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Must there be a purpose to have a meaningful life? Some of us find purpose and meaning in a faith transition after navigating groundlessness of a faith crisis and stages of grief. Others still debate whether this purpose is objective or subjective to each of us. Can we have different purposes? Is there one universally “True” purpose we must all ascribe to? Others realize that having a defined purpose isn’t actually a requirement to living a good life – or a life with meaning and happiness. Or paradoxically put, the purpose of life itself.
Purpose vs Meaning
When discussing the meaning of life and the purpose of life we could stop to think about any distinctions to make in these nearly interchangeable words. Purpose depicts the reason we are here and almost assumes that there is a certain objective reason for it while meaning is more subject to the individual. A purpose is a real or an imagined belief that something has a use or a reason for being. Meaning is the value or values which are assigned to that belief. We can look at life like a work of art or a song. The artist has a purpose in creating the painting or the song, but the viewer/listener will find their own meaning in the created art. These could be similar or even the same, but they don’t have to be. They can experience it on their own and share wonder in a masterpiece, while still not having a clue about what purpose the artist had in mind when they created it. We can all have meaning because we find value in our self, but purpose can be considered the reason we get up every morning, the why.
If you get the purpose, and really get “It”, and you will know if you really got “It”, your search for “It” will be finished. For you may have realized that you are “It”.
Must there be a Why?
Another option is accepting that there is no real why. If religion is a myth, and humans are evolved by chance and happenstance, we are really just lucky to be at all. Does being require a why? Perhaps not. Random mutations and natural selection don’t necessarily have a master or creator. There is a certain wisdom to accepting the uncertainty and insecurity we must face when we don’t have a fully answered why. We can move from the certainty based faith of the mormon tribe, to accepting that we don’t actually know. We can accept the mystery and life itself as beautiful and profound. We accept that we cannot predict or control the future at all, especially what happens after our death (if anything). We are forced to face that all we have is the here and the now. We must live each moment fully because it is actually and truly all we have. No eternities to improve relationships or say things that need saying, just the now.
Be Here Now
These ideas come from Buddhist thinking and are reflected in other eastern wisdom traditions too. Here’s a passage by Alan Watts from his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, discussing this issue of purpose. He compares life to dancing a dance, there is no purpose or destination in some dances, it just is. It is the experience of dancing. That is all and that is enough. That is in itself beautiful and meaningful. Exploring the purpose is more a distraction than anything.
When you realize that you live in, that indeed you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, weather it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists, why conscious beings have been produced, why sensitive organs, why space, time, and change. The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere. You go round and round, but not under the illusion that you are pursuing something, or fleeing from the jaws of hell.
How long have the planets been circling the sun? Are they getting anywhere, and do they go faster and faster in order to arrive ? How often has the spring returned to the earth? Does it come faster and fancier every year, to be sure to be better than last spring, and to hurry on its way to the spring that shall out-spring all springs?
The meaning and purpose of dancing the dance. Like music, also, it is fulfilled in each moment of its course. To the undivided mind, death is another moment, complete like every moment, and cannot yield its secret unless lived to the full.
Death is the epitome of the truth that in each moment we are thrust into the unknown. Here all clinging to security is compelled to cease, and wherever the past is dropped away and safety abandoned, life is renewed. Death is the unknown in which all of us lived before birth.
Nothing is more creative than death, since it is the whole secret of life. It means that the past must be abandoned, that the unknown cannot be avoided, that “I” cannot continue, and that nothing can be ultimately fixed. When a man knows this, he lives for the first time in his life. By holding his breath, he loses it. By letting it go he finds it.Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
Paradoxically, we search for so much purpose and reason behind our life that we end up distracted from living the life we seek to define with a purpose. We only know that we have life. Must there be more?
There are other examples of this mental paradigm from multiple thought leaders each with their own nuance and mantra. Some are more western like Eckhart Tolle with his popular The Power of Now. Others are deeper into traditional buddhism like Thích Nhất Hạnh or Pema Chödrön or even the Dalai Lama. Many have influenced modern thought and even themes addressed by children’s Disney movies.
Here’s a poem from Anam Thubten, a Tibetan Monk, discussing this frantic work of defining our purpose and meaning when it is really right in front of us and patiently waiting for our attention.
Who has the magic to make the sun appear every morning?
Who makes the bird on the elegant tree chirp?
Breath, pulse, music, dew, sunset, the burning ambers of the fall.
There is unfathomable joy in all that.
Life is a stream.
It flows on its own.
No one knows why we are here.
Stop trying to figure out the great mystery.
The tea in front of you is getting cold.Anam Thubten, The Magic of Awareness
Enjoy every drop of it and dance.
Dance until there is no more dancer.
It is the dance without dancer,
this is how great mystics dance.
Some find a nice breath of fresh air when consciously focusing on being here now. Rather than considering the mansions in heaven after judgement and resurrection, we can focus on what we’re doing here and work to consciously do things for authentic reasons. One can even argue that living this way, any creator or god would be proud of the proactive way we live our lives. Living this way we may even “behave” better than if we’re chasing carrots or even motivated by fear. This could be a deeper conviction and brighter path than similar looking actions with different motivations.
The dance is the point. Becoming one with dancing the dance. Where we can “dance until there is no more dancer”. Who are these great mystics? Perhaps enlightened ones, the wise, the true, the deep, the authentic the grateful, the dreamers. Drink the tea. Do the life we worry so much about doing properly. Experience it. And savor it. Be the dance rather than just the dancer, not only the dancer but the whole dad gum (insert your favorite explicative for emphasis here) dance. Be the dancer. Be the whole dance. This is how great mystics dance.
The elusive purpose of life is in living it.