Follow Your Bliss
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of... being helped by hidden hands?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time––namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.
When Joseph Campbell died just months after recording the interviews with Bill Moyers that would become The Power of Myth, he had no idea how these interviews, in particular the idea of following one's bliss, would resonate with the public. Within months of airing, "Follow Your Bliss" became a popular catchphrase.
It's an aphorism Campbell shared in multiple interviews the last fifteen years of his life: wisdom grounded in personal experience and a lifetime spent studying myth, distilled into a single phrase.
Yet, oddly enough, this expression does not occur in any of the books Campbell completed during his lifetime. Its first appearance in print is in an interview for Psychology Today the year Campbell retired from teaching.
Prior to that, this bit of advice was reserved primarily for his students.
My general formula for my students is “Follow your bliss.” Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it.
Though this maxim clearly strikes a chord in the popular imagination, many new to Campbell’s work find the phrase elusive. A few critics have said that “following one’s bliss” is a reckless and hedonistic prescription, code for doing whatever the heck you want. Countless others who never heard of Joseph Campbell embrace the phrase as a sort of magic mantra.
A closer read suggests something deeper:
If your bliss is just your fun and your excitement, you’re on the wrong track. I mean, you need instruction. Know where your bliss is. And that involves coming down to a deep place in yourself.
WHAT DID JOSEPH CAMPBELL MEAN BY "FOLLOW YOUR BLISS"?
What makes you enthusiastic? Follow it.
That's been my advice to young people who ask me, "What shall I do?" I taught once in a boys' prep school. That's the moment for young boys (or it used to be; I don't know what's going on now) when they had to decide their life courses. You know, where are they going? And they're caught with excitement. This one wants to study art, this one poetry, this one anthropology. But Dad says study law; that's where the money is. Okay, that's the decision. And you know what my answer would be—where your enthusiasm is. So I have a little word: “Follow your bliss.” The bliss is the message of God to yourself. That's where your life is.
Thinking Allowed with Jeffrey Mishlove: “Understanding Mythology”: Thinking Allowed Productions, 1988
Determining what one’s bliss might be isn’t simply a matter of choosing whatever one wants and then waiting for the universe to hand it over. We don’t “will” our bliss; we discover our bliss.
HOW DO YOU DISCOVER YOUR OWN BLISS?
Socrates’ dictum is relevant here: “Know thyself.”
To find your own way is to follow your own bliss. This involves analysis, watching yourself and seeing where the real deep bliss is—not the quick little excitement, but the real, deep, life-filling bliss.
“Man and Myth: A Conversation with Joseph Campbell,” Psychology Today, July 1971
We are having experiences all the time which may on occasion render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your bliss is. Grab it. No one can tell you what it is going to be. You have to learn to recognize your own depth.
Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers118
It’s not just what you want (“I’d like to be the next Hemingway”), but a matter of your passion. What do you keep coming back to? What catches your soul and will not let you go? There is a world of difference between wanting to play the guitar like a rock star, and always having a guitar in your hand, practicing six or eight hours a day, because you love making music. Because this is what you would rather be doing more than anything else in the world, even if there’s no money in it, no fame––because THIS is your bliss.
BLISS AND RAPTURE
Campbell sometimes describes bliss as “rapture,” which is likely to be very different from one’s will. You might consciously will to become a lawyer or computer programmer or news anchor, but if your bliss, your passion, your Calling, is music or preaching or teaching or building or writing, then by all means follow the Call. This is the path out of the Wasteland.
Our bliss is the what, where, and when we feel most authentic, most ourselves. It is what we are doing when time drops away and we reside in an eternal now. Eternal means more than “forever.” From the Latin e or outside, and ternum or time, that which is eternal exists outside time. It transcends time.
When you are in your bliss, ego concerns dissolve: you aren’t thinking about that misunderstanding with your sister, or what you should do for dinner, how you’re going to pay the light bill next Tuesday, or what’s on television tonight. When you are in your bliss, whether that bliss is sculpting clay or crunching numbers, time ceases to exist.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FOLLOW YOUR BLISS?
