Life purpose and the world

One of the most powerful resources we have for creating a better world is the focused and joyful life energy of every person on earth. To the extent we can tap into that in ourselves, work with the diverse life energies of those around us, and help create systems and cultures that bring all that life energy into the world in vast life-serving ways, we’ll have the world we want.

I’ve been having conversations with several friends recently about life purpose. I often share an evocative guidance I once heard – “Find out where your joy meets the world’s need”.

Given the urgency of our global situation and the systems that cause most of the suffering and destruction that need to be addressed, I often amend that quote like this:

“Find out where your joy and gifts meet the world’s need at the highest level of systemic leverage that you can manage, given your current understanding” (with an assumption that your understanding will probably increase over time, and thus your sense of what the world needs may evolve along with it).

Then a friend sent me this graphic:

At first I thought it was a brilliant expansion and integration of the “where your joy meets the world’s need” idea. Its brilliance at first blinded me both to its shortcomings and to the unfamiliar concept at its core: ikigai. Several days passed before I actually looked up ikigai in Wikipedia. I learned that “Ikigai … is a Japanese concept that means ‘a reason for being’ [and] is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile. Secondly, the word is used to refer to mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable.”

Intrigued, I dug up some more articles about ikigai. Here are excerpts from the two I found most interesting.


From Alex Myles’ “Discover Your Ikigai—(Your Reason For Living)

An ikigai is often described as an intense internal burning desire to carry out a personal mission that we have a strong affinity to. We may not be able to reasonably explain why, but we will feel a magnetic attraction to explore a particular path and will feel drawn towards anything that is associated with it. When we manifest whatever is pulling at us, we will receive an intense internal satisfaction, which makes us feel fulfilled and gives new layers of meaning to our lives.

Finding and igniting our ikigai is not a complex task. When we are quiet and still it is often the first thing that comes to our mind when we think about what we would do if we had as much time or resources required to bring it to life. The reason I mention “life” is because an ikigai takes on its own energy and once the creation has been birthed it gains momentum so that it feels to its creator as though it is “alive.”

…. The basis of an ikigai is that it is immensely pleasurable and that it not only benefits and enriches our own life, but that it also enhances other people’s lives too. It is about finding value in something that we love doing while mastering and developing talents and skills to ensure that it is sustainable.

From Chip Richards’ “Ikigai: Finding your Reason for Being

American mythologist and author Joseph Campbell shared his view on fulfilling our purpose when he said… ‘Follow your bliss.’ Sacred Activism encourages us on the other hand to find our purpose by ‘following our heartbreak’. Andrew Harvey calls us to discover that which is most deeply disturbing in our world and to use this as a catalyst to propel our actions and discover where we can make the biggest difference.

Meanwhile, philosopher and civil rights leader Howard W. Thurman said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that… Because what the world really needs is people who have come alive.”

While each of these viewpoints are powerfully compelling in their own right, whether we are following our bliss, following our heartbreak, or that which makes us come alive (or a combination of all three!), for many of us there is also an apparent need to follow that which pays the bills each month and allows us to cover the basic necessities of life. So how do we balance all of these factors in the creation of a life which is meaningful, purposeful and aligned with our true calling? Is it possible to have it all? The essence of ikigai gives us a framework to balance these elements into a cohesive whole.


All this not only intrigued me but brought me home to my own life and experience.

I experience my work on co-intelligence and wise democracy as a “calling” – or “vocation” (from the Latin word for “voice”), as many Christians call it. Someone with a calling or vocation actually feels very much like they are being summoned, invited or demanded – even possessed – to show up to do a particular kind of work. This “calling” seems to from within or from some transpersonal source. It has a real insistence to it; one cannot not-do it. Religious people speak of vocation as being “called by God”. Quite often there is an intense mix of challenge and support, joy and struggle involved in responding to this call, but in any case it is deeply meaningful and compelling.

That’s what came up for me when I read about ikigai. Ikigai seemed to be about a calling. But I was puzzled by the fact that Richards suggests that your vocation is “what you’re good at” while the graphic (used by both Richards and Myles) places vocation at the intersection between what the world needs and what you can be paid for.

More and more it felt like calling and vocation were not very well represented by the graphic, nor fully understood by Richards and Myles, even though I intuitively felt it must be central to ikigai.

So I researched calling and vocation. One of the first things I learned was where that quote I shared at the beginning of this message came from. It is derived from theologian Frederick Buechner’s statement that “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” Buechner had a lot more to say about vocation, but it was framed in Christian terms that did not speak readily to my own perspectives (though it may speak well to yours).

Quaker Parker Palmer added some additional ideas about callings that fit my own experience. In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation he writes, “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’ …. [It] comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about–quite apart from what I would like it to be about… I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”

That sounds a lot to me like ikigai.

