Finding Your Bliss
January 7, 2013
The other day I had occasion to hear a barroom musician named Jordon. Dressed in faded jeans and a baggy Ramones t-shirt he looked for all the world like a carefree rocker. His face shone content, he was so in his element. Jordon is a policeman by day, about as far removed from the artsy, bohemian he appeared to be. I asked him why he had chosen a profession that demanded conformity, and strict adherence to the status quo, when his fundamental nature was rebelliousness. He replied his father had been a policeman, and he enjoyed the status and respect that policing gave him. “But the music, man, it’s where it’s at. When I perform, I am following my bliss,” he said.
His conflict struck sympathy. I too had comprised myself for the sake of family, security, and respectability. Had I known what I know now about myself, I am certain I would have made different choices. I see nearly all of my nephews and nieces having this same struggle. Being middle-class and immigrant families, we are driven by our parent’s need for a better life lived through their children. Our lives are suppose to justify their enormous sacrifices. All fine and noble but the problem is their sacrifices were for economic betterment. Their idea of success is defined by bourgeois standards of respectability: nice house, luxury car, a sizable bank balance, all paid for with a high-status occupation. The health of the spirit, a deep contentment, the quest for meaning and purpose in life, these are all things for which they made no allowance. For many of us these are our primary motivators. For some of us suppressing these is akin to selling our souls.
I wonder if this conflict would be avoided if we were not asked to decide upon a career at age eighteen? We choose the subject we will study at university at an age when we do not understand who we are and what we want out of life. So many of us get it wrong. As we mature we feel deprived, despite material comforts. We might even have a mid-life crisis where, like Jordon, we change course and “follow our bliss.”
That phrase has entered the vernacular and people use the term without knowing its source. It was coined by the eminent professor Joseph Campbell as a summary of Vedanta, the foundation of Hindu thought which states that the Self, our true nature, the electricity of our body-mind machinery, is of the nature of being–awareness–bliss (sat-chit-ananda). He thought beingness and awareness were relatively abstract concepts for the average person to grasp, but everyone understands bliss. He advised his students that if they desired a life of fulfillment and purpose, then they had better find their bliss and pursue it without compromise.
Easier said than done. Mainly because bliss is also abstract to most people. It is usually mistaken for happiness, or for pleasure. Hence follow you bliss has come to mean do whatever makes you happy. In other words, a hedonistic, selfish way of life. That is not what Joseph Campbell meant, nor is that the essence of Vedanta.
Joesph Campbell gave that advice to students who were trying to choose careers. The phrase was very important to me when I was young because I too struggled to find an occupation that was fulfilling and productive. Part of discovering who you are in the human sense is discovering where you fit in, what is it that you do with ease. It requires finding activities which inspire you to perform is ways far exceeding your imagination. When I sculpt or paint or write, for example, time ceases. I forget myself. There is a grace pouring through my work. I find taking care of animals gives me this same feeling, as does taking care of the elderly and the homeless.
It took some trial and error but I believe I have found a group of activities where I shine without really trying. I believe that is what Joseph Campbell had meant. He stated to his students that if they discovered that inspiration, success would naturally follow.
This is counter-intuitive. We normally think if you work ‘hard’, put in efforts and perseverance, we will achieve success. But the more we try, the we sweat and plan, the further away is the success. The very act of ‘trying’ interferes with the natural flow and grace of the work. Rather than thinking about what I will get at the end of this activity or that work, I give attention only to the perfection in the moment. If the activity is done with a loving heart, an alert mind and attentive fingers, then the outpouring work itself is a thing of beauty. It is bound to be noticed. It is destined to be appreciated. Whereas hankering after that appreciation, that raise, that promotion, will hinder the beauty of the work.
Recently someone who knows me said to me that when I talked about the work I do with the homeless my face glows. He said I had a different light about me, almost as if I were a different person. It reminded me of a photograph I had seen of the movie star Audrey Hepburn taken near the end of her life. In her day she was renowned as a glamour icon, but in that picture she is more radiant than she was with all that movie make up and Hollywood lighting.