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It's not WHAT you are, but HOW you are that matters

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Editor’s note: Today’s contribution from architect and author Sarah Susanka was originally published on her “Not So Big Life” Web site.


Ever since we were children or young adults, we’ve been asked what we are going to become when we grow up. This creates in us an orientation toward material, physical, or intellectual accomplishment. If we make a lot of money, then somehow we believe we’ve found our life’s purpose, while if we do not, and if we feel somehow dissatisfied with the employment we find, we believe we have not yet found our purpose. Sometimes even the accumulation of success, money and stuff doesn’t satisfy. It’s exciting perhaps for a year or two, but then the glow wears thin, and we still sense a missing “something” that must be where our true purpose resides.

So we keep hunting and hunting, longing to feel that sense of wholeness and fulfillment that we somehow know will come when we find that true purpose. Could it be though that we are looking in the wrong place for that sense of fulfillment?

At this particular moment in our collective world, people from all walks of life are finding their livelihoods in the equivalent of “pause” mode, like when you hit the pause button on the TV remote. Although they’re going through the motions of their lives, they know that few of their activities are actually working in the way they used to. In the case of the wealthy, they’re not making many real deals with all their phone calls and emails, and in the case of the average worker, they’re showing up for work each day as usual, but much of what they are doing feels like “make-work” rather than truly effective activity towards a constructive outcome.

Those without any job at all are trying desperately to get their old world back on track just as fast as possible, in many cases doing the equivalent of pounding their heads against a brick wall in order to secure a position that looks something like what they are familiar with.

Paradoxically enough, in many cases these folks are still rushing, just like they used to when gainfully employed, in a vain attempt to feel productive. I watched a story on television recently about a human resources manager who lost his job a year and a half ago who now spends his stress-filled days rushing from networking meeting to networking meeting as he tries, unsuccessfully, to find a position in a company that might need his skills. It struck me that he’s so busy networking that there’s no time in his life to pay attention to what might be a more appropriate use of his skills and passions right now.

But we can never know what those new possibilities might be until we slow down a bit so we can pay attention to what’s actually happening, instead of trying to force into existence what we think should be happening. This is a different kind of world suddenly than we are familiar with, and the new opportunities are not going to look anything like what we think they’re going to. We can’t yet imagine what they are, not because we’re blind or stupid, but because we are not yet familiar with them. In most cases we don’t recognize them even when they are right in front of our noses.

So the only way to see them is to be present in whatever we’re doing, to show up in the moment and pay attention to what we are moved to explore — even though in many cases we won’t be able to understand how this activity can possibly make money for us. For right now, if what you’ve been doing hasn’t been creating the work, income, or sense of purpose that you’ve been hoping for, stop trying so hard, at least for a few days, and see what presents itself without any effort on your part. Simply pay attention to what is being placed before you, or what you feel drawn to pursue.

Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself to help you see what might be in front of you that you aren’t noticing:

  • What do you keep saying “no” to? (I’m not advocating anything dangerous of course — just things your reflexively discount as not worth your while, or not for you.)
  • Are there people or issues that keep showing up but that you haven’t made time for?
  • Has someone given you a book, video, or movie, unsolicited, that you’ve put aside until you have time to read or watch it? (Read it! Watch it!)
  • Are there synchronous references to something you’ve always been intrigued by but have never made time for?

All these are prompts from your life (your Waking Dream, as I call it in The Not So Big Life) pointing the way to the nutrients for inner growth, and outer possibility.

The point is that if we’re not present in our lives, we’ll never see the opportunities that are there because they will almost certainly look nothing like what we are expecting, and we’ll be too busy doing what we think we’re supposed to be doing to notice. Our true purpose in fact has almost nothing to do with what we do, but is instead all about how we are in all that doing. When you show up completely in each moment, the nutrients for the next scene of your life are buried within those moments, and you discover that your purpose is nothing more (and nothing less) than your being there to completely experience what happens as it happens.

I can’t tell you what those nutrients are for you, but I assure you that as you pay attention to what’s actually happening, putting all your fearful projections and fruitless struggling aside, those nutrients will be there for you. It’s really incredibly simple. What you need shows up as you go about living the life that is here, rather than the one in your head. And this is where your true purpose is too, in how you are in each moment of your life, rather than in what you do for a living.

This is the root of our confusion about purpose, and perhaps, just possibly, this period of uncertainty will help us to grasp that we are in fact completely supported in living out that purpose when we show up completely in our own experiencing. Words can only point the way, but the direct experience is something entirely different, and truly transformative.

Life, when lived in presence, becomes rich beyond words, no matter the current state of the economy, or the way we make our living in the world. Our purpose lies within that presence. It’s the only place that actually is, after all — a dimensionless point through which awareness and manifestation touch, allowing the One — the collection of all points of awareness — to experience Self through its own reflection.

Photo courtesy of stuartpilbrow via Flickr