How to Find and Follow Your Bliss In Your Life Career
An Excerpt from The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers.
Of all mythologist Joseph Campbell’s work, the easiest I’ve found to follow was a several-hour interview conducted over nearly a week by Bill Moyer, shortly before Campbell’s death. The interviews appeared on PBS and this book was edited from these, being published posthumously.
This is the clearest statement I’ve found of how to help people find out what they should be doing, their purpose in life, etc. Finding your bliss isn’t a big problem to solve. It seems to be most easily described as “what you like to do most, all the time.”
This review is brought to you so that you have the tools you need, as part of your business plan, your belief-system, your journey at this time and in our world.
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(Note: Most of the below can be found in Chapter 4, Sacrifice And Bliss – The Hero’s Adventure.)
If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a land 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.
. . . .
CAMPBELL: The majority’s function in relation to the spirit is to try to listen and to open up to someone who’s had an experience beyond that of food, shelter, progeny, and wealth.
Have you ever read Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt?
MOYERS: Not in a long time.
CAMPBELL: Remember the last line? “I have never done the thing that I wanted to in all my life.”
That is a man who never followed his bliss. Well, I actually heard that line when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. Before I was married, I used to eat out in the restaurants of town for my lunch and dinners.
Thursday night was the maid’s night off in Bronxvile, so that many of the families were out in restaurants. One fine evening I was in my favorite restaurant there, and at the next table there was a father, a mother, and a scrawny boy about twelve years old. The father said to the boy, “Drink your tomato juice.”
And the boy said, “I don’t want to.”
Then the father, with a louder voice, said, “Drink your tomato juice.”
And the mother said, “Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.”
The father looked at her and said, “He can’t go through life doing what he wants to do. If he does only what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me. I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.”
And I thought, “My God, there’s Babbitt incarnate!”
That’s the man who never followed his bliss. You may have a success in life, but then just think of it — what kind of life was it? What good was it — you’ve never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.
MOYERS: What happens when you follow your bliss?
CAMPBELL: You come to bliss. In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that occurs in many, many contexts is the wheel of fortune. There’s the hub of the wheel, and there is the revolving rim of the wheel.
For example, if you are attached to the rim of the wheel of fortune, you will be either above going down or at the bottom coming up. But if you are at the hub, you are in the same place all the time. That is the sense of the marriage vow — I take you in health or sickness, in wealth or poverty: going up or going down. But I take you as my center, and you are my bliss, not the wealth that you might bring me, not the social prestige, but you.
That is following your bliss.
MOYERS: How would you advise somebody to tap that spring of eternal life, that bliss that is right there?
CAMPBELL: 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.
MOYERS: When did you know yours?
CAMPBELL: Oh, when I was a kid. I never let anybody pull me off course. My family helped me, all the time, just to do the thing I really, deeply, most wanted to do. I didn’t even realize there was a problem.
MOYERS: How can those of us who are parents help our children recognize their bliss?
CAMPBELL: You have to know your child and be attentive to the child. You can help. When I taught at Sarah Lawrence, I would have an individual conference with every one of my students at least once a fortnight, for a half hour or so. Now, if you’re talking on about the things that students ought to be reading, and suddenly you hit on something that the student really responds to, you can see the eyes open and the complexion change. The life possibility has opened there. all you can say to yourself is, “I hope this child hangs on to that.” They may or may not, but when they do, they have found life right there in the room with them.
MOYERS: And one doesn’t have to be a poet to do this.
CAMPBELL: Poets are simply those who have made a profession and a lifestyle of being in touch with their bliss. Most people are concerned with other things. They get themselves involved in economic and political activities, or get drafted into a war that isn’t the one they’re interested in, and it may be difficult to hold to this umbilical under those circumstances. That is a technique each one has to work out for himself somehow.
But most people living in that realm of what might be called occasional concerns have the capacity that is waiting to be awakened to move to this other field. I know it, I have seen it happen in students.
When I taught in a boys’ prep school, I used to talk to the boys who were trying to make up their minds as to what their careers were going to be. 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.”
Then Dad would come along and say, “No, you ought to study law because there is more money in that, you know.” Now, that is the rim of the wheel, not the hub, not following your bliss.
Are you going to think of fortune, or are you going to think of your bliss?
I came back from Europe as a student in 1929, just three weeks before the Wall Street crash, so I didn’t have a job for five years. There just wasn’t a job.
That was a great time for me.
MOYERS: A great time? The depth of the Depression? What was wonderful about it?
CAMPBELL: I didn’t feel poor, I just felt that I didn’t have any money. People were so good to each other at that time. For example, I discovered Frobenius. Suddenly he hit me, and I had to read everything Frobenius had written. So I simply wrote to a book-selling firm that I had known in New York City, and they sent me these books and told me I didn’t have to pay for them until I got a job — four years later.
There was a wonderful old man up in Woodstock, New York, who had a piece of property with these little chicken coop places he would rent out for twenty dollars a year or so to any young person he thought might have a future in the arts. There was no running water, only here and there a well and a pump. He declared he wouldn’t install running water because he didn’t like the class of people it attracted. That is whspiritualere I did most of my basic reading and work. It was great. I was following my bliss.
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.
MOYERS: Do we ever know the truth?
Do we ever find it?
CAMPBELL: Each person can have his own depth, experience,and some conviction of being in touch with his own sat-chit-ananda, his own being through consciousness and bliss. The religious people tell us we really won’t experience bliss until we die and go to heaven. But I believe in having as much as you can of this experience while you are still alive.
MOYERS: Bliss is now.
CAMPBELL: In heaven you will be having such a marvelous time looking at God that you won’t get your own experience at al. That is not the place to have the experience — here is the place to have it.
