If you don’t know what you’re living for, you haven’t yet lived.
—Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“What is the meaning of life?” It is one of the central questions posed by philosophers, theologians, scientists and writers since ancient times. Often times, this quest is guided by a soul search of finding meaning through purpose. Many of us have asked ourselves certain deep questions in high school or college:
- What inspires me?
- What am I good at?
- What should I do with my life?
However, when we only look towards external sources of inspiration to find our calling, we soon get caught up in what we’re doing and forget to ask why we’re doing it.
As life goes by, the question returns again and again. When we get caught up in the obligations of our lives, it is easy to lose track of what matters most to us. Many of us can fall prey to Henry David Thoreau’s cautionary words:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
As we go through the motions of meeting our daily demands, our lives may become so stagnant that the question comes back to us in various forms:
- Why am I doing this?
- What do I really want?
- Why does it matter?
- What is my purpose?
As a psychiatrist who has treated over 1,000 patients on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, people frequently come to me feeling lost and craving to intimately know their life’s purpose. They may be at the beginning of their lives, having just completed high school or college, and are trying to figure out their next step in life. Some feel extreme pressure to move forward yet simply cannot take the next step, feeling held back in their lives by an intangible yet palpable sense of fear, confusion and inner conflict.
Others come to me in mid-life, realizing that they are not as fulfilled by their life as they had hoped, and are therefore contemplating an important life change. Or they may feel like they’ve accomplished what they’ve wanted in this life chapter and are ready for their next challenge. Making dramatic transitions mid-life almost always involves soul-searching, sacrifice and inner conflict. Other times, the pain of staying where you are exceeds the potential pain of uncertainty and change. Dramatic transitions do not always come into our lives by choice either. Sometimes life hands us lemons – our company folds, we get fired, our spouse files for divorce – and the only choice we have is to make lemonade.
Whatever the circumstances that bring a patient through my door, together we drill down the many layers of expectations and emotions, eventually unearthing these key questions:
- What do you most deeply want?
- What is your deepest calling?
These are the big questions of life, so asking them invariably comes with some serious soul searching. Engaging in soul searching first entails connecting to your soul and listening to its still, quiet voice, which is also known as intuition.
Intuition: The Key to Soul Searching
The word “intuition” comes from the Latin intuir, which means “knowledge from within.” It is a subjective mental experience that gives us information about the present moment by enabling us to tap into our true self. Intuition can provide us with the answers to the most important questions in our life, such as finding our calling and our purpose. It is that inner voice that breaks through to show us the right way when we are about to make wrong decisions. Using our intuition allows us to access wisdom about our life that we may have been completely unaware we possessed. This knowledge can only be revealed by looking within.
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish the inner voice of intuition from the inner voice of logic. Moreover, the still, quiet voice within can be easily drowned out by the voices of everybody else who has an opinion about what you should be doing and how you should be living your life. As Steve Jobs wisely cautioned,
“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”
The voice of the intuitive mind is calm, quiet and peaceful. Its guidance is steady and unwavering. It operates in the service of our inner wisdom rather than depending on moods, thoughts or emotions. This inner voice is courageous, willing to do whatever is needed in a given situation despite fear. This inner voice exists within each of us; it has always been there and is actually communicating with us at all times. Sometimes we hear it and sometimes we don’t, but it is never silent. In questions regarding your life’s calling, your intuition will be your best friend and greatest guide.
The Anatomy of a Calling
Your calling is the unique way you choose to use your talents, skills, abilities, passions, desires and experiences in the service of others and the world. Research has shown that viewing your profession as a calling increases work-related well-being. Your calling can be your career or profession, but it could also be something completely unrelated to your profession. The latter may include fighting for a social cause, giving to a charity you believe in, improving the world or nurturing and raising children. The possibilities are endless.
Inherent to the concept of a calling is the idea of giving and sharing. The more we give of ourselves, our talents, skills and abilities, the more we are able to actualize our full potential. Because no one can be like you, it is important to develop the courage to live authentically and purposefully while simultaneously helping others to do the same. Identifying your calling, which educator and author Katherine Woodward Thomas calls your soul’s purpose, is a vital stepping-stone to fulfillment. She writes:
“Discovering our soul’s purpose is rarely an event, although epiphanies do happen. More often than not, it’s a process that requires patience and perseverance. In order to discover it, you must pay attention to what stirs your passions, lights you up, and just comes naturally. When you are living inside your soul’s purpose, you are often in flow. You lose track of time. You feel alive, useful, of service, and often connected to something greater than yourself.”
Though we may not always be aware of it, my own experiences have led me to believe that the deepest craving in all our hearts is to live for something greater than ourselves. Studies have also shown that people who live with a clear sense of purpose are more proactive about their health, better able to deal with life’s difficulties and less likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke. Moreover, having a sense of purpose increases our capacity for hope – whether it be hope for a better life, a more just society, liberation from suffering for the oppressed or a healthier world. In this way, we are instinctively searching for a purpose that expands and transcends the boundaries of our own personal lives. It is a deeply human hunger that we can only satisfy by making the contribution to this world that we are destined to make.
Living the Questions
What is your personal calling? Do you long to be of service, but you’re not sure how? The follow questions for self-reflection will help you identify what most deeply stirs your soul:
- When do I feel most alive? When do I feel most fulfilled?
- What do I love to do? What am I passionate about?
- When I was a child, what did I want to do or be when I grew up?
- What comes most naturally to me? What have people always told me that I was good at?
- What unique talent, skill, ability or interest can I share with others?
As you ask yourself the above questions, let the answers matter to you. After all, they may inspire your life’s next chapter. Feel the emotions that come up. Sense them resonate throughout your body and embody the conflicts that arise. What somatic sensations, if any, do these questions create in your body? Then sit with these feelings and sensations for 3-5 minutes. Even if some discomfort surfaces, do your best to be with it rather than trying to escape it – these are the whispers of your soul.
Mull over your responses for the next few days. Be open as your answers change, shapeshift, transmute and, slowly but surely, become more solidified in your mind over time. Gradually, this exercise will allow you to truly and clearly hear your inner voice.
By sitting in this space, you give your body, mind and spirit permission to try out some new habits, patterns and ways of being. From this space of openness, which is like a state of meditation, clarity of insight can now enter your life. Your mind may argue against it, but our minds do not always know what’s best. When it comes to finding your calling, it’s better to open your heart and listen for that still, quiet voice that answers from within.
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