But still that original graphic of overlapping circles seemed to cover a lot of ground that I didn’t want to overlook. I reflected on how I would articulate the different factors that seem to me to be involved in this compelling realm of life. I came up with seven that don’t easily fit in a diagram (I tried!!) but seem comfortable in a list…


I can see at least seven dimensions to our lives that makes them important to ourselves and others. They are distinct but not separate: They can overlap in various combinations, even manifesting all together in one person’s life. Consider:

  1. What you love (that attracts you and makes you happy) – your joys, passions, aspirations, interests.
  2. What you have to offer (especially what you are good at) – your gifts, skills, talents, resources, contributions.
  3. What the world needs (that speaks to you) – your mission, purpose, causes, concerns about others.
  4. What you can’t not do (especially anything that you feel some inner or transpersonal power has “given” you to do or invited you to do) – your calling, vocation.
  5. What you do in society (what other people see you doing or think you are doing or expect from you) – your role, function, responsibility, duty, position.
  6. What you are supported or paid for doing – your profession, occupation, employment, livelihood.
  7. What gives your life meaning – your ikigai, reason for being, focus and source of life energy and value.

The various combinations of these show up differently in different people’s lives. I suspect that the more they manifest and overlap in our individual lives, the more whole, thriving and valuable we feel. This may be the essence of ikigai – but then again, maybe it’s not; I can’t really tell, since I’m not Japanese. But that sense of vibrant personal wholeness and meaning is definitely real to me both as an ideal and as a felt experience.

When we lack that level of meaning and vibrant wholeness, I can imagine it might be useful (as some articles on ikigai suggest) to explore each of these dimensions in our own life – as they are and as we’d like them to be – to see what comes up. I can imagine doing this in the form of list-making, meditation, oracles (like Tarot or I Ching), dreamwork, contemplative writing, expressive arts, talking with friends or spiritual guides, or any other means of deep inquiry and reflection we each may find useful.

Given my activist inclinations, I am particularly interested in #3 What the world needs. The world needs so much. So – as I noted earlier – I encourage you to look beyond the immediate suffering and destruction that disturbs you and breaks your heart to the systemic and cultural causes that keep generating such suffering and destruction. We of course need to ground ourselves in the empathy and concern we feel, but we can increase the effectiveness of those emotional powers by deepening our understanding of what’s going on, where various problems come from, and where, as Andrew Harvey says, “we can make the biggest difference”. As part of that, we can also pause to reflect: “Given where we are at and where things are at, what is possible now?”

Finally, I want to note one last weakness I see in the 4-circle diagram: The bottom circle represents “What you can be paid for”. In my model’s #6 above I’ve added the words “livelihood” and “support” because I think that money (“paid”) and exchange (“paid FOR”) narrow our vision of what is possible in that aspect of ikigai. True, most of us need some money, given the way society is currently set up. But potential non-monetary resources exist that can also support our ongoing life, functioning, and sense of abundance. The more we tap into them and gift them to ourselves and each other, the greater our sense of abundance will grow while at the same time healing and transforming our world. And money, too, can serve that purpose. Money can given as a gift or in the spirit of “pay it forward” (enabling others to benefit or someone to continue to serve) instead of as a tit-for-tat exchange.


The wise democracy pattern language identifies many aspects of life we can explore to help us understand these things and help them sprout and flourish in our own lives and the lives of those around us. These facets of life include, but are not limited to, the fourteen patterns listed below. Try picking one or two that speak to you and explore them on the links provided to see what comes up for you.

Well Utilized Life Energy
for tapping and supporting purpose, calling, and ikigai in everyone, including yourself

Caring into Quality
for manifesting your ikigai beautifully in the world

for fully expressing what you love and care about

Big Empathy
for responding effectively beyond what’s immediate – deeper into space, time, systems, life

Grounding in Fundamental Needs
for getting clear on the range and nature of what will truly serve people and life

Possibility Thinking
for asking what is possible now, that you could do to make a difference

Systems Thinking
for looking beyond the world’s suffering and destruction to what causes those tragedies

Nature First
for grounding yourself in the most important things the world itself needs

Life-Enhancing Enoughness
for tapping the abundance of simplicity, companionship, health, beauty, gratitude, generosity, equity, spirit and creativity

Universal Intelligence
for accessing transpersonal guidance, over and over

Synergy between Part and Whole
for exploring the most wholesome roles you can have in your community and world

Powerful Questions
for figuring out the most potent pathways to clarify all of this for you

Visionary Attractors
for envisioning what calls to you

Using Diversity and Disturbance Creatively
for tapping into the disturbance you feel and see for guidance into your own mission or calling


One of the most powerful resources we have for creating a better world is the focused and joyful life energy of every person on earth. To the extent we can tap into that in ourselves, work with the diverse life energies of those around us, and help create systems and cultures that bring all that life energy into the world in vast life-serving ways, we’ll have the world we want.


PS: If you want to help disaster victims, check out these resources….
General guidance on disaster assistance
Non-Red Cross charities for disaster support
The Houston Food Bank (my brother’s recommendation for Houston)

However, the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that the most endangered victims are and will be the poor people who live near chemical plants wracked by these storms, and therefore they encourage people to donate to Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.).

Furthermore, in light of my notes above about systemic causes, you might also consider supporting any organization addressing climate disruption, the materialist economics and cultures that drive it, or the coopted politics and governance structures that enable it. Until those kinds of organizations can achieve the power to be effective, the hurricanes, droughts, flooding, tornadoes, wildfires, diseases, migrations, wars, and all the other disruptions associated with climate chaos will continue to grow and demand charitable efforts to alleviate the resulting suffering, thus reducing the funds available to support transforming the causes of all that suffering and thereby accelerating “compassion fatigue” with no reduction of mounting disasters….

See the Big Empathy reference above.

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole

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