Cultivating Purpose | Walking in Flow


It is not enough to find a purpose that unifies one’s goals; one must also carry through and meet its challenges. The purpose must result in strivings; intent has to be translated into action. We may call this resolution in the pursuit of one’s goals. What counts is not so much whether a person actually achieves what she has set out to do; rather, it matters whether effort has been expended to reach the goal, instead of being diffused or wasted.” (216-217)

“Purpose gives direction to one’s efforts, but it does not necessarily make life easier. Goals can lead into all sorts of trouble, at which point one gets tempted to give them up and find some less demanding script by which to order one’s actions. The price one pays for changing goals whenever opposition threatens is that while one may achieve a more pleasant and comfortable life, it is likely that it will end up empty and void of meaning. No goal can have much effect unless taken seriously. Each goal prescribes a set of consequences, and if one isn’t prepared to reckon with them, the goal becomes meaningless. The mountaineer who decides to scale a difficult peak knows that he will be exhausted and endangered for most of the climb. But if he gives up too easily, his quest will be revealed as having little value. The same is true of all flow experiences: there is a mutual relationship between goals and the effort they require. Goals justify the effort they demand at the outset, but later it is the effort that justifies the goal.” (223-224)

“But as the complexity of culture evolves, it becomes more difficult to achieve this degree of total resolve. There are simply too many goals competing for prominence, and who is to say which one is worth the dedication of an entire life? A woman used to be content with being a housewife, partly because she didn’t have other options, now she can be anything and it is no longer ‘obvious’ that being a wife and mother should be a woman’s first priority. . . .Mobility has freed us from ties to our birthplaces: there is no longer any reason to become involved in one’s native community, to identify with one’s place of birth. If the grass looks greener across the fence, we can simply move to the other field-- How about opening that little restaurant in Australia? Life-styles and religions are choices that are easily switched. In the past a hunter was a hunter until he died, a blacksmith spent his life perfecting his craft. We can now shed our occupational identities at will: no one needs to remain an accountant forever.

The wealth of options we face today has extended personal freedom to an extent that would have been inconceivable even a hundred years ago. But the inevitable consequence of equally attractive choices is uncertainty of purpose; uncertainty, in turn, saps resolution, and lack of resolve ends up devaluing choice. Therefore freedom does not necessarily help develop meaning in life--on the contrary. If the rules of a game become too flexible, concentration flags, and it is more difficult to attain a flow experience. Commitment to a goal and to the rules it entails is much easier when the choices are few and clear.” (224-225)

“The forms of psychic entropy that currently cause us so much anguish--unfulfilled wants, dashed expectations, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, guilt--are all likely to have been recent invaders of the mind. They are by-products of the tremendous increase in complexity of the cerebral cortex and the symbolic enrichment of culture. They are the dark side of the emergence of consciousness.

The psychic entropy peculiar to the human condition involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish and feeling able to accomplish more than what conditions allow. But this becomes possible only if one keeps in mind more than one goal at a time, being aware at the same time of conflicting desires. It can happen only when the mind knows not only what is but also what could be. The more complex any system, the more room it leaves open for alternatives, and the more things can go wrong with it. This is certainly applicable to the evolution of the mind: as it has increased its power to handle information, the potential for inner conflict has increased as well. When there are too many demands, options, challenges, we become anxious; when too few, we get bored.” (227-228)

“The complexity and freedom that have been thrust upon us, and that our ancestors had fought so hard to achieve, are a challenge we must find ways to master. If we do, the lives of our descendants will be infinitely more enriched that anything previously experienced on this planet. If we do not, we run the risk of frittering away our energies on contradictory, meaningless goals. . . . Because there is no absolute certainty to which to turn, each person must discover ultimate purpose on his or her own. Through trial and error, through intense cultivation, we can straighten out the tangled skein of conflicting goals, and choose the one that will give purpose to action.

