What are ‘near enemies to the truth’? Borrowing this phrase from Buddhism, I use it to refer to slightly distorted versions of spiritual teachings—statements that are close to a profound and subtle truth, but are distorted just enough to make a big difference over time. When we’re talking about deep and fundamental truths, getting it a little bit wrong doesn’t matter in the short run, but it does in the long run, just like a tiny adjustment to the rudder of your boat makes little difference at first, but after 1000 miles, it lands you on a different continent.
Now, some people object to the use of the word ‘wrong’ in the previous sentence, subscribing as they do to the idea that the only necessary criterion for truth is it feels true to me. This view is as dangerous in spirituality as it is in politics, because it usually means I want it to be true, so I'm going to believe it, regardless of the facts. If you don't see how dangerous this is, or if you doubt whether there really are facts or universal truths, please read the second half of the first blog post in this series.
Understanding the Near Enemies to the Truth, and why they are near enemies and not the truth itself, is hugely important for any spiritual seeker who wants to get past the beginner stages and into the deep (and deeply fulfilling) spiritual work. Having said that, it’s important to note that if a Near Enemy is near enough, it can be a Temporary Ally for a beginner. But as the stakes get higher in spiritual practice, there is no such thing as ‘close enough’ anymore, and your comforting affirmations must be sacrificed on the altar of truth, or else your spiritual progress stalls. With that brief orientation, let’s look at this month's Near Enemy.
NEAR ENEMY #10: 'Find your soul’s purpose'
In the alternative spirituality scene and New Age scene, the idea of “finding your soul’s purpose” or “giving your unique gift” is currently popular—indeed its desirability is almost wholly unquestioned. In this post, however, I will argue that it is a Near Enemy to the Truth.
As I hope you will see by reading what follows, the very conception of your soul having a ‘purpose’ or agenda is wholly at odds with nondual teachings. Let’s explore the problems with this idea, and then we will examine the spiritual truth to which it is a near enemy.
First off, the idea of “soul’s purpose” implies that there is something you need to do or accomplish in this life to render it truly meaningful and worthwhile. But if this is the case, it is necessarily also the case that you could fail to find and fulfill your soul’s purpose, in which case you will have failed at life. Though this obvious implication is not part of the current popular discourse, it is palpably present in the anxiety I sense in many people in their 20s and 30s (and even 40s!) today, and the corresponding pressure they put on themselves to ascertain their soul’s purpose. Furthermore, many of these people have the idea that finding their soul’s purpose will necessarily lead to abundance & prosperity, financial and otherwise. These ideas hold the seeds of much future suffering if it is not in fact the case that your soul has a purpose, or that you could fail at life, or that success can be guaranteed by discovering some fact about the nature of reality (e.g., your soul’s supposed purpose).
Nondual spirituality (such as classical Tantra) teaches that your soul—better to call it essence-nature—is always already perfect, being eternally one with the Divine, the universal Power of Awareness that expresses as each apparently individual embodiment of awareness (i.e., you and me). Your soul by definition needs no purpose: it is complete and whole in itself, full and fulfilled, an exquisite vibration of the One that derives its contentment from simply being. (Note: using pronouns like ‘it’ or ‘its’ are problematic in this discussion, because they imply that the soul is a distinct or independent entity, when in fact something close to the opposite is true—essence-nature, being one with God, is both transindividual and unbounded.)
Nondual spirituality teaches that the purpose of life is entirely fulfilled in the living of it. Your worth is abundantly proven by your very existence and could not be proven by anything else. You are, after all, a human being not a human doing.
To fully and completely be—an incredibly rare thing in this world—is the ultimate expression of your human nature. You cannot fail at life, but you can fail to realize your true nature, and thereby fail to fully inhabit your natural state of being. This would be perfectly okay, since you are completely divine whether you realize it or not, but would constitute a missed opportunity (from your point of view), since you probably crave the deep fulfillment such realization brings.
The idea of “soul’s purpose” is primarily a piece of Christian theology in disguise, specifically the idea “God has a plan for you.” Clearly, this idea has no place in a nondual View. More importantly, the idea that you can and should discover your “soul’s purpose” subtly reinforces a sense of lack, fosters anxiety, and disallows the realization of the perfection of your being that is now.
Having said all this, there is a nondual truth underneath the idea of “discovering your soul’s purpose.” Or rather, two truths. The first is universal: most of us have a longing deep within to realize our true nature, to realize the truth of our being (which is the truth of all being), whether that longing is consciously felt or not. In light of that fact, we might say that our “soul’s purpose” is to awaken and realize the truth of our being.
But there is another important teaching to grok here. One of the most fascinating aspects of self-realization is the fact that even though it is not personal—that is, even though what is realized is universal Being—it expresses in a way unique to each individual embodiment of the One. Just as one inspired dancer can dance many different kinds of dances, the One expresses uniquely through each of its embodied forms (nartakātmā, as the Śiva-sutra says).
Therefore, when abiding in your essence-nature (whether for a moment or permanently), if you invite the mode of expression in the world that flows forth most naturally, it will be unique to you (which does not necessarily mean that others will regard it as special or praiseworthy or worth paying for).
To put this into practical everyday language, you cannot know what form of active expression in the world is in greatest alignment with your essence-nature until you have truly experienced your essence-nature. And when you have experienced your essence-nature, and integrated that (ongoing) experience, the most aligned forms of expression and engagement are as obvious as breathing.
The key teaching here, found especially in the oral tradition of nondual Tantra (e.g. the stories of the siddhas and mahāsiddhas), is that even though we all realize the same unitary essence-nature, the same universal Consciousness, that Consciousness expresses differently through each one of us. Embodied realization wholly removes the barriers to that expression, bringing about a natural alignment of action-in-the-world (including career) with one’s essence-nature. When such alignment is firmly in place, it will appear to others that that individual has “found their soul’s purpose.” But the soul has and needs no purpose. Such a person has simply found their soul, which, it turns out, is all any of us really want. And when the mind-created impediments to the soul’s dance are removed, its dance comes into full expression, and every moment of that dance is completeness, is fulfillment.
A dance is not rendered meaningful by its conclusion, and a human life is not rendered meaningful by accomplishment. Accomplishment, when it occurs (and it is only ever ‘accomplishment’ in the eye of a given beholder), is simply a possible side effect of a life well and fully lived. And, in the nondual view, any life in which one knows being and simply allows it to dance in the way(s) that it does is a life well and fully lived, even if that life entails no achievement, accomplishment, or recognition according the dominant cultural values of the era.
Therefore, I entreat you, forget about finding your soul’s purpose and become dedicated to finding your soul—which is only a figure of speech for abiding in your true nature, which need not be ‘found’ because it never was lost.
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Lest you think this teaching is theoretical, I’ll inject a personal note. Ever since I learned how to abide in essence-nature, my work in the world has unfolded naturally, spontaneously, and easefully. ‘Easefully’ should not be taken to mean ‘without hard work’, but rather to indicate that the hard work, when it has occurred, has felt easeful, meaningful, and often joyful.
Though I certainly see a strong connection between the ability to abide in essence-nature and discovering a career path that feels natural & easeful, I see no connection between that alignment and financial success. The latter comes, as far as I can see, from working hard and working smart, and cannot be assumed to result automatically from discovering a career path that aligns with what Life wants to do through you.
May all beings realize their freedom! Sarva mangalam!