Following Your Bliss

“What about happiness?” Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell in a television interview. “If I am a young person, and I want to be happy, what do myths tell me about happiness?”

“The way to find out about happiness,” answered Campbell, “is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you are really happy – not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what is called following your bliss.”  (Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Random House, 1988, p. 192)

Joseph John Campbell, whose anniversary of death in 1987 is today, October 30th, dedicated himself assiduously to his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. In 1924 Campbell had traveled to Europe with his family. On the ship back, he encountered Jiddu Krishnamurti. Discussing Asian philosophy with Krishnamurti sparked in him a life-long interest in Hindu thought. It was after this trip that Campbell ceased to be a practicing Catholic. “Every religion is true one way or another,” he would later state. “It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.” As indicated above, his philosophy might be summed up in the phrase “follow your bliss”. In the same book (p. 120) we find this comment:

Now, I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, 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. I thought, “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.” I think it worked.

For Campbell, then, following one’s bliss comes first, whether one’s consciousness is proper consciousness or not, whether one’s being is proper being or not. Before anything else, knowledge must be knowledge of where one’s rapture is. Find that, hang on to it, and proper consciousness and proper being will in due course catch up. “Follow your bliss” is therefore the guiding light each person ideally needs in order to follow successfully his or her “hero journey” through life. As we read on page 113:

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time. . . . I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.

Judging by book sales and television ratings, the import of Campbell’s philosophy would appear to have struck a cord with millions of readers and viewers. His seemingly astute advice, however, had already been challenged beforehand more than eight centuries earlier by a single comment from the English writer and abbot Aelred of Rievaulx (1110 – 1167). In his Mirror of Charity, we read words still much to the point:

The blind perversity of us miserable humans is lamentable. Although we desire happiness ardently, not only do we not do those things by which we may obtain our desire, but rather, with contrary disaffection, we take steps to add to our misery. In my opinion, we would never do this if a false image of happiness were not deceiving us or a semblance of real misery frightening us off from happiness.

That there can be a false image of happiness deceiving us or a semblance of real misery frightening us off from true happiness is an idea, it seems to me, needing little or no explanation, since the truth of it is continuously affirmed in life. The simple matter-of-factness of Aelred’s remark calls into question the apparent wisdom of Joseph Campbell’s counsel, however much such counsel might liberate those sorely oppressed by sheer duty.

What after all is happiness? What does it really mean to be deeply happy? Consider the words of Saint Paul in II Corinthians (11:16-33, 12:1-10) in light of this question of happiness:

     I repeat, let no one think that I am a fool; but if you do, then accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying in regard to this boastful confidence, I am saying not with the Lord’s authority, but as a fool; since many boast according to human standards, I will also boast. For you gladly put up with fools, being wise yourselves! For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! 
But whatever anyone dares to boast of — I am speaking as a fool — I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I.  Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?

    If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be he forever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas set a guard on the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

In reference to Campbell’s advice, can we think of any person in history who had a more pressing need to “follow his bliss” than the apostle Paul?

    It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.

Who can doubt that here we witness true bliss? That here we witness more than true bliss?  So, does Paul anticipate Campbell’s advice and “hang on” to his rapture? Clearly he does no such thing.

    Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

For Paul, what does it mean for him to follow his bliss? It means to be “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ”. It means to be “under daily pressure because of anxiety for all the churches”. For the sake of Christ he gladly endures these things – not, let us note, for the sake of bliss itself, even though in Christ he knows bliss – or rather, truth to tell, as we have already suggested, more than bliss. For illumination on this question of a state beyond bliss we can turn to Letter XI (“Force”) of the anonymously written Meditations on the Tarot – A Journey in Christian Hermeticism:

    What is pleasure? It is the lowest constituent of the scale: pleasure – joy – blissfulness – beatitude. It is only the psycho-physical signal announcing accord between what one desires and what one attains. Being only a signal, it does not have moral value in itself; it is desire, whose satisfaction it signals, which falls under the moral qualification of good or evil. That is why pleasure can be followed by joy or disgust, according to the case. Pleasure is therefore a reaction – at the surface of man’s being – to objective events. In other words, a life dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure alone would be the most superficial that one could imagine for a human being.
    Joy is more profound than pleasure. It is still an index, but what it indicates is deeper than the relationship between a desire and the event of its being satisfied. Joy is the state of soul which participates most intensely in life and experiences it in appreciating its value. Joy is the spreading of the soul beyond the limits of conscious awareness. It signifies an augmentation of the soul’s vital élan.
    Blissfulness is the state of the human being where spirit, soul and body are united in a comprehensive rhythm. It is the rhythm of the spiritual, psychic and bodily life brought into harmony.
    Lastly, beatitude transcends blissfulness in so far as the state which it comprises is higher than that in which the rhythm of the human spirit, soul and body holds sway; it is the state of the actual Presence of the “Fourth” – of God. It is therefore the state of the “beatific vision” (visio beatifica) of Christian tradition.

For Campbell, God is an idea made metaphorical in myth. “God is a metaphor,” said Campbell, “for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It’s as simple as that.” For Paul, however, God is a living reality directly experienced. Transcending bliss, Paul encountered the personhood of God, for him certainly no mere idea or metaphor, but rather the ultimate reality behind all ideas of the divine, the unutterable I-Am to which all metaphors of the divine refer, the holy ground of all the good that, through the power of divine love, we would ever envision or venture to do.

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness,” remarked Helen Keller. “It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. . . .  No one has a right to consume happiness without producing it.”

Worthiness of purpose, as Paul well knew, is not affirmed in the state of pleasure, nor affirmed in the state of joy, nor even affirmed in the state of bliss. It is only to be affirmed, as the author of Meditations on the Tarot would surely put it, in the state of beatific vision, which is the actual Presence of the “Fourth” – of God. 

“God is love,” says John in his first letter, “and whoever abides in love, abides in God, and God in him.”

And if we doubt the truth of what John says, possibly a wise appeal from Paramahansa Yogananda to our own enlightened self-interest will conduce to stir the conscience: “The happiness of one’s own heart alone cannot satisfy the soul; one must try to include, as necessary to one’s own happiness, the happiness of others.”

Today the death of Saint Alphonsus (Alfonso) Rodríguez is commemorated. Born in Segovia in 1532 the son of a wool merchant who was reduced to poverty when Alphonso was still young, at 31 he found himself a widower with one surviving child, the other two having died previously. It was from that time that he began a life of prayer and mortification. Upon the death of his third child, he began to think of a life in some religious order. He was forty when he entered the Society of Jesus as a lay brother. After six months of probation, he was placed as porter at the recently-founded college at Majorca. There he remained in the humble position of porter for 46 years.  As porter, he exercised a sanctifying influence on the great number of people who came to him for advice and direction.  This included St. Peter Clavier, the great missioner to South America, who lived with him for some time at Majorca, before he set out for the New World.

“The difference between adversity suffered for God and prosperity,” advised Saint Alphonso, “is greater than that between gold and a lump of lead.”

These words serve to make all the more evident the moral ground upon which all true happiness must rest, for, as Immanuel Kant has acutely observed, “Morality is not the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.”

Pax et bonum,
Randall Scott

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