For the past few years, I have been helping people discover a deeper sense of purpose in their lives. I have helped them through some of the most difficult transitions that they face: from the end of a relationship, to the end of a career or even the death of a loved one. What I have found in this work and the decade or so of training that led up to it is that most of us have a deeply ingrained notion that the purpose of life is to be happy. We use happiness as our North Star, and assume that it is the highest life goal or ideal to strive for. Happiness is prized above most, if not all, things and it is sought after with an almost religious fervor. There are a few reasons why this is problematic and emblematic of the ongoing struggles we face.
Before we get into those, let’s look at where the focus on happiness comes from. In a Judeo-Christian culture like ours, one of the most pressing narratives is the idea of original sin, the Fall. We all know this story, whether we have a religious attachment to it or not. Essentially what this story says is that once humanity was allowed to live a life of leisure in paradise. Adam and Eve, being the ancestors of us all according to this tale, had anything and everything they could ever want. That is until they listened to serpent that convinced them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Now for some reason in this Judeo-Christian world, god was pretty pissed off at this. So he cast Adam and Eve out of paradise and they commenced the life of toil and labor that we now know as penance for the ancestral sin of disobedience.
We can trace how this story has flowed throughout Western civilization, masking itself through different religious and political doctrines, finding an environment where it flourishes in marketing and in the media, as well as perpetually driving us forward towards this idealized state of happiness. It says to us that in our original state there was a life of bliss, leisure and ease in all things. The reason we have to strive for anything now is because of our fall from grace. In this way, happiness and what it has come to represent are synonymous with being free from sin, cleansed and in right standing with god.
This idea of happiness has changed accordingly with the times. It has been the root cause of justification for monarchies, oligarchies, and the current pseudo-democratic capitalist system. When we look at what we are told to keep as a standard for our quality of life, happiness is at the top of the list. But, what exactly does this happiness look like? With things like this it is more effective to pose questions than to offer answers. So here are a few to ask yourself:
· When am I happy?
· What conditions need to be met so I feel happy?
· How often do I feel happy?
· Who benefits from my happiness (other than me)?
· Can I sustain being happy?
· To what lengths do I go to achieve happiness?
· Does my happiness cost others? If so, what does it cost them?
Happiness falls short
Here is the thing, when happiness is our standard for living a successful or fulfilling life, our life will always fall short. When it comes down to it happiness is a poor standard for guiding our life because it is based on a self-centered notion that the ideal state of existence is bliss. To spend life chasing happiness is to want to regress to a state of being where all cares and worries are tended for you. It is to expect that at some point in life you will be able to sit back and simply be, without having to exert yourself or struggle with any challenges. At least this is what I have gathered from many conversations with people who attempt to define what they perceive as happiness. It is the freedom from struggle for you and your loved ones.
However, what we wish for is rarely what it seems. Chasing happiness is like spending your life chasing the horizon with the adamant belief that you will one day catch it. To spend your life seeking to make yourself happy is a zero-sum proposition because it is not in the nature of happiness to be captured, caught and cultivated. Instead, happiness is something that arises, momentarily, in brief instances where the conditions in your life are just right. It is a moment, a flicker of deep connection, a beautiful experience of ease and bliss that arises of its own accord when you are in the right place.
To chase happiness is the same thing as a junky chasing the next high. Each time it requires more effort, more discipline, each time the place you found it is less evident and less powerful. When you chase happiness you find that you may get your fix once in a while but the impact is less, and the emptiness that comes after like a gaping wound is bigger and bigger. There is self-centeredness to this as well. It requires our accepting that our happiness is worth seeking over the connection we have with other people. So we will forego our relationships and commitments to others if we have a glimpse of a possibility of reaching the ephemeral goal of being happy. This often breaks relationships: which is not always a bad thing.
