There’s a lot of talk these days about finding your purpose, identifying your passion, and establishing a sense of meaning in your life. Personally, I’ve had a (sometimes unhealthy) obsession with these topics for years. Some might even say I came out of the womb thinking about the “big picture” of my life and the world around me. I’ve written many blogs about these ideas, and I even developed an online course called Creating a Life You Love: Find Your Passion, Live Your Purpose, and Create Financial Freedom.
But lately I’ve been wondering, is it possible that all of this meaning-making might be doing more harm than good?
This question flies in the face of most modern views of healthy human development. Most developmental psychology courses teach that developing a solid sense of self in relation to others and the world around us is a hallmark of psychological health. In the positive psychology course that I teach, I share all sorts of evidence about how developing a sense of purpose and meaning in life is a crucial aspect of human flourishing (I’ve often joked that positive psychology should change its name to 'The Psychology of Making Sense of Your Life Even When Things Suck').
But instead of focusing so much on meaning, purpose, and sense of self, perhaps we should ponder this question:
What if the purpose of your life is to simply be human?
That’s right. Maybe the reason for your existence isn’t for you to end world hunger, or midwife a shift in human consciousness, or save the wales. Maybe these noble goals are simply add-ons, or subgoals, to a larger goal: to simply have the experience of being human.
Over the past few years I’ve become very interested in people who have gone through what you might call a “spiritual awakening.” These people often describe a complete disintegration of their sense of self, along with any sense of meaning or purpose, other than to simply be in the moment. They describe their day-to-day experiences like, “Life is just happening” or “It’s like I’m watching myself from a distance.” They describe feelings and emotions as simply “passing through” their physical form. They feel the feelings, but they don’t think or ruminate about them. They often get the urge to talk about themselves in the third person, as if "I" doesn't exist for them. Their life continues, and sometimes they accomplish great things, but this seems "to get done through them” in ways that they describe as being far more innovative and intelligent than they would have come up with on their own. They describe a “divine intelligence” or “cosmic intelligence” or “creative consciousness” that emerges from silence and works through them.
My recent blog on Opening to the Mystery describes research that is starting to validate some of these ideas, namely that the underlying substrate of the universe might not be matter (i.e. physical objects). Instead, the fundamental nature of our reality might be consciousness. People who have experienced spiritual awakenings seem to be “tapped in” to this unified field of consciousness, which seems to cause them to experience a disintegration of their sense of self. To most of us, this sounds terrifying. After all, who would I be if I wasn’t Bethany Butzer? How would I function in my daily life? From a clinical perspective, these experiences sound borderline delusional, or at the very least, psychologically unhealthy. And while it’s true that many of these people describe their initial spiritual awakening as disorienting and scary, they often describe the result (a dissolution of their sense of self) as being overwhelmingly positive and peaceful.
(For those interested, the Spiritual Emergence Network provides resources for coping with the difficulties that can come along with spiritual awakening. The book Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis is also a great resource, as is this blog on Kundalini & Spiritual Emergency by Lissa Rankin, a medical doctor who describes the surprise of having her own awakening in tandem with a friend).
Now, it’s entirely possible that all of these people are lying. Or delusional. Or are in cahoots with each other to describe the same types of (fake) experiences. But let’s suspend our judgment for a moment. Just for a second, let’s imagine that all of this is true. Let’s imagine that there is a cosmic intelligence that embodies itself in human form to simply have the experience of being human. Let’s imagine that these people are experiencing something that we are all capable of experiencing, and that this experience represents the next phase in human evolution.
Perhaps an analogy would help.
Those of us who enjoy roller coasters go on these rides for the experience. We want to feel the anticipation of slowly climbing toward the first drop, the way our stomach flips during the descent, and the ups and downs of the entire ride. We want to scream and laugh and feel a little afraid. We subject ourselves to this “trauma” because we know it will only last 3 minutes, it gives us a thrill, we’re (reasonably) safe, and we know that we will continue to exist after the ride is over. The roller coaster gives us a momentarily heightened experience of feeling “alive.”
