Situating Yourself: What Is Our Purpose Here?
Like everyone else, you probably are searching for something in this life to satisfy a dream, a longing, or something that you can't even name. As you begin to read this book you may even have an agenda for yourself. Perhaps you're looking for answers to the gnawing questions in your brain about what your role in this life is. And perhaps you're looking for some serenity, a little peace of mind that will at least temporarily take you away from your troubles. Maybe you've tried other things to help you gain this peace and nothing has worked, so you're skeptical that anything can work.
Perhaps you've reached some measure of peace in your life and want to go deeper. You want to experience more joy. You want to experience your life more fully, and you want to achieve an emotional balance so that the highs and lows of life are moderated.
Or maybe you're committed to the pursuit of happiness at any cost, or to acquiring things like money and power because you believe that these will give you joy and freedom.
Perhaps you don't even know what you want--you just know that something is amiss, something needs to happen inside you because no matter what happens to and around you there is no satisfaction. Maybe you have everything you've ever dreamed of--the compatible relationship, the satisfying job, the nice home, plenty of love from children and family--yet something inside feels empty. You might even hesitate to acknowledge this empty feeling, thinking that your friends and family wouldn't believe you or would consider you ungrateful.
Perhaps you believe you have a fatal flaw that nothing and nobody can correct, and up to this point in your life you've kept it your secret. Or maybe you're sitting with a minor under-the-skin-dis-ease, something you can live with but that colors the way you see everything. It's not extreme, mostly it goes unnoticed by others, but it's beginning to affect your behavior more and more. You're simply fed up with it and want it gone.
Right now, try not to figure any of this out, and don't worry about where or whether you fit in to any of these scenarios. Simply know that wherever you are coming from and wherever you think you might want to go, you are, right this moment, in the right place. Know that whatever you think your purpose in life or your purpose in reading this book is, you are, right this moment, in the right place.
Let's make a pact. Let's agree that for now our purpose is to be present and willing, right here, right now. To this end, let's do a simple exercise. Look around you. What does the room you're in look like? Are there windows? Notice the source of light. What shoes are you wearing? Are you standing or sitting? How's your breathing? Take three long, deep breaths to put your attention there. Look around you again. Ground yourself in the here and now. Focus on just being where you are, right now, in this moment. Breathe deeply.
This exercise is a simple one, and I will ask you to remember it and turn to it from time to time. Let's call it your purpose tool. Whenever you find yourself fearful or anxious, use this tool. Whenever the question "What is my purpose?" arises, use this tool. Whenever you are in a state of existential angst, use this tool. Whenever you don't know what to do next, use this tool.
You may be asking yourself such questions as "Why? What good will this do me? How can such a simple exercise help with the important matters of my life?" Take a moment. Stop. Use your purpose tool. If you practice this regularly and follow the other suggestions in this book, I promise that you will find the answers to even your most perplexing questions. But for now let's agree that our purpose is to be here, on this page, in this moment, and nowhere else. That is enough purpose just now. Read along, trust, and bring this tool with you as you go.
Nothing is either fully black or white except maybe black and white. As soon as we open our eyes to each new morning, we are faced with a day of choices--which side of the bed to roll out of, which body part to wash first when we shower, what to have for breakfast. As the days and years pass we make bigger choices for ourselves--where to go to school, whom to marry, how many children to have. And in between the small and the big choices are a multitude of other choices we face that influence our life and our character. Some of our choices evolve into habit and we stop thinking about them. For instance, take the first three that I mentioned: getting out of bed, showering, eating breakfast. Do you ever think about these things and make a conscious choice? Or do you slip into your habitual routine and coast on automatic pilot? Here, in the small choices we face every day, we can learn to practice awareness, acceptance, and mindfulness. Here we can begin to learn to take responsibility for ourselves. Here we can begin to understand how much of the noise in our head is there by our own choosing. As we become mindful and pay attention to each choice we make, we slowly become aware of our own investment in our difficulties. We learn how we need certain people and noises around us even though we know they interfere with our serenity. We learn how subtle some of our choices and the effects of those choices are.
If you haven't already become aware of it, notice that paradoxes are inherent in much of what is being discussed in this book. Mainly, letting go versus taking responsibility and making choices. You might be asking yourself how you can let go and make a choice at the same time. This question is appropriate and valid. But remember that without your participation in your own life you merely become an automaton. Unless you take responsibility for your choices, you will not sit squarely in your life, in the essence of who you are. This is a difficult concept to grasp, but you must make the choice, then let go, and allow your breath to enter the picture and take that choice to its natural conclusion. If you are directing the outcome, you will not be open for anything but your own narrow vision. If you ask for help and let your God in, your world will get bigger.
One thing to remember about choice is that no choice is also a choice, so if you do nothing, you are choosing to do nothing and must take responsibility for the ramifications of that choice. So review your day and think about some of the choices you made today. How many of them were made mindlessly? Can you think of one you made that you'd like to go back and change? Before you made it, did you take a moment to breathe and listen? As you breathe quietly, review your day and think about your preferred choices. What are you learning? Write about it.
We are continually faced with choices, and, luckily for us, this will never change. Some choices, of course, are more difficult to make than others. Practicing on the small ones will prepare you for the big ones. The best that you can do for yourself is to be aware of your choices and, as much as possible, the effects of each choice. Breathe deeply before deciding. Ask for guidance. Listen for the answer. And then choose. Then let go and live with the results. It will always be a perfect choice. Don't second-guess yourself. Move on to the next and the next and the next. Live fully in your life each moment. Trust your choices, and accept the results.
