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Living On Purpose:
Landscapes of the Soul

by Dawna Markova, Ph.D.

"Is the life I’m living the life that wants to live in me?" ~Parker Palmer

If you took a blue spruce tree and planted it in the desert, it would obviously perish. How do we forget that we too are living systems, and each of us have unique environments, needs, and conditions within which we flourish or wither?


I am in a group listening to Dee Hock, a founder of the Visa corporation in Wellington, New Zealand. He stands in the center of a circle of native Maori people and business leaders, saying, " It doesn’t matter so much who we have been to each other historically. The only questions that really matter are, ‘ Who are you becoming?’ and ‘What kind of a world are we leaving for all of our grandchildren?’ His words move like a fire across all of our hearts. Silence gathers in the room and hovers. I wonder, How do I even dare begin to think about those questions without feeling despair?

Two years later, I am walking along the ocean’s edge at dawn, in Santa Barbara, California. I am walking behind Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese teacher, poet, and monk. He wears a loose brown jacket and pants, with a brown knitted hat pulled down over his tea-cup ears. A thousand others walk behind him, a herd of strangers when we start, a flock that fans out slowly along the sandy cliffs, an undulating school of us, following this one small man who breathes in rhythm with the ocean, in and out, where the shoreline meets the sea.

Each of his feet, encased in wooden-soled clogs presses slowly into the wet sand of the beach, synchronized with both the waves and his breath, leaving momentary emblems of his presence. Then they are washed away.

Joggers bounce by in the opposite direction, staring. Seaweed tangles around my ankles. Black globs of oil wash ashore from the derricks on the horizon. Two thousand feet follow his, in no obvious order, all in rhyme with breath and tide.

I breathe to carry myself across the void which I so meticulously avoid, the tiny black holes in my mind where there is nothing. No place to go, nothing to do, to have, or to be.

Someone brings a small brass bell out of a pocket and strikes it gently. He stops. We all stop. I feel something pulsing in both feet. Blood. The river of my life standing in the ocean. My periphery widens, the emptiness opens. I settle down into myself.

And it is enough. The seaweed, the runners, the sea gulls floating by, the thousand people standing still on a beach in Santa Barbara, breathing with a small man dressed in brown, breathing with the waves, under the bluegray sky that holds the clouds, the mind that holds the thoughts, that holds us all, that holds me.

Hours later, while we sit listening to him in a drafty sports arena, he says, "I walk for you. Every day. When you are lost in chaos or despair, I will be walking in peace and harmony some place in the world. You can know that I am walking for you."

Meanwhile, the other monks and nuns placed small turquoise paper circles in our sandals that were lined up neatly outside. Each one said the same thing: "I walk for you."

I’m sure he is walking for me now, months later, as I sit rocking in this cabin, thinking about what kind of environment I need in order to return to the world of needs and demands without losing myself or my sense of purpose. What are the conditions that will help me to be as I was with those thousand people, a part of the community, and yet apart from the community? How do I stay true to myself? How do I stay aligned with the natural rhythms that nurture my body and soul? How do I help create a community of connection rather than fragmentation? How do I live in a way that brings out the best of who I am?

I float in the space between my questions. I know they can’t be answered. I need to ask them, again and again, to use them to find my way on this path. I rock in wonder at this sweet and peaceful moment when the aspen trees all around me now, blaze greengold in the late afternoon light. They are such a wonder, connected by invisible roots, yet separate as they emerge from the soil, reaching, thrusting themselves into this impossibly wide blue-violet sky that holds everything in its embrace.

I rock here thinking of the invisible roots that connect me even now when I am alone to a community larger than I can even imagine. The deeper I go into myself, the more interconnected I realize I really am. I rock in the peace of this moment for who I have been when life was only a long trail of tears, and for who I will be again when I forget what really matters. I rock for my son and the daughter of my heart. I rock for my grandmother, for my adopted granddaughter, for the mother in China who had to abandon her. I rock for Dee’s grandchildren. I rock for my father who beat me. And I rock for my husband who has such exquisitely clean hands. I rock in the wide serenity of this clear afternoon for all who are in offices under fluorescent lights, tangled in traffic, or trapped in the agony of conflict. I rock for those of us entombed in numbness and despair.


