The False Grail
The myth of the Holy Grail—and of purpose, Robert Johnson, John Paul Brammer, Toko-Pa Turner, John Daniel, Connor Beaton, and how we can move towards purpose with intuition, connection, and adventure.
One day in my junior year of high school, just as I was getting started on my earliest years of serious drinking, an older family friend asked me what I was intending to do in life. We were in the back office of the upper flat where I lived with my mom on Church Street, a classic two-up San Francisco Edwardian right along the streetcar line and around the corner from the local fire house. I sat working at the machine of the moment, an IBM PC ‘Junior’ with a color display and a janky little keyboard whose square-sided keys often stuck.
Betty was a friend and neighbor who’s been something of an aunt to me—wide-hipped, warm and womanly, funny and free—and openly shared her glee at not having kids of her own. I was working on my creative writing homework, bashing away in Wordstar, when she turned to me and asked, “So, Bo, what’s it gonna be?” I quickly thumbed the Control key and then the K-S command sequence to save the document that I was working on, listened for the grr-grrb sound of the floppy drive, looked over, and said “I’m going to be a writer—in my fifties.”
As I heard myself say those words, I was thinking of some of my favorite books sitting on the shelf in the next room: Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, and the hard SF of Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and Charles Sheffield. These books were already part of my identity, but I hadn’t made any connection between the short fantasy stories that I was writing in school with the idea of “writing”, let alone writing a book, something that felt totally unknown and as far from my world as a fifteen-year-old feels from fifty.
Even so, I completed my answer as if I knew that “Now, all I need are stories.” Betty smiled and looked back at me with satisfaction and said. “That’s right. So, go get them.” I understood that I needed material, and I was pleased at having had come up with an answer that sounded like it made sense—and I was also relieved, since the way it came out gave me about thirty-five more years to fuck off and party before I had to get down to business. It never occurred to me that there might be something to write about in the experience of life that I was already living—drinking and using drugs in junior high and high school, growing up skateboarding in San Francisco, starting a business at the age of nine, learning to rock climb in Yosemite, sailing in the Bay, watching some of my young friends decline into addiction, and some of them die. My friend’s suggestion that I begin right away to gather my own stories went right past me. I didn’t stop to think about how one can dedicate a life to gathering and telling stories, especially the stories of travel and adventure that I already loved.
That message that I shared with Betty prefigured on my behalf that I would have to wait until I was fifty to have anything worth writing about, or to be ready to write it, and I was half-baked and not-quite-clear in the head enough to put aside the whole conversation. That moment of inspiration slipped by as quickly as it had arrived, and before long, I forgot, or, more honestly and accurately, I buried it.
I buried my knowledge, my ambition, and my glimpse of purpose beneath fear, uncertainty, and hesitation.
In the years to follow, I really did believe that I had no idea what I wanted to or was meant to be, although if I look back in my journal, the evidence is there all along. I was distracted—and I was in denial. Right on schedule, the original message began to resurface more often in my forties, and then in a gathering, increasingly insistent drumbeat as I approached my fiftieth birthday. All along the way, of course, I repeated my oh-so-sad story of how I wasn’t ‘one of those people’ who knew what he wanted to be, how difficult it was for me to have been born that way, and how, if only I just knew, I would certainly find the energy to apply myself.
The fact is that it was once clear to me what I’m here to do, but then not again with any compelling clarity until midlife. Instead of pursuing my vision directly, I spent my late teens doing drugs and drinking—and then, after giving up psychedelics, marijuana, MDMA and meth—going to college and grad school, working my way through a first career that I was good at but didn’t identify with and a second that I hated much of the time for the same reason, drinking too much but still not enough to qualify, watching porn, flying around the country to have sex with women that I’d met online, and pursuing that bottomless well of joy and delusion that we know as romantic love.
Throughout these years, I was increasingly depressed and self-medicating with alcohol, sex, porn, travel, work, and shopping. Despite my outward exuberance and success, I felt lonely, disconnected, anxious, misaligned, uncertain, ungrounded, unhappy, and, most of all—purposeless.
As I eventually approached the five-oh called out in my teenage prophecy, I did finally allow myself to unearth and consume that message that I had first gotten as a teen, and, thanks mostly to my second career, I was by then in a position to commit myself to writing, even though whatever that meant remained very much in the realm of the unknown.
