Parting thought: Life’s Purpose

I came to know about Byron Katie through her husband Stephen Mitchell whom I encountered through his translations of Gilgamesh and the Tao Te Ching. Her work, as expressed in books, videos, website and notably workshops staged in many countries, fits easily into the “self-help” genre, especially that aspect which focuses on human relationships and the search for love; a slant which may be easily traced to her own life story and the transformation which split it into a tale of two parts: Before and After. She calls it “the Work”, and it’s made an impact upon me, as it has upon many others across the world.

I’ve never found the “self-help” genre useful, and the interest didn’t arise from any issues about relationships and the search for love. I’ve plenty experience of those, but they’ve long been resolved.

Katie’s Work is underpinned by a principle I’ve often mentioned here: achieving the freedom which comes from letting go of beliefs, which I’ve tended to call “baggage”. Her “method of enquiry” shows me how much further I can go in shedding its dead weight.

The method consists of making an honest statement of where you stand, and then giving honest answers to some standard questions. A typical statement contains the word “should”. I’ve copied the section below from her book Loving What Is. We are to imagine a person uncovering successive layers of belief which cause pain or problems, and arriving at this one, which you might think fundamental, but you could substitute any other “should” statement:

Underlying belief: my life should have a purpose.

Is this true? Yes.

Can I absolutely know that it’s true? No.

How do I react when I think the thought? I feel fear, because I don’t know what my purpose is, and I think I should know.  [gives examples] I feel as if I’m wasting my life. I think that what I actually do is unimportant and that I need to do something big. This is stressful and confusing. When I believe this thought, I feel . . . pressure to complete this purpose before I die. Since I can’t know when that is, I think that I have to quickly accomplish this purpose (which I don’t have a clue about). . . .

Do I see a reason to drop this story? Yes, it’s very painful to live this way. . . .

Can I find one stress-free reason to keep this story? No.

Who would I be without the belief that my life should have a purpose? I have no way of knowing. I know I’m more peaceful without it, less crazed. . . . Without the fear and stress around this thought, maybe I’d be freed and energized enough to be happy just doing the thing in front of me.

The turnaround [try looking at it the opposite way]: my life should not have a purpose. That would mean that what I’ve lived has always been enough, and I just haven’t recognized it. Maybe my life shouldn’t have a purpose other than what it is. That feels odd, yet it somehow rings true. Could it be that my life as it’s already lived is the purpose? . . .

From Loving What Is, pp 136-137.

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17 thoughts on “Parting thought: Life’s Purpose

  1. It’s weird. I have never, ever been inclined to think of my life as having a purpose. I’ve never felt any NEED even to think that. Not growing up religious. Not when I got older and questioned religion. Not now. I used to think I was missing out on something when I’d hear other people talk about that sort of thing, that there was some deeper issue that I just wasn’t understanding or appreciating, that there was some sort of grand thing that other people were seeing that I wasn’t. But really, I think it’s just that I’ve always felt that my life belongs so completely and entirely to me that that sort of question doesn’t really make any kind of sense for me.

    To think that your life has a purpose is to think of it as a means to some end, an X in service of some sort of Why. That’s just baffling to me. I think of things WITHIN the scope of my life as having a purpose. I work, I eat, I change my clothes, I have a key made, I read a book, I listen to a song, I watch the sun rise or set, all for the purpose of sustaining or enjoying my life. And some day, despite all my best efforts otherwise, that life will end. And I have to come to terms with that. But that’s it. I don’t even grasp the idea of looking beyond that. I’m here! I get to exist! Why would I even think of wondering what that point was of that? It’s plenty enough that it even IS!

    Getting married and having a daughter has expanded things for me. I do a lot of things not just for my life, but also for my family, which is a larger entity, of course. But that’s a natural extension, and it felt natural to me, and I accepted it willingly and happily. It didn’t really change my fundamental outlook. I’m no more inclined to be philosophical about the purpose of my family, than I was about the purpose of my life. It’s something precious and important to me. I don’t need it to be a “reason” for something else.

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  2. Interesting stuff. Yes, I am one who believes that life should have a purpose. Does this mean, perhaps, that I’m tormented by the fear that my own life doesn’t have a purpose? And does it mean that deep down I disrespect most other people, judging that their lives don’t have a purpose either? Probably both these things.

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  3. Answer to Bryan: what you’ve said seems a completely healthy thing. And yet there have been times in my life when young and recently when old, that it seemed useful to have a purpose. When young, it is the search for direction: which way to go? When old, it’s to set oneself a personal challenge, when life has become so easy that one’s at a loose end.

    Coincidentally, an instance of youthful crusading idealism manifested yesterday in a blog I encountered because of its similar name to mine: “Wayfaring Stranger“. She says, “I want to be an inspiration, someone people can look up to.” And I don’t think there’s any problem in starting off with such an idea.