Self-knowledge--an ancient remedy so old that its value is easily forgotten--is the process through which one may organize conflicting options. “Know thyself” . . . The reason the advice is so often repeated is that it works. We need, however, to rediscover afresh every generation what these words mean, what the advice actually implies for each individual. And to do that it is useful to express it in terms of current knowledge, and envision a contemporary method for its application.” (225)

“Inner conflict is the result of competing claims on attention. Too many desires, too many incompatible goals struggle to marshal psychic energy toward their own ends. . . . Two ways to reduce conflict and sort out essential claims:

  1. Vita activa: A person achieves flow through total involvement in concrete external challenges. In this way harmony is restored to consciousness indirectly--not by facing up to contradictions and trying to resolve conflicting goals and desires, but by pursuing chosen goals with such intensity that all potential competition is preempted. . . .Action helps create inner order, but it has its drawbacks:. . . often at the price of excessively restricting options. . . .Sooner or later, postponed alternatives may reappear again as intolerable doubts and regrets. . .Was it worth the price I paid? In other words, the goals that have sustained action over a period turn out not to have enough power to give meaning to the entirety of life.

  2. Vita Contemplativa: Detached reflection upon experience, a realistic weighing of options and their consequences, have long been held to be the best approach to a good life. . .. Activity and reflection should ideally complement and support each other. Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent.

If the habit of reflection is well developed, a person need not go through a lot of soul-searching to decide whether a course of action is entropic or not. He will know, almost intuitively, that this promotion will produce more stress than it is worth, or that this particular friendship, attractive as it is, would lead to unacceptable tensions in the context of marriage.” (225-227)

“It is relatively easy to bring order to the mind for short stretches of time; any realistic goal can accomplish this. . . .But it is much more difficult to extend this state of being through the entirety of life. For this it is necessary to invest energy in goals that are so persuasive that they justify effort even when our resources are exhausted and when fate is merciless in refusing us a chance at having a comfortable life. If goals are well chosen, and if we have the courage to abide by them despite opposition, we shall be so focused on the actions and events around us that we won’t have the time to be unhappy.”(227)

When an important goal is pursued with resolution, and all one’s varied activities fit together into a unified flow experience, the result is that harmony is brought to consciousness. Someone who knows his desires and works with purpose to achieve them is a person whose feelings, thoughts, and actions are congruent with one another, and is therefore a person who has achieved inner harmony. . . . Someone who is in harmony no matter what he does, no matter what is happening to him, knows that his psychic energy is not being wasted on doubt, regret, guilt, and fear, but is always usefully employed. Inner congruence ultimately leads to that inner strength and serenity we admire in people who seem to have come to terms with themselves.” (217)

“Purpose, resolution, and harmony unify life and give it meaning by transforming it into a seamless flow experience. Whoever achieves this state will never really lack anything else. A person whose consciousness is so ordered need not fear unexpected events, or even death. Every living moment will make sense, and most of it will be enjoyable. This certainly sounds desirable. So how does one attain it?” (217-218)

“. . . building a complex meaning system seems to involve focusing attention alternately on the self and on the Other.

  1. First, psychic energy is invested in the needs of the organism, and psychic order is equivalent to pleasure.

  2. When the first level is temporarily achieved, and the person can begin to invest attention in the goals of a community, what is meaningful corresponds to group values--religion, patriotism, and the acceptance and respect of other people provide the parameters of inner order.

  3. The next movement of the dialectic brings attention back to the self: having achieved a sense of belonging to a larger human system, the person now feels the challenge of discerning the limits of personal potential. This leads to attempts at self-actualization, to experimentation with different skills, different ideas and disciplines. At this stage enjoyment, rather than pleasure, becomes the main source of rewards. But because this phase involves becoming a seeker, the person may also encounter a midlife crisis, a career change, and an increasingly desperate straining against the limitations of individual capability.

