This article is part of the goal setting theme for January. See also: The Liberating Distinction Between Hopes And Dreams.
All of us want a purpose in life. The biggest challenge of goal setting is aligning our overall purpose with the actions we take. Finding this alignment can be a painstaking, lifelong process. If we feel our actions aren’t purposeful enough, this search for meaning can be the cause of great stress and despair; perhaps we prioritise the wrong goals, or we feel stuck in a career that, deep down, we don’t enjoy.
So how do we discover our life’s purpose? How can we unearth the chosen career or pursuit that’ll give us meaning? Do you want the good news first, or the good news? The good? Okay…
The good news is that you don’t have to do anything to find your purpose. It is already within you. It doesn’t lie with the career you choose or the city you live in or your hobbies or creative pursuits. This is far from an empty platitude. Changing your outlook and realising this truth is crucial in finding your purpose and following your heart’s desire. Why?
Most of us seek purpose in the outside world. But in doing so, we confuse purpose with attainment, and any sense of reward from things attained is fleeting and temporary. That’s where our inner purpose plays an important role. The importance of inner purpose is highlighted by Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth. Tolle explains how lasting fulfilment comes from the perfect alignment of inner purpose and outer purpose.
But how on earth do we find it?
Finding Your Inner Purpose
“Most people treat the present moment as if it were an obstacle that they need to overcome. Since the present moment is Life itself, it is an insane way to live.” — Eckhart Tolle.
According to Tolle, our inner purpose is to be “absolutely present,” to avoid the insanity outlined in the above quote. By being fully aware, our actions become empowered by present-awareness, by pure being. Being fully mindful of every step of our life’s journey, as and when it unfolds, is the purpose of life itself.
There is no need to strive. There’s no need to live in hope of a better future where your purpose has been attained — your purpose is to simply be.
It sounds so simple that it’s hard to believe the profound impact uncovering this purpose can have. By going beyond the thinking mind and its incessant clinging to a perceived better future, we bring clarity into our lives. Life has new meaning.
An important caveat of this way of living is that it also uncovers the human traits that we all have in abundance — of compassion, love, empathy, creativity, and so on. This is what Tolle means by empowered present-awareness. When seeing beyond the mind’s constant future-projection and accompany fear, our actions are underpinned by a sense of fullness.
Now, I’m aware I may be losing those of you who aren’t spirituality inclined. It’s true, if we follow the notion of inner purpose to the extreme, well, we’d stand still, wouldn’t we? There’d be no need to progress. It doesn’t really fit for most of us. As an ambitious 27-year old, it doesn’t really fit for me, either. A huge part of life is the desire to grow, to mature, to gain insight and understanding.
So how do we balance the apparent blissful paralysis of present-moment awareness with the desire to move forwards? That’s where our outer purpose comes in.
Outer Purpose Is Important, But It’s Secondary
It’s easy to misinterpret our inner purpose. I’ll hold my hands up and admit that at certain points of my spiritual journey, I’ve thought: “What’s the point in having a career or progressing if an ‘enlightened’ way to live is to be fully in the here and now, not striving to the future?” Clearly, there’s a problem with this way of thinking.
Like it or not, unless ordained and living in a monastery, this state of pure being isn’t beneficial to the demands of the outer world. Fortunately, Tolle isn’t blind to this. He separates inner purpose and outer purpose into being and doing, respectively. The beauty is the symbiotic relationship between them. Once aware of your inner purpose, you can act in coherence with it. Your inner purpose moulds your outer purpose. Being is aligned with doing.
“At first there may be no noticeable change in what you do – only the how changes. your primary purpose is now to enable consciousness to flow into what you do.” — Eckhart Tolle
Once we understand that life is a consistent series of present moments, our awareness of being begins to change the way we interact in the world. In the moments we are free from fear, anxiety and stress, we bring direct awareness into what we do. We channel the abundant human traits. We live fully from the heart, not from the head.
It’s Okay If You Don’t Have A Life Goal
If this sounds elaborate, far-reaching and inconceivable, I promise you it isn’t. Aligning your inner and outer purpose doesn’t have to result in a significant change in direction in what you do with your life. As Tolle highlights, the importance is the how, and not the what. Our society puts immense pressure on the what (see: the American dream), but the beauty of aligning inner and outer purpose is that it’s okay if you don’t have a life goal. Your true purpose is with being and not doing.