Not so much any longer, but for years I would kick myself with the question of whether I could have paid more attention to that original inspiration, and might have I been able to become more of who I wanted to be much earlier in life—and maybe avoided several deep ends, drunken detours and dark highways of delirium in the meantime? What would my life have been like if I had held on to that vision and pursued it from the start? Having received a clear statement of my reason for being, why had I buried it and then spent years lamenting claiming to not know? More generally, what is purpose, where does it come from, why do so many of us feel like we don’t know what ours is—and, is there any way to figure out what that individual purpose is?
Like everything that emerges from the subconscious, to the extent that we can actually move towards purpose, we can only do so indirectly. There isn’t any single process, procedure or spell that will reveal purpose all at once, but there are several ways to steer in its direction, which is what I aim to explore further in this piece.
As with so many commonly occurring patterns of our lives, the archetype of purpose is the focus of many myths, fairy tales, and spiritual precepts, and Jungian psychology is rich with interpretations that help to explain the inner workings of the subconscious. Searching for guidance and meaning, I studied He, Robert A. Johnson’s classic treatment of the myth of the Holy Grail as an allegory for purpose. It’s a quest for the grail—and so, as I began, I thought the story tells us that the grail represents purpose—as if figuring out our purpose is the treasure that grants access to the kingdom—happiness, and for that matter, manhood.
As I read He for the second time, I stayed with one of the core parts of the story, hoping that it would reveal something more to me. As Johnson puts it, “Every youth blunders his way into the Grail castle sometime around age fifteen or sixteen and has a vision that shapes much of the rest of his life.” So there it was—my intuition about my eventual calling was my very own glimpse of the castle. The thing is, as Johnson continues, “Like Parsifal,” the knight seeking the grail, “he is unprepared for this and does not have the possession…that would make the experience conscious and stable within him.”
The point is that this mythical youth—that’s me, or you, son—may well get close to the “grail” early in life, but that he most likely won’t have the presence to know what he’s got his hands on, or what do to about it—or that he’ll be distracted by the more attractive idea of driving off to Lake Merced on his motorcycle to do bong hits and guzzle beer from a plastic cup—for thirty-five years, even, until eventually, gradually, and very painfully, having accumulated enough hours of therapy and broken dreams and hellish hangovers and expensive moves and crying in the shower to realize that I really didn’t want to end up the old guy at the party with a bottle of warm beer in his hand, and to find my way back to the exact same idea that had come to me so clearly—and so briefly—when I was an angry adolescent.
Now, I have to say that it was at least a little bit reassuring that my story matches Parsifal’s so precisely, and that Johnson gives me such a convenient explanation for the willful forgetting of what, now, in retrospect, was precisely the all-important purpose that I spent much of the rest of my life complaining about not having had. He seems to be suggesting that I can let myself off the hook, and join with Parsifal in admitting that while I did catch a peek at my purpose, I was legitimately unprepared to act upon it.
But then, what to make of the years between fifteen and fifty? And not just for me, but for all the rest of us, because, while “Theoretically it should be possible for a man to stay in the Grail castle the first time,” for most men (with the notable exceptions of Johnson himself, and also of his mentor, Carl Jung) it is “so painful, so incomprehensible, that they immediately repress it and say, ‘I don’t remember,’” which is of course exactly what happened to me. I set foot in the castle, and then within a year or so I had forgotten what it looked like, or that I had even been there.
Fortunately, we do get a second chance, it’s just that it usually takes something like “twenty years of arduous knight-errantry to get Parsifal’s homespun garment removed so that he can be the strong male who can stand the beauty of the Grail—the greatest symbol of the mother archetype.” This is all coded in several layers, but the “mother” here represents our desire to remain at ‘home’ where it is safe, as opposed to venturing out into the world. What Johnson is proposing by way of his interpretation is that most of us need the years prior to our middle age—our adventuring years—to develop the courage to go into the unknown to find, come across, locate, stumble upon, or admit our purpose—and that’s before we can even begin to actually work on it. That we have to establish our own place in the world before we have any chance of seeing what might appear to be our purpose. The thing is that, of course, we usually feel like purpose is what we need to feel like someone in the first place, and we suffer greatly along the way for the lack of that someone-hood that we feel is the result of the lack of purpose, when in fact it works the other way around.
