"I want to find my purpose". Most people at some point in their lives have made this statement (either internally or externally). There's a whole subset of the self-help/career development industry that have used this idea as a marketing strategy (and made a lot of money). But what are we really looking for when we are looking for "our purpose"?
Of course we can talk about the external, role-oriented purpose many of us take in the journey to becoming more self-actualized in the world. But there is a more profound inner purpose in our lives that if pursued can take the anxiety out of searching for something. Understanding our outer purpose can be important, but should not be all consuming, because that is ultimately our secondary purpose. Our inner purpose is awakening, and is primary.
Lets unpack this some more:
First we should explore the concept of purpose. There are multiple levels to this concept that we can tune into in order to understand how to deal with the feelings of frustration around not fulfilling our purpose. When people use this phrase it's typically associated with the idea that we should be doing a specific thing in the world that is aligned with our particular gifts, talents and interests.
This sense of purpose is usually associated with a role or profession we believe we should be playing, and that if we were to fulfill that role we would feel satisfied, contented and happy.
This sense of purpose rests partially on the external conditions of our lives as well as the subsequent emotions we get from fulfilling those conditions. "I was meant to be a mother" , "I'm supposed to be a teacher", "I was meant to own my own business", etc. Some people associate their purpose with an imagined future emotional state, or even place greater vagaries around the ideal saying quite simply "I just want to love what I do", or "My purpose is to be happy".
These are all valid and important roles/states to fulfill and entertain and it could be that the way you are to manifest your larger purpose is through one of those mediums. But it also rests on a state of doing rather than a state of being, which is a sure fire way to tumble toward disappointment and discontent, and we all do it at some point or another.
But what happens when you can't have a child, find a good teaching gig or don't have the means to start a business right now? Well it could be that the idea, "I should be doing X and Y" in my life" propels you toward that goal (which is an excellent motivator). Or it could be that you find yourself in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction because you are postponing happiness "until".
When we do this we enter into resentment, anger or simply non-acceptance of where we are in our lives at the current time. We wage war on Reality. When you aren't accepting and loving the current reality what makes you think that the external conditions of your life can do jack-squat to change your internal conditions. Yes, folks as teacher Byron Katie teaches us, until you love the shitty circumstances or your life your work isn't done.
Oh sure, it may provide a temporary or extended state of contentment when you fulfill your imagined desired role because you got your your way. But the ego loves to create a future. Some egos believe that their current reality will last forever, putting them in a state of panic about changing or escaping the unhappiness or discontentment of their lives, until they escape their current reality, only to become disillusioned with it and start the cycle again. How exhausting.
Again, this can be a wonderful motivator to change something in our lives, but often people find themselves at the end of their lives realizing that they spent an exorbitant amount of time in that state of fight or flight, the problem is the imagined threat you were trying to escape was actually your life, and then you realize you spent your whole life running from yourself!
Don't fret, there's a more peaceful purpose we can pursue. The deeper, primary purpose Tolle is talking about in his quote. This purpose is to awaken to our true selves, which is a constant unfolding of awareness moment to moment. Another way of saying this is: that our sole purpose is to be present.
Once we remove the future and past stories full of shoulds, woulds, wants and demands we find a staggering amount of peace. In fact it's impossible not to be happy.
We realize that our purpose, at any given moment, is to be exactly who we are and to be doing exactly what we're doing. It can't be any other way, because the reality is, that's what we're doing. If we were meant to be doing something else, we'd be doing that.
But the ego will chime in and say "but then I will become lazy. I need my future stories to propel me into actually doing something!"
Well yes and no. Yes, the ego allows us to construct criteria for what we superficially think we want in our lives. So in this way it's not a problem necessarily. However, when we begin to exclusively rely on our roles or external conditions to produce positive feelings we get ourselves into trouble because the mind constructs confines around what life is supposed to be like. Those confines become hardened and static and then anything that doesn't match our idea of what things should be becomes undesirable thus causing pain.
So if we work with the larger purpose of our lives we would say that since you are reading this post at this moment your purpose right now is to read this post, that's it. Sit with that and see how it takes the anxiety out of your being (or it may make you more anxious depending on the particular flavor of your ego messages). When you get up out of the chair to go do something else, your purpose is to do exactly that.
Just because you're not over-identifying with an imagined future doesn't mean you don't do what you need to do. The body moves, breathes, drinks, eats, makes phone calls, answers emails and sleeps (the mind makes sure of that).
You undoubtedly will still have goals you want to accomplish but you become less identified with what form that will take. You can still make to-do lists and plans (because we have to live in lineal time in the human experience) but when you're making the list that's your purpose, and then you become interested to see how things unfold.
Through this practice we become dis-identified with the illusory (future or past oriented self) and become identified with the present moment self, which is only a reality in the present moment.
When we allow our purpose to be exactly what we are doing/thinking/feeling at this moment we move out of resistance, or War with what is. If you're stuck in the longest line in history at the grocery store but you're late for an important appointment, your purpose is to be as present as you can be in that line (you never know what the larger purpose of you being in that line may be).
If you can become friendly with the idea of surrender to the present, then you open yourself up to a multitude of possibilities. Resistance or a specified prescription for how your life "should be" creates resentment with life and constricts the energy of creativity (AKA, the Divine, God, The Universe, nature, etc) from helping you co-create your life. But you have to relinquish the illusion of control, which can be a terrifying loss for some people.
Is there an optimal way we can manifest our particular talents in the world? Maybe so. And it may please you to actively pursue developing or searching for that way. But careful not to make the present an enemy because it hasn't "happened yet". The pursuit of our development should also be met with constant present moment awareness as the sole purpose; the secondary purpose of that pursuit should be what we are trying to do or become.
The laws of karma tell us that we will have whatever experience is most useful for our evolution. The laws of free will tell us that within that evolutionarily process we have infinite options in how we express that process. Yes, we can apparently shape, plan, conceptualize, manipulate and cajole reality into bending to our will and, we may be very successful in manifesting that reality.
Or we can allow our path to unfold behind us, as we walk surprised at what we and the Universe planned for our evolution. In this way rather than the future being a destination to reach it becomes an interesting potentiality, and the present becomes a gift full of possibility.
So when we talk about fulfilling our purpose we should distinguish between our ideas about our lives and the true purpose of our lives which can only ever be awakening to what is. There's only wonder in that purpose, and we may look back and realize that the journey we were on was absolutely perfect.
You can't not do what you came here to do, because you are doing it all the time. Your purpose is to realize that.