“The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction.” — Meister Eckhart
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” — Michelangelo
Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” It’s a wonderfully inspirational quote yet, sadly, it provides no guidance on hastening the arrival of that glorious day when a person discovers his or her own “why” — their purpose in life.
Some people, like the extraordinary National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, seem to have discerned a clear “Why” early in life; while others (myself included) are still searching and seeking later into our lives.
Fortunately, the beautiful work of Michelangelo, the 15th Century Florentine artist, along with the wisdom of the 13th Century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, offers a key for unlocking our “Why:” Subtraction.
Let’s begin by using a block of stone as a metaphor for our life. In the eyes of a sculptor, there exists within every stone an infinite number of possibilities; and within each of us, there also exists an unlimited range of options. Therefore, just as the task of the artist is to liberate the sculpture from the stone, it is our job — as the artist of our lives — to liberate our true self. For it is in this yet unlocked space that we can best hope to discover our “Why.”
As a visual metaphor, I invite you to consider Michelangelo’s sculpture “Prisoner in Stone” (which I believe may also be known as the “Awakening Slave.”) It is a magnificent piece of art, but it is important to recognize that sculpting does not actually involve “creating” anything. The sculptor’s task is to free the “creation” from a block of stone by cutting, chipping, and chiseling away all that is not essential.
If you can accept that your “Why” is the masterpiece waiting to be liberated from within your existing life, it is here that Eckhart’s insight that “the soul grows not by addition but by subtraction” takes on a deeper meaning. As a fellow seeker (who is admittedly more mired in confusion and perplexity than clarity at this stage in my life), I don’t claim to have found my “Why,” but I have done a fair amount of soul searching and have some recommendations and suggestions.
First, begin by working to free yourself of material trappings. Think of this as the first phase of the sculpting process where it is relatively easy — and yet essential — to cut away large sections of stone in order to begin discerning the broad outlines of your “Why.” An easy place to begin is by considering what physical possessions you might cut away — a larger house, a new car, a designer purse, or any of the countless other status symbols society suggests will lead to happiness. If you are having a difficult time, start small and “cut away” a single piece of clothing from your closet or one object from a junk drawer. The important thing is to start.
The second step — the chipping process — speaks to the need to make the process consistent. For example, my wife got rid of one object every day last year. This action serves to ingrain the habit of chipping, subtracting, and letting go of things. I can’t guarantee what will happen next but, in time, cutting away things may feel less of a burden and more like liberation.
As this happens, you may begin to look at non-material aspects of your life that you can chip away, including long-standing habits, assumptions, and beliefs. For example, do you have a need for perfection, a desire to live up to a parent’s expectations, assume that you must possess “the truth” instead of “a truth,” or hold a belief that the only thing lacking in your life is that next raise or promotion? The “things” you chip away need not always be profound or life-altering. The important thing is to keep chipping.
The third and final step — the chiseling — is the most difficult because it is at this stage that the rough outline of your “true self” begins to emerge. In order to truly unlock your soul and find your “Why” however, you will need to chisel away at aspects of your life and self that feel essential such as your outer identity — be it CEO, mother, writer, athlete, financially successful entrepreneur, etc. Perhaps, it is the belief that only the “perfect partner” or “soulmate” can make you whole. Maybe it is something deeper — a fear of being alone or an old wound that is preventing you from connecting to some vital aspect of yourself. It could even be a longing or “knowing” lodged so deeply and well hidden within your heart that you don’t even know it exists.
All of these things — material possessions, your ideas of success, and your ego are like outer shells that can keep us from what Thomas Merton called our “true self.” Quakers refer to it as our “inner light”, and others have named it “the divine spark” or “original nature.” Whatever you prefer to call it, this true self exists within each of us, and it is waiting to be unveiled.
Just as the sculptor must enter their studio alone in order to liberate their creation, our work is also best done alone. As Parker Palmer said, “Solitude does not mean living apart from others, it means never living apart from one’s self. It’s not the absence of others, it’s about being fully present to ourselves.”
Now, go within the silence of yourself and begin sculpting through subtraction so that you can illuminate your Why to yourself — and the world.
Jack Uldrich is an author, poet, and seeker. His latest book is Business as Unusual: A Futurist’s Unorthodox, Unconventional, and Uncomfortable Guide to Doing Business (River Grove, 2020). His other Medium articles include One Simple Life Hack to Jumpstart Your Life, What Does It Mean to Be a Hero, and The Key to Life in 26 Seconds.