I woke with a splitting headache. It was dark and I was lying on my side, hands pressed to forehead. I rolled over and struggled to focus on the glowing green numbers. Two a.m. I didn’t even notice the nightly chill as I tossed the covers aside I was so intent on the bottle of naproxen in the bathroom. I scooped water from the tap up with my palm and swallowed two pills without ever turning the light on. Back in bed, I propped my head up on two pillows, hoping to reduce the flow of blood throbbing behind my skull with every heartbeat. “Mrrow?” the cat asked as I settled under the covers, a dark loaf-shaped mass against the white underside of the folded top quilt. I sighed in answer and waited for my heart rate to slow and the drugs to start.
Minutes passed. I faded, but never quite slept. Eventually the pain subsided. I removed the second pillow and rolled back onto my side. I slept. I dreamt of kite sailing under bright sunshine, speeding this way and that regardless of the wind, and walking through the ocean. The waves rose and fell from shoulder to waist and back again, but I felt no push or pull from the water. It did not sway me from my destination. The night before I was dropped on a planet half Dune, half Pandora with a company of hard-bitten veterans. We had a mission and I was on point. I don’t remember the particulars of the night prior to that, but the sense of purpose is the same. Even in the midst of turmoil and stress, midterm papers and examines, conflicts and politics, I have been dreaming of purpose. Perhaps dreaming with purpose, is a better description.
I have never had such a strong, consistent feeling of determination during such a time of stress. The pressure comes every semester and my dreams turn to feelings of anger, fear, loss of control, and imminent threat. I have reacted by fleeing, shouting, fighting, crying out for help, but never by pressing resolutely forward. And I always woke more troubled in the morning and firmly pressed my doubts aside with coffee and obstinacy. Now I face my doubts while waking and dream of strength to carry on. And I am not alone, waking or sleeping. There are others beside and behind me, willing to follow or to lead should I need it. A sense of trust endures.
College students go through a lot of stress. Much of it is self-imposed, the stress of young adults learning how to be adults. Some of it is par for the course, part of the ongoing test of college education where the workload we bear is equated, perhaps unfairly, with the seriousness of our intent and ability to succeed. The constant question we all face is whether or not it’s worth it. Why are we here? What is the purpose of all this?
It’s a curious word – purpose. It means a goal, what one “sets out to do,” or an aim, implying a sense of movement. This manifests directly in my dreams, where there is always a component of the journey. We are always moving. It also means “a proposition, a question, an argument; a riddle,” which seems utterly appropriate. Most people, even those with a strong sense of purpose, have a hard time telling others what it is. There is a component of determination but also conversation and discourse. In order to reach our goal, we must negotiate some type of relationship. In these dreams, I am never alone, and I also find that significant. If we find that our purpose sets us always against others and never with them, will our determination hold? As a verb, it means to put something forward for discussion, so without the help of others, we are likely to get nowhere. My personal favorite is “To represent to one’s imagination; to imagine to oneself; to fancy, suppose,” which I do very well. It is a about the future, which we can only ever imagine, but a future we must “place before” and “make up one’s mind” to pursue. Purpose and pursue are intimately related. (Oxford English Dictionary Online.)
What does this mean to us as Buddhists, who have recognized the Second Noble Truth? To have purpose is to pursue something, a future we desire to come true. But I would also posit that purpose is also a feeling we can have in the present moment. It is that feeling that helps us trust the present moment and keeps us from chasing off after something else, something new, something we think might make us happier than we are now. That feeling is essential when the going gets rough. So whereas desire can be fickle, purpose is steadfast. We may desire to escape the suffering, but a sense of purpose makes us think twice and question the suffering itself. Purpose can sometimes lead us into suffering, just as desire does, but it can also help us transcend suffering and win through. Perhaps it is part of the raft of skillful means we can, in time, let go of.
Everyone’s purpose is different, a million goals for a a million people. I hardly even know how to fully articulate what my purpose is, but I do know how to tell whether or not I have one. It’s a subtle method, but all the more effective because it manifests from somewhere deep within. These past two weeks, it has been all the more important, as my fellow chaplain students and I work through midterms, conflicts, and personal misfortune. So despite the stress headache, fatigue, conflict, and overwork, I know I am in the right place in this present moment.