The human race has searched endlessly for the meaning of life, and our individual purposes. In his newest book, A New Earth, spiritual author Eckhart Tolle speaks a lot about purpose. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius has themes of purpose in the context of relationship with Christ. There are meditations for discerning God’s will for your life and deciding between life choices. The search sometimes seems endless and when we think we’ve found what we’re “meant for”, we soon question that. Instead of a New Year’s resolution this year, how about a new year’s purpose? Let’s adjust the lens a bit and look at purpose from two different perspectives.
Ignatius says our purpose is this: “To praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save our souls.” This is his “Principle and Foundation” and it’s what animates any Christian. Everything from our major life choices down to the everyday little choices are ultimately for the service of God. Actions or decisions that don’t serve that end, St Ignatius might say, may be coming from the evil spirit which wants to pull you away from God—or in other words, pull you away from being fully yourself. Ignatius gives us this broad view of purpose which plays itself out in the tasks of everyday living. Our purpose is found in the discovery and fostering of our gifts and talents given to us by God. If I am a good writer than I ought to put that to use. If I am a good listener then perhaps I should focus on a ministry that requires good listening skills or be a support for friends in need.
Eckhart Tolle, who is not Christian, would call Ignatius’ understanding of purpose our “secondary purpose”. Our primary purpose, Tolle would say, is to simply be. It is to be fully engaged in the present moment, not living in the past or future, wondering what we’re supposed to accomplish down the road. Being fully present allows your consciousness to fully be alive. “This means there is a quality in what you do,” he says. He gives an example: If you’re turning the page of a phone book your primary purpose is turning the page; the secondary purpose is to find the phone number.
Whatever you do takes time, and yet it is always now. So while your inner purpose is to negate time, your outer purpose necessarily involves future and so could not exist without time. But it is always secondary. Whenever you become anxious or stressed, outer purpose has taken over, and you lost sight of your inner purpose. You have forgotten that your state of consciousness is primary, all else secondary.
(Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth)
I think Saint Ignatius would put value in the present moment in the way Eckhart Tolle does, though he may still call serving God our primary purpose. But Tolle says that happiness comes from that full consciousness in the present moment, our primary purpose. Unhappiness comes from letting our consciousness move into the future and trying to escape the present moment.
I have found that even in tasks I don’t enjoy, like screwing in a window shade bracket, can bring happiness when I tell myself that at that moment my primary purpose is screwing in the bracket. I find that when my consciousness is present to the task I desire to do a quality job. After all, why wouldn’t you want to do a good job in something you call your primary purpose? And because I’m not allowing my awareness to slip away into the future—when this “tedious” task is done—I actually find enjoyment in the task.
Try this while cooking or driving or something as simple as tying your shoes. Tying shoes may have the secondary purpose of being able to walk comfortably outside, but your primary purpose in that moment is simply tying them. Try it. You’ll find that when you have no concerns other than tying your shoes, a new level of consciousness arises along with joy. Why? Because you’re not living in something other than the now.
Tolle often refers to God as pure consciousness. And this lives in all of us. Ignatius tells us that our consciousness and internal feelings are indeed ways God speaks to us. Centering prayer brings this God-consciousness to the fore. We just are. We let ourselves exist and be in the immediate presence of God which exists in the now. The more we focus on our “primary purpose”, in Tolle’s philosophy, and let God into the now of our lives, the more we let it inform the rest of our lives and fulfil Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation of serving and loving God.
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Music by Kevin MacLeod