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On purpose and other ponderings

There’s nothing like waiting for a baby to show itself, to allow all sorts of things to bubble to the surface. I find myself waking in the night, as if something has brushed against my collarbone. I find myself listening, ears pricked as I strain to discern movement or change or a ghostly ripple in the air to trumpet something new. Nothing, again. The minutes limp by in the black pre-dawn hush and I think and think and think. It’s easy to become bogged in the quagmire of self-obsession when you’re wondering when your uterus is going to start doing strange things. I’ve found it’s better to send the enquiry outwards, that hot and peppery inquisition. I’ve been doing that through a whole lot of listening to podcasts and reading. And also re-organising my wardrobe. Walking the dogs. Days staked by a job here and a task ticked off there, around naps and peanut butter.

As a walking womb, maternity leave well and truly started and the busyness of working life receding as if watching a slick of land bobbing out of sight from the deck of a ship, questions and queries of purpose and life meaning poke their nose above the parapet. The gristle of a questioning mind, empty of the sweet meats of religion and its life-affirming faith in something bigger.

If you’re ever looking for some perspective, I suggest listening to this interview with BJ Miller; a hospice physician and triple amputee. Perhaps, like me, you’ll hear the playfulness in his voice – smacking of the tang and salt of life itself. A cheerful elation and glee in simple pleasures, despite (or perhaps, because of) a life lived among the dying, paired with great adversity (Miller lost three of his limbs in a horrifying accident in his mid-20s.) Miller quotes his favourite bumper sticker,

"Don't believe everything you think."

and it’s one that will stay emblazoned on my brain. How perfectly and succinctly said.

Working at San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project, Miller says physicians can cater for most of the ailments present as a soul is ushered out of this life – nausea, pain – but what he sees most is the “existential distress”; a searching for meaning and purpose in a life now numbered by days or hours or even minutes. Miller says this angst, for those who have come to the threshold of an ending life, believing their formative years to have been squandered or not made meaningful, can be traumatising.

For the doctor, the remedy is not to search for meaning but instead, to double down on the purposeless – and instead focus attention on the small things in every moment. Curtains billowing in a spring breeze. The smell of a biscuit, fresh from the oven. The feeling of the sun on a clothed back. Purpose distilled into the very minutiae of the present moment; one breath in, one breath out. Attention then, is purpose. Immediacy, is purpose.

Poet and the great relisher of piquancy, Mary Oliver, was a champion of attention with feeling. An aliveness to the world around her, especially that of the natural world.

“I don't know exactly what a prayer is,” she writes in her poem, The Summer Day.
“I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.”

For someone who has grappled with the idea of purpose and life meaning for much of my adult life, it’s an idea laced in sun-dappled loveliness. Balancing societal conditions of purpose as entrapments of achievement – success, money, children, legacy – with the presence of this one moment. I’ve long courted a quiet sense of urgency that some grander purpose awaits me, and I’m cheaply frittering precious moments by not living it. It’s pulled and pushed me as I’ve sampled many different paths; jobs, countries, possible lives; fearing regret at missing the right opportunity. This uneasy itchiness used to manifest physically. I wasn’t sure if I longed for a drink, or if I was ravenously hungry, desperate for a cigarette or needed to go for a run, feel my lungs burn. Something bubbled and broiled just below my skin, fretting and gnashing along my sinews.

The thing with this restless energy is it’s difficult to enjoy what heaven you’re living, when you’re living with a scaredy cat heart that it’s not the right one. The idea of regret makes me lethargic. Sylvia Plath’s lament in The Bell Jar (as depressing a read as you’re likely to find) is one that has stuck with me for years.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story,” she writes. “From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Which path? Who? When? Now? What if it’s not the purpose I’m meant to lead? I pepper people who seem wise or learned or masterful with questions about what they think it all means. Do they have a purpose? What is it? How did they know? The differing perspectives have loomed disarmingly obtuse, stark against the horizon like boulders in the desert.

