essays, Personal writing

“What’s my purpose?”

I

In summer of 2017, I had a conversation with a guru about my life’s purpose.

Toward the end of a session with my therapist, I had complained about work, saying that I never felt fully connected with or satisfied by what I was doing.

“It sounds like you’re searching for your purpose,” she said. “I have a friend who helps people find their purpose. Would you like me to contact him for you?”

I said yes, and here I was, speaking with the man.

In the conversation itself, the guru and I played what he referred to as “20 questions,” with my making attempts at completing the phrase “My life’s purpose is…” In response, the guru would tell me whether or not what I’d said was true, and we would proceed from there.

My first completion of the sentence was that my life’s purpose was to be a writer, since I had been writing fiction at this point for close to ten years.

“No,” the man said, and I laughed. He then asked me how it felt to possess this knowledge.

“It feels kind of relieving, honestly,” I told him. “Now I don’t have to keep doing this thing that isn’t really me.”

“Good,” he said, and we tried the next completion of the phrase “My life’s purpose is…”

This time, I volunteered that my life’s purpose was to be a therapist, since therapy had been deeply transformative for me and this was something I’d recently wondered if I had the capacity to do.

“No,” he said again, then repeated his question of how it felt to possess this knowledge. I didn’t really feel much about being a therapist, since this was a relatively new idea and, I sensed, a distraction from my true purpose.

The third time, I said that my life’s purpose was to be a teacher.

“Ah,” he said, his eyes lighting up. It was almost as though I had entered the space for the first time. “There you are.”

He went on to say that he considered himself a teacher, clarifying that there are many bents to this vocation. “What do you like to teach?”

Again, I made a few stabs in the dark, but eventually found my way to “literature,” at which his eyes lit up for the second time. “And what does literature mean to you?” he said.

I explained that to me, literary texts were a storehouse for wisdom. In a class teaching literature in this way, students would do writing that connected literary principles of wisdom to the context of their lives.

“And how many people do you know who teach literature in that way?” he asked.

“None,” I said.

“And that’s why that is your purpose,” he said.

Stock-plants-meadow-sunriseThe experience was powerful. As soon as he provided this last bit of reflection, my eyes welled with tears, and I felt an overwhelming sense of relief knowing who I was and what I was meant to do. Rather than that I had invented something with the guru, it felt like we had collectively uncovered what had always been there, the Jackson I was always meant to be beneath delusion. I felt seen and that I could go forth in life being an empowered, purpose-driven me.

From here, the conversation turned to practicality, and the guru asked what I would do to actualize my purpose. I said that I would begin by going to graduate school, to which he shook his head “no.” “That’s not part of your purpose,” he said.

I was confused and disappointed: “I’ve always seen myself working with older students,” I said, “and I think of grad school as the path to do that.”

He nodded: “Well, there is some truth to that, but what’s also true is that you don’t need to go to grad school in order to find your purpose. Your purpose already lives within you.” He returned us to our original question: “What can you do to actualize your purpose?”

“I can write a book about teaching literature in this way,” I said.

“Yes,” he said, “and then you will be solicited by whomever you are meant to teach.”

“But how do I show that I am the best person to write this book?” I asked.

“Well, that’s up to you,” he said. “If you write the book from your head, you won’t be the best person to write it, and you’ll fail. But if you roll up your sleeves and write vulnerably, your own life will prove that the method works.”

I understood this: what the guru was saying was that, because this method of teaching literature lay within me, all I had to do was write about my life, and that would demonstrate the method’s efficacy. That is, I simply had to apply the principles I was teaching to my life.

II

I thanked the guru and we got off the phone, and I went for a walk and called a family member to tell her what had happened, feeling disoriented now that I knew my  purpose. The emotional mixture is hard to describe: relieving, but also overwhelming; clarifying, but also confusing because divorced from immediate life’s context.

The next day, I woke up and wrote an outline of the book the guru and I had discussed, interweaving my life’s events with favorite works of literature such as Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Joyce’s Ulysses. I laughed while writing this outline: it seemed easy, and it seemed like each of my life’s major events clearly embodied the learning from one of the chosen literary texts. What I had outlined was a memoir, showing how key works of literature had guided me through difficult life events.

