Pathways to Bliss?

I chose my book of focus based solely on the title, Pathways to Bliss, because who doesn’t like bliss, right?  The section of the book I am focusing on is “Personal Myth” because this is the chapter that spoke the most to me and made me take a hard look at my own life.  However, what I found in this chapter didn’t lead me to see pathways to bliss.  I think of myself as a pretty happy, fulfilled individual but according to how I read this chapter, I am a boring individual living for nothing. I admit, I was a bit insulted. Then I thought that it has to be one of two things that makes me see things differently than Campbell. One, that each person has their own path to bliss and only they can find it and know what it is or the second possibility, that there is a difference between bliss and happiness.  Now, if it is just that we each have our own path to bliss, then that is fine, mine is not the madness induced bliss that Campbell speaks of but if it is the other option, that there is a difference between bliss and happiness, I’m not sure that I want bliss by Campbell’s definition, I am content with boring happiness.

Life Sucks – So Deal with It

First of all, I have an issue with Joseph Campbell’s perspective on life in this chapter. He speaks about life as though it is something that we endure but I want to point out that life is also filled with beauty and love. He states “Not only political life but all life stinks, and you must embrace it with compassion” (77). He also quotes Buddha as saying “All life is sorrowful” (104). To top it off, he says “That is what life is – a terrible, terrible, ordeal” (105). Statements like these remind me of discussions I had with my Russian teacher, Irina Renfro, many years ago. She was a wonderful teacher that took me under her wing and taught me Russian culture through language and literature. One thing that really stuck with me was when she told me that the difference between our cultures was that Americans expect to be happy and Russians expect unhappiness. In fact, she said that in Russia, to suffer is better than being happy because to suffer means one has a closeness to God. This is HUGE! In America, we not only prefer happiness, we put it as one of our inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Professor Renfro taught me over ten years ago and I still think of some of the things that she told me, she is teaching me still.


So, is it better to expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised when things turn out positively or is it better to expect good things and face disappointment?  No matter which answer is chosen, it has a huge impact on an individual and how they live their life.  Even though I am a firm believer in having positive expectations, I can see an argument for both sides of this debate.

Why expect the worst?

According to those that believe this is the best way to live, expecting the worst means we will be prepared when bad things happen and we will not be disappointed with life.  If we expect bad things to happen, we will be ready when they do occur. Campbell challenges the reader to ask them self these questions “if I were confronted with a situation of total disaster, if everything I loved and thought I lived for were devastated, what would I live for? If I were to come home, find my family murdered, my house burned up, or all my career wiped out by some disaster or another, what would sustain me?” (88) His claim is that finding the answer to these questions is the key to finding your personal myth. This is a great example of preparing for the worst, but what horrible questions – how can one think about the loss of everything they love and not feel heartache? I guess if you lived with this question in mind, you might be happy each day these things didn’t happen and you would also find a way to say these things don’t matter to you so you could leave them behind. I will get back to these questions when I address what we live for but as it relates to expectations, preparing yourself for such tragedy is by far a way of expecting the negative.

My Russian teacher also gave me a great argument against expecting to be happy which was to point to how that expectation has materialized itself in the American society. Americans spend countless amounts of time and money trying to figure out why we are not happy. We are told we have the right to be happy and shouldn’t endure suffering, either emotionally or physically. If you have a headache, your knee hurts, or if you are sad or unfulfilled; pop a pill, have a drink, smoke a joint, complain to a therapist, do whatever it takes to get rid of the pain but do not suffer. I see this as true for many Americans, we have lost our endurance for suffering.  Part of our unhappiness comes from our expectation for happiness. We spend so much time investigating every facet of our lives for meaning that we lead ourselves to dissatisfaction instead of living in the moment and simply enjoying life.

Why should we expect good?

In expecting good things, expecting to be happy, we do not allow ourselves to settle for situations that do not suit us. Like most people, I have had incredibly dark moments in my life, moments when life seemed too much to bear but overcoming those sufferings has made it much easier to deal with the sorrow that life can occasionally throw at me now. Now, when I hit a low point, I expect it to get better again and work to make it better instead of dwelling on my sadness. When a person expects the worst and something bad happens, they just accept it, they live with it and do not let themselves transcend the sorrow. However, when a person expects the best and bad things happen, they expect it to get better and work towards making it so.

Life is both, wonderful and terrible – if we can prepare for both, expect both and know that neither state is permanent, we find balance.

