Cartoonists have great fun depicting a scraggly truth seeker who finally manages to summit the mountain peak that conveniently sports a blissful cross-legged guru on top, and then asks, “Oh great guru, what is the meaning of life?” That question actually should be, “What is the purpose of life?” Meaning is the value that we humans give to something. We can choose to find meaning in a great many places: relationships, work, nature, sports, pets, art, literature, music, hobbies, solitude…literally anything. Everyone has the power to create meaning in their life by simply allowing interest and finding value in something.
But the purpose of life is a different matter altogether. Let’s explore this worthy question that may be as vital as any in the pursuit of wisdom. I recently read a spiritual teacher’s assessment that the purpose of life is to provide a playground for working out karma. This notion permeates virtually all spiritual teachings with a connection to India including most New Age thought. As mentioned in the third essay, the foundation of Samkhya and Yoga philosophy is that life is endless suffering and that by working out karma in the right way we can eventually be freed from the cycle of reincarnation and finally suffer no more.
This view of the purpose of life rests on several assumptions, all of them shaky. The first assumption is that the “law” of karma is literally true, meaning that the circumstances of our present life are almost completely determined by our karma from past lives along with a few minor adjustments of new karma from this life and, if we’re lucky, a tiny sprinkling of free will. Yet, according to this conceptualization, all of us would have had a first lifetime, and what caused the circumstances of that life? If our first human life had no human karma, then there’s little justification for our further lives being totally karmically determined.
A more troubling assumption of the karmic-playground view of the purpose of life is that life is endless suffering. This assumption is quickly dispelled by only a little observation and reflection. Even the watered down version is misleading: Life includes suffering. Yes, and all human life includes opportunities, meaningful challenges, accomplishments, joys, and the incredible gift of life itself. We can certainly do better in our conception of the purpose of life than the existential anguish of our worst moments.
Perhaps the most troubling assumption of the karmic-playground view is that the cosmic creative force went to all the trouble of creating a physical universe and spending 13.8 billion years of evolution toward sufficient complexity to bring forth humans with the ability to access a high level of consciousness and to want to pursue deeper meaning and purpose…only to play a game of “Gotcha! Now just try to escape all the suffering!” We humans have always tended to make God in our own image, and this assumption reminds me of a child who has captured an ant and realizes the potential for cruelty. We can be sure that the cosmic creative force is better than our most under-evolved human tendencies.
Also, the doctrine of reincarnation rests on questionable logic. Given that the evolution of life on Earth brings forth new species gradually, at what point did a reincarnating essence get injected into human evolution? And why? And how? If humans have a reincarnating essence, then why don’t other great apes experience reincarnation? Or toads? Or flies? And if everything reincarnates gradually through all levels of all living beings from viruses to humans, where do the new reincarnating essences of an ever increasing human population keep coming from? And even if these new reincarnating essences are coming from other planets where humans, or human-like beings, are dying off, this whole notion is just not reasonable because it’s suggesting that the cosmic creative force went to all the trouble of making itself into separate units of consciousness so that these units can then, by way of great struggle and suffering over great epochs of time, simply reunite with what they started from. What a waste of 13.8 billion years of cosmic creativity!
I’m not suggesting that some level of karma doesn’t exist. To the contrary, it seems likely from my own experience and observations of others that we are destined to encounter certain people and certain circumstances, and that we have a limited power to attract both desirable and unpleasant circumstances into our lives, with this attraction being connected to such factors as how we treat others and how much harmony we create in our lives. However, it also seems likely that much of what happens to us is well beyond our control or our supposed karma, and that most accidents and tragedies are exactly that, accidents and tragedies, the unavoidable and sometimes heartbreaking cost of the incredible gift of human life. Neither am I suggesting that some manner of reincarnation is impossible. I’m only observing that the karmic-playground view of the purpose of life rests on dubious assumptions and is therefore outdated as a guideline for the 21st century pursuit of wisdom.
