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Living On Purpose
by Dan Millman

I once believed that our most fundament human desire is happiness. And that all our searches, high and low, whether for spiritual illumination or material possessions, are ultimately directed toward that sense of fulfillment, satisfaction --happiness. I no longer believe this to be true. After all, is the end-point of human evolution, and all our quests, represented by walking around with goofy grins on our faces? No, I think what we seek, most fundamentally, is meaning, purpose, direction, and connection. As George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "Never mind likes or dislikes; just do what needs to be done. This may not be happiness, but it is greatness." Five of my books, in particular, address the topic of purpose, each in its own unique way.

  • "Way of the Peaceful Warrior" conveys life's larger picture and promise.

  • "Everyday Enlightenment" presents the twelve gateways to human potential.

  • "The Laws of Spirit" provides the keys to these gateways.

  • "The Life You Were Born to Live" reveals a specific method for clarifying our life purpose--the unique challenges and strengths related to our own unique life path.

  • "Living on Purpose" offers twenty-five "House Rules" for living a purposeful life, and illustrates how to apply them with real-world questions and answers.

Here are some excerpts from "Living on Purpose: Straight Answers to Life's Tough Questions":

Years ago, I met a peaceful warrior in an all-night gas station. His name was Socrates, and he once told me, "I’ve noticed three kinds of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who watch what happens, and those who wonder what happened." Back then I was a skilled athlete, making things happen. But outside the gym—when I faced real-world dilemmas and decisions— I mostly watched and wondered. And I was not alone.

Many of us live our lives by accident—stumbling into relationships, wandering into careers, searching for meaning, hoping and praying that we’ll get lucky in love, find our fortune, and stay healthy. I spent years like this, living at random, until I learned to live on purpose. My education began the first time I asked Socrates a question. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "It’s the House Rules." The "House" is Life, the Tao, the Universe, Reality; the "Rules" are universal laws or guiding principles. The House Rules presented in this book—distilled lessons from the school of life—provide reliable strategies for living wisely and well.

Purposeful living embraces both reason and faith. Reason provides clear goals, while faith and intuition teach us to trust the process of our lives. The Taoist sages remind us that flexibility overcomes rigidity—and just as a rushing stream flows around obstacles, so must our purposes adapt to the changing tides of life. Therefore, the House Rules are not rote formulas, but flexible reminders. In living on purpose and acting on principle we become like bamboo—strong yet supple—yielding to the forces we encounter, then snapping back on track.

My responses seem to come not so much from me, but through me. I do not, however, channel any discarnate warrior-sages from the fifth dimension, chat with God, or transcribe the dictations of astral guides. I claim only a gift of expression, an intuitive ability to apply the House Rules, and an open heart. As the proverb goes, "There are no secrets where there’s love."

Test these House Rules in your own experience; tailor them to fit your particular circumstance. You will find that they point the way to greater productivity, creativity, and fun, and show us how to live a more spiritual life in the material realm. God helps those who help themselves—and this is a self-help book. For the better we become, the better we serve our world. By living on purpose and improving the quality of our lives, we become a source of light to others.

I can’t give you any wisdom you don’t already have inside you, but I can highlight your hidden strengths. If this book stimulates self-reflection and insight — if you find yourself reaching within to find your own truths — then Living on Purpose will have served its purpose. Keep faith in the higher truth that despite the dilemmas and difficulties of this world, our lives are a great Mystery, unfolding perfectly, in accord with universal laws, in the service of our awakening.

Is there a larger purpose for living?

Earth is a school and daily life is our classroom.

We are here to learn

by expanding our awareness

about the world

and about ourselves.

Learning about the world

helps us to succeed.

Learning about ourselves

helps us to evolve.

Our challenges in the arenas of

relationship, health, and finances

are all part of the curriculum.

Daily life teaches us all we need to know

for the next step on our journey.

Each and every day,

we find new lessons to learn.

We are involved in a mystery
that passes understanding,
and our highest business is daily life.
John Cage

Your daily life
is your school, your temple,
and your religion.
Kahlil Gibran

Each day shapes our lives
as running water shapes a stone.

We grow up, attend school, earn a living, maybe get married and raise a family, go on vacations, provide a service, and live until we die. Isn’t this enough? Why all this interest in spirituality? What’s the point?

Most of us agree that life is a school in the sense that we learn many lessons. But what is the purpose if it all, you ask, if we return to zero when we die? If death is the end, what is the purpose of living in the first place? Questions about death may lead us to wonder about life. Are we a random experiment or part of a much bigger picture? One question leads to the next and all questions end in Mystery. Some of us turn to belief and faith; others simply wonder. And in this field of wonder grow the seeds of spirituality.

At some point in each of our lives, we catch a glimpse—maybe just a glimmer—of one of the fundamental truths in the school of life: Our awareness resides, moment to moment, in one of two separate realities, each with its own truths. The first is conventional reality, which you describe in your question. The second is a transcendent reality—the bigger picture, the energetic and spiritual dimension.