Life is also beautiful – so embrace it

In his discussion about life and religion and how he sees the world, Campbell also quotes Buddhist thinkers saying “this world – just as it is with all its horror, all its darkness, all its brutality – is the golden lotus world of perfection” (105). This is as close as he comes in this chapter to acknowledging that yes, life has its low points but it also can be beautiful. I think it is all about perspective. We can choose to look at the good things, expect good, strive for happiness or we can wallow in sorrow and self-pity, believing the world is a horrible place. Life and our world are not perfect but we do not reach bliss with perfection, bliss, to me, means embracing the good and letting the bad roll by. Maybe Campbell is right and it makes me “blissfully ignorant” but why use knowledge to create unhappiness where it didn’t exist?

Campbell’s version of Maslow’s values

What is it that we live for? This question is my major contention with Joseph Campbell’s arguments in this chapter and why I have such a problem with his idea of bliss. He talks about the five values that Maslow claims people live for and says that “these are exactly the values that mythology transcends. Survival, security, personal relationships, prestige, self-development – in my experience, those are exactly the values that a mythically inspired person doesn’t live for” (89). His claim is that “mythology begins where madness starts. A person who is truly gripped by a calling, by a dedication, by a belief, by a zeal, will sacrifice his security, will sacrifice even his life, will sacrifice his personal relationships, will sacrifice prestige, and will think nothing of personal development; he will give himself entirely to his myth” (89). Why sacrifice to find an all-consuming bliss when you are already content? Not only does this go against my core but I feel like this myth is what selfish people tell themselves to make them feel better about the decisions they make.

Campbell claims that “Maslow’s five values are the values for which for which people live when they have nothing to live for. Nothing has seized them, nothing has caught them, nothing has driven them spiritually mad and made them worth talking to. These are bores” (89). By this argument, I am a bore and I pity all of you because you have to listen to me for these eleven minutes of presenting but I feel there is plenty to live for in these values.

As far as Maslow’s five values go, I will list them and bore you with why I find each one worth living for. The first is survival, yes, I have admitted to having moments of darkness that have made me want to give up but I am happy I didn’t succumb to those voices and I survived. Also, I feel my survival is important because it would hurt those people that I care about if I didn’t survive.  I think most of us, if confronted with a situation where we had to fight for our survival, would fight and there is nothing boring about that. Basically, survival is saying that life is worth living for. There are things I believe I would be willing to risk my life for but the instinct to survive is biologically ingrained in all of us.

The next core value, security, is a bit trickier. We work for financial security, we plan for our futures and invest so we will not have to worry and work so hard in our old age and our offspring can have security. We also spend those finances on devices to keep our loved ones and selves secure. We buy cars with air bags, we wear helmets, and avoid things that threaten our security but we also seek out the thrill of testing our security. This is not a value I find worth living for but it is something that does matter. I admit that I do like to feel safe and that can be boring, so I will accept that part of the accusation of being a bore.

Now to my number one reason for living, personal relationships. My family, not only my husband and child(ren), but my family, is my heart. It’s difficult to think of anything that would be worth jeopardizing my losing them. To go back to Campbell’s earlier scenario about if our family was wiped out, how would we survive? The other parts of the scenario, burned down house and loss of career, they wouldn’t really faze me but if something were to happen to members of my family, I would be devastated. I would survive (even admitting this makes me sad) and I know I would endure it but it would be because of the support of my remaining family members and friends. If some sort of situation happened that wiped out all my relations, then we would be talking about something that would wipe out people from all over the country and now we are getting into ridiculous scenarios. If the fact that people are what makes my life worth living makes me boring, than I am the most boring person but I am happy because I have wonderful friends and family.

Next is prestige, like security, this one is not a real big one for me but I would be lying to say that I do not enjoy having a position in society above where I came from. I came from a humble background but with a little luck and hard work, I have reached a level of education and social status that has afforded me some prestige. For a person from my humble beginnings to be speaking in front of a room full of doctoral students as their peer is a level of prestige I didn’t think I would have reached. It’s pretty cool but I don’t find it worth living for like personal relationships.

This brings us to the final value, personal development. Isn’t this the value that has brought us all here to Pacifica to study, of all things, Mythological Studies? I know it isn’t for money and it certainly isn’t out of dumb luck, it was a choice each of us made, some of us a little more thoughtfully than others but we are each here out of a desire for personal development. Whether or not this is a core value I think can’t be argued – what a great thing to live for, to become a better person. Isn’t this what we learned in our Hindu class that we strive to become better through our lives until we finally reach the level of enlightenment that we transcend life. If pursuing personal development is boring, than surround me with bores any day.

