load words up with meaning, and the meaning changes depending on who is speaking, and as the sound waves or light of the text flies through the air it opens itself up to be received by the listener/reader in an entirely different tone/light.

    When I speak of having found my calling, I am addressing the significance of finding something I want to do, really really *want* to do. I am trying to convey how big a deal it is to me. I don’t have any concept in mind that such a calling will last a whole lifetime, or even 20 years, or 10, but “the call” comes from the whole of my being, even the deeper parts I don’t have direct access to. I “know” this only because that’s how it *feels* to me — I am making up a story to match the size of the feeling.

    All that is metaphor (Buddhist practice should teach us that all language is metaphor) to try to express the way everything I do within that “calling” is satisfying, and the way each moment inspires the next. I could call it “soul satisfying” and you’d know what I meant, even if we both agreed there is no evidence of an immortal soul. “Soul” also means something else, and that something is to do with engagement, involvement, deep concern or enjoyment of what one is doing, being totally in tune with it, in the flow (there are so many words for it!).

    If I were to use “calling” as in “I have found my calling!” I would be intentionally tapping into the huge sense of the thing — and it seems to be that hugeness that concerns you. When I use it, I would be aware that many people either understand “calling” as a life-long thing, a life-goal like “true love” of great significance and hopefully lasting forever — or many people understand that as a larger connotation. In, perhaps, about the same way people understand “God” as some guy sitting on a throne up in heaven, watching each of us, and reaching his finger down to rearrange things to turn out according to our prayers — at the same time they have no expectation that’s what God is or does. If I were to use “calling” I would be using that Big Deal aspect of the word as hyperbole to express just how big a deal it is for me.

    Maybe you could see that as me “perpetuating the myth” of there being such a thing as “a calling”, a life-long calling. And that’s a fair argument to make, much like the argument against all those romantic ballads on the radio (whether they are in the form of country, rock, or heavy metal) perpetuating the myth of undying, perfect love. But when using language, we have to start the conversation with something broad and in common to us all — set the hook that engages the listener/reader with enough intensity to draw them in to listen more — and only then can we refine what it is we are saying. This is, I believe, the same issue the Buddha was up against when he drew his audience in with grand stories of past lives, dhamma eyes, and sidi-super-powers.

    Seems to me that rather than bemoaning the use of individual words, we should be out there educating people about emptiness. Humans will always start with misperceptions of what is being said; what we need is to be taught to work at recognizing that our first impression isn’t likely to be the most accurate, and to learn the skills (and patience) to listen — and look — more deeply.

  2. Purpose… | sobertaichi on May 9, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    […] What’s Your Calling or Purpose in Life? […]

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