    Opening another page from Katie’s book at random, I find a chapter headed, “The baby shouldn’t scream”, which starts with a mother saying, “I’m looking for a way to work through my depression.” So she describes all sorts of negatives in her life: son not doing his homework properly, baby who screams when he sees people. Each of these is subjected to the enquiry method. Most of them are reducible to expectations as a kind of belief, that this or that should happen. Katie’s remedy is a form of practice which if followed through ends up with us “loving what is”.

    And so I have come to the conclusion, after looking into it, that “loving what is” beats any religion, and she is what Time magazine said of her years ago, “a visionary for the new millennium”. I decided to try and share this somehow.


  4. Michael, I started responding to Bryan before seeing yours. Thanks for pointing out examples of consequences to the beliefs we find ourselves holding.

    Certainly when I was a declared guru disciple, I “deep-down disrespected” those who weren’t committed to a purpose like the one I espoused. Today I think that was one of the worst side-effects, and it’s one I see in followers of prescriptive religions.

    What I see now is that people who aren’t bound by any conscious sense of purpose can be freer and have more fun: so long as they deal with the other negatives in their thinking.

    Their neighbours with authoritarian belief systems feel obliged to protect their constrained and fun-restricted lifestyles with a deep-down or even visible “holier-than-thou” disrespect.

    And as for belief systems—social, political, religious—when some horrific event dominates the news, nothing could be easier than to blame those against whom we already cherish disrespect, or worse.


  5. I think maybe you misunderstand me. There’s a difference between life having a purpose and one finding their purpose in life (although I think wording the latter that way leads to confusion with the former, as seems to be the case here.) I’m not advocating some kind of aimlessness. My point above is that life is a gift, and it doesn’t require any justification beyond that. It is perfectly natural, even maybe inevitable, for all of us to have those moments when we wonder how we might get the most fulfillment out of that gift.

    Again, however, to call that “purpose” I think tends to give the impression that each life comes inscribed with some secret set of instructions that spell out what that life is “for” and why it exists. This one is here to be a banker. This one is here to save people from a burning building on a certain day. And so forth. It gives this idea that meaning is preordained or handed down for the outside, that your life comes prequipped with a singular, specific “purpose” and that it falls to you to find it.

    I don’t believe it works that way. I believe that life only comes equipped with an incredible multitude of possibilities and potentials. We explore those possibilities the best that we can, trying to find the best way to use our limited time. Call that “finding your purpose” if you must, but I think some people end up getting the wrong idea that way. They waste time fretting that they’re not doing what they’re “supposed” to be doing, when there really is no such thing, when it’s really a matter of choice.

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  6. Now I want to ask a question, particularly with Bryan in mind but otherwise addressed to anyone who passes this way.

    Do you, despite being naturally hard-headed and rational, get from time to time the sense that something which happened “was meant to happen”? Which means that it was a step towards the fulfilment of some (as yet unapparent) purpose?

    I mention it because despite my basic scepticism—reluctance to adopt any unsupported belief whatsoever—this sense of wonder at what happens in my life occurs more and more often: something happens, whether a setback or a little leap forward, and I embrace it as something meant to happen. Not for me, not in fulfilment of my wishes; but part of some plan as yet unknown, which I shall greet positively. This only applies to what happens to me. As to what happens affecting other people, I don’t know, only a general sense perhaps that when big situations go out of control—disasters, political leadership, international relations—it may be a sort of catharsis, a necessary prelude or clearing-space for a cure to some chronic malady that existing conditions were never yet able to change.


  7. It’s doubtless an illusion, I accept that. One might argue that the expression “meant to happen” has only an illusory meaning.

    But. . . . What are we to make of the following statement?

    “Everything that has happened was meant to happen.” It cannot be falsified, so we must remain open to any significance it may have.

    Add this to Byron Katie’s “Loving What Is”, and you get a great big “Yes” to life.

    The notion of “meaning” has been part of the human experience since time immemorial. Where there is not knowledge, imagination fills the gap.

    What is meaning, anyhow? Scepticism can only go so far.


  8. We don’t enter life with a set of instructions, or with an agenda we are supposed to accomplish. But we are born with potential to develop with possible outcomes.

    “Who has seen the wind
    Neither I nor you,
    But when the trees bow down their heads,
    The wind is passing through.”
    (Christina Rossetti)

    The wind bloweth where it will, and we have the potential to know that it is blowing. We are not required to acknowledge it. But it comes bearing a gift which you can choose to receive if your heart is opened through love.

    [8] The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (John 3)
    Ian, your gifts are appreciated.

