Feb 19, 2014

So what is all this talk about “Follow Your Bliss”?  Can you really follow your bliss and also support yourself adequately?  What did Joseph Campbell mean by bliss?  I will explore these questions in this post. There are no simple answers to these questions except to say that what I believe he was endeavoring to do in speaking to this topic was to INSPIRE.  More than laying out any specific set of instructions for people in choosing their life’s work, he was saying “Don’t aim low!”  “Get in touch with what stirs your passion!” “Go for it”.  It wasn’t his job to make the qualifications or do the sorting out that each individual must do in pursuing his/her work.  What he must have observed, and what any of us can easily observe, is that there is a great lack of passion for what people do in their work.  Again, I focus mainly here on paid work, but surely his exhortation to “Follow Your Bliss” was meant in a broader sense.  For some, it may mean to be passionately involved in Environmental causes, irrespective of the paid work that they do. For others, working in a cubicle eight hours a day and spending evenings drawing or making music may be a very satisfactory, chosen way of “following your bliss”.  For others, that arrangement would be wholly unsatisfactory because the eight hours in the cubicle is found to be too draining and dehumanizing.

One only needs to Google the question of “What is meant by follow your bliss?” to see the multitude of opinions, even among those who have studied Campbell’s works carefully.  Looking to his own words on the topic, we see:

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” 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.

I have read interpretations by some observers who comment that they believe that Campbell was talking about something more practical when he spoke of bliss, but his words here, to me, clearly suggest passion – activities that stir a person, that “turn you on” in the best sense of that expression. Further, he explains:

If you 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.  Wherever you are–if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

This way of explaining it is evocative of a sense of “Calling”, an inner calling, that perceives that there is a “track” for me.  We may say that for many of us there is not a single track to follow.  Fair enough.  We do not need to take this metaphor of a “track” literally.  Personally, my work and my path have been far from a single track. I have done several kinds of work (ministry, house painting) that have given me a sense that I am following my bliss and can feel lost in my work in a good way. Campbell’s aim is to inspire, to remind us, as we make our choices, to not get disconnected from that which gives us “rapture” and “refreshes” us.

A person may decide to pursue a certain type of work that he/she perceives as “soul-less”, that is the opposite of a sources of bliss and refreshment, for a limited amount of time in order to:

  • pay one’s way through school
  • get established financially
  • buy a home
  • pay off loans
  • and so on
Any of those compromises may be consciously chosen and who are we to judge the rightness or wrongness of such a choice?  But “Beware the Dangers of Such a Compromise”.  I believe this is the caution that is the flip side of Campbell’s “Follow Your Bliss”.  The more “soul-less” the work is for that individual, and the longer he/she does it, the greater the chances that he/she will never come back from it or will be depleted of the refreshment, the passion that helps him/her to feel like a whole person.
Finally, there is a sensible qualification which I think Campbell did not need to make, but we need to make, and that is to clarify that the “bliss”, the “rapture” that any of us may associate with a chosen path does not mean that one can expect to be in a constant state of bliss.  Surely, there are dues to be paid, practice hours to be put in, learning curves to be followed.  The person who feels that he/she is “following your bliss” is sustained by the belief that the tedium, the soreness, the fatigue, whatever the price may be that is being paid, is worth it because it us truly leading me to what I passionately want to be doing.  Whether the “dues-payer” always finds the ultimate work to be “blissful” as expected or disappointing is the subject of another post. What Campbell did comment on along these lines was that his “bliss” certainly was not intended to be understood as all fun and games.  When told that some of his students and readers were interpreting his “Follow Your Bliss” as an invitation to pursue hedonism, he was  reported to have grumbled:

“I should have said, ‘Follow your blisters.'”

In the Fall of 2013, within a few weeks of each other, two authors in Forbes Magazine wrote articles about “Following Your Bliss”.  One was titled, “Why Following Your Bliss Won’t Lead to Bliss” while the second was called “Why It’s Important to Follow Your Bliss After 50”.  The first was not as negative as the title might suggest, with the author basically emphasizing the point that “dues must be paid” often times for those who aspire to do blissful work.  The second is a full-throated affirmation of Joseph Campbell’s exhortation to:

Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.

I feel certain that he knew that this was not some magical formula that works for every individual in every instance.  No doubt, Campbell was not unaware of the fact that even the most “blissful” work may include blisters and any amount of unpleasantness, but his work was not about telling us to be careful.  That is someone else’s job. His contribution is a great one. He’s there telling us, “Don’t aim low!”  “Don’t stay on a path that will disconnect you from your soul – from that which refreshes you!”  “Follow Your Bliss!”  What an awesome and pure statement he added to our vocabulary!