That brief sighting—and the subsequent forgetting—left me with a “haunting sense of injury and incompleteness”—a desperate feeling that I was not doing whatever it was that I really should be doing, and on top of that, that I didn’t even know what it was that I should be doing! This not knowing caused me a lot of pain—not only in the first place, but also in terms of by what I did to try to anesthetize the agony of not knowing. Eventually though, I began to get tired of forgetting, and also to get sick of being sick. While I remained unwilling to fully acknowledge my incipient memory, I was increasingly aware of the damage that I was doing with so much avoiding in the form of nightly rounds, ceaseless travel, and love shows.
Was I unconsciously escaping the pain of having seen, and then forgotten, what I was here to do? Yes, in part, but there’s more to it than just that. I’m not quite willing to chalk up my years of drinking and depression entirely to compensating for that pain, especially since, as the archetypal story of the Grail spells out, that is exactly what happens for most of us. If seeing and then forgetting our purpose early on is so common, and we really do need the years to develop the capacity to remember it, then the forgetting can’t really be so traumatic as to justify spending the intervening years punishing oneself for letting it slide.
Or, I suppose it could, because that’s how life is—and it was, but of course there were also other things which pointed me in the direction of a long-standing and eventually very damaging “pattern of avoidance of responsibility” for myself. My parents’ emotional neglect, the ready availability of drugs and alcohol, the nihilism of my circle of friends, a lack of positive role models and mentoring—many things, including the pain of seeing the grail, all negative. Just like John Paul Brammer’s friend Miguel in his book ¡Hola Papi!, over time, I had defined myself in the negative. I had become more determined by things that I wasn’t than things that I was, and my going away from life was threatening to become my life.
As M. Scott Peck writes in The Road Less Traveled, “In the succinctly elegant words of Carl Jung, ’Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.’ But the substitute itself ultimately becomes more painful than the legitimate suffering it was designed to avoid.” The “legitimate suffering,” in my case, was the existential challenge of actually beginning to write. Whether I subsumed my precocious intention to do so until the time in my life when it became more possible for me, or I just ginned up three decades of substitute suffering and then finally gave up trying to avoid the real work, these two paths did eventually reconcile themselves as one and the same, alchemizing the psychic material entangled in their twined-together vines, finally, into some gold. I stopped drinking and started writing at the age of forty-eight, both at which point without much struggle.
If we accept the universality of the Grail myth, are most of us destined to suffer for as many years as Parsifal (and me), with the knowledge that the grail is out there and that we may have even seen it already, and that until if and when we mange to grasp it again, we will feel so deeply in that meantime not only the pain of not knowing our true calling, and of knowing that we do not know it, but also that we are not moving towards it, and instead towards some false grail, the pursuit of which threatens—and may well thwart entirely—our ultimate melding with our ’real’ purpose?
That’s how it felt to me—that I had been on a vast detour of decades spent manifesting my own pathology, only to eventually and very gradually circle back and find myself exactly where I’d started—or would have started, if I had.
As I further digested the Grail myth and began to understand how archetypes work, it occurred to me that, given that this story is familiar enough to so many of us on a personal basis as to have chiseled out a persistent image in our collective human history, if we accept Johnson’s interpretation, then this long middle period of pursuing a substitute goal must also be a necessary part of life. If more of us were wired to feel purpose earlier in life, well, then, we wouldn’t have the Grail myth, would we?—because Parsifal’s tale is simply the sedimentary agglomeration of thousands of prior human generations experiencing a similar struggle.
With that understanding, I began to feel some deeper reassurance that my own version of the story couldn’t really be “false.” It felt unfortunate, and painful, but I began to feel less alone, and less broken in my experience.
The full version of Johnson’s line about possession that I quoted earlier is that Parsifal “does not have the possession to ask the question that would make the experience [of the Grail] conscious…” (emphasis mine). The question that Parsifal failed to ask is, “Whom does the Grail serve?” which, at first, remains impenetrably obtuse. The equally opaque answer that our knight failed to produce is that the Grail serves the
“Grail King.” Without knowing anything else about the Grail, then, we are told that to reach it, we must ask—and know—that the “grail” serves God, or, in Jungian terms, the Universe, the larger Self. More important than the grail is who the grail serves.