  4. From this point on the person is ready for the last shift in the redirection of energy: having discovered what one can and, more important, cannot do alone, the ultimate goal merges with a system larger than the person--a cause, an idea, a transcendental entity.

Not everyone moves through the stages of this spiral of ascending complexity. A few never have the opportunity to go beyond the first step. When survival demands are so insistent that a person cannot devote much attention to anything else, he or she will not have enough psychic energy left to invest in the goals of the family or of the wider community. Self-interest alone will give meaning to life. The majority of people are probably ensconced comfortably in the second stage of development, where the welfare of the family, or the company, the community, or the nation are the sources of meaning. Many fewer reach the third level of reflective individualism, and only a precious few emerge once again to forge a unity with universal values. So these stages do not necessarily reflect what does happen, or what will happen; they characterize what can happen if a person is lucky and succeeds in controlling consciousness.” (222)

Though there are a number of different models describing the emergence of meaning along a gradient of complexity, this is the simplest. “The number of steps is irrelevant; what counts is that most theories recognize the importance of this dialectic tension, this alternation between differentiation on the one hand and integration on the other. From this point of view, individual life appears to consist of a series of different ‘games,’ with different goals and challenges, that change with time as a person matures. Complexity requires that we invest energy in developing whatever skills we were born with, in becoming autonomous, self-reliant, conscious of our uniqueness and its limitations. At the same time we must invest energy in recognizing, understanding, and finding ways to adapt to the forces beyond the boundaries of our own individuality. Of course we don’t have to undertake any of these plans. But if we don’t, chances are, sooner or later, we will regret it.” (222-223)

“Instead of accepting the unity of purpose provided by genetic instructions or by the rules of society, the challenge for us is to create harmony based on reason and choice. Philosophers. . . have recognized this task of modern man by calling it the project, which is their term for the goal-directed actions that provide shape and meaning to an individual’s life. Psychologists have used terms like. . . life themes. In each case, these concepts identify a set of goals linked to an ultimate goal that gives significance to whatever a person does. . . . With a life theme, everything that happens will have a meaning--not necessarily a positive one, but a meaning nevertheless. If a person bends all her energies to making a million dollars before age thirty, whatever happens is a step either toward or away from that goal. The clear feedback will keep her involved with her actions. Even if she loses all her money, her thoughts and actions are tied by a common purpose, and they will be experienced as worthwhile.

When a person’s psychic energy coalesces into a life theme, consciousness achieves harmony. But not all life themes are equally productive. Existential philosophers distinguish between two types of life themes:

  1. Authentic or Discovered Life Themes: Authentic projects, or discovered life themes, describe a person who realizes that choices are free, and writes the script for their actions based on personal based on a rational evaluation of his experience. It does not matter what the choice is, as long as it is an expression of what the person genuinely feels and believes. Authentic projects tend to be intrinsically motivated, chosen for what they are worth in themselves.

  2. Inauthentic or Accepted Life Themes: Inauthentic projects, or accepted life themes, are those a person chooses because they are what she feels ought to be done, because they are what everybody else is doing, and therefore there is no alternative. A person is motivated by external forces and simply takes on a predetermined role from a script written long ago by others.

Both types of life themes help give meaning to life, but each has drawbacks. The accepted life theme works well as long as the social system if sound; if it is not, it can trap the person into perverted goals. Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who calmly shipped tens of thousands to the gas chambers, was a man for whom the rules of bureaucracy were sacred. He probably experienced flow . . . [and] he never seemed to question whether what he was asked to do was right or wrong. As long as he followed orders, his consciousness as in harmony. For him the meaning of life was to be part of a strong, organized institution; nothing else mattered. In peaceful, well-ordered times a man like Adolf Eichmann might have been an esteemed pillar of the community. But the vulnerability of his life theme becomes apparent when unscrupulous and demented people seize control of society; then such an upright citizen turns into an accessory to crimes without having to change his goals, and without even realizing the inhumanity of his actions.

