Like many of us, you might feel that there's a true purpose to your life but you haven't yet found or discovered it, especially when trapped within a life that's unfulfilling or feels out of synch with your true purpose for being. Teachings of Eastern mystics say each of us have a particular purpose in life, though we might not know how to recognize it. Interestingly, some new research suggests ways to discover and pursue your true purpose. Moreover, having a purpose in life is found to help you protect yourself from mental decline -- not a bad byproduct.
Some are awakened to it from an event or moment of illumination that opens the way. A recent example: Adam Steltzner, the NASA scientist who headed the team that designed and carried out the successful landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity. In an NPR interview Steltzner spoke of having played in a rock band after high school rather than going to college. While waiting for stardom, his friends went to college and on with their lives. On his way home from a gig one night he looked up and was suddenly fascinated with the stars, especially the constellation Orion.
"The fact that it was in a different place in the sky at night when I returned home from playing a gig ... That was it ... I was totally turned on by this idea of understanding my world," he said. He had to know all about the laws that govern the universe. Seltzner enrolled in a physics course, and over the next several years earned a Ph.D., which led to where he is today.
Most of us, though, have to work at discovering our purpose. Too often it's clouded over by our conditioning and adapting to life experiences and choices -- from family and culture to our educational and career paths and our relationships. We're so enraptured with our outer life -- or absorbed by it -- that awareness of our true purpose dims to just a flicker. Consequently, many go through life feeling off-track, out of tune in some way. That creates major stress over time, and new research finds that such stress will increase your risk of death from all sources.
Here are five steps that can help activate your life's purpose:
1. Back Off and Tune Inward
The 12th-century Japanese poet Hakuin wrote, "Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away." Your purpose might be right in front of your eyes but you don't see it, like looking for your missing keys when they're right in front of you. Try backing off to a larger perspective, outside yourself. That can help you look inward more clearly. By tuning your focus inward rather than seeking your purpose from something new "out there," you're more likely to discover an inclination or leaning that's always been inside you.
That shift of perspective helps you to let go of the self-interest so prominent in our lives -- what we're always trying to get or control -- and that clears the way to reflect on your current life path with honesty. Does it feel in synch or clash with your inner life, your true self that lies beneath all that you've been conditioned to think, value, go after or believe in?
Further, ask yourself if your life serves something of value in itself, beyond what you hope to "get" from it, by way of "return." Are your energies in the service of creating something useful and good, per se? Or in the service seeking to capture a big "market share" from it? Actually, in business, the former aim tends to be more successful.
Two research studies suggest ways to give you the mental "space" to do the necessary self-reflection for this. One found that volunteer activity -- giving your time away (which also pulls you out of self-interest) -- creates a sense of "time affluence." It gives you an internal sense of having more time, rather than less.
Also, research finds that moments of "awe," experiences that lift you out of yourself and your everyday concerns, bring you more into the present moment, slow down your sense of time and increase your focus and calm. This provides greater opportunity to listen to your internal voice.
2. Learn From Your Choices and Their Consequences
Examine what the "successes" or "failures" over the course of your life tell you about where you've been in harmony with yourself or not. Your life experiences are lessons that can teach you what you've been trying to express or manifest through your outer life, and where parts of the latter may be an incorrect vehicle. The latter is often the meaning behind our life problems and frustrations. Brain research shows that reflecting on yourself generates more motivation and effective planning for the future. This not only helps you learn the meaning of your life experiences, but also supports you in letting go of a path that you realize isn't in synch with your true purpose.
3. Get on the Path
When you feel pulled towards some purpose more in synch with yourself, go after it with strong intent, whether it's something material or spiritual. There are different ways of life that fulfill one's purpose, for different people. But look for the feedback your actions provide. Over time, you'll learn from the feedback if it's the true path for you or not.
4. Stretch Yourself
Create momentum towards your emerging sense of purpose by pushing yourself to stretch toward it. Create a vision of what it would look like. Imagine it's like a powerful magnet that keeps pulling you along a path towards it. Identify what you can do each day that brings you closer. Having a vision has a powerful effect upon your consciousness, and leads to increased happiness with life. Trust what your heart tells you, especially when your mind tells you otherwise ("no, you can't go there; you can't do it; you won't be able to learn how").
5. Pursue It With Love
When going after your life purpose, think of yourself as the lover who simply gives love for its own sake and without regard for getting something in return, without asking to be loved back or seeking a "return on investment." Rather, pursue your purpose with love and sense of service to it, itself. The Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan, who brought his spiritual teachings of "Universal Sufism" to the West in the early 1900s, described this: "Once you have linked yourself with love, a flood of inspiration is revealed to you, whatever the subject, whatever the problem in life may be. Whatever it be that your eye casts its glance upon, it will disclose itself. Then you are on the real road, and what a joy this is!"
And, he emphasized, "As by the opening of the eyes you can see things, so by the opening of the heart you can understand things. As long as the heart is closed you cannot understand things. The secret is that when the ears and eyes of the heart are open, all planes of the world are open, all names are open, all secrets, all mysteries are unfolded."
The more you infuse your thoughts, emotions and behavior with life-affirming energy -- love, kindness, compassion, generosity, justice -- you keep your self-interest at bay, and you're more able to find and achieve your true purpose.
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.
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