Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #143 Igniting Your Purpose
About this episode

In this episode of The Gathering Room podcast, Martha talks about following your curiosity to activate the right side of the brain, which is where our passion lives. And our passion is what leads us to our life’s purpose. If you want to start looking for things that draw your attention (rather than push yourself toward the things you think you should do), and you’re ready to prepare yourself to follow your curiosity wherever it leads, tune in to the full episode—it may contain just the spark you need!

Igniting Your Purpose

Martha Beck:

Today I’m talking about something that I’ve been writing about. That’s what you hear every single day these days, because I’ve been writing for a season. This is something I wrote about long ago, and it has to do with the way people find their passions and their purpose. The way I’m looking at this nowadays is that the reason so many people don’t seem to know their passion and their purpose… Maybe y’all know, maybe you have a complete bullseye picture of your purpose in life and you’re just headed straight toward it. There are people like that, but it’s very rare. And here’s why I think it’s so rare. I think it’s because we live in a culture dominated by left hemisphere thinking and that type of thinking, it pulls us toward anxiety. And it also has the odd characteristic of, I’ve told you this before, being unable to see anything other than its own point of view.

So people who have right hemisphere stroke, so they’re only thinking with their left hemisphere is they can’t even see things that are on the side of the body that their left hemisphere doesn’t see. So the left hemisphere has this weird solipsism to it. It believes it’s the only thing in the world, and you get wrapped into a cultural pattern of always doing things that this world wants you to do. And they’re usually productivity measured in material wealth, power, status, but mainly material wealth. Let’s just get right down to it. But the left hemisphere loves to grab things and it tells us all to live by grabbing things. And we’re all told also, “Don’t get out of line. Keep things in nice straight lines and do as you’re told and everything will be great.” Which is good for some reasons. There’s nothing wrong with it, but the world is bigger than that.

And the passion part of our lives lives, I believe and research shows, more on the right side of the brain. The right side, it’s awkward because when you say the left hemisphere, you can talk about what’s happening in the left hemisphere. When you say the right hemisphere, you’re actually talking about the whole brain because the right hemisphere is aware of everything that is not itself. So the left hemisphere doesn’t include the right, but the right one does include the left. So then you’re working with your whole brain as my dear friend Jill Bolte Taylor would say. So here’s the thing, when people get really intense passions, I’ve been reading up on it, I’ve been reading cases and books by people who were really phenomenally good at what they did, people who were just from the age of four or five, six, they just saw what they wanted to do and they did it and they were fantastic.

And it’s an interesting combination of a prepared mind encountering a chance event. Fortune favors the prepared mind as they say. So in this case, the prepared mind is the open mind of childhood. So we don’t get crammed into that tight little anxious left hemisphere box until we’re able to do that. That comes as we’re in school and we get socialized more and more and more. Little kids don’t have it. As a result, little kids have something in great abundance that we typically try to lose as we grow up. And that is curiosity. So curiosity when you’re little, as Jill would tell you, when an impulse comes into your amygdalae, because there’s two, one on the left, one on the right, you get a fear response on the left and a curiosity response on the right.

So little kids haven’t yet developed this, they’re always going toward the fear, they go into curiosity more easily. When they see something that strikes them as interesting, they have a very strong curiosity response. Now, one of the things that I have heard over and over from people who come to me for coaching is, number one, “I have no idea what my passions are and I’m going to die if I have no true purpose.” And then I say to them, “Well, what are you curious about? What are you interested in?” And they say, “Nothing. Nothing.” There are a couple of reasons for that. First of all, they’ve been socialized out of their interests, but also, and this is very important, they’re usually exhausted.

Most people in modern society are tired, at least the ones that float into my life. About a third of us don’t get enough sleep according to the CDC. I just looked at it today. And sleep deprivation is such a crucial thing that they torture people with sleep deprivation. It can kill you. It’s not good for any part of you. And as a result, when you go into sleep deprivation or into chronic overwork, your body mind’s first priority is rest. So if it says to you, “You could learn to ski jump.” Or something and you’re totally exhausted and you haven’t slept well for weeks or months or years, and you go and try to be a ski jumper, your health will fall apart. Hello, I did that. My health fell apart as soon as I got into my adult years because I was tired already and then I hit the limit of my youth and boom, I was exhausted by everything and curious about nothing.