Most of the time, conventional reality monopolizes our attention with the stuff of everyday life—the challenges of education, earning a living, relationships, family, and health—everyday experience. Our dramas, played out in the theater of gain and loss, desire and satisfaction, seem entirely real and important. Conventional life involves the natural pursuit of satisfaction and fulfillment, which depends upon events unfolding in line with our desires, hopes, and expectations. In trying to make things work out, we suffer the pangs of attachment, craving, and anxiety.

Then one day—maybe through a trauma, a death in the family, an injury or other adversity, we notice that conventional reality, even at its best, leads to dissatisfaction—when we don’t get what we want, when we get what we don’t want, and even when we get exactly what we want, because in a world of change, we will lose even this.

Adversity and psychological suffering stimulate a yearning to transcend the conditional world, to wake up and find the higher wisdom that uplifts our soul even as we live in the conventional world. Life’s challenging lessons generate a willingness to make a leap of faith, to relinquish familiar truths that no longer serve, and to venture into the unknown. Anaïs Nin wrote, "And finally the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." In the school of daily life, spirituality is not separate from this world; it allows us to live an ordinary life while remembering the transcendent truths that set us free.

I’m on a vision quest—searching for more in life than news, weather, and sports. I take yoga classes and meditate; last year I completed a four-hundred-mile bike trip in the hopes of triggering a spiritually elevated state. The trip gave me a temporary high and a sore butt. Still, when I push my body to the limit things happen. Am I going in the right direction

Extreme physical feats, depriving the body of food and water, and other ordeals can generate altered states and temporary highs, but to what end? Years ago, I traveled to the East and pursued many paths, until the search consumed itself and I came to rest. Today, numerous shamans, gurus, and guides are only too happy to take you on a tour of their chosen path. But all such paths are only classes in the School of Daily Life—part of a great adventure that teaches us all we need to know, never revealing what the next day will bring. This brings to mind the following story:

Near the end of World War II as American forces occupied Germany, two young men were captured and shipped to a U. S. POW camp. Interrogation failed—they would not or could not speak to American authorities and remained silent even among their fellow German prisoners, who insisted that they knew nothing about the pair. An expert in Asiatic languages soon determined that they were Tibetans. Overjoyed that someone was finally able to understand them, they told their story.

In summer of 1941 the two friends, wishing to explore the world outside their tiny village, crossed Tibet’s northern frontier and wandered happily in Soviet territory for several weeks, until Russian authorities picked them up, put them on a train with hundreds of other young men, and shipped them west. At an army camp they were issued uniforms and rifles, given rudimentary military training, and loaded, with other soldiers, into trucks heading to the Russian front. Raised in a nonviolent Buddhist tradition, they were horrified to see men killing each other with artillery, rifles, even hand-to-hand fighting. Fleeing, they were captured by the Germans and again loaded onto a train—to Germany. Then, after the Normandy invasion—as American forces neared the German border—the hapless pair were forced into auxiliary service in the German army, given guns and told to fight. Again they fled from the carnage, until they were captured by the Americans and their wartime adventure ended.

The adventures of these two wanderers reflect our own travels through the school of life. Consider the twists and turns in your own journey. Daily life is our vision quest and school, teaching what it means to be human. This life, this moment, is our hero’s journey, our moment of truth, our near-death experience. Relationships, family, work, health, and finances are God’s Challenge Course. If you seek adventure, pay attention to each moment and find the miraculous within the mundane. Choose your courses from the Catalog. Find creative ways to serve family and community. In doing so, you discover the greatest vision quest of all.

Where can I find the right teacher for me?

Our teachers appear in many forms.

Masters teachers

are found not only

on lonely mountaintops

or in ashrams of the East.

Our teachers may take the form

of friends and adversaries—

of clouds, animals, wind, and water.

Moment to moment, our teachers

reveal all we need to know.

The question is,

are we paying attention?

When the student is ready,

the teacher appears.


Your teachers are numberless;
they are the offered welcome
and agony inflicted;
every event, every circumstance,
every wrench at the heartstrings
that makes the tears flow is your teacher.
Bauls verse

Pay attention to your enemies,
for they are the first
to reveal to you your mistakes.

Everything in this world has a hidden meaning. . . .
People, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics. . . .
When we see them, we do not understand them;
we think they are really only people, animals, trees, stars.
It is only years later. . . that some of us understand.
Nikos Kazantzakis

I have read many books and attended more workshops than I can count. But I need a personal teacher to guide me. Don’t people need a teacher, guru, or guide to complete the journey?

Practicing in isolation may breed illusions. We come to know ourselves best in relationship to others. While we can learn much from books, a personal teacher can tailor guidance to our individual temperament and needs. So Buddhism and other traditions recommend the trinity of a teacher, a teaching, and a community of practitioners as the ideal learning environment. But it’s a minefield out there: Even genuine teachers are sometimes corrupted by the adulation of their devotees. So be wary and wise; keep your eyes as wide open as your heart. Teachers need to earn their students’ trust over time. Avoid any who demand complete devotion from the beginning. Pay attention to what teachers do, not just what they say.