A common variation on the karmic-playground view is the notion that God created everything to be a harmonious expression of “His” laws, but that something went terribly wrong resulting in evil, Satan, delusion, the dark side, you name it, and therefore we have to either believe in the right savior or learn through karma and reincarnation to “get it right” in order to escape suffering. In other words, the cosmic creative force is flawed, the universe is corrupted, and we’re in a pickle. Well maybe, but this reminds me of a four-year-old child complaining because everything is not going according to the child’s self-centered desires. Our choice here is whether it’s wiser to believe that the source of all that is has made a really big mistake or that our human understanding may be limited and too narrowly focused on ourselves.
Another variation on the karmic-playground view is the notion that God created the universe and us because “He” was lonely and/or because He wants to see if we will love Him more than the playthings of creation. By loving God we burn up our karma and return to Him. The human capacity to create God in our own image seems virtually limitless, and here we have the source of all that is feeling needy and wanting our love. Surely we can allow the cosmic creative force to be better than our adolescent insecurities.
And surely we can do a better job of arriving at a more mature discernment of the purpose of life. Perhaps an analogy will help us get started. Our relationship to the cosmic creative force may be something like that of one of our brain cells to us. Imagine one of your brain cells acquiring self-awareness and wondering, “What is my purpose?” It’s very unlikely that this one cell would be able to understand anything of substance about you: who you are, what you do each day, what your goals and aspirations are, who and what you love, why you do what you do. But that one cell is definitely able to know what its individual purpose is as part of a greater whole, you. Its purpose as a brain cell is largely to receive and transmit electrical signals to and from other brain cells. The miraculous functioning of your body actually depends on each cell of your body knowing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing and then “living that purpose.”
Now we can consider the purpose of life on a cosmic level, a human level, and an individual level. Just as that one brain cell in the above analogy is not going to fathom anything of substance about you and your life purposes, so we humans are never going to fully understand the cosmic creative force and its purposes. This is an important realization for the 21st century pursuit of wisdom because it means that no one has the ultimate answers about why the universe exists or what God is or what “God’s plan” might be. Yes, there will always be plenty of so-called enlightened teachers telling us that they know these answers, and that’s one reason why we discussed the false notion of enlightenment in the previous essay. However, on a cosmic level the purpose of it all will have to remain a mystery, one that we can hope to understand more about if we continue to evolve beyond human form.
But what about the purpose of life on a human level? Just as each cell of your body knows what its purpose is within a greater whole, you, so we should be able to discover the purpose of human life within the greater whole of our universe. If we look at what the universe has been doing for 13.8 billion years, we see ever increasing complexity in the form of coherent groupings of things. For example, fundamental particles group together to form atoms, which group together to form molecules, which group together to form planets and everything on those planets. Perhaps the most astonishing result of this coherent grouping of things is the complexity of living organisms. One thread of development that we can detect in the evolution of life on Earth is this: As organisms evolve through increasing complexity, they acquire greater conscious awareness, greater individual distinctiveness, and greater capacity to relate to other organisms and the surrounding world.
Those three developments—awareness, distinctiveness, and relational capacity—manifest in humans in a positive way as our abilities to learn and know, to creatively express ourselves, and to care for others and sustain our world. The answer to the question “What is the purpose of human life?” appears to be that we are here to learn, create, and care and sustain. Like the brain cell living its purpose in the above analogy, we are living our human purpose to the extent that we cultivate these three positive abilities.
And what about the purpose of our lives on an individual level? If we observe nature, we see that every living thing is driven to fully express its potential. An oak tree tries to fully express its oak-tree-ness, a hummingbird tries to fully express its hummingbird-ness, a mountain lion tries to fully express its mountain-lion-ness. Fully expressing your individual potential means that you are fully cultivating the three positive abilities of human life—learning, creating, caring and sustaining—in the ways that you feel called to express these abilities. The individual purpose of our lives appears to be that we are here to unfold our positive potential, a potential that is partly shared with other humans and partly unique for each of us.
No one else can tell you what your unique potential is; that is for you to discover. If the pursuit of wisdom had a Holy Grail it would be this: to discover and express your unique potential. It may be that no one else on the planet can be you. It may be that no one else in the history of humanity could have been Gandhi or Thoreau or Maya Angelou…or you.
The next essay offers exercises to help clarify individual purpose and potential.
© 2015 Gary Stogsdill