My philosophy teacher in India, Sudhir Rishi, whose sense of joy and calm security radiates from his pores, suggested purpose can be found through meditation. Just as water dripping on a rock will eventually drill through its surface and reveal its granite innards, so too asking the ether in internal prayer can bear forward one’s life meaning. It’s not a route for the impatient, though and so far, no deep celestial voice has answered my mosquito whine of questioning.

When studying neuro-linguistic programming through Sydney’s The Coaching Room last year, my teacher and coach, the sharply acerbic Joseph, told me frankly that the idea of purpose is an illusion; a man-made constructed meaning that can be limiting and is altogether useless to question. Our personalities are ego, not our real self but a nice layering of all our experiences and learned values and conditioned beliefs and in the middle of it all, we somehow mistake ourselves for the puddle, rather than the rain. Better to untether who we actually are as beings from our socialisation, to become the healthiest versions of ourselves in this human experience.

Meanwhile, another of my mentors, John, says our purpose is simply a culmination of our gifts and talents – and, if we don’t like our purpose, change it. He has a list of seven simple life rules, one of which includes the maxim, Do Something. If it turns out the Something isn’t right, you reserve the ability to change it. John’s easy going demeanour, calm comprehension and unflappable approach to a gentle, peaceful life is a balm to the choppy waters of my over-thinking, hyper-analytical brain.

Writer Kurt Vonnegurt wrote, “We are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” This laughs in the face of meaning and instead points to the lovely ambling nature of purposeless; to enjoy oneself, untroubled and with whimsy. You can probably still do this whilst working a job you like and paying your bills. A strimming back of meaning and an urging towards the tiny spectrum of our lives – if we recognise just how little we mean in the enormity of it all, surely there’s so much space to relish and savour and jump around in the goodness of it all. A paring back of purpose, so the fun glimmers through, the beautiful state, the fulfilment without the white knuckled grip on achievement.

Perhaps this points to how strait-jacketing purpose can become, rigid and inflexible. Perhaps purpose is made and decided moment-to-moment, like mercury chasing its tail around a tabletop. A choral call and answer to what life throws up for us at this juncture, and then the next. The father of Vedic Meditation in the western world, Thom Knoles, calls this adaptive energy;the reserves required to roll gently in the belly of life’s ebbs and flows.

Adaptive energy is critical when faced with any type of grieving, which in itself comes from the unexpected. We expect things to remain the same forever and don’t truly examine the inevitability of change; life without our loved ones as they die, a brutal truth for us all. A change in circumstance, in conditions, in our workplace or on a global scale, as seen in through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic. We grieved our loss of access to our life as we knew it, the change so unexpected. Adaptive energy is the space and capacity for our interiority to keep pace with change. When we’re exhausted, depleted, vulnerable, tired, unwell or filled to the brim with the cumulative nature of life’s stressors stacked on top another, we have very little adaptive energy and thus, our experience of grief is so raw and flung open and flayed. The antidote, according to Thom? Meditation, 20-minutes twice a day. A nourishing of our nervous system. A recognition of the impermanence of now.

The Vedic path promotes the idea of following one’s charm; surrendering our flimsy notion of control and following the birdsong of enchantment. To bring back the aquatic metaphor, it’s to remember that even the individual wave is made up of the ocean. A sucking back of one grand mission statement, surrounded in lights and bright on stage; instead, a dotted path of breadcrumbs that frog leap from action to action. A meander, tasting from this plate and then the next. For those paralysed into inertia still by the idea of which path to take, how to make a decision, what if it’s wrong, you can always comeback to John’s life rule, Do Something. And relax, bathed in the sweet white light of Cheryl Strayd’s words, who wrote a completely sumptuous Agony Aunt column for years under her penname, Dear Sugar. When replying to one reader’s anxiety-riddled plight at which path to choose, which life to claim, she said:

I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.

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