And notice: Do their students live a life to which you aspire? Are they kind, compassionate, balanced, healthy, honest, open, respectful? Do they show a sense of humor? If not, look elsewhere.

Our approach to teachers often corresponds to three stages of life: childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. Children seek a parent to guide and protect them, and make good followers (and some teachers are happy to play parent). Adolescents reject authority and have a skeptical view of most teachers. Adults apply intelligent discernment and learn what they can, where they can, whether teachings appear in the form of fools or sages, friends or adversaries, animals, infants, or elders. We also learn through experience and circumstance, hardship and insight. Consider this story:

Zembu, a young samurai, had an affair with the wife of his superior. When discovered, he slew the nobleman in self-defense, then fled to a distant province. Unable to find employment, he became a thief, until one morning, in a flash of understanding, Zembu saw what he had made of his life. To atone for the harm he had done, he resolved to accomplish some good deed as a sincere act of repentance. Soon after, while walking upon a dangerous road over a cliff that had caused the death of many persons, he decided to cut a tunnel through the mountain. Begging food to sustain himself during the day, Zembu dug each night. Thirty years later, when the tunnel was two-thousand feet long and within a few months of completion, Zembu was confronted by Katsuo, a young samurai who had come to kill him to avenge the death of his father, the nobleman whom Zembu had slain years before.

Facing Katsuo’s sword, Zembu said, "I will gladly give you my life if you will only allow me to complete my work." So Katsuo awaited impatiently as several months passed and Zembu kept digging. Seeing that Zembu was nearing the end, and tired of doing nothing, Katsuo began to help Zembu dig. As they worked side by side, Katsuo came to admire the older man’s strong will and character. Finally the tunnel was finished; travelers could now pass safely.

Zembu turned to the young swordsman. "My work is done. You may cut off my head," he said. Tears flowed from Katsuo’s eyes as he asked, "How can I cut off my own teacher’s head?"

According to an ancient proverb,"We have no friends; we have no enemies; we only have teachers." Find wisdom in whatever form it appears.

I’m twenty-two years old and seeking meaning in life. I was thinking of going to India in a year or two, for a few months. But I have a two-year-old son. I’m struggling to decide what is right and honorable. I want to learn all I can, but my son needs me. After leaving your family years ago—what would you advise now?

Whether we travel on a pilgrimage or on vacation, exotic travel can be broadening and stimulating. But in today’s global village, the East holds no monopoly on wisdom. My travels revealed that there’s no place like home—because universal truths reveal themselves everywhere in daily life.

I view parenthood as a sacred responsibility and supreme teaching. Raising your child will demand and develop more capacities than sitting in a cave meditating, or stretching and breathing at an ashram. (I know because I’ve done them all.) The spiritual secrets are available here, in our own country, state, town, home, and heart. You are likely to find that the journeys you take through childhood with your son are as enriching as any you might make by boat or plane.

And as you open the doors of perception, you will find your teachers not only in human form, but in the world of nature, in children and in strangers, and in unexpected circumstance. For example, retired physician A. J. Cronin moved to a small farming community in Scotland to write his first novel. For many months he filled tablets of handwritten text, finally sending it to a typist in London. When the typed manuscript was returned, he gave it a fresh read and was shocked at his mediocre writing. Disgusted with his work, he walked out into a drizzling rain, abandoned his manuscript, throwing it into an ash pile, and wandered into the heath. There he met an old farmer, digging a drainage ditch in a boggy field. The farmer inquired about Cronin’s writing, and learned of the manuscript’s fate. The farmer paused a few moments, then said, "My father dug drainage ditches in this bog all his days but never made a pasture. I’ve done the same and not succeeded yet. But pasture or not, I know what my father knew— that if you only dig long enough, a pasture can be made." Cronin walked back to the house, picked the manuscript out of the ashes, and dried it out in the oven. Then he want back to work, rewriting until it satisfied him. His book, Hatter’s Castle, was the first in a string of successful novels—all because of a teacher he found in a bog.

Our children, worth far more than any manuscript, grow so quickly. And the world will still be waiting when your son is old enough to travel with you, or to follow his own path as you pursue yours. So ask yourself what you want to look back on in the years to come—that you left home to find yourself or that you put your child first for the few years he was given into your care? You will find no higher calling, greater blessing, finer teacher, or more spiritual journey than the process of raising your child.

From the book Living On Purpose. © Copyright "2000 by Dan Millman. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. 800/972-6657 ext. 52 or www.newworldlibrary.com

Dan Millman is a former world trampoline champion, Stanford gymnastics coach, and Oberlin college professor. His eleven books, including Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Everyday Enlightenment, The Life You Were Born to Live, The Laws of Spirit, and Living on Purpose have inspired millions of readers in 20 languages worldwide.  His website: www.danmillman.com



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