I define life goal as an ultimate goal linked with attainment, such as making a six figure income, becoming a famous jazz singer, publishing a best selling novel, having 2.3 children and a white picket fence. Many people struggle with a bucket list mentality — the belief that because our time on Earth is finite, our purpose it to attain, to achieve, all that we can before we die. This is why the distinction between hopes and dreams is so important. Instead of hoping to find outer purpose by what you do, you dream of ways your inner purpose can manifest in the outside world.
I fully support Tolle’s definition of success as being a successfully present moment. Tolle’s rhetoric is best on a best-case-scenario; in reality, this journey will have ups and downs. Personally, I have moments where I feel such alignment, and plenty of moments where I feel completely out of touch. I need to regularly “bring myself back,” to remind myself of what inner purpose is. To simply be. As you continually bring yourself back and enjoy successful present moments, your outer purpose begins to fall into place.
That’s because inner purpose is intertwined with our outer purpose. Awareness frees space for our heart’s desire to rise to the surface of our consciousness. Impulses we may have long ignored take on a new veracity. We begin to follow our intuition. We begin to live in tune with our heart’s desire.
Finding Your Heart’s Desire
But what is our heart’s desire? Within us, there is an intelligence far more powerful than the mind. There is a part of us that knows what we want, before we realise we want it. We can call this our heart’s desire, our intuition, or our subconscious desire. Where this intelligence comes from is anyone’s guess. But if you’ve ever faced a big life decision and instinctively knew the choice to make thanks to an overwhelming “gut feeling,” you know the power of this intelligence.
You understand the difference between the heart’s desire and the mind’s logical reasoning.
The trouble is these desires are often buried deep under the fears and anxieties of the ego ((how bizarre that we often make decisions that we know contradict what we feel or desire). To listen to them is to quieten the mind. It’s to feel what it is we want, to let the images, emotions and fully-formed answers rise to the surface of our consciousness.
There are clues in the activities you enjoyed as a child, before the ego fully matures and takes control. What did you always dream of doing, of being? Are there impulsive thoughts that arise at times of relaxation, that you easily dismiss as a pipe dream or unreasonable?
It’s easy to ignore these impulses through fear of the outcome. But when you are aware of your inner purpose and you are committed to aligning it with your outer world, you will begin to look beyond fear and acknowledge those impulses. Listen to them. They know what you want. And when you know what you want, you can set meaningful goals.
Flow: When Mind And Spirit Merge
In 1975 psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term “flow” to describe the psychological state of being completely at one with a given task. Csíkszentmihályi discovered this theory while investigating optimal experience.
Flow, also known as being in the zone, is common in elite performers — think a top-level athlete competing at the Olympics, a Broadway actor reciting lines like they were born for the role or a musical composer effortlessly conducting an orchestra. It’s performance beyond mind, a joyful alignment of mind, body and soul.
The state of flow is a perfect combination of cognition and spirit. Just take a look at the six factors of flow:
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment.
- Merging of action and awareness.
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness.
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity.
- A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience.
Focused on the present moment? A merging of action and awareness? Sounds a lot like Tolle’s inner and outer purpose, doesn’t it?! And that’s because it is. It’s the sweet spot of enacting your inner purpose (to be) and outer purpose (to do). And it’s not restricted to elite performers, but available to all of us.
Find The Clues Of Your Heart’s Desire In Flow
We can use flow to find clues in what action creates the perfect alignment of inner and outer purpose. Think of a time now when you experienced flow. Were you absorbed in the immediacy of the task? Did your sense of time disappear? Did you stop worrying about whether you were performing the task rightly or wrongly, and instead just act? Did everything just click? Did you lose yourself?
It can be anything. It’s important you don’t dismiss it as silly or irrelevant. Just find clues. Go with the flow. Whatever the action producing that state of mind, break it down to its essence and meditate on what this means for you. And congratulate yourself — you’ve just started to listen to your heart’s desire.