If you took a blue spruce tree and planted it in the desert, it would obviously perish. How do we forget that we too are living systems, and each of us have unique environments, needs, and conditions within which we flourish or wither?


Recently I read of an experiment where a scientist raised some baby fish in a small glass tank, which was inside a larger tank that held with adult fish. The little fish in the smaller tank could see the fish in the larger tank, but because of the glass barrier could not swim out. Once the small fish had grown up, the researcher removed the glass walls of the small tank so that they could swim out. But instead they stopped at the exact place that used to be their walls. The habit and memory of the edge of their world was more real to them than the freedom that was possible now that the glass had been removed.

Like these fish, we’ve been accustomed to swimming in a limited environment, convinced that this is the only way we can survive. We don’t have to accept the environments that have been given to us, however. We can give ourselves much more space to expand by asking ourselves what the conditions are that bring out the best in us.

Since we can only feel fulfilled when we are sharing our gifts in community, purpose insists that we be connected to both the interior and the exterior world. But, but, but…how can this be possible? How can we support both our inner and outer lives? For so many of us, living with an external orientation has become a deeply ingrained habit. Our culture insists we compartmentalize our inner life, wall it off behind the technical skills necessary to manage "out there."

But, as Annie Dillard writes, "If you go far enough inward, you find ‘the unified field,’ our complex and inexplicable caring for each other and for our life together." On the beach in Santa Barbara, I found this to be more than some abstract idea. Turning inward, I found myself in a place that was beyond ego, beyond even the notion of "I." I found myself caring and connected to what Parker Palmer calls "the community we share beneath the broken surface of our lives."

What are the living conditions that empower us instead of imprison us? What are the "no matter whats" in our environment that we need to grow an authentic and generous life? What I share here now is as illustration, since it is only true for me. Because we are each unique living systems, each of us has a unique environment in which we flourish. But it is my hope that reading my "no matter whats" will help you tap into your own:

No matter what, I need to be living and working in a spacious natural environment that encourages me to expand. Since my habit is to contract in uncertainty, and since uncertainty is the soup of modern life, I can most easily remind myself to expand when I am surrounded by a wide horizon.

No matter what, I need to be moving at a rhythm that allows my body, soul, and heart to be in alignment.

No matter what, I need to work both as a part of and apart from the larger community. I need to work with my family. Work has meant dividing me from them for so many years. Now I need work to unify us, to join us in the task of bringing shining and useful things to the larger community.

No matter what, I need a balance of language, images, and lavish silence, so I can be guided by the inner voice of my intuitive mind, and balance insight and outreach. I need the space to think thoughts all the way through until they open into wonder.

No matter what, I need a human atmosphere that constantly challenges me to be sane, thoughtful, wholesome, and present in the moment. If I am not present, there can be no meaning. If I am, everything I do has meaning.

No matter what, I need to be living and working in an environment that stimulates, pleases, and enlivens my physical being.

No matter what, I need to work in a climate that is interdependent, where the norm encourages us to use each other’s strengths so no one of us has to carry more than our part.

And lastly, no matter what, I need to work in a creative atmosphere that encourages us to let die what is finished and foster new life that is trying to emerge.

Now it’s your turn, dear reader. What are the influences, activities, and people that cause you to shine? What is a metaphor you would use to describe the environment that fosters your wisdom, and helps you to bring the best that is in you out to the rest of us who are waiting? What are the circumstances? Are you at your best inside of an organization or outside or with one foot in and one foot out? Do you light up working alone, in a team or both? Leading, following, or both?

May we all find the soil in which the seeds of our dreams can germinate into lives that are lives that are free of the limitations of our previous history, lives that are full and warm and rich with amazement.

Excerpted by permission from I Will Not Die An Unlived Life: Reclaiming Purpose and Passion, Conari Press © 2000. 800-685-9595

Dawna Markova, Ph.D., is internationally know for her groundbreaking work in helping people learn with passion and live on purpose. She is the CEO of Professional Thinking Partners, Inc., cofounder of the Worldwide Women's Web, and former research affiliate of the Organizational Learning Center at MIT. Her books include I Will Not Die an Unlived Life, The Open Mind, and No Enemies Within; An Unused Intelligence, co-authored with her husband and business partner, Andy Bryner; and How Your Child Is Smart and Learning Unlimited, co-authored with Anne R. Powell. She also co-edited Random Acts of Kindness and has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio.



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