Life Purpose Boot Camp
The 8-Week Breakthrough Plan for Creating a Meaningful Life
By Eric Maisel
New World Library Copyright © 2014 Eric Maisel
All rights reserved.
Creating Your Menu of Meaning Opportunities
I'd like you to begin your boot camp adventure by thinking deeply about what I'm calling "meaning opportunities." Let me repeat a few headlines before we launch into a close examination. The first headline is that meaning is a psychological experience that you might experience accidentally (as when you look up at the night sky) or that you can create through your conscious efforts to experience it.
Naturally you want and need that experience: all human beings do. But more important than the experience of meaning is the decision to live your way, that is, to live according to your life purposes. Once you understand that it is more important to manifest your values, principles, intentions, and life purposes than it is to experience meaning, you arrive at the wonderful — and calming — understanding that you do not have to look for meaning, wait for meaning, fight for meaning, or miss meaning. All you have to do is live your intentions and be human.
That isn't to say that experiencing meaning is trivial. Of course it isn't. If you go too long without it, say, because you've chosen a profession that isn't providing you with the experience of meaning, you must do something about it. Meaning isn't irrelevant. So it is good to know when you actually experience it. Most people have very little idea about which activities, actions, or states of being actually provoke this psychological experience. Do you?
If asked, people are likely to give a reflexive answer such as "being out in nature" or "spending time with my loved ones" or "creating something in my studio." These may indeed be among their meaning opportunities but others, small and large, abound. People are unlikely to consider how meaningful it feels to them to play with their cat, take their kid out for ice cream, stay calm in a situation that usually makes them anxious, walk down a busy city street taking in the sights, see a good movie, or stand up to injustice. Most people have not given much thought or even any thought to all the meaning opportunities in their life.
Why the Language You Use Matters
Many folks also have given little or no thought to the language they use to discuss meaning with themselves. People typically get stymied trying to answer the question, "What would it be meaningful to do next?" because it is the wrong question to ask. Embedded in that question is the idea that the experience of meaning can be guaranteed. The logic of such a sentence is, "Certain things are meaningful, so let me choose one and get me some meaning."
But nothing is necessarily meaningful. Playing with your infant child might feel tremendously meaningful one day and more like a chore the next day. Working on your novel might feel poignantly meaningful today and completely pointless tomorrow. Your teaching job might feel meaningful during your first five years of teaching and empty and burdensome in your twentieth. "What would it be meaningful to do?" has an implicit guarantee built into it that life can't possibly meet.
That's why in natural psychology we use two phrases, meaning opportunities and meaning investments, to help avoid even a whiff of that guarantee. We paint a different picture of meaning. Meaning is something we can aim for and try to create by investing our time, energy, and human resources in a given effort, activity, initiative, or way of being. It is also something that we can wish for by seizing some meaning opportunity, crossing our fingers, and hoping for the best. By making meaning investments and by seizing meaning opportunities we actively organize our day around making meaning.
To get to this evolved understanding, that you can hope for meaning and try to make meaning but not guarantee meaning, you may have to change your beliefs, move to a place of acceptance and surrender about the human condition, and heal a lot of regret that it has taken you so long to reach this understanding. There will still be necessary elaborations, refinements, and steps to take. But that is a wonderful starting place: arriving at the understanding that meaning is a psychological experience, that it comes and goes, that it is less important than your life purposes and your values and principles, and that you can organize your day around making meaning investments, seizing meaning opportunities, and engaging in value-based meaning-making.
Let me repeat this point to underscore it. Why not use the phrase do something meaningful instead of the more awkward-sounding seize meaning opportunities, make meaning investments, and make value-based meaning? Isn't do something meaningful a more natural, straightforward way to say the same thing? Actually, it isn't. That phrase has embedded in it the idea that a prospective choice is already known to be meaningful and will prove to be meaningful. But we can't know that.
To pretend we can know that choosing anthropology or engineering as our life work will feel consistently meaningful, that choosing this man or this woman as our mate will feel consistently meaningful, that choosing this value over that value or this principle over that principle will feel consistently meaningful is to set ourselves up for existential pain. We can't know such things, any more than we can know that something we intend to try will always prove awesome or joyful. Psychological experiences are not guaranteed. To imagine that they can be is to be on the wrong footing with life.
Consider some analogies. When a person says, "Let me do something joyful," she expects that thing to feel joyful. When a person says, "Let me do something calming," she expects that thing to calm her. When a person says, "Let me do something exciting," she expects that thing to prove exciting. In these cases, the individual is disappointed if she doesn't experience joy, if she isn't calmed, or if she doesn't have an exciting time. She feels she has wasted her time. Worse yet, she can be thrown into doubt about whether she even knows what things produce joy, calmness, or excitement. The absence of the hoped-for experience produces a small crisis.
