A recent discussion I read online pondered this question. My immediate reaction was, “of course, we have a life purpose! That fact is so self-evident!”
Yet was my quick internal response driven by the fact that all of my books have as an underlying theme about our personal push towards finding our life calling and bringing it into fruition? Perhaps. I’ve written previously about the psychological tendency to self select facts from the world that agree with our pre-existing beliefs and to discount or ignore evidence to the contrary. Could I be doing that? Maybe.
So I stopped and thought about whether we truly have a life purpose for the past few days. Ultimately, my conclusion came out the same – yet I am well aware one could make the case that my thinking was motivated to create the outcome I desired. I don’t think so, but at least I’m aware of the possibility.
So why did I immediately believe that we do have a life purpose? My original acceptance was driven by a combination of personal experience and my study of the topic.
I recognize the feeling within me that I have a life calling. I know that it involves taking complex matters and simplifying and then teaching them to others. When I am doing this both in my writing and in my public speaking, I experience the highest levels of being in the flow. But even though I feel like I have such a purpose, does that also mean others have one too?
I’ve spoken to many people who feel that they do. In conversations, many have shared what they know to be their purpose in life – and what they have identified has run the gamut of a wide range of possibilities. Additionally, I’ve taught workshops attended by individuals seeking clarity around what their purpose is. They may not know their life calling but they believe with all their heart that they have one. Yes, on the other hand, I’ve also talked to people who don’t feel as if they have any such calling. Yet I’ve always felt as if this group really did have a life mission, it’s just that their life experiences were such that their personal awareness of it had not yet emerged.
From my studies of the topic, I have encountered many business consultants, personal coaches, spiritual leaders and writers who have presented the idea that we all have a personal life mission – some special gift or talent that we came onto the planet to express in our own unique way. Type the phrase “life purpose” into Google and you will easily locate a vast array of websites and articles (from Psychology Today to Oprah) designed to assist you in identifying yours.
Although I could list and quote many individuals who have taught regarding the importance of finding our life calling, I’ll just list my favorite example. It comes from reviewing the work of influential author Stephen Covey. His best-selling book from the 1990s, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, was followed by many other management and motivational volumes but only one of which could be called “a sequel” to his most famous book. The Eighth Habit: from Effectiveness to Greatness suggested that moving our lives to this higher level involved finding our voice and inspiring others to find theirs. As I’ve written before, it’s as if Covey evolved in his thinking – recognizing that beyond basic “effectiveness” was a higher human expression of “greatness”.
And what does Covey mean when he refers to “our voice”? One summary of the book by John Bippus defines finding your voice this way: “The essence of this habit is that you will find your voice when you can say you are 100% involved with what you are doing in your life, so that your body, mind, heart and spirit are all engaged in whatever is important to you. To find your voice, you need to examine your natural talent, what you absolutely love to do, what really interests you. And you must listen to the confirming inner voice of your conscience that tells you what is the right thing to do.”
To me, this is what is meant by finding our life purpose. And, we all have one even if we’ve never truly heard “our voice”. But let’s look at this topic a little deeper based upon my reflections over the past few days.
First, let’s consider the concept of a life purpose in combination with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If our individual life is motivated by lower-level needs – physiological, safety and security, love and belongingness, self-esteem – then we are driven by what Maslow considered “deficiency needs”. That is, we feel that we are lacking something in life and are driven to fill that hole. Although we may occasionally get an inkling of a sense of our life purpose, so long as our primary drivers are based on a sense of feeling incomplete, such a personal calling may possibly take a backseat in our lives.
It’s only when these basic needs are met according to Maslow’s theory that we are able to focus upon “higher needs” of self actualization and self transcendence. These desires Maslow categorized as “being needs”. Here, he described how we feel our lives are very full and complete and our motivations come from a sense of wanting to give from our sense of abundance. One of the characteristics which Maslow found in individuals who are motivated to “self-actualize” was the tendency to be centered on some task which his subjects felt they had a mission to fulfill in life. Another characteristic was the tendency to be motivated by “peak experiences” where one felt that one was in some degree of flow where they lost track of time, felt in harmony with the universe and that their actions had deep meaning. Such characteristics certainly suggest a tendency towards a life purpose.
Therefore, individuals who have been able to meet basic deficiency needs are now able to focus upon these being needs and are more likely, in my opinion, to be motivated to sense that internal drive to live a life calling. However, is this evidence that we all have a life purpose? It certainly is indicative that we have the potential somewhere within us to feel as if we do.
Second, let’s consider the theory of Spiral Dynamics and what it might offer us about having a life purpose. This theory, borne from the groundbreaking work of data gathered by psychologist Clare Graves, suggests that humans develop a particular lens through which they interpret life and that this worldview emerges out of our current worldly conditions. Graves’ data pointed to an evolutionary interplay between our life conditions and our worldview – our viewpoint developed to best meet our life circumstances and once successfully mastered, new conditions arose demanding the emergence of a new worldview. Graves’ data suggested a common sequence of worldviews through which we evolved – within our individual life from birth to current age and possibly through humanity’s cultural history from cave dwelling days up to today.
For more detail on Spiral Dynamics and the developmental sequence, check out prior articles hereprior articles here on the topic.