I’ve found the Buddhist concept of dukkha to be the most helpful encapsulation of our universal, profound, and often seemingly unlimited sense of dissatisfaction with life. Our unenlightened insistence is that if only some thing could be done, gotten, or achieved, then we would feel the sense of satisfaction that we so desperately want. The solution offered by Buddhism is, more or less, to defocus on the goal and become more aware of this constant striving as a feature of human existence, and that that awareness will serve to relieve some of the suffering.
What both dukkha and the Grail myth illuminate are that this something—the thing that we imagine attaining, what seems like purpose—is and will remain unattainable, regardless of what it is, or even whether we are aware of it, or not, and that what lies beneath this only perhaps-knowable purpose is the constancy of our forever desiring to move ahead towards something. The fact that we rarely remain satisfied with our present state is what drives us forwards in life. Therefore, our dissatisfaction is an expression of our basic life energy. Even when we do form a clear image of a goal and manage to reach it, we are rarely satisfied for long, or completely, and, generally, before long, we feel the need to keep moving towards something else—if we could only figure out what that might be. Ad infinitum—and it can feel like suffering, but it also hugely generative. In a way, dissatisfaction with the status quo and creative energy are one and the same.
These two mental models are nearly identical, and they both carry the same message—that our striving is our purpose. We are all born with “Grail-castle hunger,” the desire to do something that feels meaningful, as we are also born into perpetually feeling unsatisfied with our present state. If the “grail,” once attained, does not satisfy, the grail conceived in that way, as an object, a singular goal, a treasure hidden under the X on the map—that must be false.
The Grail is not some specific purpose—it’s a symbol for purpose. The search for the grail is the grail. It’s recursive. This interpretation of the grail myth is essentially the same as the Tao, the way, the path—and attaining “the grail” is not only possible only by walking the path, as expressed by the Taoist concept of de, but walking the path is the grail. It’s not the goal that holds the meaning— it’s the process of finding meaning that is precisely how we create meaning. Often enough this process does feels like suffering, or at least like a struggle, but we could also consider it a journey, and that our purpose is simply to make our way, and to make it as well as we can.
As Toko-Pa Turner writes, “Getting caught up in the question ‘What is my purpose? is like looking for shoes instead of walking forward.” Rather than to find the Grail, your purpose, driven by a seemingly bottomless dissatisfaction, is to ever-more passionately continue your life-long search for the Grail, and to serve others along the way. All of the diversions and more material goals and purposes in life that we come up with along the way are small-g grails—intermediate manifestations of some greater purpose and opportunities to serve others along the way, so as to make a “contribution of beauty medicine to the world.”
The “grail,” then, seems to be more about how one is living than what one is aiming for.
So, “Whom does the Grail serve?” means ‘Hey Kid, it’s not all about you.’ Get out of your own head and serve something larger—which does serve fairly well as a general-purpose purpose for everyone, but it doesn’t answer the question of what is my specific purpose, what am I here to do that’s different, and unique, and that makes me, the specific individual, feel purposeful and alive. And, lacking that, I still suffer.
What about me, me, me me me, and my purpose?
In the final section of Johnson’s treatment, he explores the territory beyond the end of the traditional Grail story, where Parsifal returns to the castle and finally does ask the right question, at which everyone rejoices. This rejoicing represents happiness, and that “if you serve the Grail and the Grail King properly, you will find that what happens and happiness are the same thing,” a play on words that reminds me of John Daniel’s writing in Rogue River Journal—“Happiness does not mean joy. The word is related to ‘happen,’ which comes from the Middle English ‘hap’—chance, fortune, that which occurs. Haps are what happen, and so happiness amounts to a shortened form of the very happenings of the world. The nature of happiness, in other words, is the happiness of Nature.”
In my own consciousness, the idea began to emerge some time ago that my most basic purpose is to be myself as much as possible—and, as much as possible, in alignment with the patterns of nature. Johnson concludes He by stating that the search the Grail is roughly equivalent to another Taoist concept—tsu-jan, which “can be taken psychologically as the living reality of self-realization or the creative urge of the Self manifesting itself in nature.”
This shows me that what I have come to intuitively understand about what is healthy and right for my own psyche aligns not only with Johnson’s own understanding, but that expressed in the deeply-worn story-lines of the Grail myth, as well as those of Taoism and Buddhism, all of which, I have to say, does make me feel sort of warm inside. But it still doesn’t get to final question—if our universal highest purpose is to serve something larger than ourselves, and our foundational, also universal purpose is maximally manifest our self-realization in alignment with the natural ’happiness’ that is Nature, then how do we locate a purpose that feels individual and specific, and that will motivate us on a daily basis?
