“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’re living.” — Joseph Campbell
With winter firmly taking its grip on this place, a pandemic at full strength across the country, vaccines being rolled out to the rescue and a new year upon us, we look to push the reset button. In so doing, there is hope for a return to some semblance of normal.
There has been plenty of time for socially distanced introspection. We should know by now how fleeting a single day can be and how important all days are that make life happen. All of this, too, is a reminder to find and follow your bliss.
A long time ago, I watched “The Power of Myth” on PBS. Journalist and political commentator Bill Moyers was conducting a series of interviews with Joseph Campbell. Not long into the program I realized Campbell, who taught literature at Sarah Lawrence College for 38 years, was an adept storyteller. Campbell died shortly after the program was completed in 1987.
In an extensive career, Campbell was considered the preeminent authority on comparative mythology, religion and language. He espoused that all these disciplines shared one commonality: the art of story. We live by telling stories.
Campbell held that everyone is a storyteller and that the most important story is that of our own journey to find contentment. At one point during the conversation, Campbell said the path to enlightenment is to follow your bliss. Moyers leaned in to ask, “What is bliss?” Campbell smiled, then he sat back to give his answer. The exchange went something like this:
Campbell asked, “Have you ever read Sinclair Lewis’ ‘Babbitt’?”
“Not in a long time,” said Moyers.
“Remember the last line, ‘I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life?’ That is the man who never followed his bliss.” Campbell continued, “One evening, I was in my favorite restaurant and at the next table there was a father, a mother and a boy about 12 years old. The father says to the boy, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’ And the boy said, ‘I don’t want to.’ Then the father, with a louder voice, said, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’ And the mother said, ‘Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.’ The father looked at her and said, ‘He can’t go through life doing what he wants to do. If he does only what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me. I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.’ And I thought to myself, ‘My God, there’s Babbitt incarnate. That’s the man who never followed his bliss.’”
Artists of paint, wood, textile, stone and clay; the writers and photographers; the thinkers and the poets — all following their bliss — have fashioned a way to make a living off of their enlightenment.
Finding bliss is not only an artistic pursuit; it is an internal one — for every person. Passion can be found in any occupation. Just look into the eyes of teachers, store clerks or builders of wood, brick and stone truly in love with what they do.
The same can be said for those plying these Downeast waters. Their bliss is found when water beckons. Then traps are hauled, draggers’ nets emptied and clammers navigate mud. But for many others, bliss is something not attained and, regretfully, very seldom pursued.
Why is that? Perhaps it is distraction caused by other responsibilities or another’s desire for us to do what they want us to do. Sometimes we are that person getting in the way. Worried, self-absorbed or not absorbed enough, the clues are obscured from one’s view. It is only when we honestly see for ourselves — that time does not exist, wind and weather do not deter — that bliss will lead the way.
My journey began when I married, raised two children, pursued a business life and then found Maine. We, as a family, moved up its coast, explored its nooks and crannies and finally settled Downeast. I then found my bliss when I listened to a voice inside me, mustered some courage, took up my pen and began to write.
So many of us look outward to find meaning, yet bliss resides inside each of us. If one truly listens that tiny voice will guide you on your path to joy, fulfillment or eternal bliss — whatever you choose to call it. Bliss cannot be found in a book but is found instead by listening to one’s self and doing something about it.
That is what I am doing here in Maine. It’s what we all should be trying to do with our own unique, one-of-a-kind life. The year 2020 was one tough year. Now more than ever we should take the time to listen, see and find what truly makes us happy.
RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.