On finding purpose

I used to say that my purpose was to make people dance. A hilariously condensed version of an on-going life goal, but at the heart of it, a pure and achievable purpose. Every day I could evaluate myself: ‘did I make people dance today’? If not, why not? In a nutshell, a great reason to exist, but possibly not multi-faceted enough to make the daily trudge of life worth pursuing.

For a brief period before this I studied jazz, mainly interested in bettering myself as a drummer. This was possibly the most self-indulgent part of my life thus far, spent indolently enjoying the process of exploring myself by listening to music and playing drums.

For an even briefer period before this I worked in fast food, creating sandwiches for people’s lunch. At the heart of this is creation, but not many would see it as a purpose, and even fewer as a reason to exist. Still, it was an honest way to make a living and instilled several positive qualities within me (mainly an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to never work fast food again).

I stumble upon a copy of Seneca’s ‘On The Shortness of Life’, an essay written some two thousand years ago. This particular copy is covered in highlighter, notes scribbled around the margins, from when a twenty-five year old me discovered Stoicism and endeavoured to re-structure my life around it.

“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away. “

Seneca continues on to perfectly encapsulate and criticise me at the same time:

“What about those who are absorbed in composing, listening to, and learning songs? The voice, whose best and simplest flow is naturally straightforward, they twist into sinuous turns of the most feeble crooning. Their fingers are always snapping in time to some song that they carry in their head, and when they’ve been asked to attend to serious and often even sorrowful matters, you can overhear them quietly humming a tune. Theirs isn’t leisure but idle occupation.”

Recently I find a greater joy in writing words. I find joy in playing guitar. And indeed I still find joy in playing drums (a blessing because I still earn most of my living playing drums). But there’s also joy in teaching, and joy in relationships. There’s joy in learning, and joy in building a small business. There’s joy in running, and a definite joy in leaving everything behind to dive into the waves on a warm summers’ day. But is this purpose? Could it be that a life lived between various pursuits is enough to bring a sense of purpose? While I’d love to dedicate myself to one thing, becoming a true master, I think my spirit has been endowed with a sort of wanderlust, a need to continue to grow and develop in numerous different directions.

I leave you with the great American poet Mary Oliver and her poem The Journey:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Ten Minute Musings

I’ve been working through the idea of daily writing. I’ve experimented with it for the last three years, long periods of inaction broken by short frantic periods where I write daily for three weeks and then subside just before the repetitive action becomes a habit.

My daily writing generally takes the form of a ten minute free-thought exercise. Timer goes on for ten minutes, laptop or notebook is opened and I begin. Nothing pre-planned, nothing structured, just a quick mind dump of ideas. When the timer goes off I stop, save my work and move on with my day. Sometimes this is good. I get my ideas out, my mind quiets for a minute and I gain a sense of stable clarity.

Most days though, the pure act of stopping frustrates the hell out of me. Pausing in the middle of an idea and closing my laptop leaves my mind spinning in a certain free-fall. Ideas come quick and fast and I grasp them, fidget with them for a second and discard them as new ideas rise to the surface. It’s amazing how the act of recording the thoughts my mind conceives can cause my mind to create new thoughts. Sort of like digging in a scrap heap I guess. As you unearth ideas you begin to see the edges of new ideas buried deep below. Ten minutes later and you’re deep in a hole of your own choosing, attempting to dig upwards.

I was introduced to the ten minute ‘Morning Pages’ concept by a writer named Julia Cameron, but many others affirm its value. Lately I’ve been developing the concept in a new way. I still begin my day with a ten minute mind-dump, a meditative ritual to get the mind started, but as I wander through the day, if particular problems or ideas or thoughts come to mind that either worry or excite me, I use them as a fire-starter for a ten minute free-writing session. Same rules apply: timer on, notebook open, I begin. It’s wildly interesting to see how the physical act of expressing your thoughts in a digital/physical medium changes the way your mind toys with ideas. I find this act clarifies ideas, soothing my mind and also sparking my creativity.

The pure act of distilling my mind’s ramblings into cogent thought stops them trundling around the back of my mind, interfering with my day.