One thing leads to another, and here, all three of these parts fit so closely together as to be part of a cosmic machine of purpose. For there to be any chance of personal purpose taking visible shape, we have to be moving along a path which is strung between fully embodying our individual selves and the spiritual goal of selflessly serving the greater good. Psychiatrist Phil Stutz, co-author of The Tools and the subject of the documentary Stutz, puts it like this: “The only way to find out what you should be doing, like who you are, is to activate your life force. …It's about passion—increasing your life force so you can find out what you're really passionate about.”
What Stutz calls life force is being on a path that serves your own body, serves others, and serves yourself—and if it does, then you are on a good path, and that is all you have to do—and also, what you must do. Being on this path—not just a path, or the path, but a good path of being and doing good—is the first step towards purpose. You can see how this is necessary if you think about it the other way around: there’s no way that you could feel authentically purposeful if you are not a person that is doing good, a person that you are proud to be—a person that you respect. This is why so many of us remain terminally dissatisfied, despite outward success.
For many people, just being on a good path can be powerfully satisfying enough to feel like purpose—and it is. It just so happens though, that exactly this same state of being that can provide some relief from the general dissatisfaction of not feeling quite enough purpose is also the only psychic place from which we can possibly access a more specific feeling of reason for being. As Connor Beaton puts it, “It’s a spiritual thrust, a river that you're put on…” and on that river, “Your life begins to slowly turn more and more and more towards congruency and coherence, and the more coherence you feel...the more purposeful you feel,” and I agree, but something else is required. As satisfying as it is to feel in our bones that we are on a good path, we tend to want to feel something more specific—something that feels like not just purpose, but my purpose.
As I mentioned to begin with, we can only move towards purpose indirectly. Beaton puts this in terms of our individual purpose being an “emergence”, that “forms out of the formless.” To have have some real chance of individual purpose being revealed, we have to go beyond the path of general goodness and move deliberately into the unknown, towards what we do not know—because of course, that is the only place the answer can lie.
We need a guide to navigate the unknown. We need our daimon, our inner voice, our subconscious intuition—our soul—to go with us and help navigate the unknown. We can look and look and look—in my case, for all the years between fifteen and forty-eight—and purpose will elude us, but if we can turn towards the unknown with the knowledge that we are already in alignment with some sort of purpose (living well, doing good, feeding our life force), and with the support of an active relationship with intuition, then we have a pretty good chance at coming across something that might well feel like purpose.
Intuition, of course, presents yet another barrier. Many of us do not have a vibrant relationship with our inner voice, and have no idea how to get there. There are many ways to cultivate this relationship, but the short answer is that you just have to start paying attention, and acting upon what you hear.
In my case, around the time I sold my business, I (not co-incidentally) received two very precise but indirect messages: “Become an Artist,” and “Decide Nothing.” The first wasn’t exactly “become a writer,” but it was very close, and pointed me in the right direction, which was also very much into the unknown. So, how to get there, if “there” is unknown? The second message provided that answer—it was telling me to decide nothing, that is, to use my non-deciding mind—my intuition.
Prior to that, I did not have a very strong dialogue with the voice of my subconscious, but the guidance to “decide nothing” as a first step was enough to set me on a new path. When I came to what felt like a decision, instead of trying to figure out what to do, or, for that matter, struggling to get in touch with my intuition, I returned to the mantra of decide nothing—which usually meant doing anything other than trying to decide—and then found my way forward from there.
Most of what happened in the few years that immediately followed was not about writing at all. I decided nothing all over the map, and my intuition led me to Sicily, South Africa, Brazil, and the Philippines. It led me to become an adventure guide and a coach. It led me to move to Sausalito. It led me many places, and along the way, I got to feel what it felt like to notice and rely more my intuition. I developed a relationship with my deeper self, simply through the practice of giving it space to speak, and listening and acting upon what I heard. It wasn’t until a few years later that that voice began to speak more clearly and directly, which is, in turn, what led me to stop drinking alcohol, and, finally, to start writing.
