Just as we can divide the points on a compass into four directions and the days of the year into four seasons, we can give order and structure to our life experience by looking at it through the filter of the four purposes I describe in my book, The Four Purposes of Life (H.J. Kramer/New World Library, 2011).
The first purpose is learning life’s lessons.
Earth is a perfect school, guaranteed to teach us everything we need to learn to evolve through the challenges of daily life. As most people have noticed, those lessons repeat themselves until we learn them—and if we don’t learn the easy ones, they get more dramatic.
If we start to view learning as the core purpose of our lives, then even a very bad day can be a profoundly good day in terms of learning. No one can possibly fail at anything if they’ve learned something from it. Even though we sometimes think winning or losing makes a big difference, when we make learning our core goal, we shift our perspective so that every experience becomes a lesson.
As I shared in my first book, Way of the Peaceful Warrior, I once shattered my right thighbone in a motorcycle crash that shook me up in more ways than one. I started asking bigger questions about life. I do not recommend fractures as a method for personal and spiritual growth, but I’ve never seen an adversity (large or small) without hidden gifts.
We’ve all had physical, emotional, and mental pain in our lives. Sometimes climbing out of a deep, dark hole can give us the strength to climb a mountain. If we look back, most of us see that because of these experiences, we’re now a little stronger and perhaps a little wiser. We know the difference between the big stuff and the small stuff, and we no longer sweat the small stuff.
Sometimes we even volunteer for adversity. Practicing a sport or musical instrument are both forms of voluntary adversity. So is getting married and raising kids or entering the world of business. These voluntary challenges are ways or paths that develop a stronger spirit.
The second purpose is finding our career and calling—figuring out what we are here to do.
Some people use these terms career and calling synonymously, but these terms have clear distinctions: Our career is fundamentally about making a living. All over the world, people trade their skills, experience, and expertise for an income to support themselves and their families. We may like our career, we may even find it meaningful, but if we aren’t getting paid, we probably have to do something else.
Our calling, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with making money. The choreographer George Balanchine understood this when he said, “I’m not looking for people who want to dance. I’m looking for people who need to dance.” Our calling is a want and a need.
Some of us are able to monetize our calling, but most of us have a career while pursuing a calling in our discretionary time. Starving artists, raised on the idea of following their hearts and doing what they love, might be wise to also have a day job to stabilize their lives, gain independence, and pay for rent and food—then they can unleash their creativity from a strong foundation. Others of us value only that which earns money, having abandoned a calling that might enrich our lives.
Self-knowledge is key to whatever decisions we make here because if we don’t understand ourselves we may end up picking the right career (or the right spouse) for the wrong person—the one we thought we were.
The third purpose is discovering your life path.
This is a hidden calling made more mysterious and provocative because it’s revealed through a numeric system I share in my book The Life You Are Born to Live (H.J. Kramer/New World Library, 1993). You begin by finding your birth number, based on the date of your birth. I recommend using the free Life Purpose Calculator at peacefulwarrior.com to avoid possible errors in computing your birth number.
By inputting your date of birth, you’ll find key words that address some of the core issues of your life, helping you to identify drives, hidden talents, and gifts, as well as some of the hurdles you’re here to overcome. It highlights fundamental qualities about how you express and experience life and can generate a quantum leap in insight.
It’s important to remember that there’s no better or worse life path, just as there’s no best book, teacher, religion, diet, system, or form of exercise. There’s only the best for a given person at a particular time. Life is an experiment; we each blaze our own trails.
The fourth purpose—attending to our purpose this arising moment.
Even when our cosmic purpose seems hazy or obscure, our purpose in each arising moment is clear. The fourth purpose reminds us of the importance of this arising moment. My life is busy, yet also simple when I remember that I can do only one thing at a time. Even if you wake up one morning with 16 items on your to-do list, in the present moment, you only have to do one thing: open your eyes; then sit up; then put your feet on the floor; then stand.
Some people claim to be master multitaskers, but they are merely splitting their attention in two, half-concentrating on each task—like when you try to speak with someone on the phone while checking your email.
The past and the future can be nice places to visit, but this moment is the only moment of reality and awareness where the mind is essentially quiet. The so-called past and future are no more than memory and imagination. The only way to change your past is to aim for excellence in this moment, because the present will soon become your past.
And here’s a paradox: We cannot truly grasp the present moment. If I attempt to do so, vocalizing the word now, for example, a million nanoseconds have passed between the “n” sound to the “ow.” How can we grasp a nanosecond? When teachers suggest we attend to the present, they’re simply advising us to handle what’s in front of us—to pull our wandering attention back from past or future, from memory or imagination, to the reality of this arising moment.
I’ve experienced success in my writing and speaking, yet success has never been my goal—because we cannot control whether we succeed, or sink a putt, or find love. However, by making a good effort, which is in our control, we vastly increase the odds of getting our desired outcomes compared to not making the effort. By focusing on the quality of each moment, we enhance the quality of our lives.
Life comes at us in waves of change that we can’t control or predict, but we can learn to surf those waves and ride the crest, moment by moment.
This article was adapted from a May 2011 interview Dan Millman gave to Michael Toms on New Dimensions Radio, now airing Wednesdays at 9 a.m. (CT) on unityonlineradio.org.