The thing is, this contention wasn’t actually true. I hadn’t thought about Brothers Karamazov while going through what I had written about in that section of my outline, nor had I thought about Ulysses while going through the life event relevant to that section. A few days after my outlining, I looked back on what I had written and saw it as hopelessly inauthentic, and I began to panic because I then didn’t know how to write the book I had discussed with the guru. The knowledge to write this book didn’t actually live within me! It had been a sham! I now believed something about myself which wasn’t true!

Anxiety-SymptomsNot knowing how to proceed, I set up another phone call with the guru and told him I was worried I didn’t actually possess the skill or courage to achieve my life’s purpose. This being the case, I worried my whole life would feel like a failure: I would go through my life knowing I was supposed to do something I hadn’t done, and this would make everything I did do feel hollow and misplaced. At the extreme, I would hate myself.

The guru responded by telling me this happened to most people he had these conversations with. “It’s normal,” he said. “Some of them even tell themselves I’m crazy and that I tried to delude them as to their life’s purpose. It’s just fear. You’re afraid of failing, so you’re telling yourself you don’t know how to do it. That way, you won’t even have to try. Another thing you could do is write the book in a manner lacking vulnerability, in which case you’re guaranteed to fail. That would be worse, because then you would be convincing yourself you tried when really you didn’t.”

This all made sense to me, but I still felt trapped by my fear, sure that my life was now over because of what I knew.

Hoping to detach himself from this conundrum, the guru became more blunt in his speech: “Look, another thing to remember is that I don’t care what you do. Neither does anyone else. It’s your purpose, not ours. You said it, not us. And if you choose not to do it, you can still have a good life; you can just tell yourself that you didn’t have the courage to do it, in which case at least you’ll have been honest with yourself.”

This sounded like a terrible life to me, and I told the guru so. We both laughed, and one of the last things he said to me is that, because of this shared laughter, he knew there was some hope to the situation; he saw my ability to detach from and move through my feelings.

I left this conversation in an odd state, still feeling my life was over, but simultaneously feeling that I authentically didn’t know what to do and that I needed to be kind to myself about that reality. It wouldn’t be of use to me to try to outline the book again, this time striving for more authenticity; doing that, all I would really accomplish is a cycle of perfectionism and critique, driving myself crazy. Instead, I tried to forget about the book, my purpose, and my conversation with the guru, seeing how things felt and whether I could live peaceably with what I now knew.

I could, but I also wasn’t satisfied: after a few weeks, I decided I would at least try to begin writing the book.

III

My approach this time was different: instead of posit that I had already learned what I needed to know about how to teach literature as a method of deriving wisdom, I decided that this was something I needed to learn; so, I got five classic novels out of the library and endeavored to read them while looking for principles of wisdom. After this process, I would think about the steps I had taken in order to ascertain these principles, and those steps would become the curriculum in my method of teaching literature. I wasn’t as clear as this paragraph in my methodology at the time; I simply knew that I was trying to figure out step by step what I was doing, like a toddler learning to swim.

The novels were The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, Hamlet (okay, that’s a play), and Pride and Prejudice, and the more I read them, the better I felt. With each one, I would do what I call Engaged Annotation while reading, annotating in such a way as to bring myself into the hearts of the characters. From here, I would write open-hearted Character Identifications on each character, experiencing myself as them from the inside. This being done, I could see all the characters’ successes and failures laid out as a whole, and I could map these out through a process I call Psychic Mapping, then write Executive Summaries in which I applied the essential learning of each text to my life. Doing this at length, I became more confident, and I engaged in a process I call Community Mapping to begin to share my wisdom with others. This whole process took about a year to discover in this clear format, and at the end of it I felt ready to write the book.

The succeeding draft was far different from what I had outlined previously: instead of a memoir, it was a sparse instructional text, outlining the five major steps described in the previous paragraph and the benefits they give to our lives. The book was clear in its writing, but only about eighty pages in length, and I somehow felt that it was neither ready for publication nor entirely finished; the book lacked something, I knew not what.

reaching-for-the-sly-4As I have written numerously on this blog, intuition had begun to visit me around this time, and I sensed that indeed I was meant to go to graduate school. Even if graduate school would not reveal my purpose—even if that purpose already lived within me, as the guru said—I still had the uncanny sense that I was meant to go, and I followed it, leaving behind my life in Denver. Making this leap of faith, I met my fiancé and proposed to her a few months later. I also secured a meaningful TAship and advisor within the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I began to discover realms of interest that exceeded my book on teaching literature, ones encompassing spirituality, intuition, and non-coercive methods of education.

