Lately, all I want to do is make smudge feather fans. I’ve spent a ton of money on feathers, leather, and fur and I’ve been inside tethered to my glue gun during some rare beautiful weekends. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I don’t really use them, and although I’m obsessed with checking the stats on my Etsy store, I haven’t sold any either. They just pile up on a bookshelf in my living room. Yet for some reason I need to keep making more.
It feels really good. When I am working on one of these it’s like time disappears. It’s like they’re making themselves for me, as if they already know how they want to be made and I just have to listen. A lot of joy just starts to happen.
You may have felt something similar. This state, called “flow,” can be experienced through any creative activity. Creating, or bringing something from inside you into form in the world can happen when you’re writing, surfing, solving a math problem, building a lego tower, dancing, or playing chess.
The psychologist who came up with the concept of flow describes the state as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
To me, this is a perfect description of how it feels to be connected to your sense of purpose. Most of us are looking for this, particularly in our work. It’s painful to not find it.
Recently, I asked a client who quit a dead end job in order to find her purpose what finding it would feel like. After thinking a moment she lit up and said, “it’s like work doesn’t feel like work, you have things to do but you love doing them and you can feel you’re really good at it. Even when it gets hard sometimes, you know you’re here for a reason. It’s work, but it’s about who you are.”
Sounds like flow to me. And it’s no coincidence that flow happens in connection with creation.
Here’s the reason: to find our purpose we need to connect to our soul. And connecting to our souls is a creative process. By definition it’s non-linear, right brained, mysterious, vague. It involves allowing space to hang out in the unknown for a while, without form and without to-do lists. It involves trust in our human nature, our innate programming to grow and evolve.
For most of us, that’s scary.
On a personal level, we may never have learned how to do this. We may have very few role models, and in fact, we may be discouraged by well meaning family and friends who are scared, too.
Martha Beck, a well-known coach, writes that her clients “talk as if their passion were a lost item they could find by digging around in their psyches, like beachcombers with bad shorts and metal detectors searching for coins in the sand.”
We’ve been taught how to think about things, how to accomplish tasks, achieve, take quizzes, read books, make decisions weighing the pros and cons. So when we start to suffer the soul deadening numbness of a purposeless job, we look to our heads to solve the problem. Often when that fails us, we end up feeling more hopeless and ashamed.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these left brain skills, but culturally, we’re out of balance. We’re not taught about how to listen to other sources of information from our feelings and our bodies. Or about how to recognize our truth and the inevitable fears that come with it to try to keep us safe. We’re not taught that the discomfort of letting yourself be lost for a while can be worth it.
As Beck puts it, “passion is not something we can grasp or own but a force of nature, connected to and influenced by things that extend far beyond any puny human self.”
It’s no wonder so many of us get stuck here.
But there is hope, and there is, ironically, something we can do. We can use our left brains to set up a structure in which we can tolerate feeling lost for a while. Feeling lost is not the same as feeling hopeless. We can let ourselves be uncomfortably engaged at feeding our soul for a set amount of time. And we can use flow experiences to guide us.
The trap of the soul deadening job
But before we get there, often we need to work with a particular kind of trap that l call “The Soul-Deadening Job.” There are a couple versions of this job: 1) the I-should-have-time type; and 2) the how-can-I-ever-make-time type.
If you are stuck in the first type you tend to feel pretty unengaged at work. Nothing that’s expected of you is particularly challenging anymore. You may be aware of some ways you could change that, but it barely feels worth the effort. You seemingly have a lot of time to “find your passion” but you end up coming home feeling tired. You think about quitting, but since you don’t know what else you’d do and you need to pay rent, it doesn’t seem like a good option. Eventually you get hard on yourself for not doing something.
The second type is similar except that you are super busy. You work all the time. There are constant demands on your time and energy but none of those things are particularly challenging. Something feels good about the adrenaline rush of putting out fires but you know you don’t really want to do this. The problem, it seems, is that you never have time even think about finding your passion, so you just stay put. Eventually you give up and try to convince yourself to appreciate what you have.
But the real problem here is that in the soul-deadening job you are just that, deadened. From this place there’s not much nourishment for any of the seeds of purpose that are already within you to begin growing.
Somehow, you need to stop using your mind to try to find your purpose, and instead use it to create the conditions for that purpose to come to your attention.
Of course, not everyone can just quit their job. That’s only one option. Some others may include reducing your hours so that you have a free day during the week, using vacation to travel alone, or doing something that connects you to a flow activity.
It’s actually important that it feel a little scary. But it should be tolerable. Be sure that you can still meet your basic needs so that you don’t throw yourself into survival mode.
Depending on your own history and how big a leap you decide to take, you may need different levels of support. My friend stayed in her job and started an online radio program where she interviews alternative healers each week. She still gets nervous, but making the public commitment is enough to keep her in.
My client took a huge leap. Since she had the financial resources to be able to quit her job for a time, she did, and we’re now working on helping her structure a three month period of engaging the unknown. Her daily “soul practice” is to do the activities that bring her into her flow state. She journals about this and about the inner critics that come up to challenge her, telling her this is indulgent, selfish, and that she won’t be qualified for anything. Keeping these at bay is hard work.
It’s important to remember that your flow activity itself may seem like the farthest thing from a career. It may be making sandcastles on the beach. Once you tap into what you love though, you can then use your left brain to figure out the marketable skills and what jobs may allow you to practice them.
Unfortunately, there are other places where people can get stuck. For some, it’s hard to ever slow down enough to be in a flow experience. For others, it can be anxiety-producing to feel anything, even joy. These types of blocks may be present for you if you’ve had to go through very difficult or traumatic experiences, or if you learned that feeling good was emotionally unsafe. You may need the support of a therapist to work on these issues before being in the unknown feels tolerable.
The longing we feel to find purpose in our work is important. It’s telling us something. Despite our best efforts to learn to live with what we have, usually, it persists. Our human nature drives us towards meaning, towards actualizing our soul’s gift in the world. Yes, there are people who never get this opportunity, but why should you waste yours if you have it? What good does it do them or the world? Learning to trust the creative process of being in the unknown is truly a radical act that you personally, can do.