Because when your brain is needing you to sleep more than anything else, it doesn’t send you off on fact finding expeditions or fun finding expeditions. Okay, so here’s the first thing. If you don’t know what your passion is, check first to see if you’re tired. My whole household, we were so depressed yesterday, we were like, “It’s so depressing.” We just did daylight save… Oh, I’m not supposed to make seasonal references. It got dark people, it got physically dark outside, and everybody’s like, “We’re depressed.” Turned out we went to bed and slept and we were much less depressed. We were just tired. So depression is like a fatigue that goes very deep and fatigue can mirror depression. Get enough rest. And you know want rest if you think a month of rest sounds amazing of doing nothing but resting. If you’re rested, that sounds boring. But if you’re not rested, it sounds like heaven.

The good news is you only need about four days of getting enough sleep for your will, for your curiosity to rise above empty. It’s not full yet, but it’s not empty. So at this point, when you’ve had enough rest, got a few days of rest, and then what you need to do is go around the world looking for things that pull your attention as opposed to feeling like you push yourself into them. So if you think about subjects you learn in school, some of them, when you had to sit down and study, it was a push, a big push. You can all think of the subject that was your big push. Oddly enough, mine was social studies, because it wasn’t being taught that well, frankly. And then I turned out to be a sociologist. I’m obsessed with social science, just not the way they taught it at my high school.

So you can remember pushing yourself to do those things. And now think about something that you are genuinely interested in, like movies you loved or activities that you were always into and think about how those felt when you first encountered them, and it feels more like being pulled. So one is pushing uphill into the wind. The other one is being pulled downhill with the wind at your back. The feeling of being pulled towards something with the wind at your back, that is curiosity. So what happens when certain little kids who are in that state just are meandering through the world, like take Josh Waitzkin, he was the person who was the real life inspiration for the movie, Searching for Bobby Fisher. Brilliant, brilliant chess master. He was walking through Washington Square Park in New York City one day. He saw some people playing chess and immediately… Curiosity, intense curiosity.

By age 16, he was an international Grandmaster. He went from curiosity, he got this spark that said, “I want to do that.” Now, the journalist Daniel Coyle, who wrote about this a few years ago, calls this ignition, that when you’re not exhausted and you’re willing to let your attention be pulled in any which direction, you’re like tinder waiting to be ignited. And then it just takes a spark of something interesting. So last night, Rowan and I were sitting by the fire going, “It’s so dark and we’re so tired and depressed.” And I was like, “I need to test this thing on you to see if it makes you find your passion.” And she was like, “What? What is it?” And I’d be like, “I forgot.”

It was not an easy night. We were tired. But then after I’d slept on it, I realized that the feeling of being pulled is really the phrase that comes to mind for an English speaker is, “Oh, that’s cool.” You see something, you see someone playing chess and something in you says, “That’s cool.” Other things Daniel Coyle writes about, people who saw the Russian brilliant tennis star, Anna Kournikova, when she started winning, a bunch of little girls, especially in the Baltic states, looked at her and thought, “Oh, that can happen. I can go to the West and do that.” And five years later there was a wave of brilliant female tennis players from that group. So they had been ignited at the same time. So when we see something that makes us go, “That’s cool. Oh, that’s cool.” And then you lean toward it and you go, “That’s really cool.” And then you start to think, “I wish I could do that.” That right there, people, is your purpose in life.

The thing that makes a little part of you very deep say, “I wish I could do that.” And then you try it and not everything works out. Sometimes you try something and you do it and it’s fun, it’s fine, but it’s not a huge deal. I love to ski. I was able to learn to ski pretty well in my forties. Those of you who saw me learning to ski don’t know this, but I actually got to be fairly good at it. But it’s not my purpose in life. I just really, really enjoyed it. On the other hand, maybe it was part of my purpose in life. I’m not prepared to rule that out yet. But the fact is, it brought me enormous, enormous joy and so much fascination that I was willing to work out all year for a few ski trips every winter. That kind of thing can only hit you when you’re wide open and rested. Two things children sometimes are that adults rarely are in our culture.

