The shadow side of spiritual purpose

When I was in college, I was baffled by the die-hard vocational majors: business, nursing, engineering, etc. I’m referring to the kids who seemed to have arrived on campus already having it all planned out. What distinguished them wasn’t just their certainty about their major, but their apparent confidence about what both college and life were for: to get a job and become a “productive and successful” member of society. But if I and my liberal-artsy friends sometimes poked fun at them, it was probably, at least partly, because we envied how sanguine they appeared to be about the game of life.

Of course, to be hesitant and vacillating in college is often considered to be developmentally appropriate, if not healthy. Speaking as someone who’s been a university professor for decades, I can say that I’ve often felt more concern for the students who cling tenaciously to their initial road maps than for those who sample and bounce a bit. This isn’t surprising, since, for me, college was more about testing waters and questioning than about specific job preparation. It wasn’t that, as a youngster, I had some precocious understanding of liberal arts educational values, but that, underlying my dabbling and experimentation was a consuming, earnest hunger to fulfill a DEEP PURPOSE. I wasn’t a free spirit, then. To the contrary, I hesitated and backtracked so often partly because I didn’t want to screw things up by making the “wrong” choices.

Back then, I imagined that it was mainly just the more conventionally-oriented folks whose decisions were being limited by an attachment to the “life purpose” discourse, a framework that is arguably rooted in protestant and capitalist values. I thought of myself as more liberated, as unwilling to row madly from one predictable, predetermined goalpost to another, and this may have been true in a limited sense. But it’s probably also fair to say that I was actually more invested and weighed down by the LIFE PURPOSE discourse than many of those who delineated their educational and professional paths very early on. They were attached to a “purpose” that was, perhaps, more socially acceptable and conventional — mine was more reactionary and philosophical — but we both carried VERY IMPORTANT, urgent instruction manuals of some sort in our heavy backpacks.

Although I don’t regret most of the choices I’ve made along the way, I think that this pressure I put on myself probably hindered as much as it helped me, especially because it kept me distracted from the present moment. One pretty obvious style of being future-focused is to be perpetually scurrying from one mundane life goal to the next — pay off the car, get promoted, have kids, retire. But philosophical and spiritual goals can serve a similarly distracting function, one that may even be more pernicious. One symptom is the anxious thoughts that can arise while meditating: “Am I progressing? Am I becoming calmer and more compassionate?” Such thoughts may also burble up like clockwork on birthdays, New Year’s Day, or simply after a good long look in the mirror: “Am I failing to live the life I am SUPPOSED to live?”

There’s a bit of conundrum here because, on the one hand, it seems healthy and skillful to be an observer of one’s own life, marking and gauging the trajectory of decisions and accomplishments. There surely is something to the claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and who wants to just bob along from one stimulus to another? But to be chronically driven by purpose and goal-oriented thinking — whether one’s ambitions are “ordinary” or spiritual — is to be tethered, tugged and determined by an imaginary future that remains perpetually out of reach. Paradoxically, being obsessed with a list of spiritual goals turns out to be the perfect form of distraction because, unlike “worldly” drives and addictions, it can look and feel so darn deep and authentic.

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