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#17 Answering the call, finding purpose
Is there more to life than our day-to-day experience? A dive into calling and purpose through Jungian analysis and my own experience.
“There is more in a human life than our theories of it allow. Sooner or later something seems to call us onto a particular path.” - James Hillman, The Soul’s Code
It would seem disingenuous to begin this newsletter about purpose and calling without acknowledging that, not too long ago (in fact, only last August) I was sipping mushroom tea on the very same sofa I’m writing from now, with the intention of finally finding my purpose. I was in a strange in-between place, somewhat lost in between all the books and courses I was studying. And I really wanted an answer: was my purpose writing? Was it psychedelics? Was it owning my own McDonald’s franchise? All seemed appealing.
But the mushrooms didn’t deliver. Rather than diving into my own, personal unconscious, the experience took me to the deepest layer of non-dual awareness, where purpose seemed beyond the point. Dazed by the vision that I had incarnated one last time to find enlightenment, I forgot all about my question. And when I did ask, the answer felt like a joke: that I should just make it up. The way I made sense of this at the time was that perhaps there is no such thing as purpose, at least for me. That living consciously, aware of my choices, balancing heaven and earth, was enough.
However, the experiences I’ve had since then have made me reconsider. A series of books, lectures, and personal synchronistic nudges have led me to believe that there may be more to it than simply choosing a thing and rolling with it. So here I am, trying to distill all of that to you, in the hope that it serves your own search for purpose and meaning in this life (and that it breaks my writing dry spell).
“Each person comes into the world called”, declares Hillman in his incredibly powerful and irritating book The Soul’s Code. “Try to see, before it is too late, that you have within you something higher and more godlike than mere instincts which move your emotions and twitch you like a puppet”, echoes Marcus Aurelius in the twelfth book of his Meditations.
Right from the start, it seems like we cannot talk about purpose and calling without suspending (even only for the duration of reading this text) whatever certainties we hold about the nature of our lives. It is, in fact, one of the saddest consequences of our materialistic and individualistic Western bubble that we can live most of our lives convinced that the roles we perform are the same as our purpose. We can spend an entire lifetime shifting from one role to the other in an endless costume change without ever glimpsing the naked truth of our existence.
Defining ourselves merely by these performative constructs is never born out of self-knowledge and freedom. Most of the time they are ways we still attempt to please our parents, gain validation, and find some sense of belonging by moulding ourselves to the needs of whoever is around. These masks are plasters over deep wounds of disconnection that we can trace back to the psychological and spiritual traumas of our childhoods. Having never been seen or accepted for who we were, and instead rewarded for who we had to become in order to maintain our parents’ love, we never got to meet ourselves. And we internalised the belief that whoever we are deep down must be awful since no one wants to see it. So we keep it hidden behind screens, addictions, and depressions.
(screenshot from Gabor Maté’s new film The Wisdom of Trauma)
However, it’s important to mention that living out these roles is not entirely wrong. Jungians believe that the first part of life is all about finding our place in the outer world. Trying out different things and inhabiting different roles supports the development of a healthy ego that knows what it wants and what it doesn’t.
By middle age, however, a reckoning seems to await us all. Despite our very Pinterest-worthy lives and achievements, a niggling feeling that we’ve barely scratched the surface of what life has to offer hits us. For those who have had a significant amount of trauma, like me, this reckoning comes sooner. But regardless of when it does, the questions remain the same: is this it? Why am I here? What is wanting to enter the world through me?
“Our calling is to serve the soul, not the world around us.” - James Hollis
The call in Jungian thought is about finding and fulfilling our purpose. For some this is a truth they’ve known from childhood, a pestering idea about what they wanted to do when they grew up. But for most of us it’s a gradual revelation that, over many years, brings us to a certain place.
The core idea here is that we’re all born into this world with a preselected image or pattern to live out. This is forgotten at birth, but is carried throughout our lives by our daimon - an archetypal soul-companion that guides us through life so that we fulfil our purpose and become whole. This unconscious energy carries our destiny and holds the tension of opposites for us. In its positive aspect, it’s that inner voice that encourages us to leap into the unknown, and then holds our hand through challenging situations. In its demonic aspect, though, it creates conflict between our inner calling and the demands of the outer world.
When I look back now I can see my daimon calling out for me many times. It was there when I had the idea to turn my adventures of love and dating into the comics and podcast Rejected - an unexpected creative project that allowed me to understand myself better, grow as a storyteller, and meet my first longterm therapist. It was through producing and writing this show that I felt called to dig deeper into psychology in the first place. But the daimon’s tight grip exhausted me and put me in conflict with the demands of the outer world: I lost interest in my job, became a distant and difficult girlfriend, and barely saw my friends. All I wanted to do was hide in my room to work on the show.
