Living without Purpose.

A United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket with the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory onboard is seen in this long exposure photograph. Source:

This is a hard thing to do. Most of the time, we want to be productive members of society, and accepting that we do not appear to have any grand cosmic purpose tends to engage the brakes on that endeavor. Unless you’re part of an organized religion or believe in the notion of a higher purpose then you’ll struggle with being a creature without purpose. I believe that this is one of the hardest aspects of leaving a religion and being an atheist (in the strictest sense of that word). The world is so large and complicated that we really find ourselves lost in the ‘happening’ of it all.

As we live through our days and nights, things just appear to happen to us. Most of the events going on in the world is completely outside our control. We do not choose when or where we are born, what family and culture we are born into or when and how we die. In some sense, the most important aspects of our lives are seemingly decided by random processes that no one has control over. That being said, we can still make decisions and guide our actions to impact our lives in such a way that we subjectively feel as though we have free will. This is tricky. I am still unsure whether the concept of free will is itself an illusion or that there is some truth to it. Regardless of the actual objective truth of the matter, we go about most of our lives believing we have the power to change the world and ourselves. I don’t think this is a bad thing. We are constantly trying to improve our own lives (and hopefully) the lives of others.

The problem however, does creep up on us when we get lost in the need to constantly do things that have some sort of purpose. To simply do something for its own sake is very difficult. This is exactly what meditation is. An act which has no beginning or end. The point of meditation is not to be doing anything. Meditation has no point. It is one of the very few things in life that are purposeless. This is a hard concept to grasp. Eastern philosophy is actually used to this idea, but in our modern fast paced world, purposeless behavior is looked down upon. It is viewed as a waste of our most precious commodity. Time. Just to clarify, purposeless behavior is very rare. Any act that is consciously done for the purpose of obtaining pleasure or avoiding pain should be considered purposeful behavior. This means getting drunk, eating food, having sex or doing almost anything is purposeful.

We humans are very peculiar creatures. We seem to be the only organisms that struggle with just being what we are. I think the key word here is being. What does it mean to just ‘be’ what we are? We should not be limited or defined by the things that we do. Doing and being are completely different ways of existing.

I don’t think we’re even sure how humans are supposed to behave. Animals in general don’t appear to struggle with this at all. They just are. A cat does not look like it’s struggling with being a cat. It doesn’t seem to worry about doing things that improve itself or the world. It does cat like things without much consideration for the purpose of doing those things.  I think children have the same attitude. If you take the time to observe a child playing, you’ll see what I mean by being as opposed to doing. The child does not start running around the house, screaming and laughing for any particular reason. It’s not doing it because it’s the right thing to do, or in order to exercise, or even to gain the attention of the parents. The child behaves in a way that just comes naturally.

That is not to say that a child never does things for a purpose (we know they do, especially as they get older), but it does engage in behavior that is seemingly pointless. It is just being a child. It follows its natural instincts and appears to be completely content with that. It’s not trying to reach some higher aim or fulfill a higher purpose. Sure, it avoids pain and gravitates towards pleasure, but the point is that the child is not really thinking about the purpose of the action.

What I am trying to get to is that as we get older, we become obsessed with achieving our goals and desires and start living life for a single (or even multiple) purpose. We somehow forget that we are not alive to become productive members of society, to achieve our goals and die with the knowledge that we did good in the world. As great as those things are, they all entail us doing something to justify our existence. But we don’t need to do anything to justify our existence. In the same way that a tree, or a bird or a star exists, so do we. We are creatures that have evolved and developed from nature. We are not living as a means to an end. Life itself is the end. Being alive and experiencing life without any need for a purpose can be very liberating. To remember that we can be alive as a human-being and not a human-doing is important. It’s important because the act of simply being allows us to be present, and it is only when we are present that we are having the experience of being alive.