by Secret Hippie
Deciding on a Purpose
You have to have a cause.
If you don't have one, you will be swayed in every direction. You might spend your efforts on many goals without giving enough to achieve a single one. Also, you won't understand one of the most important parts of life. Stoics understand. Daoists, too. There is a special experience that is available to people who are driven to fulfill their calling.
The world: here's a small accident, a stain on your shirt
Some people: oh no, my good shirt
The world: here's a small accident, a stain on your shirt
People with a calling: that has nothing to do with why I'm here
If your cause is Buddhism, Stoicism, Daoism, or a similar set of beliefs that emphasizes non-attachment, it's even easier to not have setbacks. You can let events slide away when they don't matter. You simply re-focus on your goal.
When I was fourteen, I read a book on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It was supposed to be a psychology text, I think, but it read like philosophy. That is, it relied less on the pseudo-science common in most psychology texts of the period. (There were a whole lot of assertions about human brains back then that were untrue but if you complained, especially in high school, you were told that you didn't really understand because you weren't an expert.) Maslow had some ideas that I liked, including "self-actualization," which sounded close to many ideas I had then about enlightenment.
- In the first stage, take care of your physical needs.
- In the second, stop worrying about your future or your safety.
- Third, fulfill your senses of love and belonging.
- Fourth, achieve some goals. Those will lead to a sense of esteem.
- Fifth, reach a level where the first four stages seem insignificant.
(Maslow came up with his hierarchy due to his visits with the Blackfoot tribe, apparently, and he left off stages that the Blackfoot members considered vital:
Sixth, grow a community in which tribe members help one another self-actualize.Seventh, expand the self-actualized community.
Maslow possibly thought of these last stages as bordering on sociology. Therefore, they were not fit for him to write about in the field of psychology.)
The concepts of self-actualization, sainthood, and enlightenment all seemed to point to what kind of causes a person might have that would allow for transcendence. They are not mundane ones. For instance, a passion for collecting model cars is not the best type of cause. Neither is making paperclip art, even though it may be very good art. However, making paperclip art that makes people laugh, cry, or inspires them with fantastic ideas, passions, and compassion - now we're getting somewhere. That's close to the sort of cause necessary. Intent matters. The whole process matters.
After testing ideas about transcendence against the historical anecdotes, I guessed there were basically two requirements for a driving cause that is fulfilling. They are,
1) It has to represent something bigger than an individual
2) It has to help others
There might be a third quality that's important as well. Personally, I chose a huge cause as a teenager: help everyone. But I found myself often implementing it by writing articles or stories as well as creating nice things for my friends. For many years, writing was closely connected to my primary cause. In retrospect, I wonder if the creative element led to a different result. For instance, when you decide to start a soup kitchen, you are making something. You may not think of it as inventive but, if you pay attention to the details like a sculptor, engineer, dress designer, or painter, it may give you (and the people around you) the same sort of benefit.
3) It should be creative
Adding this third aspect to the chosen cause requires the person choosing it to understand that they are being creative - that if you are arranging special trips for terminal cancer patients or repairing appliances for people who have no money to pay, you are still creating things (even if they do pay something, I suppose). At the very least, you are touching the hearts of people with a uniquely prepared moment like any other artist.
Intent is always key to the results, as there is no real separation between them.
What happens if you change your cause? That seems possibly dangerous to self-actualization but, whether for good or ill, I found myself doing it. My first cause was great for me but I had to adjust it when I started a family.
Technically, devoting yourself to a family meets all three requirements above. But, as you can immediately see, there is a fragility to having a smaller, less overarching cause. When things go bad in your smaller cause, it affects your world more strongly in proportion. Fortunately, the re-focusing was a natural process for me. It's not like I gave up on helping humanity in general. All of my choices, even when guiding my employment to provide for my family, were informed by the grander humanitarian purpose. I did pay more and more attention to my immediate relatives; young children have a way of forcing that to happen; but I was not too far thrown off by the death of a pet or a family member or a dear friend. When you expand your spirit and reach out to humanity itself as a cause, it keeps your world from being too small and your perspective too narrow.
That leads me to another important aspect.
Practice Letting Go
Periodically, you have to let go of your cause.
When I was twenty-one and very much a true believer in the process of enlightenment, a friend of mine, Richard, gave me a book by 'The True Believer' and told me I needed to read it. I did.
He was right.
Although it feels good to have a purpose and to let it give your life and other lives a direction that makes things better, that's not enough. In order to avoid the traps of being a 'true believer' you have to stop, occasionally, as if letting go of thoughts while meditating, and live without your cause for a while. Even if your chosen purpose is a religion or a philosophy, you have to let go of it. I'm sure devotees of Buddhism, Daoism, and Stoicism will see the irony. Still, it's true. You need to back away and gain some perspective.
Let your life sway freely from event to event. Look back on your cause and judge it. If it's not worthy, pick another. More likely, of course, your previous goal is still fine. But you may use your perspective to adjust your grip as you re-attach to the world in this way. This is a deliberate step, an emotional and mental and nearly physical skill. You should be able to repeat it, from time to time. Let go and pick a spot in the flow of life where you want to grab on again.