I was teaching a group of students this week about Buddhism and how Buddhism came to the West and was talking about this phrase: “follow your bliss”, which Joseph Campbell would always encourage his students to make central to their life.
The full quote is really interesting and thought provoking:
“Follow your bliss. 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 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. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”
For Campbell his bliss was anthropology and then studying myths. As he followed this interest it took him further into a field of study and living that gave him real joy and fulfilment. Talking to the students I always say that our bliss is what gives us joy and fulfilment, and trusting in this rather than listening to the voices of doubt that tell us it is not practical or possible to make that our life’s purpose.
In saying this I also emphasis that as our bliss leads us to a life dedicated to a particular calling of our heart, this calling may find expression in any form: for some it will be the arts, poetry, music, but it is just as valid that our bliss may be maths, accounting, numbers, science, or a physical trade. I find it so important here to get away from the idea of the superiority of some things to others. If someone finds joy in building work and this satisfies their heart then they are following their bliss in a way an academic who once loved literature but now toils at his professorship with no joy has perhaps lost touch with his bliss.
Campbell did not mean us to follow hedonistic pleasure for the sake of pleasure, but to feel a deep connection to what gives one a sense of fulfilment and joy. What life can so easily do is take us instead in a direction where we follow what is sensible.
I remember when I was 16, I had a place at a sixth form college in Cambridge to study art, English Literature and History A level. My step-father came with me to a careers fair at my school and we spoke with the Banking team. I was told this would be a good choice, I would have a job for life, a cheap mortgage and a good income. My heart longed for the A level courses I had chosen, but I listened, applied to Barclays, and was offered a job.
Six months latter, I was fired. I hated every day I went in to the bank. I was dyslexic and dyspraxic, but at the time did not know as I was never diagnosed at school. But it showed! I made so many errors encoding cheques, there wasn’t a night in those six months that we did not have to go through all of the cheques to find the ones I had encoded incorrectly – turning £12.02 into £12.20 as I typed in the amount for the machine to give each cheque a magnetic code.
When I was fired I said how really I was pleased and wanted to go back and study and go to University. One of the other clerks said to me he envied me and my chance to follow my real passion. He had wanted to be an architect, but was told it was not possible and to get a good job in the bank. He had been there for some years now and felt he had no option to go back to study, and instead felt trapped, day after day, coming to a job he hated.
I’ve met others who have said the same, one a man I spoke to as I knocked on his door whilst fundraising for a charity working with the ex-untouchable community in India. We knocked on doors and spoke to people about becoming regular supporters to fund the educational and skills training initiatives the charity funded. This man came to his door and heard me talk with passion about the work we were doing to improve lives. We got to talking about my life a little, that this was a Buddhist charity, and that I lived with the community and was going on retreats as part of my training. I still remember him saying: “keep doing what you love, don’t become like me, living in a life that feels like a trap.” I felt so sad as he said this and shortly after turned and closed the door.
This one conversation really kept me going, following my Bliss, which at the time was a life dedicated to study, meditation, retreats and with no regard to a conventional work life. Eventually this led to the six years living in the monastery. Even now, my bliss is still sharing mediation, teaching, and talking with others who have this as their passion.
What is your bliss? What have you connected with in this lifetime that gives you a feeling of excitement and joy? Have you been able to follow this? Or have the sane voices of sense poured water on these flames? I met one man recently who trained to be an opera singer. Ten years back he was struggling to get work as it was still early in his career and his wife at the time told him: “it’s too hard, get a stable job and provide an income that we can rely on” and he did. Years latter and, after a divorce, he regrets that lost chance.
For myself, even though I had the chance to study and goto University, I still stepped back from my bliss, which was to explore architecture and landscape design, opting for the safer option of English Literature – which was also a joy and passion of mine, but my real heart’s longing was to explore design. About 6 years ago I dropped out of work and did a one year training in Landscape Architecture and loved it. So far it has not been possible to make it a career and I enjoy focusing on my meditation work now so am not looking to become a Landscape Architect, but I have designed two gardens and would like to do more of this to satisfy this pleasure of my heart.
We all know people who pine for the life they may have lived. And we may have our own regrets. But this is where we are now, and rather than look back at the lost opportunities, how do we connect with our bliss afresh now? The man who wanted to be an opera singer knows he has lost too much time to get back into that world, but he does perform and loves to be on stage and sing at open mic nights and with friends. In what way do you feel connected to what gives you joy? And if it feels as if you have lost that passion, how might you rekindle it?