It’s one of humanity’s most pertinent and penetrating questions: how do I live a life of purpose? Big questions require big answers. Finding purpose is a big deal, and answers tend to suggest life-changing transformation is necessary.
We read stories of those who made it against all odds, those who had courage to make radical changes and live unconventional lives.
While this is all well and good, the implication that finding purpose is a monumental task—a big answer to a bigger question— may hinder the process of living a meaningful life.
What if the paradox of purpose is that, the more pressure we put on ourselves to find it, the more elusive it becomes?
Let’s call this purpose paralysis: the state of becoming so overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to find purpose, no steps are taken to achieve it.
There’s a common saying you can’t eat an elephant in one go. As a vegan I don’t want elephants to be eaten in one sitting or many, but this doesn’t detract from what this metaphor points to — big tasks require bite-sized chunks to be manageable.
Finding purpose is a big task. Consequently, a purposeful life is achieved one bite-sized, vegan-friendly chunk at a time.
Inner Purpose vs. Outer Purpose
What’s the answer to purpose paralysis? In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle makes the distinction between inner purpose and outer purpose. We can define this as being vs. doing.
Most of us over-emphasise the latter by attempting to find purpose in the external world; we seek a new career, a new partner, more money, more excitement, more travel, more adventure.
With this approach purpose resides outside of ourselves. To find it, we must transform what we do.
“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
A purposeful life, however, begins with inner purpose. It begins with connecting deeply and authentically with ourselves, to understand what our unique expression of purpose is. It’s finding the joy in being and using this state as a foundation.
Inner purpose excavates the innate human capacity for love and peace and ease and flow and creativity. There’s no need to manipulate our environment to cultivate these states.
The challenge is learning to combine inner purpose with outer purpose. The closer our relationship between being (inner) and doing (outer), the more purposeful life becomes.
There’s no need to worry about overnight transformation; aligning inner purpose with outer purpose is a gradual process. It’s win-win, because the process itself is purposeful.
The moment the intention is set, your life’s purpose is enhanced.
Now we find ourselves approaching purpose from a new paradigm. Rather than seek transformation or significant changes in our external reality, purpose radiates from within.
A spiritual awakening is the realisation of the inner-fountain of purpose, often spontaneously. An oil spring of meaning erupts from the soul and floods the surface of consciousness. This shift from outer to inner is profound. But it’s only the beginning.
Once this inner realisation hits, there’s a temptation to cause a tsunami of change. To overhaul the external world. But patience is required. A Zen Kōan illustrates the necessity for grounding during the journey of purpose:
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
A life of purpose is a balancing act between inner purpose and outer purpose. The drip-feed approach slowly and patiently injects purpose into all aspects of your life—chopping wood and carrying water—without becoming overwhelmed by purpose paralysis.
Injecting Purpose Into Each Day
I understand the language of my inner world, and the wants and needs of my spirit. As I schedule my week on a Sunday evening, I look to inject purpose into each day. I create space for purposeful activities and accept there are areas of life which, in themselves, don’t feel aligned or purposeful.
For example, sorting finances or grocery shopping or tidying up. During these moments, I focus on inner purpose. I remind myself that on some level, wanting every waking moment to be “enlightened” is a subtle way of treating the present as an obstacle to overcome.
The more we inject purpose, the easier it becomes. Suddenly the inner-fountain overspills and permeates our circumstances. Inner purpose leads the dance.
Purpose doesn’t have to be a huge declaration or sudden transformation or quitting your job or travelling to the other side of the world. Purpose can be walking in nature, slowing down, reading, writing, playing, creating, socialising, having fun, being human.
Karmic laws of nature suggest we receive what we give out into the world. The more we imbue meaning into all tasks, bite-by-bite, piece-by-piece, the more we reap rewards. When we operate and vibrate with inner purpose, outer circumstances change.
Purpose With Structure
Drip-feeding purpose into our external circumstances requires structure and discipline.
This is far from a passive law of attraction, however. This is the hard part, where most succumb to purpose paralysis. It’s is a life-long journey of small steps. It’s the intention to to drip-feed purpose into our lives. It’s living aligned with values.
Spiritual concepts offer valuable guidance and inspiration. But in our modern, busy lives, there’s a need for practicality. Drip-feeding purpose into our external circumstances requires structure and discipline.
Inner purpose is cultivated through spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, journalling. Outer purpose is developed through time management, scheduling, boundary setting, saying no, following the path of heart.
Inner purpose without structure lacks direction. Outer purpose without direction lacks meaning.
Finding Purpose In Gratitude
If I go too long without dedicating time to my purpose, I feel anxious, disconnected, frustrated. I’ve worked hard to align my external circumstances to suit my needs, so I’m fortunate to cultivate lots of purposeful activities.
These are sacred moments. They replenish. They invigorate. Small doses go a long way.
I find gratitude plays an important role in this dynamic. Instead of craving desirable external circumstances 100% of the time, I aim for a healthy percentage of purposeful moments. By reflecting on the fulfilment these activities bring, they live on, beyond the time spent doing them.
If I make time and dedicate an hour early in the morning to meditate and write, the sense of gratitude lingers throughout the day. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. I then reflect on purposeful activities in daily, weekly, and monthly reviews.
For you, this might be making time for a side project, or spending the weekend in the presence of loved ones after a week working hard at a job you like, but don’t love. It might be starting a hobby or letting go of things in your life that no longer feel aligned.
A word of caution: remain vigilant to purpose perfectionism. It’s the same self-sabotaging quality that causes purpose paralysis. Genuine purpose feels light and easy and joyous. Striving for purpose perfectionism feels stressful, heavy, burdensome. Make sure to check-in and assess your expectations.
Is there more you can align to live more purposefully? Are your expectations too high? Are you over-emphasising outer purpose and neglecting the joy of being?
Once you find flow, you’ll know. Momentum builds. Purpose is contagious. It’s not necessary to change the world or earn our living doing what we love or transform our lives overnight.
Living a purposeful life starts by uncovering the purpose within and slowly but surely bridging the gap between the inner and the outer world.
Like Rome, a purposeful life isn’t built in a day.
It’s developed, brick-by-brick, by injecting purpose into everything we do: be it chopping wood, carrying water, or changing the world.