Following your bliss is metaphor for a process that begins with a journey, a quest, to uncover what you find most fulfilling in your life: the quest for the Holy Grail, that which gives life meaning and purpose. My bliss is not your bliss; I have to discover my bliss on my own, by listening to myself, following clues dropped by the greater part of my being.
You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there’s a way or path, it is someone else’s path; each human being is a unique phenomenon. The idea is to find your own pathway to bliss.
Pathways to Bliss xxvi
Campbell points out that myths won’t tell you what your bliss is, but they will “tell you what happens when you begin to follow your happiness, what the obstacles are you’re going to run into.”
Following one’s bliss takes commitment and perseverance. It’s not the easiest of paths, a point that Joseph Campbell stressed:
A boy would come to me and ask, “Do you think I can do this? Do you think I can do that? Do you think I can be a writer?”
“Oh,” I would say, “I don’t know. Can you endure ten years of disappointment with nobody responding to you, or are you thinking that you are going to write a best seller the first crack? If you have the guts to stay with the thing you really want, no matter what happens, well, go ahead.”
Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers
HOW JOSEPH CAMPBELL FOLLOWED HIS BLISS
Joseph Campbell isn’t just speaking in the abstract; he lived his philosophy. Long before arriving at this particular phrasing, young Joe Campbell was following his bliss. Whenever he was pulled off that bliss, he eventually took steps to return to his path. This included dropping his Ph.D. studies rather than embark on a career confined to a very narrow field of academic specialization, and giving up a position that did not feed his soul during the Depression even though there were no other jobs to be had.
Meanwhile, a mythic journey that began with a childhood fascination with Indigenous cultures continued to expand as one door opened after another. He had no idea where he would end up as he followed the clues provided by his own varied interests.
It wasn’t until the age of 50, on a year-long sabbatical from Sarah Lawrence in Asia, after years of teaching, having published several books and edited more, that Joseph Campbell put the pieces together and experienced a major epiphany (one that might have seemed obvious to anyone who knew him):
Resolution: Comparative mythology . . . is indeed my field.
Asian Journals 595
Following one’s bliss would seem to be more about the journey than the destination.
FOLLOWING BLISS LATER IN LIFE
Though Campbell considered this advice especially appropriate for young people just setting out in life, before taking on family responsibilities and financial commitments, he believed this maxim relevant as well for those at midlife and beyond––with an important caveat.
During the Power of Myth interviews, Bill Moyers asked Joe what would happen if we all just ran off to follow our love:
MOYERS: Are you really saying that we should follow our bliss, follow our love, wherever it leads?
CAMPBELL: Well, you’ve got to use your head. They say, you know, a narrow path is a very dangerous path—the razor’s edge.
MOYERS: So the head and the heart should not be at war?
CAMPBELL: No, they should not. They should be in cooperation. The head should be present, and the heart should listen to it now and then.
Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers 192
As an example, Joseph Campbell sometimes shared the story of a gentleman who sought his advice at midlife, certain that India was calling to him.
I asked, “Well, do you have any responsibilities here? Are you married?” “Yes.” “Do you have any children?” “Yes.” “Then you can’t go to India. You’ve got to make India come to you.”
ZBS Media Interview with Joseph Campbell, 1971
THE TERMINOLOGY OF BLISS
Throughout his life, Joseph Campbell spoke about following his zeal, following his enthusiasms, his interests, his passion, but over time his study of mythology supplied the wording we’re familiar with today:
Now, I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: sat-chit-ananda. The word "Sat" means being. "Chit" means consciousness. "Ananda" means bliss or rapture. I thought, "I don't know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don't know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.
I think it worked.
The Power of Myth, 120
Many who have heeded Campbell’s advice would agree.
About Stephen Gerringer
Stephen Gerringer is the editor of Myth and Meaning by Joseph Campbell, and the author of Myth and Modern Living: A Joseph Campbell Compendium. He currently serves as Community Coordinator for the Joseph Campbell Foundation.