The point is that, an encounter with individual purpose will only occur on the path between self and service, in the realm of the unknown, and in close conversation with the subconscious. You can’t go directly towards purpose, but you can go towards those things. You can go towards being yourself as much as possible, feeding your life force. You can go towards being of service to something larger than yourself, and you can go towards a stronger relationship with intuition, which I’ve written about that in great detail here and here, amongst other places.
You can even go towards the unknown. How? One technique is to consider seeing fear as just a message, and to move towards where fear waves a flag. Another is to practice adventure, which is precisely the purposeful movement into the unknown, with just enough preparedness to avoid disaster.
The fact is that, at fifteen, in a way, I did understand my fear of not having enough to write about as a message guiding me towards gathering material, and I did, gradually, over the coming years, align myself more and more towards becoming myself, and also towards being in service to others. I certainly did practice adventure—and, when finally, eventually, I did develop a relationship with my intuition, what felt like my purpose emerged, or re-emerged, fairly quickly and clearly. I sure wish it hadn’t taken so long, but who am I to know whether that could have been possible? Certainly not in this life that I inhabit—because it would necessarily be a different one.
One major factor in my own life that bears emphasizing here is that it’s very likely that I would have developed a stronger relationship with my intuition, and, therefore, quite possibly, with purpose, earlier in life if I had not been clouding my senses with frequent use of alcohol and drugs. I’m not saying that any use of intoxicants is incompatible with intuition (or purpose), but in my case, the extent, frequency and quantity of my use did very much shut down my ability to feel myself, which is another way of describing what intuition is. Without that sense of knowing-without-knowing-how, there is no way to sense clearly what or where purpose might be.
So for you, my friend, the answer to the question of “what is my purpose?“ is simply to be yourself as much as possible, to be on a good path, and to move towards the unknown, in partnership with your intuition. Do that until if and when you come to a more specific answer, and if you do, know that you are blessed, at least temporarily, with a feeling that many of us never experience—and also know that it may be fleeting, and that you may be unsatisfied with the results or achievements along the way. If you do not come to a more specific answer, know that you are blessed as well, with the freedom to grow along a path that you know is good, and that you may not bear the benefit—or the curse—of having to fulfill a more specific calling.
This is where we return to what the grail stands for. As much as the Grail, or the goal, is the search for the “grail”—and so, the grail is the way, the path, the string of pearls that is life itself…and that life is your life, and so, the Grail is also…you, which is why “Whom does the Grail serve?” can be translated as “Whom does your life serve?” or, “what is your purpose in life?”
While it confounded me for quite some time that this central message was posed as a question, I believe it is because we all seem to have to ask it before we can come to any sort of answer. The answer to the question is that first of all we are here to serve the “King,” our higher Self, or the way, and if we do that, then, any more specific purpose is a bonus—and not nearly as important. In this light, we can understand the Grail myth as one of many attempts at a guide to a good life—set yourself on a good path, and you will reach the ‘goal’ of living a life that feels like it has meaning.
I still feel pain and shame sometimes, feeling that I went off the rails for so long, and I do sincerely wish for all of us that if you do get a look at the grail castle at some early point in life, to be unafraid to approach and to interrogate it, to ask of it, as Parsifal did, but only in the end, how can I serve you? and then to draw upon all your resources and courage to move towards that unknown.
Whether or not I could have come to a sense of purpose sooner remains unknown. It does seem that part of this archetypal pattern is that we do get a legitimate chance at it early in life, but most of us miss that, and then we have to wait a long time for another go. My feeling about what both Johnson and Jung posit, that “The Grail castle is always that close, but it is generally at mid-adolescence or middle age that it easily opens to one,” is just as much an expression of the possibility of expanding that opening than of an intrinsic limitation of our psyche to only these two openings. I would suggest that it not be a coincidence that this pattern of there being, in general, for most men, only two opportunities to glimpse the beauty of the Grail matches very closely the patterns of life in a world where men’s lives are defined by sacrificing their selves to earn the right to exist, which is essentially what has been required by our patriarchal socio-economic model. We get one chance at the Grail before we go off to work, and then another when we socked enough away to take some of the pressure off.
This brings me to one final piece of the alchemy of purpose, which is related to this same patriarchal pattern.
Our ability to see the beauty and limitless opportunity of the world, and to develop a sense of individual purpose as a personal expression of that beauty, will naturally emerge from the creative spark of human intuition. This is our innate capacity for pattern recognition and to digest what we take in and express it as something not only beautiful but also truly new in the universe. This is our generative, creative life force, which comes from within.
