Follow Your Bliss
The phrase follow your bliss has become a feelgood cliche. But its origins are surprising and perhaps make the phrase worth reconsidering.
I had a window seat on the relatively short flight from Adelaide to Sydney. The passenger next to me was a woman in head-to-toe black, with sharp glasses and a leather jacket, juggling an impressive array of electronic devices.
I was tired and a bit emotional. Saying goodbye to my parents at the airport never gets easier and my thoughts were racing with everything I had to do in the coming week.
This was the end of a long summer of travel: Tokyo to London, to Paris, back to London, then New York, with side trips to Chicago and Washington, a few days in Vancouver, then on to Hong Kong, back home to Tokyo, then off for holidays in Adelaide. Now I was flying back to Sydney to board the last plane of the summer – home to Tokyo.
Keen to hold back the emotions and anxieties I felt, together with trying to avoid the distraction of the digitally-obsessed stranger next to me, I settled on watching the last in a series of interviews I’d been enjoying over the summer.
Joseph Campbell’s Bliss
I’d been watching the series, Joseph Campbell and The Power Of Myth. Campbell, a literature professor most famous for his book, The Power of Myth, is interviewed by Bill Moyers, a few years before Campbell’s death in 1987.
This is an interview from a different era in journalism. Moyers has done his research, but there are no “hard questions” and he is not trying to back his subject into any corners or make him look bad. Campbell is given room to talk, and when he’s challenged, it’s either for clarification, or to provide an opportunity to go deeper into the subject.
Midway through the fourth and final interview in the series, Moyers asks Campbell about a story involving a camel that becomes a lion. Campbell points out it’s a story from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Moyers then asks Campbell to tell the story.
“When you are a child, when you are young and a young person, you are a camel. The camel gets down on its knees and says, “Put a load on me.” This is obedience. This is receiving the instruction, information that your society knows you must have in order to live a competent life. When the camel is well loaded, he gets up on his feet, struggles to his feet, and runs out into the desert, where he becomes transformed into a lion. The heavier the load, the more powerful the lion. The function of the lion is to kill a dragon, and the name of the dragon is “Thou Shalt.” And on every scale of the dragon there is a “Thou Shalt” imprinted. Some of it comes from 2,000 years, 4,000 years ago. Some of it comes from yesterday morning’s newspaper headline. When the dragon is killed, the lion is transformed into a child, an innocent child living out of its own dynamic. And Nietzsche uses the term, “ein aus sich rollendes rad”, a wheel rolling out of its own centre. That’s what you become. That is the mature individual.”
I had to pause the video at this point and stare out the window at the day’s fading light, the clumps of cloud that obscured and then revealed the patchwork of farms and rivers below.
This idea, slaying a dragon made from social obligations, doesn’t feel weird in our culture. But we so often assume the hero who kills this dragon emerges as a powerful warrior-like leader who commands respect. Campbell is asking us to see this person, one who has conquered the biggest challenge of adulthood, as a child, someone small, someone ready to begin.
And rather than cast the “thou shalt” as all bad, like a bucket of toxic shame, Campbell has positive things to say, as he goes on,
“The “Thou Shalt” is the civilising force, it turns a human animal into a civilised human being. But the one who has thrown off the “Thou Shalts” is still a civilised human being. Do you see? He has been humanised, you might say, by the “Thou Shalt” system, so his performance now as a child is not simply childlike at all. He has assimilated the culture and thrown it off as a “Thou Shalt.””
We’ve talked before about taking care of your human animal and here Campbell goes further, to point out how the animal within us becomes human, becomes civilised. It’s only once we’ve assimilated the culture, understood it from the inside, that we can shake it off, we can separate what is essential from what is merely the obligations of others.
This isn’t cynicism or contempt, both of which are often used to justify disengagement. This is sacrifice, struggle, trial by encounter and participation.
Campbell goes on to explain why this is important for understanding art, and really for understanding how to approach anything in which we try to excel.
But this is the way in any art work. You go to work and study an art. You study the techniques, you study all the rules, and the rules are put upon you by a teacher. Then there comes a time of using the rules, not being used by them. Do you understand what I’m saying? And one way is to follow … and I always tell my students, follow your bliss.
At this point it felt like the plane suddenly decompressed and dropped a few thousand feet. I pictured a cabin full of electronic devices crashing into coffee cups as oxygen masks fell from above us and we assumed the crash position.
What the hell!
Camels that turn into lions and babies that emerge triumphant over slain symbolic dragons was one thing. But was this softly spoken, culturally sophisticated professor really the progenitor of a phrase I’d so often mocked as being trite and symbolic of everything that was wrong with contemporary creative culture?
Follow your bliss indeed!
What Does “Follow Your Bliss” Really Mean?
I regained my composure and realised we weren’t falling from the sky. My neighbour was still flicking from device to device and the coffee was still calmly being poured by cabin crew slowly pushing their trolley down the aisle.
I started to wonder.
What does “follow your bliss” really mean?
Campbell wasn’t a fool. But he also didn’t look like the kind of person who would have a big Instagram account, were he alive today. There had to be a lot more in this.
In his book, The Power Of Myth, Campbell talks about how he started to understand this concept of bliss. He explains that in Sanskrit there are three words that help describe deep spiritual awareness (jumping into the “ocean of transcendence”). One means being, another means consciousness, and the third can be translated as bliss, or rapture.
“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.”
So, we can’t be sure if our thinking is clear (consciousness), or our identity is well defined (being), but we can at least feel when something captivates us so much we feel bliss or some sense of rapture (joy, or enchantment).
It’s tempting to think of this as meaning just “do what makes you happy” but it’s closer to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow. There are experiences in life when we do something that feels simultaneously challenging and effortless; it feels intrinsically meaningful and we get so caught up in doing it that we lose track of time and never have to worry about whether rewards or recognition will come to us when we finish. Experiences of flow are how we recognise that we’re well suited to our work or living a fulfilling life.
So, following your bliss is not unlike following your flow. Nietzsche called it the wheel rolling out of its own centre, but maybe it’s the river that flows out of our experience.
For Campbell, this bliss is like an intuition that helps you find your way to a path in life that is already waiting for you. You don’t build the path. You find it. The experience of bliss answers the question, “Is this what I should be doing with my life?”
And of course you only find your bliss after you slay the dragon.
As we started our descent the passenger next to me smiled in my direction. She motioned to the window and I turned to look at the towering lights of Sydney shining against the early evening sky. I smiled back and said, “It’s a beautiful city.”
I meant it. Seen this way, Sydney has to be one of the most enchanting cities in the world. Having grown up there, the place also evokes a mixed set of emotions in me, and memories of paths I walked that weren’t meant for me. That view was a delightful if fleeting moment; in a few hours I’d be stepping onto another plane to follow my bliss back to Tokyo.