I was aware though, that was something missing. There was a sadness in my heart, and that question I couldn’t quieten. It had me feeling ungrateful for all the good that I did have and yearning for more, though I didn’t know what that was. It could almost be mistaken for ennui, and frequently I’d turn to overstimulation in the form of ‘doing more’ to try and fix it. But ultimately, when I returned to stillness, there would be that quiet and persistent question: the feeling that I lacked a sense of greater purpose.
I could justify to myself why what I was doing was purposeful. Others could also give me a million reasons why what I was doing had meaning and purpose in their eyes, but ultimately, by my own personal barometer of the soul, I felt with a deep knowing that there was something more for me to be doing, and it related to the elusive sense of purpose I was seeking.
Answering the question that wouldn’t go away
The answers seemed to distil themselves most clearly when I contemplated two things: being of service to others, and congruently aligning my internal values with my external actions in the world. It was like I was looking to narrow the gap between parts of myself, others and ‘the whole’.
When I practically assessed what was going on, I could see there was cognitive dissonance between what I was ‘doing’ and how I was ‘being’. In my personal life, I was constantly seeking peace through meditation, healing work and alternative therapies. Conversely, in my working world as an actor, I was literally enacting ‘drama’: putting my body, brain and nervous system through those adverse experiences of my characters’ plot lines and also ultimately perpetuating certain cultural narratives and mythologies that I didn’t always believe in.
While I upheld that there was power in storytelling as a tool for transformation and sharing, I had to be honest that the stories in which I was investing my time were ones I didn’t think needed retelling. Then there was the culture around the entertainment industry, which to me really didn’t enhance society’s perceptions of beauty, diversity, and difference.
I also perceived how much consumerism and waste there was on film and television set productions ‘behind the scenes’ - components that weren’t in my direct control, but which I was a part of by proxy. There was an echo of a larger societal dysfunction that I was starting to become aware of my personal contribution to.
A gradual process of self-evolution
It was becoming clearer to me that ‘change begins with us’. Far from being an abstract notion, this is something actionable that gives us agency when we engage with it practically and not just take it as a spiritual platitude. Systemic and personal change require us to take responsibility for our parts in the whole and start to unravel ourselves from the mess we have created, so we can start to create congruence between our internal values and our external actions. This is where alignment with our sense of purpose comes in.
To reinvigorate a sense of purpose in our lives, we first have to get honest with ourselves about how the vision of the world we want for ourselves, others and the planet, may not currently be one we are contributing enough to through our daily actions. To turn this around requires examination and effort. We need to scan across our life and rather than being critical, be curious and inquisitive about how and where we could change.
This can be a confronting process, but it’s one we cannot skip. It requires discernment and also a degree of knowing oneself. If we are doing it properly, it will usually have us turning red-cheeked and cringing at ourselves before we can summon our compassion toward ourselves while still recognising where we have been part of the problem. It’s not a straightforward process, but one of continual engagement and evolution as we refine our purposeful contributions to the world.
Rediscovering what often goes unnoticed
When it comes to working as a practitioner with clients who are feeling stuck, lost and overwhelmed by the question of purpose, I have come to understand that often what they are alluding to is their own sense of dissonance between how things are for us as individuals, and how things could be.
So many times, I have heard, “What is my purpose?” or “What even is purpose?” – not to mention, “Do I have a purpose?” and even “I’ve lost all sense of purpose.” Charles Eisenstein covers some of this territory beautifully in his book The Ascent of Humanity: “No matter how complete the despair, no matter how bitter the cynicism, a possibility beckons of a world more beautiful and a life more magnificent than what we know today. Though we may rationalize it, it is not rational. We become aware of it in moments, gaps in the rush and press of modern life. These moments come to us alone in nature, or with a baby, making love, playing with children, caring for a dying person, making music for the sake of music or beauty for the sake of beauty. At such times, a simple and easy joy shows us the futility of the vast, life-consuming program of management and control. We intuit also that something similar is possible collectively.”