So rest, open mind, let yourself feel pulled and then look for something that feels like, “Oh, that’s cool. That’s really cool. I wish I could do that.” That is your key. So I’m going to start looking at your questions here. And Jay Kremer says, is there something unique to the people who are able to rest when they need it? I’m curious if they have a similar thing that they have or do that is uniquely for them. I think the people I know who can rest on command are some of the most curious, interested people I know in my life. Like the one who comes to mind, Liz Gilbert. Woman drives me crazy. She comes to see us. She comes from having done a zillion things and she brings us, “Here’s a garden. I grew it myself, I will make vegetable dinner for you. And I made it all happen. Oh wait, I’m tired. I’m going to go in the other room for 10 minutes.” She goes in the other room, falls down asleep, wakes up, comes back totally refreshed. It drives us crazy.

But she’s also incredibly curious. You might say writing is her passion, and she did it at 15 make a commitment to write every day and to try to serve this art that she’d chosen. But also I started drawing little card pictures one day and she was like, “That’s cool.” That’s what I did. I sent her a picture of a watercolor I was doing and she was like, “I want to do that.” And she started drawing every day and within a week she made a complete tarot card deck set, 72 drawings of great quality. So I’m just saying that the people I know who are really masters of various things tend to be able to rest well. So I think that I’m very jealous of that. But on the other hand, I’m very focused on what I want to do because I don’t have that much energy to do it. So in a way that’s a gift.

PC [inaudible 00:13:48] says, “Advice for when we’re curious about a lot of things. My partner has commented that I’m not focused enough.” This is so interesting. It’s why you have to keep the curiosity thing wide open and feel that pull, because some people are very, very… Well, you know what? Humans are incredible. We can do stuff at such a high level like no other… Other animals are brilliant and creative in their own ways, but no animal pushes expertise as far as humans do in so many directions. So we are by nature sort of ADD. Those of us who have ADD are more ADD. And for me, it’s what is most delicious? You go chasing what is most delicious on that given day. And sometimes for me, drawing and painting are the most delicious thing and there’s nothing else I want to do.

And some days it’s writing and some days it’s coaching and some days it’s skiing. But on most days, I try to follow what feels most intensely joyful, and usually it has to do with service of some kind. In my case, it has to do with there is suffering in the world, I wish to make the suffering less. I wish to do that, not in a [inaudible 00:15:04] way, but by the invitation to joy that I can offer to people or to myself or to the world. So find the thing that floats your boat the most, but let yourself have lots of other interests. They all end up feeding the same purpose anyway. You’ll find that they all constellate around certain themes in your life so that when you see things constantly, like everything you try to do, it has a theme. So I do a lot of things, but it always has to do with the reduction of suffering and the transformation of human consciousness.

So that’s my theme. And then my purpose is whatever takes me toward that end on any given day, and I know that by the feelings inside me. Rose Broadbent said, “How do you reconcile early motherhood fatigue and staying passionate? I am an artist and only followed curiosity until kids. How do I stay open and curious without any rest?” I don’t think you can. I think that for a while, sometimes when you’re going through various ordeals or getting certain degrees that you know need to finish your purpose in life or you’re working on a project of some sort, there are times when you say, “I will be tired as I finish this thing. I’m going to run a triathlon. I’m going to be tired at the end of that.” And that’s acceptable because it fits into my overall plan for what I want to do. And you’ll feel like a desire to be committed to the thing.

