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Finding a Purpose and Passion in Life, Part 2: Impermanency, Inner Purpose, Meaning and More

Posted Mar 05 2008 2:24pm

“The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to live with purpose.”

~ French philosopher Michel de Montaigne

This is a continuation of a series on finding one’s purpose and passion; a collection of thoughts, opinions, and musings. There might be flaws in my writings, so please take it for what it is, just food for thought. I am in no position to teach anything. You can find Part One here.

The Dream of Ali

For a long time, I thought I had wasted much of my life. During the years I suffered through a downward spiral into a depression, I spent most of my spare time in a boxing gym. I loved it; it was the only real reason I had to get up in the morning.

I didn’t have the talent of an Ali, the power of a Tyson – still I poured my life into the punching bags. But I never got anywhere with boxing. I never turned professional, never got to the Olympics, anything of the sort. I talked endlessly, I dreamt nightly – but one day my interest just died. The reason I got up in the morning just went away.

Strangely, there was no sense of loss. I regretted the years I had spent, the sacrifices I had made, but I didn’t miss it.

Magical forest

What I really wanted

One day I realised I hadn’t wasted my time at all, for I had achieved all I really wanted.

All the goals I talked about were just braggadocio, fake posturing. All I really wanted was to learn; to learn to walk unafraid amongst a group of rough men, to learn to stand up for myself.

That was my purpose in life then. Perhaps it was preparing me for the future; for the lessons I gained in those years were immeasurable; the courage and confidence would never leave me. And when I achieved it, the fire just died away.

Take a moment to think: what do you really want? A purpose could be internal – a search for inner peace, searching to fill a gap in your skills. Such a search could be seen as a waste of time, fruitless. Perhaps the world scorns your purpose; and yet from a higher perspective you might be preparing yourself for something in the future.

The Impermanency of Purpose

This is strikingly true when we realise outer purpose is ultimately impermanent. Our external purpose changes with our inner world; it is the moon, reflected on the water. Perhaps I was drawn to boxing because deep down inside I felt like a weakling; perhaps I knew I had to learn how to walk tall, to confront my fears. Perhaps all the anger I had pushed down and denied sought a safe outlet.

Purposes are not permanent. Nothing is. Stop looking for something to do for the rest of your life – it might be possible to find something that lasts until your last breath; but very often it will be a reflection of your internal state, that changes over time.

I unknowingly dedicated myself to develop courage via boxing; it wasn’t permanent, but I had wanted it to be. And yet soon after that, my purpose was to conquer unhappiness. This time it was a conscious choice – and yet I would have shied away if I had thought it had to be for the rest of my life, for I knew what it would take. I spent more than a year alone at home, reading, meditating, and journaling. My social life was non-existent; my career and finances suffered tremendously. But it was a purpose I undertook gladly, knowing it will soon change.

The Search for Fulfilment

The impermanency of goals has some deeper implications. Just one to stimulate thought – what if you are searching for fulfilment through having a purpose? What happens when it comes to an end? If your purpose is to be the best parent you can be, what happens when the day comes for your children to stand on their own two feet?

Struggle and Purpose

And so we have split our purpose into two – the inner and the outer. What is one’s inner purpose? Very often – the ultimate goal is to find peace, or some might call it, to awaken.

Depending on where you are at, an inner search should be given just as much priority, if not more, than an external purpose. It might seem like a waste of time, but it is not. If an external purpose is your desire, your internal search will only aid the actions you will have to take. Just an example: we’ve previously spoken of finding courage within. Without it, our dreams will just remain that – dreams, castles in the air, fantasies we look at but never reach out for.

But there is a deeper level: without an inner acceptance, anything we do externally – even if it is noble and compassionate – will be tainted. In Surrender and Joy in the Pursuit of Excellence, and Going Deeper, I spoke of how my anger contaminated everything I did – even a simple reply to a rude comment. How much more would it corrupt our bigger purposes?

Our life is a song, made up of individual notes – a tainted note, the note that we are living right now – will leave a mark on the entire song. Bring an inner acceptance into everything we do – seeing our very actions right now as our life purpose – perhaps that should be our inner purpose, without which all outer purposes are doomed to bring unhappiness.

And the good news is: finding peace is not a big step, in fact it is a small one. Bring an inner state of acceptance to whatever you are feeling; and your afflictive emotions begin to calm down immediately.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow – widely considered the father of humanistic psychology – has a famous theory on the hierarchy of human needs, one that could be relevant to any discussion on human purpose. His pyramid groups our needs into various levels, which are then arranged by priority. Fulfil the most basic needs, and gravitate towards the next.

This model has its critics – but it serves very well to further stimulate or speed a search for their purpose. Just be aware that a theory is all it is – many people will not fit nicely into it – and take it as a mere guideline.

Many readers will find the pyramid useless, but many won’t. For instance, you might not have found a purpose after much soul-searching, perhaps it is because you have not fulfilled one of the deficiency needs. A growth need, a higher purpose, might unveil itself once that hole has been filled.

