“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.”
–Joseph Campbell

Follow your bliss.

You’ve heard the saying before. It’s everywhere. It’s cited time and again as if it were simply the truth full stop. It’s not so much an argument as an assumption.

I’m going to try to convince you that this saying is wrong. In fact it’s very wrong and it’s causing people pain, confusion, and illusion. I realize in taking this stance, I’m going to be pissing a bunch of folks off and stepping on a whole lotta toes. I’m definitely swimming against the current on this one. But I think it needs to be said regardless.

The call to follow your bliss comes of course from the great Joseph Campbell. I realize by criticizing this statement I’m criticizing one with some strong history to it, articulated by a very wise man (one far wiser than I). I should say Campbell’s work on mythology, in particular the hero’s journey, has had a major, positive influence in my life. The Power of Myth series with Bill Moyers is one of the single greatest things I’ve ever seen in my life.

Nevertheless, I still think this saying is wrong. At least, the way it’s commonly understood is really problematic (and I think the saying has inherent in it a tendency to be misinterpreted).

Bliss
First off we have to look at the word bliss as so much of the statement hinges on the meaning of this word.

Now authors are no doubt free to define terms as they please. But I think Campbell’s choice of the word bliss was a particularly poor one and sets up an inevitable dynamic of misunderstanding. This misunderstanding leads inevitably to a shallow (mis)interpretation of Campbell’s words, with following your bliss becoming a simplistic slogan. This is where we find ourselves today.

Here’s a quotation from Campbell that unpacks what he means by bliss (from the aforementioned Power of Myth with Bill Moyers). Campbell is responding to a question from Moyers about whether life itself can be said to having purpose:

“Just sheer life cannot be said to have a purpose, because look at all the different purposes it has all over the place. But each incarnation, you might say, has a potentiality, 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”.

We can see from this quotation that for Campbell bliss is closely related to a sense of purpose, almost conscience, a deep pull within an individual as to their life’s mission.

The problem, as I see it, is that by choosing the word bliss he immediately runs up against two more common understandings of bliss (one spiritual and one emotional) which run at cross-purposes to his intended meaning.

Let’s look at these two other meanings of the word bliss. From there we’ll see how the notion of following your bliss has become so corrupted in our day.

First the spiritual version of bliss. There’s a long-established tradition of translating the Sanskrit word ananda into English as bliss. Think of the famous author of The Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramanasha Yogananda (“The Bliss/Ananda of Yoga”) or Ramakrishna’s great disciple and bringer of the Eastern Light to the West Swami Vivekanadna (“The Bliss/Ananda of Knowledge”).

Ananda is the energetic state of awakening. It’s the energetic space that comes from the realization of pure release in the state of utter liberation.

Sometimes people will translate ananda into English as happiness, joy, or even elation. Joy, happiness, and elation are temporary emotional states (good ones no doubt!) but ananda they ain’t. Ananda doesn’t come and go like happiness or joy. Happiness or joy are meant to be in relation to other emotions like sadness, grief, fear, and anger. Ananda doesn’t have any such relations. There’s nothing to compare ananda to. Ananda is not like happiness which we know as different from sadness (and vice versa). Moreover, it’s possible to experience ananda while also experiencing an emotional state of joy or sadness, boredom or elation, fear or contentment.

In other words, ananda IS. It’s an overwhelming realization of something that already is the case.

So applying that version of bliss to “Follow your bliss,” there’s a problem straight away.

Anadna isn’t yours or mine or anybody’s. There’s no ownership. The state of ananda is precisely predicated on the dropping of the separate self-sense. The self is the only own who can claim possession of things (however ludicrous such claims might be…for example claims to owning land, sorry capitalism).

There’s no your bliss. If by bliss we actually mean ananda. And while Campbell clearly didn’t mean ananda it was also a well-established use of the term by the time Campbell articulated his understanding of bliss. As a consequence, there’s been a misinterpretation of follow your bliss–one that has led many to seek after and overemphasize the value of altered spiritual states of consciousness (bliss as ananda). Such persons then claim ownership of such states (“my bliss”).