Now let's think for a moment about what it might be like to be "cosmic intelligence." Who knows, maybe it’s actually kind of monotonous to be a disembodied creative force. Maybe it’s kind of boring knowing everything all the time. Maybe non-stop bliss gets a little old after a few billion years (or an eternity).
In other words, maybe cosmic intelligence embodies as human beings to have an experience. Like going on a roller coaster.
Maybe cosmic intelligence wants to feel the ups and downs, the sadness, the joy, the broken hearts, the first loves, the newborn child, the touch of a lover, the grief of death. And while for us, an 80+ year lifespan feels like a long time, perhaps for cosmic intelligence (which is believed to exist outside of our space-time continuum) it feels like a 3 minute roller coaster. Consciousness knows that it will persist after our physical bodies die, so it happily hops on for the ride.
Ok, I know I sound a bit wacky here, but stay with me. Because I want to get into the practical implications of this idea.
Many times over the past couple of years when I've tried to meditate on my life's purpose, I've drawn a blank. No big goals or sense of direction arise. But when I gently ask my soul what its purpose is, I sometimes get the sense that my soul simply wants to experience life. Sometimes my soul seems particularly interested in experiencing pleasure - partly because I'm a master at denying myself pleasure. In 2014 I actually wrote a blog called Stop Denying Yourself Pleasure, which talked about how I've excelled at self-regulation for most of my adult life. It's very rare for me to be unable to control my desires and impulses, so much so that I sometimes restrict myself from experiencing pleasurable things because my (very "healthy") sense of self tells me I should be doing something "more productive" instead. This is partly why I became interested in sacred sexuality, because my intuition kept telling me that my soul enjoys experiencing itself through physical contact with a beloved.
But the achievement addict in me is completely dissatisfied with these ideas. I mean, really, the purpose of my life is to simply be alive and experience the spectrum of emotions and sensations that this human body can experience? The purpose of my life is to experience more pleasure? That doesn't sound very noble. How on earth could these things make a difference in the world? To deal with these questions, I've had to open up to the idea that the universe works in mysterious ways, and that my small acts might be important in their own unique ways.
Think about it. If it’s true that we are cosmic intelligence embodied in human form to have an experience, then the meaning and purpose of our lives is to simply be human. Your personal experience of being human might include creating world peace, or inciting an eco-friendly technical revolution, or curing cancer. Or your experience of being human might include being a stay-at-home parent, or creating beautiful spaces, or binging on Netflix for most of your life. Maybe cosmic intelligence just wants to have these experiences. All of them. No matter how (seemingly) grand or (seemingly) small. After all, cosmic intelligence is supposed to be one consciousness that is infusing all of us at all times across all of time, so in theory it’s having a whole host of experiences all at once. (That’s one hell of a roller coaster!).
A few things happen when I contemplate this idea. First, my brain sort of explodes. Next, I wonder if I’m crazy. But then, I feel a softening. I feel a sense of ease that starts to permeate my Type A personality. Instead of feeling like I have to strive to find my purpose and meaning so that I can single-handedly save the world, I relax into my present moment experience and accept that this is what cosmic intelligence wants. Just this. My hands on this keyboard. The hipster cafe around me. The American tourists having a taboo conversation beside me (because they assume I’m Czech and that I don't understand English). The owner’s dog visiting everyone’s table.
This line of thinking quiets the voice in my head - the voice with a very strong and “healthy” sense of self - that says, “You must write an awesome blog!” “You must help people!” “You must make a difference!” “This must go viral!”
That voice is replaced by a softer voice that says, “You must be here. Because this is where you are.”
And that’s enough.
Can you allow yourself to experience this softening? Can you open up to the idea that your mundane, simple humanness is actually the purpose of your life? Can you accept that all of your highs and lows, your accomplishments and your mistakes, your bliss and your depression, are all happening exactly as they’re meant to? Not in a cheesy way, like everything in your life is going to lead to some awesome conclusion and it’s all “meant to be.” But in a way that assures you that your experience, whether blissful or excruciating, is 100% ok exactly as it is, because it’s your experience.
Can you simply allow yourself to be human?