Having been raised in a family of musicians, I also knew that having a career in music required a lot of hard work, that it would require sacrifice. Perhaps that's why I had trouble leaving- because I had never thought it would be easy. Campbell questions the idea that hard work and dedication are all it takes to make a meaningful life. There was this other quality, Bliss, by which that one could orient... like a compass. My dad gave his life to music, and while he knew hard work and sacrifice, while music never made him wealthy, I think it always brought him bliss. It always felt right to him. Our very last conversation was about the new music he was discovering, and bringing him joy.
The idea of following your bliss is finding a new way of orienting that is not dependent on material success, because such success comes and goes. Campbell said, later in that same interview:
“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’s the revolving rim of the wheel. And if you attached to the rim of the wheel, let’s say fortune, you will be either above, going down, at the bottom, or coming up. But if you are at the hub, you’re in the same place all the time. And that’s the sense of the marriage vow, you know. I take you in health or sickness, … in wealth or poverty, but I take you and you are my bliss, not the wealth that you might bring me, nor the social prestige, but you. And that’s following your bliss.”So following your bliss is about finding the hub of the wheel - the place inside yourself that is a touchstone in good times and in bad. That is our primary job as a faith tradition; to seek the hub, to seek a center which isn’t dependent on wealth or circumstances.
Campbell came to the word bliss as a translation of Sanskrit word “Ananda” also translated as sacred joy, or blessedness, or rapture. The problem is that we so often confuse “rapture” with mere happiness. Certainly our consumer culture encourages this. The American narrative is that the new Lexus or the trip to Disneyland are the peak experiences towards which our whole story is leading, and once we have our Lexus, our gold medal, our wealth, we will be happy ever more. But happiness is like eating an ice cream cone, before you take the first lick it has already started to melt.
I was reading an article critiquing parents who tells kids “all we want is for you to be happy.” It puts the pressure of all the meaning making for a whole family onto a kid’s happiness, and creates unrealistic expectations. The “tyranny of happiness” sets us up for failure. It is not humanly possible to be happy all the time. Happiness is just one emotion on a rainbow of emotions. Some of the most profound and meaningful experiences I’ve ever had weren’t necessarily happy ones. Leading a family through a memorial service, for example, is profound, meaningful work, I would say there are moments of “Ananda” in that work, but I wouldn’t say it makes me happy. Even the enlightened masters don’t claim to have achieved perpetual happiness, only equanimity, an ability to face life’s turmoil from the center of the wheel.
The Hindu sense of “Ananda” or bliss is a joy that comes from inside, not from any external good fortune or treats. Some traditions claim it can only be reached through meditation. But Campbell is encouraging us to use it as a compass to show us where our true north is. How do we find our rapture or bliss? Campbell says: “we’re having experiences all the time which may on occasion render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your joy is. Grab it; no one can tell you what it’s going to be. I mean, you’ve got to learn to recognize your own depths.”
When I was in college my favorite class was called “Women in Ancient Israel” which was a feminist hermeneutic of the Hebrew Scriptures. And I didn’t so much feel “happy” in that class but deeply engaged, and curious in a way I didn’t feel in any of my music theory classes. It kind of blew my mind. When you come across one of those bliss experiences, how do we follow Campbell's advice first you just enjoy it, and notice it, and remember that feeling is possible. There’s a temptation to get ahead of bliss, to clutch it and project it into the future. To immediately turn that experience into a career. (Or in my case a minor in women’s studies, which did not bring me joy, but that’s a story for another day). The mind takes that one experience of joy and builds expectations and stories around it. Perhaps that’s what had happened to me with music.
Some of my happiest experiences in Jr and Sr High School were spent sitting on the floor of my room singing along with musical theater and later, opera. My best moments in High school were in the drama department. But Bliss, that kind of deep fulfillment of the highest self, does not come to show us a career path. Moyers asks “what happens when you follow your bliss” and Campbell replies “you come to bliss.” He doesn’t say “you have a stable career” or “you become financially independent.” Bliss leads us to bliss. And the most important place bliss it leads us is the bliss of the moment itself. Bliss leads us to the present moment.
If we start with the notion that bliss leads us to the center of the wheel, then we should be able to use it as a compass when the wheel is up and when the wheel is down. Sometimes you are the lead in the high school musical, other times you are one of 600 voice majors and no one remembers you well enough to write you a recommendation for grad school. Is the singing still leading to bliss? Is it still leading you home to your true self?
Now as Campbell hints, bliss sometimes also leaves a breadcrumb trail that helps us find a calling. And again, calling is not the same as career. In a way I’m a bad example of this because although following my bliss did not lead to a career in opera, it did lead me here. Well, maybe that’s not such a bad example. That moment of joy in my “women of ancient Israel class” did not lead me to become a scripture scholar, in fact I hardly ever get to do that kind of work in the parish, but it did lead me (eventually) to seminary. And seminary led me to study meditation, and yoga, and theology, and to many moments of deep self knowledge and bliss. It also prepared us to be ministers to middle to large size congregations, which it turns out is not my favorite ministry. When I served a large congregation, what brought me joy was teaching and preaching, not supervising staff and administrating the infrastructure of a large church. My family an I left the economic prosperity of the San Francisco Bay area following the intuition that somewhere there was a home that would be a better fit. Colleagues thought I was crazy to leave a settled position to move cross country without a new job in hand. I certainly had my doubts. In seminary I never once said to myself “I’d like to be the part-time minister of small churches” but that is where following my bliss has lead me. I think I might serve the 2 kindest, most loving, generous churches in the UUA.
But following your bliss never leads to an end point, to a “save game” where everything is stable and happy for ever. It requires a constant attention and vigilance. Each of us is changing and evolving our whole lives through. Following our bliss can help us navigate those changes. A colleague of mine spent 20 years as a yoga teacher, she was passionate about it. Later she became a religious educator, then a minister, and now in her retirement is passionate about learning the guitar and jamming with other musicians. “Why’d you give up yoga?” I asked, truly mystified, since yoga is such an important part of my life. “I was just done” she said. Something in her shifted and she followed it where it led. I have never seen a happier or more dedicated guitar student. It brings her such joy.
At some moments in your life, like when you are graduating from school, or changing jobs, or moving to a new town, following your bliss has big visible manifestations. But the million small moments and choices each day are just as important in this practice. Because bliss comes not from choosing the right major or the right job, but from choosing bliss.
Even committee meetings are an opportunity to choose bliss. I was leading a board retreat for another congregation a few years back. Someone suggested that communication might be improved if each committee submitted a written report each month. I asked “and when you think of writing and reading those reports, does that bring you joy?” Laughter filled the room. They decided instead they would make an effort to connect with the committees chairs over coffee hour and have a conversation about how they were doing. By letting the experience of joy be part of the decision, instead of a niton of what we aught to do, they made room for the possibility of bliss.
Now I am the parent of a young man heading off to college. What advice could I possibly give? I mean obviously I hope he has academic success, and it would be great if he found a field where there are jobs available for graduates, but I think what I most want to say is “we’re having experiences all the time which may …render …a little intuition of where your joy is. Grab it; no one can tell you what it’s going to be. I mean, you’ve got to learn to recognize your own depths.” It won’t necessarily help you get a job or make money, but if you can learn where your own joy is, life will open for you.
This is the same advice I would give to anyone in my congregation, even those of you who are grown. Cultivate Joy. Notice the inklings, the intuitions of bliss, of blessedness, of rapture, and take the time to be present to them, to notice and experience them. If doors open on that path, dare to go through those doors. Dare, even now, to follow your bliss.