Excerpted from Martha Beck’s newsletter of the same title.
(I’m in San Miguel de Allende this week, following my own life purpose hot track. I offer you the brilliant work of Martha Beck.)
Life Purpose. I have frequently written on this topic, including my book, Rooted in Purpose. I wanted to share Martha’s recent writing on this topic. I deeply value her perspective, which is a beautiful synthesis of science, humor, mysticism, and nature.
In this piece, Martha explains how finding or clarifying your life purpose is like tracking a rhinoceros.
Like finding your life’s purpose, tracking a rhino can be baffling, discouraging, frustrating, and even frightening. But precisely because it’s so difficult, it can also be the most fun you’ve had since you learned to wear clothes. There’s something in our DNA that loves to solve puzzles and read clues, and that’s exactly what animal tracking requires. As our brains wake up to this kind of problem-solving, our ability to track anything, including our own destiny, improves exponentially.
There are just a few basic skills we need to track anything, including our right lives. These skills are innate; evolution has incorporated them into the hardwiring in our brains—though in most of us, these days, they lie dormant. First we must learn to recognize the tracks left by the thing we’re seeking (a rhinoceros, our life’s purpose). Then we must be willing to follow the tracks no matter where they lead; to stop and reconsider when we inevitably lose the track, and take the time to reestablish our connection with the right path.
Martha goes on to explain how our societal selves learn to take charge and we lose touch with our universal self.
For tens of thousands of years, human children learned to follow tracks and other natural signs almost from birth. Most of us have learned to do exactly the opposite. Before we can see straight, we’re taught to behave according to the opinions of the adults around us, from our parents to society at large.
This means that when we ask ourselves “Am I on track?” we’re usually measuring how closely we’ve been able to follow cultural ideals: making lots of money, wearing the right clothes, matching whatever model of beauty happens to be our culture’s standard. Social standards are like well-marked, hard-paved roads.
By contrast, each of our personal missions is unique. No two of us are meant to follow exactly the same path. When we do, we begin to lose our particular essence; by fitting in and going along, we sacrifice our individuality and the sense of harmony that comes with it.
Recognizing the track of your life’s purpose is like learning to pick out the footprint of a rhino from a jumble of other tracks. It’s quite distinctive: a big, hooflike print in the center, tucked between two smaller toes. Since rhinos are big and heavy, you might think these tracks would be easy to follow. Not so much. The print may be clear in fine sand, but as the beast wanders into the grass, through rivers, and over hard rock, the tracks become subtle, often almost invisible.
The “track” of your life’s purpose also has a unique character. It often shows up as a sense of joy and lightness in the body (our minds are trained by culture to look for things like status and wealth, but our bodies aren’t so easily fooled). It may also appear as fascination, a strong desire to pay attention to certain topics or phenomena. More than anything, it’s a sense that what we’re doing is meaningful. Changing a diaper or pulling an all-nighter may not be fun, but when such things lie along the path of our life’s purpose, they always feel valuable.
If you look back on your own personal history, you can remember moments when you found your own track. In these moments you felt energized, deeply interested. Time disappeared. Attention became effortless. Maybe you’ll remember feeling this in the company of certain people, or wandering in specific places, or learning about your favorite subjects. Looking back, notice as many moments of joy and meaning as you can. Jot them down. Study them. See what they have in common. Memorize your own clear tracks as they appeared in the past, so that you can follow them into the future.
She explains how to look back on peak moments in our life to find the tracks of where we felt connected to what I call our Original Medicine, our unique gifts.
As you examine the tracks of purpose in your history, you may notice patterns and themes. Maybe you’ll notice that you always felt “on purpose” when you were designing something, or working with teams, or pushing your body, or drinking up fantasy worlds through books and movies. These patterns can show you what sort of life situation best serves your particular purpose. Conversely, the stretches of your life that felt joyless and meaningless are showing you what to avoid from here on out.
Once you recognize the track of your own purpose, you’re faced with same sort of choice. Do you follow your joy and fascination wherever they lead, or do you mimic what your parents, mentors, and social circle have always done? Sometimes there’s no conflict: you want to marry someone your family loves, or take a job that impresses everyone. But what if your beloved is the “wrong” kind of person for your relatives, or you want a weird job, or you’re drawn to an entirely different kind of culture?