Moving out of Deficiency

Maslow divided his needs into two groups: deficiency needs and growth needs. Deficiency needs cause discomfort if they are not met, but they do not provide any fulfilment in on themselves.

The levels, presented from the lowest to the highest, are:

Physiological: Food and water, shelter, breathing, sleep, excretion and others.

Safety and security: Income, resources, protection from crime and violence, physical and mental well-being and others.

Love and belonging: Sex, romance, friendship, membership in a club or social group, a supportive family and others.

Esteem: Self-esteem, self-respect, achievement, respect of others and others.

Growth Needs

Once these needs are filled, the individual then moves on to growth needs: needs that motivate further and provide fulfilment.

Cognitive: To acquire and understand knowledge.

Aesthetic: To create or experience beauty. This need might express itself differently for each person; some might find it in the arts, others in architecture.

And finally, at the top of the pyramid:

Self-actualization: To realise all of his or her potential, as an effective, creative human being. (The descriptions read like a psychological depiction of the phenomenon of enlightenment, but that is just my opinion.)

I have kept the summary simple; just a springboard for further research and thinking. The theory has its flaws and exceptions: many would prefer to starve to death rather than grovel for food, for instance. Others might place having true friendship as a more basic need than being financially stable. Therefore, be wary – please do not lock yourself into a perceived level or start seeing deficiencies where none previously existed!

The Search for Meaning

If one follows the hierarchy, higher purposes like beauty, meaning, spirituality, and knowledge become important once you have moved out of deficiency. But what exactly is meaning?

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

~ Viktor Frankl

This philosophy is taught by many great teachers: A man is like a guitar string. He makes no sound if it is too loose; he will break if tuned too tightly.

The two extremes

One of Freud’s concepts is the pain and pleasure principle – we are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. But it is not a satisfactory model by itself; a life of endless sloth and sensory pleasure eventually leads to nothing but unhappiness.

Ben-Shahar in Happier tells of a psychological experiment where college students were given a strange job – they were paid a lot of money, far more than they normally would be, but were not allowed to do anything meaningful with their time. At the end of experiment, the students reported being bored and unhappy.

On the other hand, a life of deprivation, meditation, or hard work leads to the same. Victor Frankl’s famous book told men and women who have managed to find meaning in their lives despite suffering through the Holocaust; yet it would be insane to suggest that they were happy.

Meaning and Pleasure

One model for happiness and purpose, then, is finding the right balance between the two extremes. Many companies are touting the work/life balance – but isn’t that just another form of the either/or thinking we’ve discussed in the first part of the series? Is it not possible to have both, to live the old cliché – having your cake and eating it too?

Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers in history, states a life of happiness and excellence lies in fulfilling functions we love and makes full use of our virtues. Therefore, not a life of doing-nothing, not a life of constant hard work - but a life that has just the right amount of tension.

Luxury and riches

The topic of money is a controversial one – I’ve met with some vehement arguments simply for stating a man can be happy without much material resources. But my statement is not mere speculation; there have been studies and research conducted by a psychologist named David Myers. The results were clear: he found little correlation between material wealth and happiness. Those without money can be happy, those who have a measure of wealth can nonetheless be miserable.

And I know many wealthy people who agree: they drive a luxury car, live in a mansion and sleep on the finest silk sheets – where is the happiness? Why is there still a sense of discomfort?

I am not discounting money; it provides us with our basic securities and needs; many of life’s pleasures would be impossible without it; many of our higher purposes would not be possible without a degree of financial freedom. But the fact remains that in and of itself, money does not cause happiness nor provide a meaning in life.

Yet many people who don’t have wealth think that money is the answer to all their problems; perhaps our culture encourages such a view. Sacrifice your health, your relationships, time spent with your loved ones, gain money. But have they ever thought about what to do with that money, once they get it? Go to doctors to fix the health you ruined in the pursuit of money, buy back the affection of your family, perhaps.

Again we return to the archetype of happiness: is it not best to seek a purpose that provides meaning, pleasure, and some money at the same time? There will be those who say it is impossible; but it is likely that these are fear-based responses, which will be covered in the next part of this series.

Morality

And to finish the post, a slightly frivolous musing: it is often a virtue to forge your own path, seek your own happiness, and ignore what others think of you.

A freedom from the need for approval is a strength; one of the most important we can develop. Wanting approval and appreciation is one of the biggest obstacles in pursuing any worthy goal.

And yet there are those who enjoy hurting others, who might make that their purpose – are we to encourage that as well? We are not merely referring to the murderers and the rapists. How many of us have put down others, spread malicious gossip, in a sick bid to boost our self-esteem? How many of us have laughed at the failings of others? How many of us have been perfectly honest in our dealings with others?

And the answer, again, lies in the teachings of Aristotle. Virtue is another pillar in his foundation of a successful life. Perhaps the other way around is true as well. Hurtfulness and hatefulness stems from sorrow and self-hatred. A woman full of love cannot help but give it; a man full of happiness cannot help but spread it with his very presence. Finding authentic happiness brings compassion – the foundation of virtue – automatically.

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