Barbara Kingsolver recently came to South Africa. I was so thrilled to sit just a few feet from this author whose writing I have loved since discovering the Poisonwood Bible. It inspired me to hear how her life purpose crept up from behind, while she followed her evolving passions. This resonated with what I have been offering at the recent New Year Intentions and Yoga retreats in KZN and North West Province (Tara Rokpa Centre).
As a child, Barbara loved books and would always take more than the quota from the mobile library. She read, wrote and played the piano. The Arts were her passion. She then became fascinated by the natural world and finally graduated with a PhD in Biology on termite behaviour. For a while this was her profession, but something further called to her, the necessity of linking science with the arts in a way that might be meaningful for others. Astonishingly, this has earned her the status as 71st most dangerous person in America; just because she speaks her own truth, and connects to people through the medium of literature, which has the ability to touch our hearts. Her novels often focus on issues of climate change and threats to species. They became her mission, and writing, her vocation.
I’ve noticed that people find their life purpose in different ways. A few… a tiny few… seem clear from the beginning. They know who they are and what they want to do, and this intention gives them the courage to stay on the scent, whatever barriers cross their path. These are not usually the people who come to the retreats!
Most of us have to feel our way, listen for clues, or chase up a few blind alleys before we realise we were probably following the right route from the beginning. We sometimes don’t even need to change what we are doing, but rather change the way we do it, or the perception we have of our contribution. At one stage in my life, I felt that I was following multiple paths simultaneously and my attention and energy felt too scattered. Then I realised that they were all tributaries leading into the same river, and a sense of meaning emerged and my body relaxed. Sometimes we don’t need to change the external circumstances, we need only release the internal sense of struggle or striving.
The Retreat Process: 5 steps 1. Present Moment Awareness
The New Year Intentions retreat is offered within the context of daily mindfulness and yoga practice, for a number of reasons. In order to identify what is deeply important to us, and then to gauge whether we are living our intentions, we require a constant, present-moment checking in at the levels of the body, the heart and the head. We need to be aware of the moment our bodies contract and tighten, or open and feel spacious and energised. When we think of a project, and feel a gripping sensation in the body, we then need to be in tune with our heart, our feelings. Is it excitement or fear (or often both together) that makes us feel tense? I remember attending my first mindfulness retreat and connecting with an image of sitting on top of a high plateau, looking out over a vast horizon. I felt tingling throughout my body, and a combination of fear and elation. Was this going to be the new direction in which my teaching career would evolve?
2. Passion and Profession
The first activity on the retreat is to tune in and remind ourselves what we love doing. Many people find it hard to identify what their passion might be as they are not used to opening up emotionally. However, by looking back to the year or years gone by, or even to our childhood, we can highlight the moments of greatest joy, inspiration or achievement; the times we felt fully alive and engaged, or maybe lost track of time; the moments when we felt deeply content or happy. As children we were more in touch with our authentic self, rather than the externally validated social self, which tries to fit in with the opinions of others. See if you can reconnect with this emotion-driven sense of what you enjoy doing. Trust it, and then commit to prioritising weekly activities that allow you to cultivate your passion. If you notice that your current profession does not feature in the process, then it is often a sign that you need to change the way you are approaching your work, or improve an overall sense of balance in your life. It does not mean you need to change direction completely. It can be subtle shifts that bring alignment, just as we experience in a yoga practice.
Some people choose their career based on passion or their natural talents (or, according to Ken Robinson, on where those two coincide). For others, work is to cover their needs, and to pay for the things they love doing. This is pragmatic and ok; psychology 101 is clear that our basic needs must be covered before we can start self-actualization. However, we often trip ourselves up by assuming that if something comes naturally to us, it must be easy for everyone else, and therefore we discount our own unique contribution. This can mean that we deny ourselves the opportunity to earn an income from something we both love doing and are good at. The quote attributed to Confucius, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life” has wisdom in it, but needs to recognize the commitment needed to cultivate a talent or a career. It is not always an easy ride, but if you love what you do, then you will feel more motivated, more fulfilled and the income you earn will be an important, but not entire part of the equation. Another way in which we sabotage ourselves up is by loving our work so much, that we don’t feel we want to charge for it. This may come for a place of generosity, or more often, from a lack of self worth where we feel uncomfortable exchanging our skills for reasonable income.
3. Mission and Vocation
Fulfilling our own personal needs is a critical first stage, but after that, many of us feel the need for something more. The concepts of mission and vocation can be tied in with the idea of a vision; a broader view of why we do what we do. If we have an overall life purpose beyond our ego-centric wants, then we have a sense that each step forward is imbued with a greater meaning. Most spiritual traditions teach that by helping others, we bring happiness to ourselves, as long as we are giving from a place of fullness. For Buddhists, for instance, the intention to reach enlightenment is in order to help all beings. This combines the need to focus clearly on ourselves when appropriate, and then use what we have learnt in a skilful and compassionate way, to help others. So, as long as our daily life activities help us to move away from an ego-centric focus, and we help wherever help is needed, then each day has been a success and we have accomplished our mission, in myriad ways. By knowing that the work we do contributes meaningfully to others also provides motivation at times of difficulty.
4. The Inevitable Roadblocks
By recognising our passion, and combining that with a sense of mission, vocation and profession, our life purpose might emerge from that small quiet place in between. It doesn’t mean it will be an easy ride though! Combined with our intention to keep moving toward that purpose, we galvanise motivation to get us over the hurdles. One of the activities we do on the retreat is the Wheel – where we decide on six key areas of focus, our ultimate intentions for each, and then the first journey goal. So often we get derailed at the first hurdle, and self doubt clouds that clarity of vision. We need to get over that first journey goal to maintain the motivation to keep moving forward.
Linked with this is the support we get from others. We co-create our existence, even though we often feel we are doing things single-handedly. Remember all the people who have helped you get to this moment, and then allow that sense of community support to carry you onward. On the retreat, we also get the opportunity to identify our less skilful habits, ones that may be holding us back, and then allow them to transform into skilful behaviours, through the ritual of burning these blocks in the fire.
5. Living Daily Life with Intention
We often use the retreat opportunity to plan for the big events, yet we need to give equal consideration to the daily activities that can bring us joy and contentment. When we commit to daily life activities that soothe us, nourish us, or keep our hearts open to possibilities, then we have the energy for other intentions that may require a greater commitment.
I will end this piece with a poem by Martha Graham, the modern dancer and choreographer who recognised the unique contribution that each one of us can make to the world around us. Enjoy 2015 and the adventures it is sure to bring…
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy,
a quickening, that is translated into action
And because there is only one of you in all time
this expression is unique
And if you block it, it will never exist through
any other medium and will be lost. . .
The world will not have it
It is not your business to determine how good
it is, nor how valuable, nor how it
compares to other expressions
It is your business to keep it yours, clearly
and directly. . . to keep the channel open
You do not even have to believe in yourself
or your work. . . You have to keep open and aware
directly to the urges that motivate you
Keep the channels open!