When the well-paved road of social expectation and the track of purpose part ways, most people abandon themselves. They follow the well-paved road to a life of quiet (or not so quiet) desperation. The alternative is striking on an unknown path to an unknowable future. On that path you’ll encounter agony and ecstasy, thrills and chills, daunting effort and—ultimately, under and in and through it all—abiding inner peace.
How do we begin to live according to our universal self? It’s what Joseph Campbell referred to when he spoke of following your bliss.
Every day, there are thousands of moments when we make this choice between our conditioning and our purpose. If you haven’t noticed one lately, pay attention. In a spare moment, do you read a book that really interests you, or scroll through endless social media posts that make you feel both overstimulated and blank? Do you talk about things that genuinely interest you, or make small talk so dull it makes you want to stab yourself? Do you truly, mindfully enjoy delicious food, or stuff yourself with substances you barely notice while doing something else?
The track of your life’s purpose isn’t “out there,” in some special, demarcated zone. It’s in front of you right here, right now. Making small choices toward your own joy, now, keeps you on track for the most fulfilling life you can live. You can begin in this very moment. What in these instructions lifts your heart, and what doesn’t? Which ideas feel true, and which don’t? Choosing to accept and absorb the former while rejecting the latter is the way you can start tracking your purpose in this very moment.
Times will come in life when we lose track of our sense of purpose. Martha explains how to find it again.
If you make even one choice today that takes you towards your heart’s delight, bravo. You’re tracking your purpose. But no matter how strongly you intend to stay on track, the day will come—in fact, many days will come—when you lose it.
Over and over, first-time rhino trackers get hopelessly confused. The track turns abruptly when they expect it to go straight. Footprints double back on themselves, or become obscured by other tracks—or simply disappear. My perfectionistic clients are often embarrassed when this happens. They’ve learned from culture that bafflement and loss are shameful. But there is no shame in nature, only repeated, peaceful opportunities to learn.
Becoming a master tracker doesn’t mean never losing a track. It means finding it, then losing it, then finding it again, so many times that getting lost no longer triggers anxiety or self-blame.
When joy, lightness, and meaning vanish from our lives, when nothing feels right or makes sense anymore, it isn’t a problem. It’s information. We’ve lost the track of our purpose. It’s time to find it again.
When we feel lost, adrift in the chaos of life, most of us want to want to have our whole purpose spelled out for us immediately. We want certainty, and we want it now. Nature doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t deliver up a crystal-clear track, much less a rhinoceros, just because we really really really wish it would.
The same thing happens in rhino tracking. When the track goes cold, we can’t expect to rediscover it in the spot where we’re standing. We have to go back to the last “hot track”: a clear footprint in fine dust, a scrape of wet mud on a branch, some unmistakable evidence that the creature we’re seeking went this way. Then we can move forward again in a different direction and with even closer attention, until the next hot track appears.
When you know you’ve lost your way in life, relax. Go easy on yourself. Know that this, as much as the moments of discovery, is part of tracking your purpose. Then remember the last thing that brought you joy. It could be as simple as taking a nap or petting your dog. No matter how small it may seem, go back to it. Pay attention. Then move forward in a way that honors your inner sense of meaning more than ever.
If you can do this over and overseeing the track of your life’s purpose, daring to follow it away from convention, relaxing when you lose it, and going back to the last hot track with renewed determination—you will encounter adventures that feel simultaneously unimaginable and exactly right. You’ll move continuously into the unknown, but always know how to find your way through it. You’ll drop whatever you no longer need, and find things you’ve never imagined. You’ll be so filled up by the journey you’ll stop thinking about destinations.
This, too, is how we’re wired. We don’t want our puzzles fully assembled, our crime novels solved on page one. We love the wondering, the wandering, the finding and losing and finding again. And this can be the way we live our lives. Today. Tomorrow. The next day. Every day. I don’t do this perfectly, by a long shot. But I do it as often as I can, as well as I can. It has brought me here, to this odd, fascinating, wildly fulfilling job. Where will it take you? I can’t tell you that. No one can. Only your own heart, soul, and mission—your very own rhinoceros—knows for sure.
You are worthy of success, prosperity and happiness. Go after it and lean into your gifts. Only you have your unique genius. The world needs your medicine.
I believe in you,
I would love to hear from you. What is one small action step towards your heart’s desire that you can commit to this week? Please share your comments below or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
It would be an honor to have you in my new Facebook group, Be Your Own Guru. Here is the LINK.