Each year at the monastery we did a retreat all about discovering your life’s purpose. It was a whole week of sitting in deep meditation, completing exercises about what our lives meant to us and asking ourselves why we were here on this earth.
My last year at the monastery I decided I was really going to go for it during this retreat. I was determined to discover my life’s purpose so deep, true, and powerful that I would have no doubt what my life was really about.
So I sat like my hair was on fire, I dug deep with each of the questionnaires I filled out, and I searched each part of myself to discover what my true life purpose was.
But nothing happened. All I found was fog. A deep and unrelenting fog that covered over every answer that I sought. It seemed like the more I dug, the more I probed, the more I searched for answers, the further that answer moved away from me.
This fog lasted for months and my meditation became like a dry desert devoid of life and insight. I felt hopeless, angry, lost, confused, and desperate for anything else to arise. But nothing did. The field of my purpose was vast and empty.
Then one day during meditation I gave up and something shifted, my purpose arose in me from a place I didn’t even know existed.
It’s so simple and yet each time I say it I go back to those hours on the cushion, that moment of clarity, and the expansion of my heart.
And I’d like to give you a little taste of that as well. Which is why I want to share with you a simple process to discover your life’s purpose.
STEP 1 – Study Purpose
To start, you need to study purpose and what it means to have one. A great place to start is the first chapter of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Start with the End In Mind.
In this chapter, he invites you to do a simple exercise where you imagine yourself at your own funeral and you consider what people might say about you. It’s a confronting exercise but a deeply powerful one.
But don’t stop there. Consider other ways to discover your purpose. Write your own obituary. Sit in meditation with the question ‘Who am I?’ on every inhale allowing space for any answer to arise as you exhale.
- Read Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer
- Read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- Read the War of Art and Do the Work by Steven Pressfield
- Read Siddhartha by Herman Hess
- Read Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron
- Read Ruling Your World by Sakyong Mipham
Find other books and read them. I’ve read all of these and more. Become a student of purpose. Do ALL the exercises and the writing, reading isn’t enough you have to dive into purpose.
You may find that you have a clear purpose or mission statement, you might stumble on something deeply profound. If you do, write it down, sit with it, enjoy it, play with it, and be with it. Don’t worry about if it’s the right or final answer. Just be with it and see what happens.
STEP 2 – Thrash
If you’ve got a purpose statement or a purpose nugget now, great. If not, that’s ok too. Pick one. It’s ok if it’s a bad one, but pick something you’re going to practice with. Choose it powerfully.
Then put your whole life behind it.
If your purpose is to save the whales, then join organizations about saving whales, read books, do fundraising, talk about it with your friends, do letter writing campaigns, protest, and take trips to see whales in the wild.
If your purpose is to become a great writer, write every day, read every book on writing you can get your hands on, hire a writing coach, study other writers, take a writing class, analyze your own writing, and fight the demons of resistance. Write, write, and write some more.
Whatever you choose, put your whole life behind that choice. Really go for it.
Thrash like a maniac.
At some point, your purpose may lose its juice, if it does, stick with it a bit longer. If it doesn’t get stronger after the dip, it may be time to let it go. See if there’s something deeper there, if not, just choose another purpose and throw yourself into it.
At some point, you’ll see something. I can’t describe what it will be. It’s different for every person. It may not be a moment of total clarity, but something will happen and when it does, notice.
Write down your purpose. You’ve got a nugget now. A nugget defined by thrash and life, not just some theory of purpose.
A note of caution: phase 2 can take years. It doesn’t always, but be patient and diligent through this phase.
STEP 3 – Turn your purpose into a question
To be honest, a purpose is sort of meaningless. Your purpose may be to give a voice to children who don’t have one or to bring more magic into the lives of everyone you meet. My purpose is to serve those walking the path of awakening in a deep and fundamental way.
These are great purposes, but they are just bars. Bars which you measure yourself against. A good purpose is often a high bar and at times can feel intimidating, so turn your purpose into a question.
- How can I give a voice to children who don’t have one?
- How can I bring more magic into the lives of everyone I meet?
- How can I serve those walking the path of awakening in a deep and fundamental way?
Then begin to answer that question with your life. Don’t worry about it being a BIG answer.
Sometimes the answer will be small. I can serve awakening by being kind to my server at a restaurant. By offering an acknowledgment to someone who upset me. By writing an article and posting it to my blog.
Sometimes the answer will be big. I can serve awakening by writing a best selling book, having a life changing conversation with a powerful leader, or founding a spiritual center.
Don’t be afraid of the big answers. Don’t overlook the small one.
Turn your whole life into an answer to that question. Become the answer.
Get to work
That’s it, that’s the magic formula. I get that it might feel daunting. Life is daunting. It’s this vast span of decades with no clear instructions. It’s this blink of an eye experience that vanishes before we expect it to. Life is a paradox and a question. What will you do with me?
But it’s a worthy question to ask and answer.
Without my purpose, my life wouldn’t mean much, not because my life wouldn’t offer value or have an impact on those I care about, but because I have to decide what it means.
My purpose is my choice. My life is about awakening, for myself and for others. This is my task.
Doing the work is worth it, even (and most often) when you don’t think it is. So get to work.