MOYERS: Do you ever have this sense when you are following your bliss, as I have at moments, of being helped by hidden hands?
CAMPBELL: all the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as the 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 the field of your bliss, and they open the 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.
MOYERS: Have you ever had sympathy for the man who has no invisible means of support?
CAMPBELL: Who has no invisible means? Yes, he is the one that evokes compassion, the poor chap. To see him stumbling around when all the waters of life are right there really evokes one’s pity.
MOYERS: The waters of eternal life are right there? Where?
CAMPBELL: Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.
. . . .
MOYERS: What’s the journey each of us has to make, what you call “the soul’s high adventure”?
CAMPBELL: My general formula for my students is “Follow your bliss.” Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it.
MOYERS: Is it my work or my life?
CAMPBELL: If the work that you’re 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 do what So-and-so is doing.”
MOYERS: In this sense, unlike heroes such as Prometheus or Jesus, we’re not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves.
CAMPBELL: But in doing that, you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! 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.
MOYERS: What about happiness? If I’m a young person and I want to be happy, what do myths tell me about happiness?
CAMPBELL: 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.”
MOYERS: But how does mythology tell you about what makes you happy?
CAMPBELL: It won’t tell you what makes you happy, but it will tell you what happens when you begin to follow your happiness, what the obstacles are that you’re going to run into. For example, there’s a motif in American Indian stories that I call “the refusal of suitors.” There’s a young girl, beautiful, charming, and the young men invite her to marriage.
“No, no, no,” she says, “there’s nobody around good enough for me.” So a serpent comes, or, if it’s a boy who won’t have anything to do with girls, the serpent queen of a great lake might come. As soon as you have refused the suitors, you have elevated yourself out of the local field and put yourself in the field of higher power, higher danger. The question is, are you going to be able to handle it?
Another American Indian motif involves a mother and two little boys. The mother says, “You can play around the houses, but don’t go north.” So they go north. There’s the adventurer.
MOYERS: And the point?
CAMPBELL: With the refusal of suitors, of the passing over a boundary, the adventure begins.
You get into a field that’s unprotected, novel. You can’t have creativity unless you leave behind the bounded, the fixed, all the rules.
Now, there’s an Iroquois story that illustrates the motif of the rejection of suitors. A girl lived with her mother in a wigwam on the edge of a village. She was a very beautiful girl but extremely proud and would not accept any of the boys. The mother was terribly annoyed with her.
One day they’re out collecting wood quite a long way from the village and, while they are out, an ominous darkness comes down over them. Now, this wasn’t the dark of night descending. When you have a darkness of this kind, there’s a magician at work somewhere behind it. So the mother says, “Let’s gather some bark and make a little wigwam for ourselves and collect wood for a fire, and we’ll just spend the night here.”
So they do exactly that and prepare a little supper, and the mother falls asleep. Suddenly the girl looks up, and there is a magnificent young man standing there before her with a wampum sash, glorious black feathers — a very handsome fellow. He says, “I’ve come to marry you, and I’ll await your reply.” And she says, “I have to consult with my mother.” She does so, the mother accepts the young man, and he gives the mother the wampum belt to prove he’s serious about the proposal. Then he says to the girl, “Tonight I would like you to come to my camp.” And so she leaves with him.
Mere human beings weren’t good enough for this young lady, and so now she has something really special.
MOYERS: Would you tell this to your students as an illustration of how, if they follow their bliss, if they take chances with their lives, if they do what they want to, the adventure is its own reward?
CAMPBELL: The adventure is its own reward — but it’s necessarily dangerous, having both negative and positive possibilities, all of them beyond control. We are following our own way, not our daddy’s or our mother’s way. So we are beyond protection in a field of higher powers than we know.
One has to have some sense of what the conflict possibilities will be in this field, and here a few good archetypal stories like this may help us to know what to expect. If we have been impudent and altogether ineligible for the role into which we have cast ourselves, it is going to be a demon marriage and a real mess.
However, even here there may be heard a rescuing voice, to convert the adventure into a glory beyond anything ever imagined.
CAMPBELL: Any life career that you choose in following your bliss should be chosen with that sense — that nobody can frighten me off from this thing. And no matter what happens, this is the validation of my life and action.
CAMPBELL: Yes, that’s the individual.
The best part of the Western tradition has included a recognition of and respect for the individual as a living entity. The function of the society is to cultivate the individual. It is not the function of the individual to support society.
MOYERS: But what happens to institutions — to universities, to corporations, to churches, to the political institutions of our society — if we all just run off and follow our love? Isn’t there a tension in this? Individual versus society? There has to be some legitimate point beyond which individual intuition, the individual libido, the individual desire, the individual love, the individual impulse to do what you want to do must be restrained — otherwise, you’d have tumult and anarchy, and no institution could survive. 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.
CAMPBELL: Wait a minute. Just sheer life cannot be said to have a purpose, because look at al the different purposes it has all over the place. But each incarnation, you might say, has apotentiality, and the mission of life is to live that potentiality. How do you do it? My answer is, “Follow your bliss.” There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.
MOYERS: I like the idea that it is not the destination that counts, it’s the journey.
CAMPBELL: Yes. As Karlfried Graf Dürckheim says, “When you’re on a journey, and the end keeps getting further and further away, then you realize that the real end is the journey.”
The Navaho have that wonderful image of what they call the pollen path. Pollen is the life source. The pollen path is the path to the center. The Navaho say, “Oh, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to the right of me, beauty to the left of me, beauty above me, beauty below me, I’m on the pollen path.”
Also published on Medium.