Joseph Campbell’s study of comparative mythology over the course of 38 years teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers would have a profound influence on pop culture. Although his books cover many aspects of the human experience, from the accessible (“The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” which influenced George Lucas’ “Star Wars”) to the abstruse (“A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake,” with Henry Morton Robison,) his best-known credo can be summarized in three words: “Follow your bliss.” It became a philosophy that resonated deeply with the American public – both religious and secular – even as some scholars criticized it as being too facile while others debunked it as the serene expression of a man of reactionary, even prejudiced views.
Campbell – who was born and raised in Westchester and Fairfield counties (White Plains, New Rochelle and New Milford) before going off to study at Dartmouth and Columbia – said that he derived his mantra from the Hindu” Upanishads,” although he was also influenced by the 1922 Sinclair Lewis novel “Babbitt.” In “The Power of Myth,” the PBS series and companion book he collaborated on with Bill Moyers shortly before his death in 1987 at his home in Honolulu at age 83, Campbell quotes from “Babbitt”: “I have never done a thing that I wanted to do in all my life.’ That is a man who never followed his bliss.”
In the series, taped at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif., he elaborated on the origin of his philosophy.
“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 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.”
Campbell saw “Follow your bliss” not merely as a mantra, although many use it during meditation, but as a guide to those on a spiritual quest or what he thought of as “the hero journey that we all walk through life.”
His association with Asian thought began while sailing back from Europe with his family in 1924. On board, Campbell met the great Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who espoused an intriguing philosophy known as “truth is a pathless land.” Krishnamurti thought that truth could only be found through the mirror of relationships, through the understanding of your own mind and through observation, not intellectual analysis. This sparked a deep interest in Hindu and Indian thought in the young American. Echoes of the psychiatrist Carl Jung – whose idea of the collective unconscious draws on the similarities in world mythologies – and James Joyce, author of “Finnegans Wake” and “Ulysses,” can also be found in his work.
“The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” published in 1949, argued that hero stories such as those of the Hindu God Krishna, Buddha, Apollonius of Tyana and Jesus all share a similar mythological basis. It introduced the concept of the hero’s journey to comparative mythology – the study of the human impulse to create stories and images that though they are clothed in the motifs of a particular time and place, draw nonetheless on universal, eternal themes.
The hero’s journey is one of self-discovery, of finding and following your bliss. No one else knows what makes your eyes light up and your heart leap. Take control of your own life. Reach for the stars.
Never give up. By actively imagining the possibilities for your future, you will begin to explore clues that your imagination holds about what you love to do.
Along the way you will create new habits and overcome hidden fears and false beliefs.
Once you find your bliss, write your ideas down so you can translate it into a dream job, hobby or life’s work.
Here are a few signs to help you recognize your bliss:
Time ceases to exist.
You feel an inner peace.
You feel totally alive and comfortable, that everything is interconnected and in its place.
I say with Campbell: Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid.
Wherever you are, if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that shining passion, that life within you, all the time.