“A life without purpose is like the life of a dog.” I’m not sure who first said this. Me, maybe. Don’t get me wrong; a dog’s life might not be so bad. You sleep until someone – or your stomach – wakes you. You eat whatever is available (though it may well make you sick) and you hump whatever you can. Best of all, you always know where you fit in – alpha dog, beta dog, gamma dog.
No alarm clocks, no going to the office, no worries about what is right or wrong. Nothing to do but live in the moment. A great life. If you are a dog.
Humans are not so lucky. We are aware of our own death from an early age. We are prompted by religion, politics, economics and family to do something. Get a job or prepare for death. Be like Jesus or Buddha.
Yet, most of us go through life without any real sense of why we are here and what we are supposed to do in our brief span upon the earth. As noted, there are plenty who are willing to tell you, willing to take the answer out of your hands and mind.
Some tell us to practice mindfulness – which is to be aware of the forces, internal and external that act on us and to focus fully on the present. A bit like dogs, I suppose. The proponents have appropriated aspects of Buddhism (mostly stripping it off its spiritual elements) to create a ‘meditative practice.’ You can take weekend courses or go to summer camp to learn it. Those that love it love it a lot. Those who don’t suggest it might cause psychotic episodes.
But if it lowers your stress and reduces the chances of you beating your kids when they annoy you, I say meditate away. Even if all that focus on the self seems a little – well, selfish.
Purpose isn’t about you. Purpose is about what you do in and with the world. Some people discover that early on; realize that it is possible to make the world a better place through concerted and focused action. Often we can only make change in groups but some people express their purpose in small ways – helping neighbours or supporting candidates who are motivated by hope and charity rather than fear and anger.
Because of course a purpose-filled life is not much good if your purposes are self-aggrandizement and the oppression of others. But you know that isn’t what I mean.
It’s important to remember one thing: you can never fail when you lead a purpose-filled life. The meaning comes from the striving not in reaching the goal. If your purpose is to end world poverty, you are apt to end your life in failure – unless you accept small victories for exactly that.
I like to summarize it by saying you should always strive to live your values. Whenever you do something that is likely to affect your family, friends, neighbourhood, community, country, world, you can ask: is this consistent with my most deeply held and cherished beliefs. This does not mean you will always do good – some beliefs shouldn’t be actualized – but it does mean you will always do something.
But of course, first you have to know what your values are. The good news is that, unlike a dog, it is something you can actually do.
And that’s ten minutes.