So where does having a life purpose possibly fit within such an evolutionary framework? Earliest humanity (as well as newborn infants) living in a basic survival mode of existence could be seen as being similar to individuals motivated solely by the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy. Both have no time to contemplate any greater “life purpose” or we could say that survival and reproduction of the species was essentially their purpose. However, as humanity was able to learn and develop skills and technology and was able to successfully meet the needs of its current world, it moved up the evolutionary ladder to both new life conditions and worldviews. Each new level brought both more complex issues to test us and more complexity in our thinking to meet those tests. At each level of existence, our individual life missions changed and evolved appropriately to meet the needs that were in front of us.
However, the concept of finding meaning and purpose in living most likely first emerged within the traditional viewpoint (blue meme) a little over 2000 years ago. Such meaning was first sought through the creation of rules and religions which guided the ways in which we were to live our lives. I suspect that the concept of our having a “life purpose” first began entering our collective awareness during this phase of our development and has only continued to grow as we have moved into the later evolutionary stages.
At a certain point in our growth, Spiral Dynamics suggests that we make a “momentous leap” in our consciousness and what it considers “second tier” worldviews. Here we become more fully aware of the interplay of all of life, how everything is connected in an open and integrated system and how we have moved through our evolutionary past leading us to this particular moment and awareness. We realize the importance of expressing our personal freedom in a manner that does no harm to others. We begin to focus upon doing good for all, recognizing that our small self is part of a larger, conscious, spiritual whole Self – that service to all serves our self. Acting from such levels of awareness to be of service to something greater certainly seems to be in alignment, in my opinion, with the sense of living a life purpose. We now become evolutionary change agents with our purpose driven to assist the positive growth of the whole.
Finally, let’s consider a few possibilities as to why humans may sense that they have a life purpose.
It’s been well documented that humans are “meaning seeking creatures”. Something within our physical nature desires to find patterns in our sensory input. It’s been pointed out frequently that such a tendency has served our evolutionary needs. The quicker we are able to identify patterns indicative of external threats, the more likely we will take fight or flight action and survive to live another day. Our ancestors were thus rewarded and passed along to us an innate tendency to see meaning in the world around us – sometimes even when it’s not there.
Critics of our possessing a life purpose could say this is just another one of those situations. If one’s viewpoint was that the only thing that was real was the physical universe and the discovered laws of physics, then there would be a propensity to deny any higher life meaning or purpose beyond what could be interpreted through that materialistic outlook. Such a belief says that we are simply physical animals driven by our evolutionary hardwiring. Our belief in a life purpose is simply a byproduct of the genes we inherited.
Yet Spiral Dynamics and similar developmental theories suggest that such a materialistic worldview is simply one stage of awareness through which we move. At higher levels of consciousness we begin to integrate the outer physical world with the inner world of consciousness and understand their connections. Could it be that our human animalistic tendency towards seeking meaning serves some greater integral purpose? Could it be that our perception of having a life purpose is driven both by our animalistic past and our spiritual future? Could it be that we are pushed from the inside and pulled from the outside simultaneously towards some greater goal?
Many spiritual teachers have indeed taught that to be the case. Ernest Holmes, founder of the Science of Mind referred to it as a divine urge. “There is an irresistible Universal and Divine urge within us to be happy, to be whole, and to express the fullness of Life. The latent Divinity within us stirs our imagination and, because of Its insistent demand, impels and compels our growth. It is back of every invention; It proclaims Itself through every creative endeavor; It has produced sages, saints, and saviors, and will, when permitted, create a new world in which war, poverty, sickness, and famine will have disappeared.” He adds, ” I think we exist because God exists, because there is an irresistible urge in the Being of God to express Himself. We are one of the results of that urge. We exist that the Divine feeling, fire, imagination, and creativity shall be experienced through us.”
In other words, our initial source by whatever name we wish to give it, created everything and embedded or involved (involution) itself in its creation. We are experiencing both free will choice and the sense of being separate and apart from everything else. We are also evolving in our awareness and consciousness. Although we are free to choose our actions, our divine nature “urges” us back along our evolutionary path. At the higher levels of awareness we begin to sense more deeply our unity. The growing awareness of a life purpose and our desire to fulfill it is our answering the call of this sacred urge.
In his book, The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard de Chardin offered what he called the Omega Point as both the ultimate supreme point of complexity and consciousness towards which we were collectively headed as well as the actual cause for the universe to grow in complexity and consciousness. In other words, our urge towards evolution is being pulled by the source creating the urge. He wrote, “There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.” Once again, we sense our life purpose serving this greater evolution.
One could make the case that an individual who has attained a certain level of conscious awareness of oneness might transcend the need for a life purpose. After all, if I have tasted that deep nothingness that is beyond the ground of all being, then might I not realize on some level that there is no time through which to evolve and no true separation? If any such “life purpose” was to exist in such a state of consciousness, would not that purpose be to remain eternally in such a state of bliss? Maybe.
Yet, there is more evidence to suggest that such individuals who have “moved to the last space on the game board of life” don’t just sit there hanging out waiting for everyone else to catch up. Instead, individuals who have reached such enlightenment have had their hearts opened to such great levels of compassion for their fellow spiritual travelers that their life purpose becomes devoted to the service of others and their ultimate enlightenment. In Buddhism, such an individual is referred to as a bodhisattva.
So do we have a life purpose? Ultimately, we are all given the free will ability to decide for ourselves. I choose to see that we do. What do you think?
Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!