Throughout the centuries, people have posed the questions “What am I doing here?” and “What is the meaning of life?” These are, of course, big and almost impossibly profound questions that usually lead us nowhere. But the older we get, the more urgent they seem to become.
There’s a wonderful teaching by Jelaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi poet, which can help us see what we’re missing:
There is one thing in this world you must never forget to do. Human being come into this world to do particular work. That work is their purpose, and each is specific to the person. If you forget everything else and not this, there’s nothing to worry about. If you remember everything else and forget your true work, then you will have done nothing with your life.
Rumi goes on to explain that the raw material we are given through birth is an incredibly precious material that can be formed into anything at all. “It’s a golden bowl,” he says, “which is being used to cook turnips, when one filing from the bowl could buy a hundred suitable pots.” We’re using what we’ve been given for a far lesser function than its true capacity. We think we are being good, productive citizens because we are cooking up a storm in our bowl, but we’re not seeing what the bowl really is and what food that bowl could provide us if we knew how to look at it differently.
So there is one thing in the world, according to Rumi’s teaching, that must not be forgotten. Although that one thing isn’t articulated, when we engage in these conversations about the big questions, we feel it, and we implicitly understand its enormous value. But once the conversation is done, we tend to forget it and go back to life as usual. There are other moments too when we sense that our bowl could do more than cook turnips. When we experience moments of epiphany or insight and when we notice our heart’s desire for something we’re passionate about, we recognize the possibility that there might be more to life than we know. But we ignore these clues to what really matters because they’re not acknowledged by [the “real” world]* as being of value.
That one thing Rumi refers to is the point of existence, the point of our being here, which our conditioning almost completely obscures. Because we can’t name it and can’t pin it down, it’s very easy to reject the promptings of our inner wisdom to pursue our longing to understand. We simply carry on as though nothing were more important in life than the next paycheck or the next automobile or the next house or the next grandchild.
It’s not that any of these things can’t bring us pleasure or satisfaction, but they are only the contents of our waking lives. They’re not the meaning. To find that, we need to learn to read our lives in a different way. And this is why we need a new blueprint. The plans given us by [the “real” world] provide only directions for a life that’s defined by both cultural and personal filters. They don’t describe the other dimensions of living that are possible when these filters are removed.
~Sara Susanka, The Not So Big Life
*I’ve substituted this phrase for the one Susanka uses in the book, which might not immediately make sense out of the context of her book.