Purpose Quiets Our Thinking

The alarm clock rings no later than 5:00 a.m. on days we’re taking a long, challenging hike. For safety, we want to avoid coming off the trail after dark.

The truth is that although I love hiking, complaining thoughts arise at 5:00 a.m: “Why not just stay home today, relax, and read a book? The hike I choose is too steep and rocky.” The noise in my mind begins to fade as I roll out of bed and focus on my hike preparation drill.

Complaining thoughts begin again when we reach the trailhead and I feel the weight of my back pack. I check the time as we begin the climb, and I push myself to start out at a quick pace; but I’m not in my stride. Sometimes nagging thoughts arise about trail conditions, the weather that isn’t what was forecasted, the stiffness in my knee, “problems” that need to be dealt with. Often it takes some time to get into a good hiking rhythm.

But yet, one foot goes in front of another, one breath follows another. There is no thought of breaking my commitment to the day ahead. Given that undivided purpose, there is no possibility of being derailed by my ego’s resistance.

On the hiking trail, since I am committed to something larger than my immediate comfort, the noise in my head begins to fade and steady progress is made toward the day’s goal.

Similarly, sitting down at my desk, if I begin with an undivided purpose, urges to stop to check the news or my email will not derail me. But, in the absence of an undivided purpose, resistance seizes the opportunity and my thoughts and feelings take me off track.

What if every day was like a hike? What if I committed to what is before me and the larger purposes in my life? What if I did not indulge my distracting thoughts?

I used to think that hiking was fundamentally different from other activities. I used to think that hiking cleared my mind. Now I see things differently: The truth is that my mind is always, already clear; and I realize that clarity when I make the decision not to entertain distracting thoughts.

Indeed, hiking is enjoyable because of my decision to put one foot in front of another for an extended period of time. I have found that this is true for any activity, even something as mundane as washing dishes.

I can hike, I can write, I can wash dishes without being thrilled about it at first. What I can report is that almost 100% of the time, if I remain steady at a task, if I am fully present to the task, it becomes pleasant.

The task or the activity is neutral; I have given the task all the meaning it has.

In his book A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness, Gregg Krech explains how acting when we don’t feel like it allows us to be guided by purpose:

By learning to take action when we don’t feel like doing something, we overcome anxiety, fear, and depression without overcoming them at all. We are no longer slaves to our feelings. With this skill, we have purchased our freedom and now can choose a path guided by purpose and the needs of the situation, as it arises — moment by moment.

Then Krech describes how egocentricity grows when we lack purpose:

A lack of purpose means their minds are free to focus on themselves — their feelings, their thoughts, their body problems, their self-image, and any manner of personal struggle they experience. Their purpose, as it appears to onlookers, is to take care of themselves. They are often preoccupied with the pursuit of their own happiness, which means, more often than not, that they are preoccupied with the lack of happiness in their present circumstances.

Last Saturday on a day-long hike, after about an hour and half of steady climbing, we came to our first scramble; we’d need hands and feet to overcome the rocks. We stopped briefly to look up at the rocks ahead. But once the scramble begins, experience has taught us that it’s best to keep moving without mental deliberation. Mental deliberation in the middle of a scramble can be dangerous because thoughts can paralyze you, leaving you in a precarious position. My hands and feet know where to move; my calculative thoughts don’t.

In life, too, I’ve learned to keep moving when I’m scrambling; I can take stock when the scramble is over.

Five hours into Saturday’s hike, we’d summited our second mountain peak and it was time for lunch.

I sat with my sandwich at the edge of a ledge. I was not unsafe, but it was an unusual choice for me; typically, I sit back from the edge to avoid waves of sensations in my stomach that I interpret as fear.

The waves of sensations came, but I decided to stay put. Initially thoughts arose that I should move; I wasn’t comfortable with the feeling in my stomach. I turned my attention to the task at hand: eating lunch and enjoying the beautiful views.

When it was time to resume our trek, I noticed that after the initial flurry, the thoughts and sensations about being at the edge had dissipated. I had not applied any conscious direction or effort to get rid of the uncomfortable feelings; instead, I had accepted those feelings and with that acceptance they didn’t persist. For me, acceptance means noticing my thoughts and feelings without resisting or processing them.

Accepting our thinking is difficult when we hold in focus the thoughts we don’t want. In her book I Don’t Want To, I Don’t Feel Like It, Cheri Huber writes, “If we’re not careful, we will miss the beauty of the garden because we’re focused on the weeds.”

Being focused on the weeds means we are focused on thoughts arising from our ego as well as our ego’s judgments of those thoughts. We find our way out as we become aware of our thinking and choose not to identify with it. As we no longer identify with our thinking, we can focus on Wholeness, the Love and Intelligence that is behind Life. We can be present to what life is asking of us in the moment.

Here is the challenge of life that we all face daily. When uncomfortable thoughts and feelings arise–worry, anxiety, fear, anger, etc.–we can choose not to identify with those thoughts and feelings. Those thoughts and feelings will pass as we go about our business, one step at a time, in pursuit of our purpose. We don’t have to live through the day being kicked around by our thoughts and feelings; we can make the choice to live by our purpose.


There are just a few seats left my for my upcoming, September 27th workshop: Your Highest Purpose: Living and Leading from the Place that Truly Matters 

6 Responses to Purpose Quiets Our Thinking

  1. Molly Gordon says:

    Thank you for this one, Barry. I’ve been going around in circles with a project, working on it in fits and starts, and assessing my shifting interest and engagement as evidence that the time was not ripe. But as I sit with your post, I think that what is truer is that I had been focusing on those things Thomas Krech lists, and the inevitable result was that I saw what i feared: disengagement. How much simpler it is to choose to engage and let the passion and purpose take care of themselves.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks for the insight, Molly. Do you know the War of Art and Turning Pro by Stephen Pressfield? They are two little brilliant books on resistance. I meet myself on his pages with every rereading.

      • Molly Gordon says:

        Pressfield’s books didn’t resonate with me, Barry. The battle metaphor took me toward struggle rather than commitment. I’ll take another look.

        • Barry Brownstein says:

          Molly, I can appreciate what you say about the battle metaphor. For me, Pressfield is valuable because he reminds us that non-personal resistance is rearing its head every moment and its messages can be seductive. If we turn in resistance’s direction and identify with its message we are sunk. I read in his work that the key element is commitment to our purpose rather than struggling with our ego. He does make it clear that resistance (our ego) has only the power that we give it. So I agree with you, struggle would play into the hands of our ego.

  2. Jim Pier says:

    I heard a talk by Seth Godin in which he makes a similar observation about Pressfield’s use of the battle metaphor. Godin said he finds it more helpful to view his experience with Resistance as a ‘dance.’ I like that.

    I agree that The War of Art and Turning Pro are very good, Barry. As far as his use of war metaphors–I suspect that could be down to this: his primary work is writing novels about war. Very, very good ones.

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks, Jim. Agreed; I enjoyed Pressfield’s novels about Greece very much. The Legend of Bagger Vance is a fun and instructive read too.

      Thanks too for the Godin talk tip.

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