I’m fairly convinced that my daimon also held my hand through my psychedelic experiences. Whenever my ego wanted to limit our work to biographical matters so I could improve, but mostly remain the same, my daimon diverted me into mystical territory. It showed me things I wasn’t ready to see or experience, which forced me to catch up with them so that I wouldn’t completely lose my mind. The desperate opposition of my ego was futile in the face of something as powerful as my kundalini awakening, and soon enough I had to give up work and retrain.
But the more I engaged with it and listened, the looser a grip it had on me. And that’s the trick in dealing with the daimon. As you might know, anything unconscious tends to have enormous energy: we get possessed by archetypes, our shadow, and complexes all the time. The more we oppose these compensatory parts of us by holding on to our egoic consciousness, the worse off we’ll come out on the other side.
The truth is that the daimon’s demands will always ruffle a few feathers, but trusting that it’s pushing us towards wholeness can help us let go and have a different relationship to it. Yes, it may briefly turn our lives upside down, but only to rebuild them on a foundation of purpose and truth.
“A calling may be postponed, avoided, intermittently missed. It may also possess you completely. Whatever; eventually it will out. It makes its claim. The daimon does not go away.” - James Hillman
Avoiding the call
James Hollis, another famous Jungian analyst, says that most people avoid their calling by never showing up for their appointment in life. Instead, they live a provisional life - something we may encounter in some devout Christians who see this life as the prelude to the real thing (heaven), and so they barely engage with it. If we’re brave enough to admit it, we might see it in ourselves as well: staying in unfulfilling jobs or relationships, binge-watching, staying glued to our phones. Anything to drown out the voice of the daimon.
At times it can feel easier to live on the surface rather than go through all the trouble of following our call. I’ll be the first to admit that changing careers and retraining in your thirties is no walk in the park - but it’s so damn worth it. Because avoiding the call is avoiding our individuation. One of the easiest ways to recognise that this is happening is to notice when we fall into any kind of neurotic symptoms that aim to push down an authentic expression of ourselves. In fact, depression is often a great indicator that something is inauthentic about our lives.
While most of psychologist today pathologise depression and rush to treat it with pills or cognitive therapies that just teach you to think differently, Jungians believed that depression always serves a purpose. In many traditions depression is seen as a blessing because it forces us to look at our early experiences and encounter whatever’s been avoided. Hollis reminds us that depression is just a removal of the energy towards what we used to do so we can retreat and reconsider. The best way to navigate it, he says, is to go back and sit with the depression until it reveals its meaning to us.
Hearing the call
The unfortunate thing about the daimon is that it can be very subtle. There’s no fancy ringtone or marching band announcing its call. As Hillman says, it reveals itself “mainly in hints, intuitions, whispers, and the sudden urges and oddities that disturb your life and that we continue to call symptoms”. The call also comes to us in dreams, especially those that repeat themselves.
An excellent example of this comes from Jung himself, who in Memories, Dreams, Reflections recounts being called by alchemy. Jung remembers a series of repetitive dreams that revealed to him a new wing to his house that contained a wonderful library of volumes dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The folios were full of symbols and illustrations unlike anything he’d seen before. He interpreted the unknown wing of the house as a part of his personality that he wasn’t yet conscious of - but its identity remained a mystery. Some fifteen years and a few synchronicities later, he discovered the same symbols in alchemy. This led to his discovery that the alchemical texts described precisely what he’d been observing empirically in psychoanalysis. And in the end he did have a library similar to the one shown to him in the dream.
For me, the call has been a slow and mostly unconscious unfolding. Having my own limiting beliefs about what I could and couldn’t do, I’ve been surprised to see that my daimon seems to be directing me, amongst my relentless interest in Jung and trauma, towards a path I never considered professionally - meditation. Looking back, I can recognise how certain courses mysteriously appeared just at the right time. On one of these occasions, in fact, the course popped into my inbox as a brand new offering the day after I had the thought that I would love to learn that specific technique.
It was actually through this course that I had one of the deepest, most spiritual experiences ever. While being led into a past life regression meditation by my teacher, Jack Kornfield, I was shocked to discover that in my previous incarnation I was an English priest called Lawrence. My lifelong rejection of religion seemed ironic when faced with this old little man covered in church robes. The exploration of the symbols I saw seemed to reveal a person who had attained completion. His life was simple and calm, and he spent his days sitting and hugging people as they entered the small church where he served. And to my surprise, his main gift to me, to support me in this incarnation, was meditation beads.