When you have a baby, you’re committing to years of not getting enough sleep and it’s an acceptable sacrifice and it builds you in ways that curiosity cannot. It helps you have empathy, it helps you have compassion, it helps you have patience. It teaches you a lot of things that passion doesn’t teach you. And that’s why I think, when we really commit to something worthwhile, we go into phases where we’re working very hard or not sleeping enough, but in the service of the thing we know we chose. And that’s actually part of the shaping of the purpose. So motherhood is, I believe, the single hardest thing a human being can do. Fatherhood can be hard too. Doesn’t take as much out of your body during labor and delivery. I’ll say that, but it’s huge. And we all take on… Caring for elderly parents is huge or any elderly or disabled person.

So sometimes we’ll take on something exhausting because our curiosity and our interest pulled us to that, and then we reached a point where we said, “This matters so much to me, this is so important to my life that I’m willing to go all in and learn the harder lessons that don’t come from the wellspring of passion.” Okay, Jessica says, “On those days that you really need rest, you try to nap or binge watch things? Does it make sense that I exhaust myself trying to rest?” If you try to force rest, you have to be willing to let go. You have to surrender to absolute vacancy. That’s what vacation means, right? Vacancy. Westerners, Americans, people from the weird western educated, industrialized rich, democratic cultures. We tend to try to force everything. And the idea of an emptiness is not okay with a lot of us.

We’re taught that emptiness means purposelessness, but vacation means vacant. So if you can just stare vacantly at a wall for a few minutes on a tired day, sometimes that’s the best thing you can do toward achieving your purpose in life and igniting your passion, so you even rest from trying to rest. And that’s one time when you can watch people doing things that look kind of interesting for you to do. If you don’t feel like cooking, watch cooking shows. If you don’t feel like painting, watch painting demonstrations online. It’s amazing, it’s fun and you can fill the well with that. Katie Marie says, “What if you’re currently living in a location you really don’t like or feel good in?” You need to create a mini location where you do feel good. And that could be a little corner of your room. It could be a little shelf where you put objects you prize that are precious to you. It can be a landscape that you print out and put on your wall, but you have to create locations that are good for you. I’ve been willing to move.

I’ve been willing to spend all my money and move to the forest because I had to be in the forest. That’s how powerfully I am influenced by my environment. But if I’m in a place that can’t be that way, like on a 22-hour airplane flight or something, I make sure that there are reminders of my places that make me feel whole and happy. I’m going to answer a few more questions and then I want to end with our space meditation because the space silence and stillness meditation will remind us that we are always in the perfect place. Even if it’s a really bad situation, we can actually escape that in an interesting way by going to a deeper level of reality, a different location in the dimensions of space time.

So Jacob says, What if I have a spark of interest about something? For me, it’s coaching and social work, but other parts of myself show up, social anxiety, fear, doubt, et cetera, that show up as a knowing that I shouldn’t pursue it. As someone who has fairly severe anxiety, it’s hard to decipher anxiety from knowing.” All right, great question Jacob. And here, I’m going to send this to you with all the love I can muster because you are where I was and I don’t want you to be there. Nothing from anxiety is the knowing. It’s not. No fear is real. False events appearing real as well as fear in 12 step groups. Anxiety may direct you to something like you need to stay safe, but the ability to stay safe by creating, by loving, by connecting comes from a place without anxiety.

And that’s why I’m writing the book I’m writing right now that I was looking at the way the brain gets stuck in anxiety and how to pull ourselves out of it. And that first openness to a curious, what pulls me, is just a little… It’s like a breath. It’s tiny at first and then anxiety comes in, “Aargh.” There’s this whisper going on, but that, “Ooh, that’s cool.” And what I’m asking you to do is pay more attention sometimes, just sometimes to that whisper, “Oh, that’s cool, I wish I could do that” than to the, “Aargh”. Anything that does not make you healthier, make you more yourself, make you more grounded, make you more open to compassion and to connection with other beings is not true for you at the deepest level.

