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.