In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about purpose and the importance of living a “purpose-driven” life. In Christian circles especially, the message has been that knowing god’s purpose for you and living with a mission-in-mind is what it’s all about. This has turned out to be a “best-selling” proposal, as apparently many people are looking for purpose in life. Whether specifically religious or not, we like to think there’s something we can do or jump on board with to give our lives direction and meaning.
But what is purpose, and what does it mean to have one? For most of us it’s probably identified with being useful or having a function. We are reassured in knowing that god has a use for us, that we fit into his design scheme and have something we can wake up to each day. If there was no grand purpose to existence, then life would be meaningless. If this moment in life isn’t hooked into a forward trajectory of end-values, then there would be no reason to go on.
And if there happens not to be a god up there directing our lives toward the goals of prosperity, salvation, and a better setup later on, then we’re screwed. In previous posts I’ve made the case for god as a construct of meaning, and purpose as a positive illusion that keeps us sane and tilted to the future with hope. It hasn’t been my agenda to discredit these things – I’m neither an atheist nor a nihilist – but only to explore their importance to the general guidance and inspiration in what may be regarded a meaningful life.
In this post, however, I want to say something about the even greater importance of “dropping out” of meaning from time to time. While religion – the meaning, the message, the morality and the mechanics of what is going on at the surface – is concerned with keeping people plugged into the mission, our soul (and spirituality) really has no interest whatsoever in “making it,” fitting in, or “getting there.” Instead, what we seek at the deepest level is what I name the present mystery of reality, or real presence.
Let’s unpack this a bit more so we can see the difference between a “purpose-driven” life and one that is “presence-seeking.”
In the illustration above, daily life is represented as a skipping stone on its trajectory through time. The stone itself is the “I” of ego, the construct of personal identity that carries the imprint of my earliest relationships and the role assignments of my tribe, along with the peculiar neurotic styles that defend and compensate for my emotional wounds. Ego suffers under the delusion of substance – that “I” have reality and matter more than anything, though it’s nothing but a reflex of contractions, preferences, attachments, and convictions.
As I said, none of us get very far along in life without our share of bumps, bruises and emotional wounds. Ego is the part of me that I want you to see: my glow, my charisma, my accomplishments and lofty goals. I am careful to play this to the audience so they will regard me highly, approve of me and give me accolades, and maybe (if I’m lucky) envy me for my magnanimity. I am a handsome actor.
Underneath me – or rather, on the underside of ego – is my shadow. This includes those parts of myself that I don’t want you to see, the parts I’m ashamed of or unsure about. At the pain-center of my emotional wounds, inside the ring of self-defense and coping strategies, is a sense of vulnerability and “not enough.” If I can keep these hidden, or maybe outwardly project their opposites into a moral crusade of some kind, then I’m safe.
But here’s the thing. Every time I arc closer to reality, the reflection of my shadow on the water’s surface confronts me with a challenge to acknowledge and confess what I’m up to. As I approach the real presence of mystery, this forsaken and repressed part of myself comes closer to the threshold of self-awareness. When I make contact with reality, this negatively charged shadow repels me into another launch – and off I go for another arc across the pond of life.
Behind me, then, is the momentum in this game of “Outrun the Shadow” that I’m busy playing. If my ego-and-shadow duality is sufficiently polarized, this push from behind will exhaust itself into a fall only to be recharged the moment I barely touch what is repulsive and unforgivable in myself. So I contract with renewed purpose – with the necessary look-away from the present moment and my internal conflict, along with the requisite conviction concerning the high importance of the end I am pursuing. Onward Christian soldier.
Look right there, at the very point where momentum flags but before the ego is flung out again. This is something we habitually overlook in our skipping course through life: Let’s call it intention. What is intention? It is related to purpose, but isn’t end-focused like a purpose-driven life is said to be. Very simply, intention is not living for a purpose but living with purpose – or as we commonly say, living on purpose.
Whereas “purpose” in the conventional sense gets tied to future goals and making forward progress, intention doesn’t have an outcome in mind, no end-point in the future, but rather represents the opening of awareness to the depth of life in this moment. It descends along a vertical axis into present-moment experience, into the present mystery of reality. The real presence discovered here is not a something from somewhere else; it is not a being, but being-itself, the power and freedom to be here and now.
From the surface perspective, the one who “drops out” of the official program of a purpose-driven life is a loser, a quitter, a defiant and godless mystic. He or she stops fussing and stressing over the “many things” that the rest of us are trying so hard to manage. Instead of working to please god, fit in his plan, and accomplish his mission, the mystic enjoys a deepening communion with the present mystery. He or she surrenders ambition, letting the neurotic tangle of personality unwind and dissolve away. No future salvation for this one; it’s a pity.
From below, however, the spirituality of dropping out is really about dropping in – into the here-and-now, into this body, this breath, into this quiet presence of being. In this deeper place, the ego boundary that had separated me from the rest of reality suddenly transforms into a threshold connecting me to everything. What had put me against reality now joins me to it – but not ‘it’ … just this.
Religion at the surface attaches incentives of rewards or penalties to the obligation of reaching out and helping others. A spirituality of the depths knows that self and neighbor are really one – an awareness that opens out into compassion, benevolence, generosity and forgiveness. There really is nothing to hold onto, nothing to defend, nothing to chase after, and nothing to lose.
When I rise from this contemplative state, put on my costume of identity and step back into the game, others will get a sense that the game is changing.