This becomes a big crisis if you are hoping for the experience of meaning. It is a big crisis if you spend two years writing a novel, three years in a training program, or five years in a doctoral program and do not experience meaning either as you proceed or, worse yet, as you finish. Throughout you can say to yourself, "Okay, this doesn't feel meaningful now but it will in the end" and soothe yourself a little. But at the end, now that you have a finished novel, a certificate, or a degree and you still aren't experiencing meaning, now, that is a genuine crisis.
Let's look at this matter the other way around. Say that you are contemplating working on your novel, making travel arrangements to attend a protest march, preparing to mind your colicky grandchild, looking for funding for your start-up business, or planning not to drink alcohol for a month. You know for certain that the thing you are contemplating is not going to feel particularly meaningful and may amount to something between slogging hard work and full-out frustration. If you know this in your heart, how can you say, "This is going to prove meaningful"? But you can say, "As a value- based meaning-maker I am doing this because it aligns with my values, principles, and life purposes; I intend to make a real investment in doing this; and maybe, just maybe, it will ultimately prove to be a meaning opportunity." The latter takes longer to say but is ever so much wiser!
Creating Your Menu
Anything can be a meaning opportunity because anything can provoke the psychological experience of meaning. You might get out of your chair, go to the window, look out at the sky, and experience meaning. In this scenario it was opportune of you to walk to the window and look out. Maybe you suspected you would experience meaning, because looking at the sky regularly provokes that feeling in you. Maybe you had a hunch that it was time to get up and look out the window. Walking to the window and looking out was an intentional act.
Or maybe you got up and moved to the window unconsciously, looked out, smiled to yourself, returned to your chair, and hardly registered that you just experienced a meaningful moment. Whether the act of walking to the window and looking out at the sky occurred consciously or unconsciously, whether it registered as a meaningful moment or not, it was opportune that you did it. That action earned you some meaning.
You arrived at the window and had a meaningful experience. The same is potentially true about anything we might name: it might be opportune to play with your cat, to move halfway around the world, to donate to your favorite charity, to smile, to call your sister, to sweat bullets for the sake of your new business. Anything, small or large, might prove opportune and provoke the psychological experience of meaning. Anything, including surprising things, scary things, and unpleasant things, may prove a meaning opportunity.
Yet although anything might provoke the experience of meaning, many things stand out as meaning opportunities. People regularly experience each of the following as a meaning opportunity: love and relationships; service and stewardship; good works and ethical action; excellence, achievement, and a good career; experimentation, excitement, and adventure; creativity and self-actualization; sensory stimulation and pleasure; and states of being such as contentment and appreciation. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a suggestive list — it suggests the intimate relationship between value and meaning; it suggests how "doing" can provoke the experience of meaning but how "being" can also provoke it; and it begins to paint a picture of how a life can be knitted together around meaning opportunities.
How you talk to yourself about your meaning opportunities will naturally be personal and idiosyncratic. Here is how one internal conversation might go: "My big sources of meaning are my work and the people I love. But I know that keeping to a certain disciplined regimen, in which I exercise, eat well, and create is a big help to me in keeping meaning afloat. Therefore I am putting exercise and meal preparation into the category of meaning opportunities rather than into the category of chores. I'm likewise putting creating into that same category, even though I have doubts about whether what I paint is any good. My hope is that if I pay attention to the big meaning investments I've made in my work and in the people I love, and if I also seize daily meaning opportunities like exercising and creating, I will experience life as meaningful."
By keeping your eye on the main point, that while the experience of meaning can't be guaranteed you can still aim yourself in its direction and make reasoned efforts to experience it, you become relatively free from needing any of your efforts to produce that experience. You have positioned yourself to create more meaning. You learn how to take risks in the service of meaning, just as you take a risk when you invest in the stock market, a certain career, a certain creative effort, a certain relationship, a certain adventure, or a certain conversation. You keep your eyes peeled for your next meaning opportunities, you make short-range plans and long-range plans for seizing such opportunities, you live your life purposes, and you assess your experiences. In this way you stay on top of meaning.