The other meaning of bliss is the emotional state of deep joy (bliss from the old English blithe). If instead of either ananda or Campbell’s notion of bliss we understand bliss as the emotional state of bliss then we’ve got the same problem in reverse. Rather than getting hooked on spiritual states, follow your bliss becomes a justification for getting hooked on an emotional state. Choosing any one emotional state as the answer to what we should be doing in life is really problematic. Emotions exist in an ecology and we need to learn to flow with and through all of them. Bliss as a state of elation or ecstatic happiness can be very wonderful. It can also be very addicting, particularly in a culture that does so much to deny the value of other emotions like grief, remorse, sorrow, or hurt.

Bliss junkies exist–whether their drug of choice is chemical, work, food, power, money, material possessions, or spiritual practice.

I’d argue that a heroin addict shooting up is precisely following his bliss. His bliss lies elsewhere–in a state of chemically induced euphoria free from pain. He doesn’t want to live with his pain, grief, and unexpressed sadness so he follows his bliss, which is  synonymous with his addiction (the very force destroying his life and his relationships).

(More prosaically, the spiritual junkiehood meme has gotten so bad I see people on Facebook wishing each other “blissings.” Please God if you’re reading this and you’re ever inclined to do not, I repeat DO NOT, ever wish me a blissing. Oy ve, I threw up in my mouth a little bit just now having to write that dreaded word.).

Our society, and in particular our economic order, are precisely built on possessiveness, being addicted to seeking the pleasurable at the expense of the painful, and believing that one magical thing will solve all our problems. By choosing the word bliss to describe his otherwise profound vision, I think Campbell left himself wide open to this form of misinterpretation and corruption.

So we’ve seen that the word bliss is easily misunderstood (and I would argue was a poor choice by Campbell). Bliss–in either the meaning of ananda nor as a emotional state–is not really possessed by anyone (it’s not “your” bliss). They are simply states of being–we may experience them at various points but they aren’t ours.

And then there’s the follow part of “follow your bliss.” It too has some problems associated with it.

Ananda simply is, so it’s hard to talk about following it. There’s not necessarily a direction to ananda such that one would follow it. There’s a way I suppose to talk about immersing ourselves deeper and deeper into the reality of ananda but I’m not sure that’s the same as following it.

And as just discussed, becoming over-identified with the emotional state of bliss and following it at all cost is the very definition of addiction.

I want to emphasize again that Campbell didn’t intend either of those meanings–he clearly defines bliss differently–but I think he should have chosen a different word, one that wasn’t saddled with these already established meanings.

I think this analysis in part, explains why follow your bliss, in its radically misinterpreted form, has become so popular a saying. Like the Holy Roman Empire, it’s neither to be followed nor yours nor bliss. It’s the trifecta of spiritual bullshittery.

Another Way?
So what do we do we all this? Is there nothing of value, nothing that can be redeemed in being told to follow your bliss? To follow our metaphor of our title: is there any way to make fertilizer out of following your bliss bullshit?

A word from the Western tradition that might’ve served Campbell better is the Greek word eudaemonia, often taken to mean “the good life.”

In our contemporary context, eudaemonia means health, wealth, and relationships. It’s the vision of significant wealth, a life of vacations, luxury, beautiful people. It’s a view that has certainly infected a huge portion of spiritual teaching nowadays, turning much spirituality into a consumer product. And with the emphasis on following your bliss meaning the good life, social cues have unconsciously been taken in by many, who believes themselves to truly be called to have and therefore desire such luxurious realities.

This is a yet another major issue I have with “follow your bliss”–it doesn’t take into account how conditioned we are, especially in our desires, towards self-comfort.

In particular it doesn’t take into account how conditioned our highly problematic, globalized capitalist economic order is.

Campbell says things like:

“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.”

And:

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

I don’t believe those statements hold up well in the post-2008 economic meltdown. They don’t take into account the ways in which the social and economic systems we live in affect our lives individually and collectively.

The constant drumbeat of following your bliss and doors opening where there were previously only walls becomes at its worst a justification for law of attraction. That when we become awake to our true purpose abundance (meaning material wealth) is going to inevitably spring up–and if it hasn’t….well the finger has to be pointed at oneself then (so-called poverty consciousness).

But what if you do genuinely follow your bliss and no doors open? Or you follow your bliss and you’ve still got your center but you have no money? (It must be remembered Campbell was a tenured university professor.)

How do we measure, in contemporary terms, a truly good life?