I would’ve overlooked this as mere coincidence, had the synchronicities not continued. Not much later the entire mindfulness meditation course I ran last month came to me as a complete vision in my daily sitting. An enormous amount of energy and inspiration flowed through me for weeks, and the course seemed to write and teach itself. Looking back, especially on the days I was sleep-deprived and depleted, I can recognise that something beyond my limited material resources was at the wheel, knowing just how to hold each participant so that they get what they need.
And it doesn’t stop here. Midway through running this course I felt called to visit a beautiful hotel in the mountains for a little break. Just as I was meditating on my room’s little porch before leaving, I opened my eyes to notice someone staring at me. It turned out to be an old connection from my advertising life, and the following week he invited me back there to teach my first ever in-person meditation course. Had I listened to my ego, I would’ve politely declined - and for good reason. Teaching two series of people how to meditate every day was terrifying. But the daimon spoke before my fears got to.
So how can you start to listen to the call?
I hope you’ve seen so far that calling is not a rational, intellectual pursuit. It’s not a matter of thinking harder, but opening our consciousness to thinking’s wiser cousin, intuition. And, as Hillman reminds us, “intuitions occur; we do not make them. They come to us as a sudden idea, a definite judgement, a grasped meaning.”
To open ourselves to intuition, we need to move out of our familiar patterns of analysing, and into curiosity. Training in mindfulness meditation can be a great path to allow the mind to pause and operate differently. Vipassana practice, or insight meditation, aims to cultivate the quality of mind that allows these deeper voices to surface. We can also work somatically by finding new experiences that force us to adapt to a different way of being, or work with a coach or therapist.
“The psyche is always speaking, and its urges will manifest first as ennui, then more conscious boredom, then inner resistance to our conscious scripts, and, as we continue to turn deaf ears, finally, an eruption of invasive feelings and behaviours: interrupted sleep or eating habits, the lure of an affair, troubling dreams, self-medicating addictions, and so on. What is common to all of these seemingly disparate phenomena in so many different lives is the exhaustion of the scenarios that one has ostensibly chosen and expected to be served by in return. We find ourselves asking, I have done the expected things, according to my best understanding of myself and the world, so why does my life not feel right?” - James Hollis, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life
Luckily, there is some structure around tuning into your call. James Hollis suggests you begin by engaging your feeling function and recognise whether something about your life doesn’t feel right. The feeling function is all about how we judge and value things, so finding yourself bored and depressed is a sign that your current pursuits might not fit your calling.
The second step is to check in with your energy: are your daily activities leaving you drained or energised? This is important, because when we’re doing what’s right for us, our energy supports us: we forget about food and sleep and are happily lost in the flow.
Thirdly, it helps to listen to your dreams, as they’re the nighttime commentators of your choices. Their compensatory function is to balance out the conscious attitude, so dreams will consistently reveal your blindspots. And finally, to check if your current pursuits offer you meaning. When an activity doesn’t have meaning for us, it feels like we couldn’t be payed enough to do it. But when it does, we gladly sacrifice financial gain for the soul’s pleasure (this is not financial advice, okay?).
A larger awareness, openness to new possibilities, and putting yourself out there seems to be the best start towards purpose. But there’s another key ingredient on this path, and Hollis emphasises the importance of discrimination in finding our call. With so many voices inside of us, it can be difficult to discern whether they’re driven by complexes or our genuine purpose. Both have enormous energy behind them, and it really takes time and experimentation to tell them apart: who is this serving? What sort of emotion is behind this? Is it serving a small part of me or the deeper Self?
And the best part is that you don’t need to know right away. The trial and error aspect of finding your purpose will help you grow and learn new things. Plus, resting in the not-knowing is what makes this whole pursuit more fun, like the early stages of two people tiptoeing around how much they’re enchanted by each other, but not yet ready to make a move.
The acorn wants to become an oak tree
Ultimately, our consolation lies in the myth of the acorn. A tale I heard last week on a dharma course talked about the relationship of the acorn to its destiny. When told that it would eventually become a glorious oak tree, the acorn laughed in disbelief, aware of its smallness. You see, for the acorn, the oak tree is god, the thing that creates the acorns. But for the oak tree, the acorn is just another oak tree in becoming.
No matter how terrible our traumas or how flat our lives seem at any point, it seems reassuring to know that our destiny is already at work within us, and it will follow its call regardless of the conditions around it.
And all we can do is to make sure we show up for our appointment in life.
“My thoughts turn to something I read once, something the Zen Buddhists believe. They say that an oak tree is brought into creation by two forces at the same time. Obviously, there is the acorn from which it all begins, the seed which holds all the promise and potential, which grows into a tree. Everybody can see that. But only a few can recognise that there is anther force operating here as well-the future tree itself, which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being, drawing the seedling forth with longing out of the void, guiding the evolution from nothingness to maturity. In this respect, say the Zens, it is the oak tree that creates the very acorn from which it was born.” - Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love