Anxiety is never true for us at the deepest level. Fear is a really healthy, necessary instinct. Something, “Oh my gosh, all right, winter’s coming. I need to be warm. I’m going to build a shelter.” That can come from fear and motivate action, but as soon as the impulse that comes from the fear leads to action, you’re in creativity now. And that’s why even in places that are just really difficult to live in, biomes, deserts, wintry places, people, when they make their domiciles, they still decorate them. They still make them beautiful, they still make them comfortable in whatever way they can because the moment fear goads you into action, you can get creative. And creativity is the anti-anxiety. In the brain, the opposite of anxiety is not calm. It’s creation, curiosity, connection, and creation. So I just send you such love if you’re stuck in anxiety and just know none of it is real, but when you start to get excited, even if it’s just a whisper, you can trust that. Good luck, Jacob.

Okay, Gail says, “Culture favors certain segments of the population. How did the rest of us tap into our purpose when we’re exhausted just trying to survive?” What a good comment. I have been so aware writing this book, how those of us who are in marginalized populations who did not get born into lives of privilege are hammered by the injustices and the bigotries and the malice of other people in society, day in, day out, not allowed the same seat at the table, starting from way behind the starting line that other people are given at birth. So there’s a lot of, that is incredibly exhausting, not just physically and logistically, but emotionally to tolerate that injustice all the time. So finding a way to rest your heart, rest your body and rest your heart is super important if you’re a person who’s from a marginalized group.

That said, when you find in yourself the place where you can rest, the amount of creativity that comes from being suppressed and then finding that spot, that centered spot where you can rest, and then the energy coming into that from a divine place, that is why, for example, I believe we’ve seen this in the United States, the history of the United States, the most glorious literature, music, art. A lot of it has come from people who were in formerly enslaved populations, about as bad as the dominion of society can possibly get. And then you see the novels of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and you see jazz and reggae and ragtime and it’s wow, the ability of people to tap in by just getting a little safety and then knowing enough to go peaceful in the self and into rest at the heart of self, that is a channel into spirit. And that shaped by adversity becomes sublime. And it is the hardest thing and it is the most majestic thing at the same time.

I have so much love and respect for that. Donna said, “What if you feel guilty and are also made to feel guilty resting?” Stop. Just say, “I don’t care. I’m going to rest.” That’s my quick answer to that. Lie down, feel guilty, but lie down. Molly says, “Where’s the balance between rest and creation?” When you rest in as we’re about to do in our meditation, when you rest in, there’s a place and it’s a very physical place for me, and I always turn my eyes down because you’re gazing inward and you rest down deeply. And then there’s this access to, in the Bible it’s called the spring of living water. That’s what Jesus called it. That down inside the fatigue and the distress and everything, if you open to that curiosity, then something comes to you that pulls you. All these other things pull you from the outside. But this projects from inside you and connects with the thing outside. And that is when passion becomes inspiration and that, you have to feel that to know it. But once you’ve felt it, you will want it again.

All right, let’s just… There are people sending each other love, and I send you so much love, all the places you’re in that are anxious and everything. But let’s just finish. For a brief minute or so, let’s all go to the place of peace where we don’t have to be afraid, where we can open our minds, where we can let ourselves be pulled by our environment and guided by our interior divine spark to ignite our purpose in life. So we’re going to start, if you’re new, with a very strange request, just try it. Breathe deeply and imagine or listen to this. Can you imagine the distance between your eyes? Can you imagine the distance between your third eye here on your forehead and the very back of your head? Can you imagine the full volume, the distance inside the volume of your head? If you hold your hands up, can you imagine the space inside the atoms of your hands? Can you imagine the space inside all the matter of your body? Can you imagine that space being continuous between all of us?

In all the places we’re sitting on the earth, the same space holds us. There is no separation, we are made mostly of space, and we are all in the same space. Can you imagine the connection between us, the physical connection right now? And then, can you imagine the stillness in which all action exists and the silence that lies beneath all sound and into which all sound eventually falls? I love feeling this space that is within me, within you, and also connecting us. We are not separate. And that makes me curious and that makes this part of my passion and part of my purpose. And I hope that you feel a little spark igniting inside you right now and in the week to come. And until then, when I see you again on the gathering room, I love you. Have a wonderful time, and I will see you soon. And thank you. Thank you. Thank you for coming.

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