If we go back and look at the root of the word eudaemonia, we see the ancient Greek word daemon. The daemon is our voice, our intuition, or Inner Teacher, by whatever name it’s called. The daemon is that part of us that does have a strong in-built desire. It has a sense of a purpose, a kind of coding if you like. It has a feeling more of destiny or calling or inspiration. I would call it the realm of the soul.

What Joseph Campbell meant by following your bliss was to hear that voice, particularly in relation to what brought us alive and offer those as gifts. There is wisdom in that point but it’s very prone to the flaws mentioned above.

Moreover, even when properly understood, I’m not sure bliss (in the Campbellian sense) gives enough discernment as to our soul purpose. It gets the ball rolling in the right direction but is open to all kinds of subtle confusions.

Even if we understand bliss in the way Campbell meant, I think there’s yet a further problem. I think we need more concrete information as to what our soul’s coding is. I think relying on the experience and proper recognition of bliss (in the way Campbell understand it) is too unreliable. In large part that’s because in the contemporary Western spiritual scene, this kind of information is hard to come as most spiritual teachings bypass our souls (our daemons) and conversely the soul teachings that are around are often caught up in a lot of New Age flakiness which rightly turns off a lot of people. As a consequence, mature, sane soul teaching is largely absent.

What fills that void is the simplistic slogan of following your bliss.

I don’t think we should be following our bliss, we should be following our soul’s coding. That’s a subtle but significant difference I believe.
 
When Bliss is Not Enough
And there’s yet a further issue to consider here. Any teachings or practices that genuinely help us align with our daemons aren’t the final answer that will make our lives perfect. There’s still plenty of challenges to be faced that our dameon will not solve. The daemon is really designed for one thing and one thing only–our soul’s gifts and truth.

No matter what, our soul must always manifest through our human personality and human relationships, which are never abolished in this process.

So yes, it is very possible to connect with our dameon and begin to give voice to that part of ourself, particularly in our offering, and we’ll absolutely come more alive, be of more service, and this is a wonderful thing. (This is of course assuming we’re fortunate enough to be in a position where we have the capacity to be able to work on this aspect of ourself.) We may even come to a real experience of eudaemonia, in the best sense of the word–i.e. really giving our divine gifts, really enjoying the gift of life in love.

Nevertheless, eudaemonia doesn’t solve a whole set of other issues we all face. The world is still very ethically ambivalent. Living out of our daemon doesn’t solve that. A person can absolutely be living out of their daemon and still have unexamined class biases, or ethnic biases, or hold all kinds of illusions–political, social, economic, or otherwise. These aren’t mutually exclusive possibilities (far from it actually). Plenty of folks living their daemons still struggle with feelings of worthlessness, or feeling like they don’t belong. The daemon is often quite intense and a person can easily become unbalanced in giving and not learning to receive in turn. I know this from personal experience and from hearing the experiences of others.

Living in increased awareness of your daemon is of course a beautiful thing. It’s not a Western film though–we don’t ride off into the sunset the conquering hero. There’s still rampant injustice, ecological destruction, and profound unconsciousness in our world. It would be nice to simply throw all that to one side, ignore it, and just focus on following our bliss (or even our gifts) but I just don’t think it’s that simple. Tempting for sure but not in the end a good enough choice I believe.

Once we pull back the veil and dissolve the illusory hype about following our bliss, we see that this whole arena of living our soul purpose, following our daemon, giving our talent and artistry, is a real gift of lasting value. It’s also a somewhat vulnerable one and that vulnerability is often masked with all the juiced-up language of living the greatest life ever. What we might call WOW, Inc. I think the vulnerability should be embraced and honored rather than submerged in rocket ship, blast off, overly emotional language (again not how the emotional understanding of bliss is infecting our understanding).

I really am at pains to emphasize that last point so that I’m not misunderstood. Though I’ve used the term bullshit throughout, I’m not shitting on this work. Not by a long shot. It’s quite the opposite in fact–I’m actually quite drawn to helping people connect to their soul’s coding. But it needs to be held within a proper context. It’s the loss of that context surrounding living our purpose that I think has become really problematic. We forget the ways in which this teaching, like any, is only one aspect of a healthy ecology of teachings and practices. Therein lies the slippery slope down the, er symbolic toilet.

Image by Mustang Joe, courtesy of Creative Commons license.