What is this thing we call ‘purpose’ and where is mine hiding?


The recent article by Anne-Marie Slaughter ‘Why women still can’t have it all’ has ignited a conversation worldwide, including within my circle of friends, about balancing careers and families. It articulates many of the frustrations and guilt I have felt in the past year. But it left me wondering, what is the ‘all’ we are trying to have? What ‘all’ do I really want? What ‘all’ do you want?

I have just come back from a life-altering holiday in France and Italy where I spent much needed qualityImage time with Monkey and Mr Bread and breathed in the serenity of Tuscany’s expansive patchwork landscape. Perhaps most significantly, this holiday gave me time. Time to think, to reflect, to be creative and to be still. I realised that the ‘all’ I am seeking is more holistic than just work or even family – it also includes physical and mental space, nature, health, spirituality, and passion.

One late afternoon I was reclining in a red canvas deck chair on an organic farm harbouring those precious gems, white truffles. The haze of the summer sun had passed and Mr Bread was making the most of the purple light – a photographer’s dream. A gentle breeze blew away most of the flies. Monkey ran around naked as the day he was born looking for the local cat behind an old wooden barrel. Rosemary permeated the air inviting one to cook. This seemed pretty perfect. ‘Is this my purpose?’ I thought. ‘Well, right now it is’, I concluded. To be here, and now, in this moment. And every moment. That is our primary purpose and for me remains an ongoing practice. But I also have an underlying desire for something greater than relaxation, a form of action that comes from deep within and connects me humanity.

I think everyone has a desire to do something significant; to find joy and meaning in their life. Often we attribute such fulfilment to a future point of more – more stuff, more money, more friends, more validation. I know deep down that searching for fulfilment in the future is meaningless because I am already ‘full’, just as I am. I know intellectually that we are human beings, not human doings. But I have always had a pretty strong drive to do something; to act, to achieve. How do I balance this need to be with a desire to do?

The first important step, which virtually all spiritual traditions point to, is to bring acceptance to the current situation and whatever you are doing, even if you do not like it. People often think this equates to apathy – blind acceptance of what is and an inability to create change. It is not. Rather acceptance is alignment with life and only from this place can you move forward in a way that does not create more suffering for yourself and those around you. From this place of inner peace you can see clearly what needs to change. In Italy while driving on the right hand side of the road, for the first time, I crashed into some road works and my tire blew out. On my own, on a dirt road in the blazing sun trying to lift up a car with a small metal device. Sure, it wasn’t my idea of fun, but could I accept this is where I was, fact, and get on with changing the tyre? Not complaining to myself, ‘this sucks’, ‘why did this happen to me’, ‘life is so unfair’, which would really just make me more miserable and contribute nothing to the job at hand. At first I must admit there were a few harsh words exchanged with the car jack, but I did then consciously observe my reactions and try to bring acceptance to the situation. Happily I managed to change the tyre and made it back to the farm in one dusty piece, with a much greater appreciation of Mr Bread’s driving skills. But acceptance is vital not just for everyday occurrences but for life in general. Your job, your home, your family, yourself.

ImageFrom this place of acceptance, what then emerges? I genuinely feel that could do anything I wanted to. Well, almost. I probably couldn’t be a professional basketball player (I’m 5ft1 on a good day). Shirley Manson says she learned from Patti Smith that she could draw her own door and walk right through it, and I genuinely believe this to be true for myself. The problem is I don’t know where that door leads at the moment. But a friend insightfully suggested that “perhaps the whole point is NOT knowing what lies beyond, but taking satisfaction in the fact that it’s your own door, your decision to draw it and, ultimately your decision whether or not just to stroll on through with your head held high!” Indeed, embracing the uncertain is beautiful. At the same time, I am trying to let my innermost voice me guide on the next phase of life’s journey. This is not just about a career (although that has tended to be my emphasis in the past). It is bigger than that – a whole life. Dr Wayne Dyer says, “There is a voice in the Universe urging us to remember our purpose for being on this great earth. This is the voice of inspiration, which is within each and every one of us.”

The key it seems, according to most wisdom, is to do what you love. This seems deeply important because the science of happiness indicates that joy is found in the process of doing not in the outcome.  Ok. So what do I love? What brings me joy? My family and friends of course, interior design, great food, meditation, red wine, horse riding, writing, cooking, research, singing, yoga, sitting in the sun. So how do I determine what is supposed to be a hobby, what should be a career, and what constitutes an early mid-life crisis?

ImageWhile I love riding horses, would I be satisfied and fulfilled, doing that all day, every day? Apart from having a very sore bum, would it give me lasting satisfaction? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks of deep happiness stemming from what he calls ‘flow’, Ken Robinson calls it finding your Element, similar to the somewhat clichéd notion of following your bliss. ‘Flow’ is described as a state of transcendence when you are fully immersed in an activity; you feel spontaneous joy while performing the task but there is an effortless in your action. The interesting thing about ‘flow’ according to Csikszentmihalyi’s forty years of research is that it happens when you are doing what you really like, but only when both the challenge and the skills-required are high.  People in ‘flow’ have to be doing something that they are highly competent at, often having trained for years. So drinking red wine? Well I have practiced that for years but I wouldn’t say it is a great skill. Maybe if I was a world class sommelier, then there would be moments of flow in that activity.

I have been observing myself – trying to notice moments when I feel ‘in the zone’ so to speak. Confirming Mihayl’s theory it has been when I was doing something in which I was accomplished, but the task at that moment, was still challenging. Analyzing a complex piece of data, speaking in front of a large audience, a demanding yoga class, articulating an idea in a beautiful sentence. So while I know I definitely want my life to be filled with love, laughter, family and friends, good food, wine, Tuscan country side and probably horses, it is the other piece – the challenging, inspiring, creative ‘element’, my ‘element’ that I need to re-capture.

We all have unique gifts and joy comes when natural talent meets personal passion. It is worth asking yourself, when have you felt truly authentic and alive – where your skills exactly suited the situation? If I am totally honest, while I have a very interesting career, recently I have not felt my most alive, sitting in front of a computer day after day in an over-airconditioned office. I think I need greater challenges to move more of my everyday life into the flow channel. I do not have the answer yet as to what my purpose is. I need to sit still longer and I know some direction will emerge. In a recent interview Oprah asked Deepak Chopra who his greatest teacher was and he said ‘silence’. The answer is within and the only way for me to discover what my ‘all’ looks like is to be still and silent. (Shhhh)


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