Gaining a sense of what my own creative essence could mean, how it fits into the context of the world—that comes from outside, from connection, from community, and from love. And, for me, as a man, in practical terms, this is community with other men. My intuition spoke clearly on the subject of purpose only after an invitation from other men brought it to the surface. I knew that I would “become a writer in my fifties” when I was fifteen, but I didn’t digest that or allow it to become part of myself until I was nearly fifty. I didn’t have the courage to ‘ask the Grail question’ and receive the answer that “I’m here to tell the truth,” until I could locate myself in the world of men.
Somehow I knew in my bones when I was just fifteen that I would have to live out what Terry Real calls the “Icarus myth—that you have to leave connection, and leave your family to go off and fly into the heavens in order to be worthy of connection.” Our patriarchal culture and economy run contrary to forming the deep connections that are required for us to feel not just one by one of, just as our economy limits us to only two windows of opportunity to the truth of our lives, and just as that our culture has also discouraged and inhibited intuition, particularly for men.
My feeling is that we are not necessarily limited to two windows into the Golden world, and that all of this leaving of ourselves and each other is what closed the space between, and created the “dry years of a man’s middle age.” Human consciousness is laden with contradictions, but I just can’t quite swallow the idea that we’re meant to struggle in frustration for much of our prime, feeling that we don’t know that to do with ourselves. My feeling is that this struggle is at least in part evidence of something that we constructed and have carried in recent times—but not forever.
Johnson tells us that “the castle is indeed always close,” by which he means elusive—but I believe that we can free ourselves to feel more purpose. As my friend Ari put it, “it’s not something that you find and you hold on to… Our life is like an onion—we find a layer…we finish that part of our life, and we then we find another layer.” As much as I feel purposeful at the moment, I’m sure that I will again feel adrift between layers—and I will remember that there is a path that leads towards a feeling of purpose.
The Grail myth has been helpful for me in coming to know that I’m not alone in the feeling of having gotten a look at purpose and then lost it for so long, in understanding our desire for some single thing that would resolve the search for purpose, and also how universal a truth it is that purpose can only be discovered along the way, not as an end goal. Beyond that, intuition, adventure, and connection have shown themselves to be critically important to me in developing a relationship with purpose.
Finally, as we crack open the narrow definition of personhood that has limited us to these rare sightings of the grail, I think that we will realize that there are a multitude of masculinities, and that a more expansive view of what it means to be a man and a person in connection with themselves, each other, and our inner selves will reveal an broader opening to purpose, to satisfaction, and to the nature of happiness.
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Beaton, Connor. “Defining Purpose.” ManTalks. November 24, 2022. https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/mantalks-podcast/defining-purpose-mGKtBEbPy9i/.¡Hola Papi! How to Come out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2021.
Caprino, Kathy. “Gender, Power and Relationships: The Crushing Effects of Patriarchy.” Finding Brave, January 25, 2018. https://findingbrave.libsyn.com/04-gender-power-and-relationships-the-crushing-effects-of-patriarchy-with-terry-real
Daniel, John. Rogue River Journal: A Winter Alone. Shoemaker & Hoard: Emeryville, CA, 2006.“Fuck Finding Your Purpose.” Air In The Air. March 23, 2022. https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/ari-in-the-air/fuck-finding-your-passion-cTmN6Fvz-iA/
Johnson, Robert A. He: Understanding Masculine Psychology. Revised edition (1989) reissued 2020. 1974. Reprint, New York: Harper Perennial, 1989.
Johnson, Robert A., and Jerry M. Ruhl. Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations. First edition. New York: HarperOne, 1998.
Peck, M. Scott. The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth. 25th anniversary ed (2002). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978.
Stutz. Documentary, 2022. https://www.netflix.com/title/81387962
The Tools, Phil Stutz, https://www.thetoolsbook.com
Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home. 1st edition. Her Own Room Press, 2017.
Please stick around — I’ve got some questions for you…
Have you struggled with finding or feeling purpose? What has helped?
What is your own relationship with intuition?
How do you feel your own identity relates to your ability to find or feel purpose?
To what extent do you feel willing and able to move into the unknown in your own life?
Is there anything that you find yourself wanting to do that you are also afraid of doing?