What I believe Eisenstein is referring to – and where I feel our deepest sense of purpose lies – is in the realm of doing that extends from our being rather than conventional doing for doing’s sake. The problem we face currently is that society places little value (and often no monetary reward) on doings that aren’t big, brash, visible and frankly Instagrammable!
Much of what makes life truly purposeful and meaningful goes unnoticed amid the noise and bright colours of life’s flashier achievements. Truly though, this is where we need to start directing our perception, so we can experience again the deep pleasure that comes from quietening our lives enough to perceive purpose in the simple moments of care we experience.
A return to childlike purity
One way we can reconnect with this ease of finding our purpose in the little things, is to remember that when we were born, we didn’t need a purpose to be loved or lovable. We simply existed. Our ‘purpose’ from the very beginning of life is innate in our being. Everything else is an extension of that truth.
As we grow and begin to equate our value in the world with our actions or our ‘doings’, we lose the sense of being valuable simply because we are, and begin to seek external validation that feeds our minds with thoughts of ‘I’ve made it’. This further cements our personal identity, and we increasingly identify our ‘doings’ as what gives us a sense of meaning. When we factor in financial security and social standing, we start to equate our purposefulness in life with our achievements, and we feel puffed up with our own success.
Then, invariably, events come along that shake us out of our delusion. It might be becoming a parent for the first time, the loss or rejection of a job, retiring from a vocation, losing a significant other or any transformative, traumatic or life-altering experience. A shift occurs in the psyche, and it suddenly brings the question of purpose into sharp focus. No longer content with just living as we were, we suddenly find ourselves dissociated from what formerly felt so concrete in our lives. We go from a sense of what we considered ‘purpose’ to really questioning what the whole concept means in the first place. In a way, we come full circle and return to our former childlike, ego-less self.
From this place, a sort of rebirth occurs – only this time, into a lived-in body that is (hopefully) wiser from accumulated experience. We have an opportunity to redefine ourselves according to what is truly meaningful to us, and this naturally tends to align with seeking a sense of purpose informed by a desire to contribute with more substance and integrity. Krista Tippet, creator of On Being, recognises this in a podcast interview with Berry Liberman of Dumbo Feather magazine. “When I think of great people, there has been a connection made between inner life and nourishing that, and outer presence in the world.”
Staying aligned with purpose is an ongoing journey
My own evolution towards living a purposeful life brought me to the world of one-to-one coaching and transformative group work, gatherings in circle and creating space for people to unravel from the dominant discourse and mind about what they ‘should’ be striving for, so they can reconnect with what is truly purposeful, meaningful and dear to them on behalf of a greater good for all.
When I became a mother for the first time, I had the courage to step away from my former identity as ‘an actor’. I started reshaping my world to fully align with my now very clear inner compass that no longer allows me dabble in anything that I don’t believe in with all my heart. What was crucial in this journey for me, though, is that despite moving on from my past, I didn’t make it something to regret. Instead, I used discernment to make new choices, integrating the lessons I’d learned into the wholeness of who I am.
Yes, I feel purposeful in what I do now. It was a forging by fire to get here, and I had to let go of a lot of distractions to get on with the work that’s most dear to me and which I find most fulfilling. I’m continually gently re-steering myself towards my new burgeoning sense of purpose; even when it feels fragile and uncertain, I trust that it’s coming from the heart. I believe we do have to let go and really uproot the old before we can till and soil, plant and seed the new.
It’s not a linear journey, it’s something I find to be cyclical: I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been on the edge of going back to my former life out of sheer convenience. Yet each time I strengthen my resolve to commit to a purposeful life in which my actions are far more aligned with my innate being, a new strength finds me and then unexpected doors do open. Plus, I can honestly say that I stand in my ethics and integrity, which naturally allows me to hold the space for others to do the same. After all, we can only teach what we know.
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