How To Create A Life Of True Fulfilment
Joseph Campbell on following your bliss.
In 1985, the writer Joseph Campbell sat down with interviewer Bill Moyers for a lengthy discussion about Campbell’s ideas on comparative mythology and the ongoing role of myth in human society. The interviews were edited and reduced to six one-hour episodes. Each were broadcasted on PBS in 1988, shortly after Campbell’s death, in what turned out to be one of the most popular series in the history of public television.
Afterwards, the transcript of the entire unedited conversation was published in a book called ‘The Power of Myth’. The book is a true spectacle, a roaring celebration of human history and experience; the depth of Campbell’s knowledge was remarkable and the enthusiasm in his words bring joy to the hearts of all. It is one of few books that I find myself returning to repeatedly.
The most rewarding part of the discussion, the part that brings the most impact deals with the idea of living a fulfilling life, or, as Campbell would put it, ‘following your bliss’. During the interview, Campbell quotes from Sinclair Lewis’ novel ‘Babbit’:
Campbell: ‘Have you ever read Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt?’
Moyers: ‘Not in a long time.’
Campbell: ‘Remember the last line? ‘I have never done a thing that I wanted to do in all my life.’ That is a man who never followed his bliss.’
‘Babbit’ tells the story of a man who is dissatisfied with the promises of ‘The American Dream’. He feels empty in his home town called Zenith, a typical American city where the chief virtue is conformity.
And so, Babbit tries to pursue a meaningful life through various acts of nonconformity and deviance. The novel shows how he eventually, after many failed disgruntled wanderings, returns to tired conformity; however, Babbitt never quite loses hold of the sentiment that there awaits a life more meaningful and fulfilling that he has yet to grasp.
Babbit, Campbell believed, is a character who has never experienced what it is like to be truly alive; he is a man who has never lived with rapture, a man not conscious of himself, nor aware of the great fire that he holds within himself.
‘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.’
The ‘follow your bliss’ philosophy attributed to Campbell after the original broadcast of The Power of Myth comes from the Hindu Upanishads, a collection of ancient texts of religious and philosophical nature, written in India probably between c. 800 BCE and c. 500 BCE.
Campbell studied such texts with great persistence and passion when he was a young man. Indeed, before he became a professor, he lived in a small, rented shack in Woodville, New York, and consumed his days engaged in rigorous and intensive independent study, reading ancient scriptures and mythology of all kinds, from across the globe. This routine carried on for five years before he became a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. Clearly, Campbell had found his own bliss in the study of myths and folklore.
He came across the idea of bliss when he was learning the language of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is an ancient Indian language and it is the predominant language of most works of Hindu philosophy as well as some of the principal texts of Buddhism and Jainism. Here, Campbell highlights three words that carried Campbell to the idea of bliss:
‘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.’
He follows this explanation by showing how he used these three words to guide his own life, ‘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.’
And so, Campbell held onto his love of mythology and religion with faith that his bliss would guide him to where he was supposed to be. This willingness to live with the questions, to bathe in uncertainty was indeed daring. But, for Campbell, the adventure of living alongside his bliss was its own gift.
In 1934, Campbell accepted a position as Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College. In the Power of Myth, he explained how the school used a system whereby each student was assigned a teacher to talk with for half an hour about how they were getting along. This meeting occurred once every two weeks.
And Campbell would ask his students about each of their classes, what kind of books they had been reading and what they enjoyed outside of their classes. The school was trying to speed up the process of self-discovery because they understood that their reputation depended on the consciousness of their students.
During the conversation, Campbell, quite suddenly, touched upon a particular topic that caused the student’s eyes to light up and widen with enthusiasm. In an instant, the student sat up and began talking with eagerness and emotion, sometimes so fast they forgot to breathe. Life had reignited within the spirit.
This short meeting served as a sacred space for the students, a chamber that allowed for uninterrupted reflection and personal discovery, without haste or pressure. Such a meeting encouraged the students to move within, to scramble amongst their depth and question who they really were.
But this meditation requires a state of reflective solitude, a peaceful harmony where no one is able to speak into your thoughts, telling you what is or what is not the truth. And Campbell allowed his students this sacred space by only asking questions, never twisting their answers, and allowing them time to think through their hearts, to reach into their true self, even permitting the students to go home and think about the question more thoroughly before returning the following week. Over time, the students’ became ever more so aware of who and what they were.
‘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.’
Solitude and self-reflection, then, allows you the freedom to feel the vibrations of your own soul and the direction it wants to carry you towards. It is in solitude that you are able to hear the little patters of intuition that are trying to tell you where your bliss might lay.
The students, by speaking about a topic that fulfilled them, opened their hearts and revealed a small glimpse into who they truly are. They unfastened their arms and, entirely defenceless, touched upon a consciousness that no sensible person ought to get themselves involved with.
For a brief moment, they became overwhelmed with love and passion, and entered into a world of their own, singing the chorus of their spirit. And Campbell sincerely hoped his students would hang onto this rapture with all their love. For life and possibility had opened up to the student when they had allowed this love to wash over them.
When you are in love, you are in touch with the divine; you have the sensation that you are standing in the centre, that you have discovered what has been waiting for you all this time. Those who know better understand that they ought to trust this feeling even when, especially when, it seems irrational or foolish. For love has the power to create heroism from timidity, to make even the most uncertain path feel certain.
And this love belongs to you — it exists for no one else but you. It cannot be taught, nor manufactured, nor even helped. It is spontaneous, as you are also. For love only serves as a reflection into yourself. You cannot find it everywhere, and to believe so would be to lessen the true miracle of the word.
You only discover its power when you see some part of yourself in another that you did not recognise before. And when you discover this love, this shattering rapture, you also discover yourself. Hang onto this passion and, Campbell believed, you will gradually become who you truly are.
You are not your own puppet, you cannot create from the sheer thin air your own values. You have a nature, a belonging, a desire to understand what you are. And you pursue this yearning with great pain and frustration. You will fall over, bite your own lip, break your own heart, and all the while you are discovering who you are, following, with a great appetite, that which calls your name, all the lights and sounds of your soul.
This is your calling, your responsibility, your deepest burden. But you refuse such a duty at your own peril. Because you are not merely following your bliss, but also your blisters, everything that compels you to become who you actually are.
And if you just follow your heart, that strange turmoil that is happening within, you will see that you are more than you are. You will grow to become conscious of your being — who and why you are — and living the life you ought to be living.