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  9. To answer your question:

    I do have moments here and there where my mind “flirts” with thoughts of karma or fate, although I never really think of these things in those terms, and I never pursue them very seriously, and I never consider them worth seriously pursuing. I’ll just have those moments where I’ll note that things seemed to have fallen into place nice and neatly, or I’ll expect things to work out a certain way just because they’re “supposed to” for heaven knows what reasons, or else, on the other hand, I’ll worry that things WON’T work out because “that would be just my luck”, like there’s some cruel cosmic trick waiting to be played on me.

    I remember one time when I was a kid, I got a check from my dad for my birthday. Back then you had to wait ten days for an out of state check to clear with the bank so that you could cash it. So, I’m waiting the ten days for this money, and I know just what I want to get with it, and I’m all excited, and yet, there’s this part of me that thinks I’m going to get hit by a bus or something before the ten days are up because “that would be just my luck.” And I STILL think that way a lot of times!

    I think that maybe there’s an innate, natural tendency for humans to think this way — it’s something in the wiring, maybe — and some people just take these ideas more seriously than others. Personally, I tend to think of them as just a kind of glitch, like that irresistible urge to think that a slot machine is “getting hot” or it’s “due to hit.” We don’t like things being beyond our control or our reckoning, so we try to impose systems of control on them that we can reckon with.

    That’s my take on it, at least. Who knows?

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  10. Have you ever seen that movie The Shawshank Redemption?

    There’s this scene where the warden almost walks off with Andy’s Bible, and when you rewatch the movie, and you know the incredible significance of that Bible, it’s so tense watching that scene. To not flitch or react or give yourself away in a moment like that, it goes beyond patience and determination. If I saw someone do that in real life, I would be in complete awe of them. In real life you’re not in a movie; you don’t know that things are going to work out; you don’t know that you’re going to get your Bible back.

    It reminds me of another scene in The Brothers Karamazov where this kid lays down between the railroad tracks on a dare and lets a train pass over him. His friends had it all measured out and they planned everything and did a test with a dummy even, I think, and they made sure that there was just enough room for him to fit — as long as he stayed perfectly still. And there’s the rub. I imagine laying there and the doubts that would creep in. Maybe this was a different, shorter train. Maybe there would be a metal pipe or something hanging down somewhere along the length of the train and it would catch on your head. You’d have to lay there, not letting these doubts drive you into a full blown panic that would make try to sit up or run away. Afterwards, in the story, it said that the kid’s mother nearly had a nervous breakdown after hearing about it. Yeah, I could see that. It drives me a little nuts to even read it in a book.

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  11. People are different, and then we respond differently at different times. At first reading I saw nothing much in your comment, Ellie, about the wind blowing where it listeth: just a truism, I thought. When I came back the second time, I knew; knew it was blowing and saw the gift borne in those words. Thank you!


  12. In answer to your question, I certainly see events coming to me (and others) in a purposive way. I see periods when life is very unsettled and a stream of seemingly unrelated upheavals come to us one after another, as if change is being force on us. It seems to be purposeful, though I suppose I’m more inclined to put it down to the “law of attraction”. I do believe that our paths bring us up against the same lesson over and over again. In a different tradition of thinking I might probably express it as God testing us.

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  13. Bryan, what I saw in both your latest comments was the common thread of anxiety. Will something happen before the check can be cashed? Will the secret of Andy’s Bible stay undetected? Will the kid survive the train passing over the tracks?

    I shudder at the memory of Stephen King stories. I don’t like his imagination. I could say the same about my current reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost, come to that; but in his case I persevere, at least for the time being: trying to understand his vision of Satan; the meaning of the Fall; what’s been lost since prelapsarian Eden, as symbolized by the ideal marriage of Adam and Eve. I don’t think I ever will.

    I guess I only want to see through eyes who know that the wind is blowing, and that all is well.


  14. That “law of attraction” certainly has resonance for me too. And when you say “I certainly see events coming to me (and others) in a purposive way”, I assume that by others you mean people you know quite well.

    I say this because hearsay or slight acquaintance, I suggest, gives little or no insight into these matters.


  15. Well I certainly didn’t mean hearsay, but also I didn’t necessarily mean people I know particularly well. Often I feel I see, from a person’s own account and their language, even if I don’t know them very well, how their way of experiencing life is bound to repeatedly attract the experience they report, both for good and ill. I suppose that’s a thought that ought to be entertained with due humility; patterns, we know, are sometimes clearer from a distance and sometimes the clarity breaks up on close acquaintance; but that doesn’t make the distant pattern an illusion necessarily. And the external view of a person has this advantage; it is founded on the pitiless principle that “actions speak louder than words” and has no visibility of the person’s elaborate lifelong construction of those beliefs and excuses by which we preserve equanimity and avoid change.

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  16. This has important implications for our understanding of how the world works.

    Words too are a form of action, and in the present instance are the only way we can experience one another and read the patterns, setting aside as you say the beliefs . . .


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