I did not focus on my book on teaching literature my first year in graduate school. It is not that I forgot about the project; far from it. Rather, I knew that whatever the book still needed, had not yet occurred to me, so I simply waited on finishing the project. I focused on finding my place and doing good work within graduate school, strengthening my relationship, and eventually, exploring my personal spirituality. I also created this website and decided that, when it was time to publish the book, this would be a necessary resource through which to promote it.

The book’s next draft came in the summer of 2019, after I had traveled to Green Gulch Farm and had a transformative experience as a Buddhist. With this event, I saw that the fundamental struggles of my life had reached their end: I had become a spiritual person, where before I was a nihilist; secured a stable relationship, where before I couldn’t commit; and begun to find my path and work in the world, where before I had hungered to belong. These three dimensions having panned themselves out in this way, I was ready to do what I had discussed with the guru, and use my life’s content to prove that my method of reading literature worked. That is, I had actually made changes within myself and my life that I could mantle as evidence for the efficacy of my method.

This draft came quickly, being written on either end of my trip to Green Gulch Farm and in about a month’s time. It is double the length of the previous draft, and I’ve spent the period since revising it in order to pare down the language and modify the tone. I’ve also begun to write blog posts on more abstract and spiritual topics in order to widen the audience that traffics this site, and I’ve interviewed on a podcast about my life’s story, the first of many opportunities I hope to take in order to promote my work. I am planning to publish the book sometime this coming spring.

Making this step has opened up a whole can of worms I hadn’t foreseen, because the book was originally and explicitly positioned as my life’s purpose. What if it fails? Does that mean my life as a whole was a failure? Worse yet, what if it succeeds, and I feel detached from it and don’t like teaching literature in the way I’ve described? Would that mean my whole life has been a sham, that I’ve gotten caught up in doing something that isn’t really me just because some guru told me so?

These kinds of thoughts really clarify what purpose is for me, and they also help me to see why so many people who previously conversed with the guru decided to write him off as insane: when we isolate one thing as our purpose, that thing becomes pressurized to the point that we lose ability to meaningfully engage with it. Our whole selfhood is bound up in success, and this means we would rather do nothing than fail. So, we procrastinate, self-sabotage, and all other behaviors that protect people from knowing real failure.

Instead, it has been helpful for me to recognize that I disagree with the guru: purpose is not some singular thing we do, like write a book or climb a mountain. Rather, purpose is everything we do; it is the sum of a life lived in service to ourselves and to the greater phenomena that pass through us. That is, purpose is being.

still-waterWhen I spoke with the guru, that was my purpose in that moment. Ditto when I wrote the outline of the book, the version I ultimately called inauthentic. Had I not written that outline, I would not have had the further conversation with the guru that clarified my stance, nor would I have written the first draft of the book which actually was on target. Speaking of which, that next conversation with the guru and that next draft: they were also my purpose. So was going to graduate school. So was proposing to my fiancé, and so will be marrying her. So is all else I do, including sleeping, eating, and casual conversations I have with strangers. There is nothing we need to achieve in order to satisfy our deepest selves, because those selves coincide with God.

Knowing this, it is not as though I suddenly become lethargic, suddenly cease to do purpose-oriented things. Instead, I merely follow what arises to be followed in every moment, just as I always did. Just as I followed my instinct to speak with the guru, and to write the first outline of the book, and the first draft, and to go to graduate school, and so on and so forth. Purpose is being, but in being, there are infinite messages that, if followed, will lead us to vocational among other purposes. They will lead us to love. They will lead us to kinship, to reconciliation of relationships. They will lead us to try, to fail, to console others who have failed, to weep in desperation, to all else we do. All is our purpose. There is simply no way to fail nor to succeed.

Knowing this, I become more powerful than I could ever be were I to believe my purpose was something singular, like writing a book. Knowing this, I can publish my book, can release it into the world, and reconceptualize it as one instance of the vast and limitless pulsation that is my purpose, one which will continue long after the cessation of that book. I am here. I am alive. I am a seeker of truth. I am seeing. I am fulfilling my purpose. I am my purpose. I am.

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