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Living On Purpose

June 11, 2014
'Road Less Traveled' by anjan58 via Flickr.com

‘Road Less Traveled’ by anjan58 via Flickr.com

This theme has been rattling around in my head for a while. Conscious living, mindfulness, intentional living, whatever it’s called it usually sounds pretentious and far too privileged. It seems silly to talk about a purposeful life to someone frantically trying to feed three kids on as many minimum wage jobs while her neighborhood is getting shot up. But sometimes I wonder if more privileged people (including myself) were living fully-awake lives, maybe there would be fewer people trapped in situations like that because we’d all give more attention to poverty and violence than we do to shoe styles and sitcoms.

No, I’m not trying to take all the joy out of life. Squarely facing all the worst problems our country and world has to offer is like staring into the sun. We just can’t stand it. I can’t stand it. These aren’t things any individual can solve in one fell swoop. But the world isn’t made up of individuals. Actually it is, but not isolated individuals as we assume, but rather people embedded in systems that perpetuate violence and poverty. One person can’t change every system, but they can change any system, an inch at a time if necessary. Which brings me back to a purposeful life.

No matter how they were started, by whom, or to what end, systems of suffering can only be perpetuated when people fail to tear them down and transform them. Even when we’re not actively building them, even when we’re intellectually opposed to them, if we are not also actively trying to change them, we are, in effect, perpetuating them. When we fail to live in ways that disrupt these on purpose, then we end up feeding the monster on our table scraps and it gets bigger.

Moreover, even if we aren’t living hand to mouth in an urban war zone, our stress hormones can’t tell the difference anymore. We’re running from one deadline to another, trying to satisfy a dozen different powers-that-be who barely know our names, and just hoping that this will look good on our resumes so that someday we can get that job we really want – so we can do all that stuff, but with a slightly better paycheck. Yeah…why, again? No wonder we haven’t solved immigration reform or the gender inequality yet.

So I keep thinking about this purposeful life. What would it be like to live a life where I knew that what I did every day went just a little way towards transforming the systems that perpetuate suffering? What would it be like to live a life that didn’t feel so frantic and reactive, but rather felt focused on the task at hand under my conscious direction? What would it be like to have a sense of purpose and direction that didn’t send my chasing after every possible rainbow, because I already knew what I needed to do when I got out of bed in the morning? Wouldn’t that be better?

The answers to those questions seem so natural and positive. It sounds like a no-brainer. I don’t know anyone who would turn that life down.

But I don’t know anyone who has achieved it. At least, not personally, though I’d like to think they’re out there.

This theme keeps rattling around in my head and in my spare time, I pick up books, skim articles, and watch TED talks. I didn’t even realize what they all had in common, this theme of a conscious life, until I started listening to Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown on audiobook in my car. Because it’s an audiobook, I can’t crack it open and pull out a handy quote to demonstrate it’s cleverness. I have many questions for Mr. McKeown, including what would he tell the single-mom with three kids and three jobs living in gang territory, but mostly I appreciate the track he’s on. And I appreciate the track he’s put me on.

Because I realize that I’m looking for the same thing now that I was looking for when I picked up Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching a dozen years ago – a purposeful life. Thay would call it a mindful life or maybe just to be awake, since that’s the ‘Buddh’ in Buddhism. What I’ve been reading and listening to and watching online are all modern-day Dharma talks, backed up with social scientific studies and statistics, but still Dharma. I constantly amazed by the resonance it has with two-thousand year old Buddhist teachings, until I remind myself that there’s no reason to be amazed. Universal truth and all that…

I have an entire summer to contemplate that new track. I’m interested to discover how I can downgrade my life, clear out the busy-ness, design purposeful routines that become ingrained habits, empty my house, purify my spending habits, pursue the essential, and focus on the task at hand. And maybe when I’ve accomplished those cliches, I can spare some attention for the problems of poverty and violence and, you know, liberating the world from suffering and stuff.

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