Purpose in life is more important than education or wealth in determining long-term health and happiness.
Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
My month in a tough alcohol treatment center (1974) was a painful, high anxiety and profound time of spiritual awakenings, moments of metanoia and akin to turning from the shadows to the sun in many Plato’s Caves. I left the hospital a scared, hopeful and humbled young man and began my life of often muddling conscious evolution. My purpose was to stay sober, live true to my values and care for my family.
I next thought of my purpose for my life about 16 years later.
In the early 1990’s, I had a leadership experience that awakened me to the vast dormant and untapped human potential in most organizations. I felt alive as we transformed a major business unit. Results were phenomenal. This experience was the second great expansion of awareness in my life. Treatment had saved my life and this leadership experience changed my life forever. As successes multiplied, so did the fear in others and resistance to us grew. I sensed our work would be destroyed by the dominant culture. I began preparations for my departure.
“I don’t want to leave because I am angry,” I said to Diane Olson, Ph.D. my consultant. “I want a new vision to go toward.” I spent two years working with Diane and consultant John Johnson to develop a new vision for my life, a purpose statement and my core values. The work was hard. I read, pondered and talked with John and Diane frequently.
I live my life as a series of emotional, spiritual and intellectual adventures and I share what I learn with others.
This purpose aligned with my new vision for my life: to complete a Ph.D., to begin to write and to consult with organizations.
I left the company in early 1994. I set out to use myself as my own learning laboratory—that was scary.
I had many emotional, spiritual and intellectual adventures over the next 20 years. I changed my life dramatically. I felt alive and had many peak experiences. I shared my experiences and insights as a writer, coach and consultant.
For the past decade, I’ve had three core strategies in my life:
- To optimize my physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual health,
- To partner with Melanie to keep our love alive always and
- To have meaning and creativity in my life
I am fit and healthy. Melanie and I have a wonderful life together. We feel grateful. But I was aware of an angst in me the last couple of years that I didn’t understand. My feeling of aliveness had dissipated. I felt my life contracting: Retirement had shrunk my involvement in the world and didn’t feel as meaningful as robust work had. People I cared about were dying more regularly. Children were grown and didn’t want or need my experience or guidance. I experienced foreshadowing of physical decline and, as I approached 70 years of age (the entry to old age), I was well aware of where the contraction ultimately led.
Last summer (2015), my older brother got sick and died quickly. This unexpected loss affected me deeply–more than I expected it might. I felt that part of my foundation had cracked. Other losses added to the pain I felt. I wanted to feel differently. I wanted to feel alive again. My third strategy needed renewal.
Trying to repeat the past was the wrong solution. To do nothing would mean I had stopped learning and would lead to the resentment and bitterness that some feel in retirement. I needed something new to learn that would engage my spirit and create positive energy that I could creatively give back to life. I stumbled along seeking what would bring meaning and aliveness back. I needed a new emotional, spiritual and intellectual adventure.
My friend Heather gave me a trial subscription to HeadSpace.com. I decided to try meditation. I began with 20 minutes a day. I had tried meditation over the preceding decades. Unable to sit still, I soon quit. Now I could sit and begin to slow my mind.
I read the book, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by John Kabat-Zinn. The book inspired me to expand and deepen my meditation experience. I had a feeling that meditation and consciousness were what I sought to bring meaning and aliveness back in this part of my life. I began to meditate 60 minutes a day. I realized new things about my inner world. I understood that constant, unmanaged and compulsive thought may be as insane as alcoholism. I realized that I had lived much of my life in the past and the future, not in the present moment. I needed to ponder my identity and my attachments. Meditation is much more than I had thought it was. I had much to learn.
In A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle wrote that we each have an inner and an outer purpose. We share an inner purpose: to become awakened (a gradual shift in consciousness). This aligns with my purpose of living a life of inner adventures. Our outer purpose–unique to each of us–is how we live out our inner purpose in the world. Almost every page of this book spoke to me powerfully. I know the feeling from past transformative experiences: I had found a new adventure. I enter the organic, mysterious and potential-filled world of contemplation and consciousness.
I am a novice again.
I feel alive in the uncertainty of the unknown.
This experience reminded me of something that I knew during my career: My happiness came from the pursuit of noble goals—goals I might never achieve. I felt alive striving for objectives that mattered to me. During those years, I never thought about happiness. I thought about what I would do the next day to move closer to the top of the mountain I was climbing at the time. I realized that in retirement I need that same sense of dedication as a part of my life. All of us do and we will live longer, happier and healthier lives if we have a vibrant sense of purpose.