Our focus in July at the Joseph Campbell Foundation is on independence, and bliss.
When I read Joseph Campbell, I find two major threads braided together: one details the broad sweep of mythology and its development in tandem with human culture, while an accompanying theme elaborates on the harmony between myth and “real” life – the life each of us is living, one’s individual universe. “Follow your bliss” belongs to this second category.
This phrase is forever associated in the public consciousness with Joseph Campbell. Yet that same public consciousness remains unclear on exactly what Campbell is advising. For some this maxim has morphed into a warm and fuzzy, “touchy-feely” New Age mantra, while others contend Campbell is advocating escapist, hedonistic narcissism in the face of life’s difficulties – the height of irresponsibility.
Neither of these interpretations manages to capture Campbell’s vision ... but no surprise that "following your bliss" is a key element in forging independence.
Oddly enough, the expression does not occur in work Campbell published during his lifetime. Campbell introduces it to the public in interviews (first instance I've noted is an interview from 1971 with Sam Keen, then-editor of Psychology Today – and of course the best known reference is in the Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers, where Joe goes into detail about the demands and sacrifices involved in following one's bliss).
But I have found similar discussions of this guiding theme in Campbell's life recorded in his personal journals as far back as 1933, when he was still in his twenties. He had yet to explore in detail the concepts of sat-chit-ananda, from which he borrows the term "bliss" (ananda), so he summarizes his thoughts in the phrase, "Follow My Enthusiasms."
I believe this sheds light on what Campbell intended by the better known adage. Joseph trusts that following his enthusiasms (or his bliss), instead of following money, will guide him where he needs to go, though the ride will be bumpy and require dedication, commitment, and sacrifice (Campbell uses Joyce as an example of that last).
Nothing touchy-feely about that!
"And if it is something more than just doing whatever you feel like, how do you go about finding that bliss? Eternity is a dimension of here and now. The divine lives within you. Live from your own center.
"Your real duty is to go away from the community to find your bliss. The society is the enemy when it imposes structures on the individual. On the dragon are many scales. Everyone one of them says. ‘Thou Shalt.’
"Kill the dragon ‘Thou Shalt’ …
"Breaking out is following your bliss pattern, quitting the old place, starting your hero journey, following your bliss." (Joseph Campbell, The Joseph Campbell Companion, p. 21)
More than just a snappy new age axiom, following one's bliss is a portal to independence. Of course, independence should not be confused with financial success, or even happiness, but simply means following one's own path.
How do we do that?
Bliss is born of Shadow, that chunk of the Jungian unconscious where the parts of ourselves we aren’t willing to embrace are shoved away. For many, IS shadow – we aren’t issued a particular bliss on our birth certificate. Most of us remain unconscious of our bliss, not following our passion, but following duty (what society expects of us) or following money – majoring in business or engineering for example, not because the subject moves us, but because the career opportunities are better.
Security and practicality all too often trump dreams in the waking world.
"My general formula for my students is ‘Follow your bliss.’ Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it … If the work you are doing is the work that you chose to do because you are enjoying it, that’s it. But if you think, 'Oh no, I couldn’t do that!' that’s the dragon locking you in. 'No, no, I couldn’t be a writer,' or 'No, no, I couldn’t possibly be doing what So-and-so is doing' …
"Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself."
(Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p. 183-184)
Not just what you want to do, or would like to do – “I want to play guitar like Hendrix,” or “I’d like to be another Hemingway” – but your passion.
What do you keep coming back to? Joe is speaking of that which 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, 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 you have no choice.
Campbell sometimes describes bliss as “rapture” – which might 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 teaching, or preaching, 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 that we feel most authentic, most ourselves.
What is your bliss?
It is what you are doing when time drops away and you reside in an eternal now.
I sit down to write in the morning, stare into space, flip through the pages of books, put words on page or screen, re-arrange those words, stare into space a bit more, craft another paragraph or two, and suddenly notice it’s dark outside.
But I just had breakfast!
What happened to lunch?
Where did the day go?
You know you are in your bliss when in an eternal moment (“eternal” doesn’t necessarily mean “forever.” It’s from the Latin: e = outside, ternum = time … that which is outside - or transcends - time).
When you are in your bliss, ego concerns dissolve: you aren’t thinking about the argument with your spouse, or how you’re going to pay the light bill Tuesday, what you should do for dinner, how the boss came down on you yesterday, or what’s on television tonight. When you are in your bliss, time ceases to exist (whether that bliss is sculpting clay or crunching numbers).
Independent of Campbell, University of Chicago psychology professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi conducted research that led him to similar conclusions:
"What is common to such moments is that consciousness is full of experiences, and these experiences are in harmony with each other. Contrary to what happens all too often in everyday life, in moments such as these what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony." (Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, p.29)
Csikszentmihalyi focused on ninety individuals widely recognized as living creative, fulfilling lives, from author Madeline L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time) to scientist Jonas Salk, in an attempt to identify attitudes and practices held in common by such a diverse group. This evolved into a second study of 2,300 individuals from mountain climbers to chess players. Csikszentmihalyi describes the data collected and conclusions reached in his groundbreaking book Flow, which describes “how to live life as a work of art, rather than as a chaotic response to external events…”
The overlap between Campbell’s concept of bliss and the state-of-being labeled “flow” is apparent. Csikszentmihalyi designates individuals who live such lives “autotelic personalities” (Latin: auto = self; telos = aim/goal), who generally “do things for their own sake, rather than in order to achieve some later external goal.” Compensation is not the primary consideration for such individuals.
Compare this to Campbell:
"… [Y]ou follow your bliss, you’ll have your bliss, whether you have money or not. If you follow money, you may lose the money, and then you don’t even have that. The secure way is really the insecure way and the way in which the richness of the quest accumulates is the right way." (Joseph Campbell with Michael Toms, An Open Life, p.25)
Csikszentmihalyi begins with the collection of raw scientific data, while Campbell starts from the mythic imagination – yet both men arrive at the same place – and even though Csikszentmihalyi seems unaware of Campbell’s observations, he does acknowledge that many mythologies anticipate his own conclusions:
"Much of this has been already said, in one way or another, in the religions of the Plains Indians, the Buddhists, the Zoroastrians, and innumerable other beliefs based on a systematic observation of life. What contemporary science adds is a systematic expression of these facts in a language that has authority in our time." (Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow, p. 141-142)
Determining what one’s bliss might be isn’t simply a matter of choosing what we want and then waiting for the universe to hand it over. We don’t will our bliss; we discover our bliss.
How do we make that discovery?
Socrates’ dictum is relevant here: “Know thyself.”
"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 …
"The way to find out about your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you really are happy--not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what I call 'following your bliss.'” (Campbell, The Power of Myth, pp. 147, 193)
Myth and dream – realms where the individual and subjective intersect the collective and transcendent – provide clues to uncovering one’s bliss. 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, “unconscious” part of my being (the psyche is called unconscious not because it is unconscious and without purpose, but because the waking ego – “me,” “I”, how I experience myself – is unconscious of psyche’s workings).
“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. This requires journeying into the dark forest, into what is Shadow and Mystery – a journey into the depths of the soul. Finding one’s bliss involves meeting and engaging one's Shadow.
When we do this, we are following the trajectory of the classic Hero’s Quest – Joyce’s monomyth, Campbell’s cycle of Separation-Initiation-Return. Joe 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."