Discovered life themes are fragile for a different reason: because they are products of a personal struggle to define the purpose of life, they have less social legitimacy; because they are often novel and idiosyncratic, they may be regarded by others as crazy or destructive.” (230-231) Many of us living the Slacklife struggle with this exactly. Looking in from the outside, the general society sees us only as dirty hippies, circus freaks, nomads, or adrenaline junkies. Yet many of us Slackers simply want to help others discover their life theme and create a more complex purpose. We aim to share slacklining with the world in order to help others discover their confidence, find their resolve, and push the limits of their mind, but the method--the activity itself-- is still so novel that few can comprehend it.

So how do people forge these discovered life themes? What kind of explanations for one’s suffering lead end up leading to lives of order and flow?

There are several common characteristics of how people find their authenticity:

  1. This type of theme is in many cases a reaction to a great personal hurt suffered in early life--to being orphaned, abandoned, or treated unjustly. But what matters is not the trauma per se; the external event never determines what the theme will be. What matters is the interpretation that one places on suffering. If a father is a violent alcoholic, his children have several options for explaining what is wrong: they can tell themselves 1) that the father is a bastard who deserves to die; 2) that he is a man, and all men are weak. 3) that poverty is the cause of the father’s affliction, and the only way to avoid his fate is to become rich; 4) that a large part of his behavior is due to helplessness and lack of education. Only the last of these equally likely explanations leads in the direction of a discovered life theme.

  2. To find purpose in suffering one must interpret it as a possible challenge. If a child abused by a violent father concluded that the problem was inherent in human nature, that all men were weak and violent, there would not be much he or she could do about it. How could a child change human nature? Instead, formulating his problem as being due to the helplessness of disenfranchised minorities subsequently provides the child with a challenge to meet.

  3. Then, one must develop appropriate skills to confront the challenges at the root of what was wrong in the personal life. What transforms the consequences of a traumatic event into a challenge that gives meaning to life are dissipative structures. Now that the child has a problem to be solved, he is able to develop skills to confront the challenges he sees at the root of what had been wrong in his person life (like legal training and education).

  4. Finally, the challenge becomes generalized to other people, or to mankind as a whole. (Discovered life themes are rarely formulated as the response to just a personal problem.) In this way, whatever solution is found to his own problems will benefit not only himself, but many others besides.. This altruistic way of generalizing solutions is typical of negentropic life themes; it brings harmony to the lives of many.” (233-234)

“There are so many examples of [people who have made the most out of the worst situations] that one certainly cannot assume a direct causal relation between external disorder in childhood and internal lack of meaning later in life. . . .All these people ended up inventing powerful and useful lives for themselves. . . . If there is a strategy shared by these and by other people who succeed in building meaning into their experience, it is one so simple and obvious that it is almost embarrassing to mention. Yet because it is so often overlooked, it will be valuable to review it. The strategy consists in extracting from the order achieved by past generations patterns that will help avoid disorder in one’s own mind. There is much knowledge-- or well-ordered information-- accumulated in culture, ready for this use. Great music, architecture, art, poetry, drama, dance, philosophy, and religion are there for anyone to see as examples of how harmony can be imposed on chaos.. Yet so many people ignore them, expecting to create meaning in their lives by their own devices.

To do so is like trying to build up material culture from scratch in each generation. No one in his right mind would want to start reinventing the wheel, fire, electricity, and the million objects and processes that we now take for granted as part of the human environment. Instead we learn how to make these things by receiving ordered information from teachers, from books, from models, so as to benefit from the knowledge of the past and eventually surpass it.” (235)

“At its best, literature contains ordered information about behavior, models of purpose, and examples of lives successfully patterned around meaningful goals. Many people confronted with the randomness of existence have drawn hope from the knowledge that others before them had faced similar problems, and had been able to prevail. And this is just literature; what about music, art, philosophy, and religion?” (236)


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