Friday 23 January 2015

Follow Your Bliss? Is everyone the genius of himself?


The mantra Follow Your Bliss comes from mythologist Joseph Campbell - he intended by it that Bliss be taken to mean something like your deepest sense of destiny - do what you feel you are 'meant' to do.

What did Campbell say would be the consequence? Essentially, that there would be unanticipated helps, that you would find doors open to allow you to progress towards your Bliss, and ultimately that your life would be happier and more fulfilled as a consequence. Perhaps also that you would do more good to others by Following Your Bliss than by directly trying to help others.


The intention behind this advice was that modern society was life-less and alienating, and that the big problem of life was to escape its soul-draining coils.

But the specific advice was very much concordant with the idea that everybody is, potentially, the genius of himself; everybody is an artist of his own life - and that this is is primary satisfaction: the idea is that we as individuals create the meaning and purpose of our own life as an artist creates it in his work. 

The proof? Essentially, all this is based on a (I would say dubious - indeed false) 'reading' of the lives of great artists, who are regarded as the paradigms of living a successful life- the best possible life. Other non-artist's lives are seen in terms of this 'aesthetic' analogy - for example the successful life of father or an ascetic Saint is seen asif it were an artistic creation designed and intended to provide the kind of complex satisfactions of a Shakespeare play or a Beethoven Symphony. And it is also assumed that complex aesthetic satisfactions are sufficient to 'justify' life.    


But this is a Catch 22 - if you need advice to Follow Your Bliss, then you are not a genius; because if you are a genius than Bliss Following is what you are doing anyway (unless something is actively stopping you) - being indeed internally-driven to do it.

Follow Your Bliss assumes that Bliss is the kind of thing that people most deeply want to follow, and they are prevented only by a lack of confidence or courage. But this would mean that the Bliss of one's own special vocation was reward enough in itself. But I don't see the slightest evidence that that is true.

Advice to Follow Bliss from someone who has been rewarded with high status, travel, adulation... well this is misleading, confusing - because these rewards are generally desired but they are not the Bliss.


What works for a genius does not work for most people, because most people do not find the Bliss of a Genius Quest to be sufficiently rewarding to make it the centre of their lives. They like the idea of being hailed as a Genius, they like the idea of doing what they most want to do and being well rewarded for doing it - but that is not what is on offer.

To follow your bliss means to give-up on the normal social rewards, in order to enhance inner rewards. Not many people want to do this, not many people have ever wanted to do it: they aren't built that way; nor is it their destiny.

Campbell was himself a kind of moderate genius, he followed his own path, for many years his rewards were internal; but he never acknowledged how unusual he himself was - and he tried to make himself an example for others to follow. This was flattering to them, no doubt - but inaccurate.

So Follow Your Bliss is - nearly always - bad advice.



ted said...

Wow! You nailed this one. I have always had a difficult time acknowledging that I don't love my job. I get many rewards from it, and I generally like most of the tasks, but I would leave in a second if my employer stop paying me. Some people in my life have remarked that I have not followed my passion (while bemoaning their own situation). But I have always known my limits, and intuited that my interests were not going to pay the rent. So while I've struggled with some guilt over this, more recently I have made my peace with it also. I am not a genius, nor do I wish to be one.

Nicholas Fulford said...

I don't know if his prescription works for everyone, but I do know that doing that which draws one as say Froto and Sam are - on a hero's quest - is both extraordinarily challenging and rewarding. One becomes more than one felt it possible to be through doing what what did not know one could do. We tend to set limits within which are not the real limits. These imaginary prisons bind a person as surely as chains, until one day the desire to leave the prison, provides sufficient impetus to open the door a crack and then push it open as the illusion of limitation is realized for what it is - a fear. To use a Christian analogy it is as a "Pilgrim's Progress", but first their must be a bliss/faith to move beyond the dissatisfaction of a paralyzing illusion of comfort.

To me life is a process of personal growth and evolution beyond what I am today, towards something over the horizon. There is a level of bootstrapping in this, though what is doing the bootstrapping may not be quantifiable because that 'self' is not yet and yet is in a nascent form present. And that is the Bliss that Campbell says we should follow.

What is rewarding may not be comfortable, and what is comfortable may not be rewarding, but eventually there is that which draws the hero - not yet manifest - into being the hero manifesting. That is my understanding of Campbell, and it is very sage advice in my limited experience.

ted said...

@Nicholas: You bring in some good fodder here. And I think some distinctions need to be made. Campbell's hero's quest can be viewed from both a more universal and a personal perspective. In the particular of everyday life, it appears I live an ordinary, comfortable life (which I allude to above). But in a bigger sense, I have given my life over to God and have struggled with my faith. I spend my days studying, contemplating, meditating, and trying to bear what fruits I can in my day to day existence. In this sense, I feel I am on a deep quest in my life. It is not always comfortable, and yet there are rewards of inner bliss. I believe what Bruce may be alluding to is more particular in Campbell's statement. And that we all can't be Steve Jobs and William Shakespeare. And there are tradeoffs in that also.

Nicholas Fulford said...

@ted - We can all be as an instrument which is tuned to that which inspires a Shakespeare or a Bach. We can hear the same inner music born of desperate silent longing, and with much hard work of listening and self-refining become a beautiful expression of that music.

I have no illusions that I will be a Bach or Shakespeare, but that really is not the point. The point is to listen faithfully and allow myself to be trans-formed into my particular expression of that deep music.

First I hear, then I am drawn, and lastly I am transformed.

ted said...

I think we agree Nicholas on some level. I have experienced the elan vital, the flow, the creative impulse of the Divine! And I am certain I am a conduit to manifest my destiny. How that expresses itself in the particulars of life is another matter. It may not be through vocation (as it hasn't been for me). We all have an idiom to express, and how that shows up is going to look very different for all of us. But like you said, it is the transformation itself that is significant.