A Guide to a Life of Purpose

Expanding yourself, facing the suffering, and doing something for others can lead to a life of deep purpose
By Leo Babauta, www.zenhabits.net
July 25, 2018 Updated: July 25, 2018    
One of the things I want of people who join my Fearless Training Program is to have some kind of deeper purpose in life.
That purpose could be a lot of things. It could be to make the lives of people better through coaching, writing, or podcasting. Or to serve a small team or group of people in your community. It could be to raise kids who are self-sufficient and happy with themselves, or help others feel empowered to speak out, or pursue their dreams.
We can seek to help those in need, or simply to be a good person to everyone we meet. Some may seek enlightenment so that they are freed from suffering (the Bodhisattva path).

There are millions of possibilities. The point is to have something bigger than yourself. It’s not just about self-improvement, but growth to serve others.

There are two big reasons it’s important to have some kind of purpose bigger than yourself:

  1. You need a deep reason: If you don’t have a deeper reason for doing the training, you’ll wuss out when things get hard. And when things get hard is when things get good. That’s when true change begins.
  2. You need to get out of your closed-in world: Often we’re very concerned about ourselves: how we look, what people think about us, whether we’re being treated right, whether we’ll get what we want, whether we’re good enough, etc. Our self-concern is natural, but it closes us into a very small world that is less happy and less content.

A Deeper Reason to Push Into Discomfort

Imagine this: you decide to go to a weeklong meditation retreat, and when you get there, they have you sit and meditate. Then walk a bit, in silence, meditating as you walk. Then sit in meditation. And they have you repeat eat in silence, and go to bed early, because tomorrow you’re going to meditate all day, speaking to no one. As you get to your room, you realize this is way harder than you expected.

You get through the second day, but start to think about leaving. You don’t really care about this meditation enough to keep doing it when your hips are sore, your back is aching, and your mind feels spent.

This is a key juncture: do you quit or do you keep training?

The truth is, if you can push into the discomfort, with love, and keep going, it’ll be an amazing breakthrough for you. This is where your habitual patterns can be challenged. It can be a place of growth, learning, and tremendous change.

This is the kind of training that you need to put yourself in if you want to grow. Not a meditation retreat, necessarily, but any kind of practice that makes you want to give up. It doesn’t have to be hardcore, just something that causes you to be uncomfortable and causes your old habitual patterns to surface.

At this point, if you have something you care about—a group of people you really love, who you want to serve—you can stay in this place of discomfort and growth.

If you don’t, you’ll probably run. Because why put yourself through that?

You need the deeper reason.

A Way Out of Our Closed-In World

Besides giving you a deeper reason to push into discomfort, having a purpose expands your world.

Most of us live worried about ourselves most of the time. We worry about whether we will get what we want, about our pain, and how people treat us. We want others to be nice to us and think highly of us. We want to be happy and good looking, etc.

But this is a narrow world focused only on ourselves. Having a bigger purpose broadens that world so that we’re thinking of others and ourselves, and how we are all interconnected.

It’s a much more fulfilling way to live.

How to Find the Purpose

That’s all great, but how do you find your purpose if you don’t have a clue where to start looking?

There are two guiding principles:

  1. Clear away all distractions
  2. Listen deeply

If you don’t have a clear purpose yet, if you haven’t found work or an activity that gives you fulfillment and meaning, it would help to make looking for that your main purpose. Your entire focus is on seeking a purpose.

So clear away all distractions. Simplify things so that you can start looking. Clear your schedule as much as you can, drop your commitments to the extent that you can (as they’re not meaningful to you anyway).

Then do this:

  1. Make a list of everything you do right now. What gives you meaning and fulfillment? What doesn’t?
  2. Make a list of things you’ve done in the past that have given you meaning. Are there any connections between them or connections to the ones on your current list?
  3. Open yourself to suffering in your life. Things become more meaningful when you’ve been through suffering. Suffering is not something to be avoided, but something to work with, something to grow with, a path to deeper meaning. Think about the most meaningful experiences in your life. They probably involved other people, and they probably involved some kind of suffering.
  4. Take time in silence. Out in nature, or on a couch meditating. Use the silence to listen to your heart, to the infinite, to your deeper consciousness. Really listen. Open yourself to not knowing.
  5. Open to the not knowing even as you interact with others and read books and online articles. What are people saying that feels meaningful? What inspiration can you find?
  6. Open yourself to others, their challenges, and their feedback.
  7. Listen. Then pick something and take action. You won’t really know until you get started, so pick anything that feels remotely right. Volunteer, work at a non-profit, write a blog or a book, start recording something, find someone to help as best you can. Get started, take action, and see what happens.

You do not have to have the perfect answer to get started. That’s a need for perfection, a need for knowing. Instead, embrace not-knowing, and just start.

How to Live a Life of Purpose

Once you’ve found an approximation of your purpose, some kind of meaningful activity, it’s time to live a life of deeper purpose.

There’s no one way to do that but here are some ideas:

  1. Start to cultivate a list of guiding principles. Gather them from books, from things that speak to you, from things you’ve learned over the years. These are not things you need to be hardened around, but values and ideas that seem to guide you well. Keep the list somewhere visible. Live by these principles as much as you can, adjusting your behavior regularly if needed, tossing out or revising principles as you learn, not holding to them too tightly.
  2. Keep your purpose front of mind. Reflect on your purpose every day. How are you living it? How can you go deeper or expand with it? What one or two things can you do today to serve that purpose?
  3. Set an intention with each task. If you’re going to write an article, record a video, clean a church floor, see a patient, start that activity by setting an intention to serve the people you care deeply about with love, mindfulness, devotion, or whatever you want to bring to that activity. It helps to set the intention, because the activity becomes filled with purpose, instead of something not very meaningful.
  4. Have regular reviews. I’ve found that it’s one thing to have an intention, but it’s another to actually live it. We forget we get distracted, we fall into habitual patterns. To get us back on track, it really helps to have regular reviews. For example: have a 5-minute review at the end of the day. Ask yourself how you did today? How can you get better? Maybe write 1-2 sentences in a journal. Or just reflect on it. Do the same each week: plan out your week on Sundays (for example), but also review your past week. How can you adjust for the upcoming week? And each month, and each year. Put these on your calendar and don’t skip it when the review date comes up!
  5. Have people hold your purpose in their hearts. Find at least 1-2 other people (and ideally more) who will hold your purpose in their hearts. That means: you tell them about it, they care about you and what you’re doing, and they’ll ask you about it, maybe support your mission in some way. They’ll challenge you if they feel you’re not doing everything you can or living your best life. They’ll share their mission with you. They’ll be on the journey with you, because no one fulfills their deepest purpose alone.
  6. Connect to your fulfillment. Reflect on the meaning you get from fulfilling your purpose. Don’t just go through the motions—feel it deeply. Feel the love you’re offering (and receiving) as you push into this purpose. See the good you’re doing for others. Live your life as love.

It’s not something that happens overnight, and it’s not always simple to live a life of purpose. But putting these ideas into practice, you’ll feel a greater sense of meaning in your life.

Have a purpose and want to train in pushing into the discomfort and uncertainty of that purpose? Train with me in my Fearless Training Program.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit Zen Habits.s

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