However, happiness is an adolescent standard. It states that I should be happy because in some way the world is here to serve me. If the world does not do so, I must take the necessary actions to bend it to my desire for happiness. If I cannot do this, or those around me fail to do it for me, then my life is a failure. When we look at these statements and questions the central figure is the self. Invariably we come back to a place of self-absorption. This is the type of me-centered perspective that keeps us in a position of accepting the devastation that is done to our planet and to other cultures in the name of our comforts and our quixotic quest for happiness. When we pursue our own happiness for the sake of being happy we develop tunnel vision towards all else around us. This allows for the justification of many inhuman and inhumane acts to the world we live in.
If not happiness then what?
There is a deeper purpose in each of us. It is ingrained in who we are, perhaps all the way back to the beginning. Everything that we have experienced in our lives has been there to inform and fine-tune that purpose. In many ways, our adamant search for happiness outside of ourselves hinders our ability to see what our purpose is on a deeper level. This is because our purpose is intimately tied to the painful experiences in our lives. It is in the soil, so to speak, of our sorrow, anxiety and anger. Our purpose is buried somewhere beneath the ground we build our lives upon. It is not up in the light, but deep in the soul.
In New Age circles it is very common for people to focus on the Light. I can’t count how many well-intentioned and often clicky cherubic new agers I’ve met whose mantra is “Love and Light.” To all things within their circle of equally cherubic friends and self-proclaimed goddesses (not quite sure what the boys call themselves these days), it is all about love and light (actually, this is also a Judeo-Christian appropriation, though that is a conversation for another time). This is at the heart of a differentiation I have recently made between the “spiritual” and the soulful.
When a person decides to undertake the journey to find their deepest purpose it is not a path of “Love & Light,” it is a process of descent. It is through going down into the dark and cavernous spaces of the soul that a person gains their life’s purpose. This is not an easy process by any means, which is why so few people choose to undergo it. It requires that the focus on happiness be set aside, to the often frightening degree where it is lost from sight altogether, in order to seek something of more substance. This process changes a person because through this descent much, ideally all, of the adolescent ego dies. This means that the focus on happiness is one of the main casualties that is stripped away. The self-centered narrative of “I must be happy,” is sacrificed for a greater communion, one with the heart of the world, which includes not only light but also a deep and unrelenting darkness. It is in that darkness, however, than a person finds the essence of who s/he is and why s/he is here.
Throughout human history countless cultures and wisdom traditions have known of this. The trajectory of the soul is not an easy path. It is not a cushy weekend-workshop of visualization and yoga (though those can be great, too). It is stepping onto the Warrior’s path in the truest sense. When a person takes up this path they must be committed. They must be determined. They must be aware of the unquestionable fact that they will be tested in ways that are unfathomable to them and to others. What another’s purpose is is not for anyone else to say. It is the jewel that is brought back by one who survives the descent into the Underworld and returns into the Light. Another thing is certain and it bears mentioning, the Light has a very different consistency for one that has traversed Darkness. This numinous quality cannot be perceived by shortcuts. Simply claiming that all is Love & Light will not get a person to that state of awareness. Instead, it is a hindrance to be obsessed with the Light to a point where Darkness is denied or avoided. All things that are of this world find their expression in us and in the world. The more we obsess about Light and deny the Dark, the more violent the Darkness becomes in demanding the reverence it deserves. In the end, we are beholden to both. This is soul work.
What of happiness?
When you are living your life's purpose there are deeper rewards than happiness. These are a heartfelt connection to all that is, an understanding of your place in and relationship with the world, a sense of deep fulfillment and peace. There are also moments of happiness that arise in all of this. However, now that they are no longer the single-driving force you are free to welcome them and experience them fully. Without the desire to maintain happiness as a perpetual state of being, you can be fully present to the experience of happiness when it arises, and not lament its passing. At the same time you will also have a relationship with other states of being such as sorrow, peace and fulfillment. You will understand that all these things are essential in the greater scheme of things, out of which arises the deepest gratitude for being present and witnessing the beautiful and sometimes terrible unfolding of it all.
*Originally published as Inlak'ech Transpersonal Coaching