You must regularly monitor your experiences because you may not have gotten lucky, some major meaning investment may not be paying off, and you may have to make some big changes. Say that you opt for stewardship; choose a career in environmental protection; achieve some successes, some near successes, and many failures; and discover that you are not being gifted with the experience of meaning from your efforts. You may still hold stewardship as one of your life purposes, but you must reckon with the reality that you are receiving too little meaning from your environmental efforts. These crises and conflicts arise all the time in the lives of real people, and when they arise they require our attention.
What elementary school teacher, novelist, environmentalist, actor, attorney — what human being — hasn't found herself at such a crossroads? Who hasn't found himself at such a crossroads in a long-term relationship? Many meaning opportunities and meaning investments will not pan out, even though they completely align with your life purposes. Knowing this, you need not feel shocked or even surprised when such a dreadful thing happens. You do not have to doubt your methods or fret that you have no recourse. In fact, you have clear and ample recourse: to reconsider your life purposes in the light of your actual experiences and see what new meaning opportunities you might seize that align with your reconsidered life purposes.
You can make potent meaning even on days when you aren't rewarded with the experience of meaning. Because you've lived that day in accordance with your values and your life purposes and in alignment with your ideas about meaning, you know that the day was rich in meaning no matter how meaningless it actually felt. You tried and that effort carries its own positive valence and, very likely, its own felt sense of meaning. And on many days and for many moments you will experience meaning. Because you have these new methods, new language, and a new outlook, the likelihood is great that you will experience enough meaning to be able to say, "Life is meaningful enough. And I am living my life purposes!"
Your Work for the Week
This week I'd like you to focus on three activities.
First, create your menu of meaning opportunities. Think through what sorts of activities or ways of being provoke the psychological experience of meaning. Your list might include big, abstract categories such as creating, relationships, service, activism, or "just being," and very specific activities, events, and states of being such as "visiting with Aunt Rose," "looking at some Van Goghs and Gauguins," "practicing loving-kindness," or "spending two hours daily working on my novel." I think you will genuinely enjoy creating this list, but whether you find the task enjoyable or just more work, please do create it. Creating this list is the first step in naming and framing your life purposes.
Second, think through what it would be like to intentionally create a day that included items from your menu of meaning opportunities and that also included the other things that you need to do (like chores and work for pay) and want to do (like watching a television show). What would such a day concretely look like? How might one day differ from another, depending on which meaning opportunities you chose and which tasks and pleasures you included?
Take some time to draw up various schedules or pictures of different days, playing with the notion that a day, to be lived mindfully and intentionally, is really a certain sort of negotiation, a balance of chores, relaxations, and meaning-making efforts. At the beginning of each day, you might want to include a morning meaning check-in, a minute or two that you spend choosing your meaning investments for that day.
Third, pick one of the days you've created, and live it. You might want to live one such day on Tuesday, a different one on Wednesday, a different one on Thursday, and so on, to get a sense of how different days feel. Experiment! This is your work (and maybe your fun) for the week.
At the end of the week, please answer the following questions:
1.How was the "total experience" for you? What transpired, and what did you learn?
2.How hard or easy was it to create a menu of meaning opportunities? Were you surprised by any of the items on your list?
3.How hard or easy was it to create a day that included both regular things (like chores and relaxation) and meaning opportunities?
4.How hard or easy was it to live a day that included both regular things (like chores and relaxation) and meaning opportunities?
5.Did anything else about this process intrigue you?
Okay! Please begin your work.
Olivia: My Excruciatingly Long-Lived Mind-Set
What follow are two reports from participants in my online life purpose boot camp about their first week. Olivia, a web and media producer living in Southern California, described her evolving understanding of meaning:
It's in my nature not to follow through on things like this boot camp, and on anything that I sense will help me grow or learn something important. I procrastinate and then mourn the loss of opportunity. However, I have felt a huge connection with your ideas. So I knew I could not put this one off and decided that I must do everything possible to make time for it and to work as hard as I can against the instinctual urge to avoid dealing with difficult ideas. I am challenging myself to get the most possible return from this experience.
Whenever I've thought about life purpose, it's always meant following a higher calling to me. I was sent to a religiously affiliated private school through the sixth grade, although I'm not religiously observant now. I often feel guilty about my adult lack of religious faith, and because I have never known what purpose I might have or what purpose God might have for me, I have experienced painful existential crises at various points in my life.
I am now in midlife and in the past four to five years have suffered what you describe as, and what I recently have realized must be, several large "meaning crises": the sudden end of my marriage, big career issues, downsizing my home, illness, and more. But by encountering the boot camp materials I feel hopeful that it might be possible to learn skills and behaviors that can change my thought patterns, my tendencies toward depression, and my persistent feeling of being stuck. (Continues...)
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