By Jenn Brown
Martha Beck grew up wanting to be an ecologist or a professor. However, after bearing three children while acquiring three Harvard degrees, Martha decided she'd rather just lie down for a few decades.
During that time, she became an author and life coach. Her books include: Expecting Adam, Leaving the Saints, Finding Your Own North Star, The Joy Diet, Steering by Starlight, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, and her brand-new book, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.
Martha has been a columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine since its inception in 2001 and has been a contributing editor for several popular magazines, including Real Simple and Redbook.
Martha: I spend about a month a year in South Africa. I have some friends there who do wildlife habitat restoration, and they took me out into the bush to learn to track animals. At first, I couldn't "see" anything; then one day I looked at a lion's print and suddenly I deeply understood what the animal had been doing. Something inside clicked, almost audibly, and from then on every track was like the page of a mystery novel. This click happens to nearly everyone who learns to track, and the first time it happens it's like the best puzzle you have ever cracked—then it keeps unfolding from there.
The experience of tracking lends itself really well as a metaphor for figuring out what to do with your life. Your true, deepest self has reactions to things that appeal to it, and these reactions are the felt experience of joy or relaxation in the body. Even if you're cut off from your emotions, which a lot of people are, you can feel the effect of joy on your body. If you look through your life for those things that cause that surge of joy, those are the tracks. If you follow them, they will take you wherever your life is meant to take you.
Finding your passion and purpose isn't about analyzing your skills and looking for a job that fits them. It's looking for that surge of joy in the body and seeing what you were doing and asking what about that thing made you feel that way. Then you look for another impression along the same track and follow it from there.
Martha: First, there is joylessness, apathy, and tedium. Then there's a growing sense of unhappiness, and even depression or despair. Going along with that will very often be physical illness.
We shut down emotionally and then we shut down physically. All these signals are trying to get us to pay attention. The alarms will get louder and louder and louder until we listen. For me it took 12 years of chronic pain, depression, and anxiety before I realized there were things I had to let go of to follow the path that was mine.
Martha: You don't find it by staying in despair and saying, "Where's my trail? What is my purpose? Tell me what to do." It doesn't work that way. You find the trail through tracking back to find the last thing that brought you joy. It's like a game of getting warmer or getting colder. You find the places in your life where it's warmer, and warmer, and warmer, and then red hot—then you've found it.
Martha: We're more alike than different, but it does sometimes play out differently depending on gender. We each have an essential or natural self, fixed in our genetics, that governs how we act and react. We also have a social or cultural self that follows the rules set down by others. The vast majority of people lose their joy simply because their social or cultural training takes them away from their natural or essential self.
Outwardly, women tend to subordinate their desires and put other people first, becoming caretakers. Or they try to emulate the masculine model and end up getting dissed for it socially. They might also try to do both at once and get shredded by the contradictory demands.
The male version is what I call the "man cage." Men evolved to be outside doing things like solving problems, making fires, and building shelters. Instead, they're under fluorescent lights being ordered about by someone they don't usually like, for money. If they also have a wife and children they are expected to completely subordinate their will and their needs and participate in the job system to care for their family. Many men are dying slowly in jobs they hate because they're good men and want to take care of people.
Jobs are a relatively new invention of society, but that isn't how nature set things up. It's a hierarchical work structure that doesn't demonstrably stand up to any rational examination. In nature, you go out and encounter the world and make your way. If we don't question these cultural expectations and just accept them, it can kill us. But there are other ways.
Martha: I remember being 3 years old and running away from church to play. There was no one out because I lived in a Mormon community and everyone was in church. But I ran away to go play in nature and that's kind of what I've been doing ever since: running away from social forms and "the right way to do things" and just going and playing in the woods. Most people's earliest memories will hold a kernel of a clue to their purpose.