For one week, pay attention to the small choices you are faced with and choose to do the opposite of what you'd normally do. Beginning each morning, roll out of bed on a different side. Eat before you shower, or vice versa. Eat something you don't normally eat. Take a bath instead of a shower. Wash your body from the bottom up or from the middle down. Change it each day. Continue through your day making "crazy" choices. At the end of each day, write about the day's experiences, the choices you made. How did you feel when you made them? How do you feel as you write about them? Notice anything different about yourself, about your day? What awarenesses arose? How does your body feel? Your heart? Your brain? Was it fun, or confusing and disconcerting? Why do you think you are reacting the way you are? Write about all of that. And remember to breathe deeply.
For one week, take note of some of the more difficult choices you face. If a decision can wait a day, spend the evening writing and meditating on it before choosing. If not, take a few moments, go for a walk if you can, pay attention to your breath, and ask for guidance. Trust yourself. Then go back and choose. Write about it that same night, or right there and then if possible.
Carry pen and paper with you to record the things your mind and heart offer up to you during the day. If you wait until later, you may lose them. Catch them when they come, and look at them later. You might be surprised at the gems you've written. You might not recognize your own voice. Well, there it is. Start getting used to hearing it. The process is working.
A risk not taken is an opportunity missed. Most of us would like to know the outcome of any choice or decision we make before we make it. We want to know the future. We read tarot cards, consult psychics, have our palms read, or look for our daily horoscope to know what lies ahead of us. Playing it safe is a way of life for some of us. We think we would be happier if we could know the future. We'd even be happy to know some of it, just the repercussions of this choice or the rewards or pitfalls of that one.
But we can't know our future, so our job is to arrive at some peace with the unknowing. Some things, of course, we can be reasonably sure of, and this little bit of knowledge often confuses us and deludes us into thinking that more must be knowable. So we sit and wait for the future to speak to us, and before we know it we are in the future. Whatever choice we were grappling with was either made for us or has become irrelevant and we are on to the next. This is avoidance living, and many of us do it.
When you wake up each morning, consider that everything you do, every choice you make, is a risk. Then, all risks will become equal, surprise will await you at every turn, and you will no longer concern yourself with the future. Simply place yourself in each moment, moving to the next only when it arrives. This is not to say that you should walk through your life like a zombie, unprepared and foolishly naive. You should try to walk through your life in a state of awareness and heightened anticipation. Walking across a busy street is as much a risk to some of us as quitting our jobs and pursuing our dreams is to others. The first only seems less risky because we may do it so often. So if we begin to take bigger risks in our life more often, they too will become easier.
My aunt Ruth was close to eighty when she, my aunt Edna, and my mother came to visit me in New York City. I escorted them to a holiday show at Radio City Music Hall in midtown. When Aunt Ruth was confronted with crossing the Avenue of the Americas, she was quite timid and a little scared. She came from a small town in Rhode Island, and all the streets she had to cross in her life were quite negotiable. But this huge, busy, noisy, crowded avenue in New York was quite another matter. I, on the other hand, never gave it much thought, often crossing against the light if there was time, as most experienced New Yorkers do. As I led the way across the street, the Don't Walk sign started flashing and I kept walking, knowing that we had enough time to cross before the traffic began to move. But my aunt refused to leave the curb. So we waited for the green, Ruth holding onto my arm for dear life, and then proceeded on our way. Aunt Ruth enjoyed the show but was happiest when she was aboard the bus that would take her back home, where she knew how to cross the streets.
Crossing the Avenue of the Americas was a genuine risk for my aunt. She never returned to New York, but if she had spent more time here crossing the streets, the risk factor eventually would have subsided and she might have ended up wondering why it once scared her so. Yet it remains that it is risky to cross the busy streets of Manhattan. But New Yorkers do it anyway, forgetting the risk. This is how we should approach anything that seems like a risk, especially if we know that fear is the only thing holding us back. Do it anyway. Chances are you will make it to the other side of the street. And even if the trip is fraught with fear, it is better than standing on the curb stuck in fear, paralyzed, wondering what it would be like to cross, wishing that you had the courage.
As you go through each day, become aware of all the small risks you take and the ones you avoid taking. If you have some indecision, waiting for the future to be foretold, go to your Quiet Corner and sit on it. By now you will be closer in touch with your inner voice--and this, rather than some fortune teller, is where you need to go. Your inner voice may not be able to tell the future, but it will let you know in which direction to move. It will help you either to put aside the question at hand or to move forward, take the risk, and deal with the fear. Your true self will always be there, supporting you and guiding you. And each time you take a risk, with your inner voice as guide, you will build up your risk-taking experience so that next time will be easier. Before you know it, other people will be lauding you on your bravery while you simply take it in stride, one precious moment at a time.
For one week, pay attention to the small risks you take and those that you avoid. Write about them at the end of each day. Observe your behavior and your state of mindfulness each time. How present are you in each circumstance? Are you more present for one than for another? Which makes you feel better about yourself? Whose voice decides for you what is risky and what isn't?
Some years ago on TV was a game show called "Concentration." Contestants were asked questions, and a correct answer would reveal a letter to a phrase or sentence that was hidden behind a large wall panel. For each correct answer, a square with a letter on it would be turned over to reveal yet more of the puzzle. As more was revealed, the contestants would try their luck at deciphering the clues. The first to guess would win the prize. My friend Steve, who is in a twelve-step recovery program, recently described to me how this game reminded him of his life. He says that he continues to get clues about himself and is closer to putting together the mystery of his life each day he shows up for it.
Think of your inner voice as this "Concentration" board. Each of the suggested exercises here will turn over a square and reveal one more thing about you and your true nature. Each exercise will give you a clue to deciphering who you really are