Living your personal myth

As an example of a man that lived his life for his myth, Campbell cites the life of the painter Paul Gauguin. As Campbell sees it, “he just went off on this adventure, forgot his family and everything else. . .  He forgot all about Maslow’s values and began simply to live his bliss” (90). My question is, why did he have to leave it all behind in order to follow his bliss? Could his family not go with him? Maybe I am naïve to want it all, but to me, I would rather have my personal relationships than be a famous artist. Also, isn’t what he was really chasing personal development? Didn’t he really accomplish prestige as an artist known past his lifetime? Since I value relationships over these things, I may be boring but I see him as selfish. How sad for his family that he just left them, or maybe he didn’t have good personal relationships so it wasn’t a huge loss, I don’t know but it is sad either way. I would not be full of bliss without the people I love no matter where I was or what I was doing, I would be lonely and miss them. I would endure but for me, bliss would have to include them. This is why I say that if this is Campbell’s definition of bliss, to be so driven by some desire that everything else would lose its importance, he can have it. I will take the life of boredom and happiness.

What is My Personal Myth?

So, this leads me to ask? Do I have a personal myth and if so, what is it? What is it that drives me? As I have already talked about, I know it is my personal relationships but in the next chapter in Pathways to Bliss, “The Self as Hero,” Campbell references the myth of the princess and the frog. He glibly retells the story and says “What we discover is that he, too, is in trouble. He had been cursed, transformed by a hag into a frog. Now, that’s the little boy who hasn’t dared to move on into adulthood. She’s the little girl who’s at the brink of adulthood, and both of them have been refusing it, but each now helps the other out of this neurotic stasis” (126). Once I read this quote, I felt a connection to this myth. As I alluded to in Friday’s dream class, I was a mess in high school battling my demons and dragons. When I met my husband, I was almost sixteen years old and he had just turned eighteen. I have often thought of him as my knight, he saved me, but from reading Campbell, that is just a projected image, it’s really more like the princess and the frog.  As Campbell points out, “you have both of them in trouble and they’re both in the bottom of the well and each rescues the other” (126). I realized this was really the personal myth I shared with my husband. We saved each other and brought each other from the bottom of the well and into adulthood. While I thought admired his strength as my knight, I realize how strong I have really become as we have grown together so I am my own knight and no longer need that projection but I will always need him, the frog from our myth.

This gave me bliss for about eighteen years while we grew in our personal development but then I hit another very dark time in my life, my personal myth had changed, I was no longer fulfilled, and I wanted a child. So now our personal myth included a child and I felt fulfilled in my personal relationships and after almost two years, I again felt my personal myth growing and I got the itch for personal development and decided to come here to Pacifica to pursue a doctorate degree. Who knows how my personal myth might change after this goal is fulfilled? But when I think of what is truly in my soul, I think it will always include the princess and the frog. It is my husband that pushes me to grow and pursue that which makes me happy and not to sound full of myself but I know I help inspire him to pursue his dreams and grow, through personal development but also as a parent and part of a family. Our myth may have changed but at its core, it has really remained the same, we are still those scared children helping each other climb from the well.

A friend once told me after knowing me for years then meeting my husband, ‘I never really understood you until I met Charles (my husband).’ I thought this was a funny statement but upon reflection, it made sense because my husband and I have a shared personal myth and each one of us are so much a part of who each of us has become that neither one of us makes sense on our own any more.

Final thoughts

It seems some people, especially Americans and academics like Joseph Campbell, are quick to discount a life of contentment as boring. They give up their happiness in search of something bigger and better and rarely find it. The epidemic of depression may be due to our desire for this all-consuming bliss all the time but happiness takes work and perseverance. Personal relationships take time and patience, they take forgivness and growth. We are all going through the process of personal development and I know we can agree that it is a lot of hard work. We forget sometimes, happiness itself isn’t an inalieable right, the pursuit of it is. Some people wonder why they aren’t happy instead of working to make it happen or the opposite, they think it must be a pursuit and constantly chase it instead of rolling up their sleeves and living their lives in a way that will make them happy. My life may seem small and boring to some, I live within an hour of where I grew up, I am married to the man that I began to date when I was fifteen, and I haven’t been to exotic lands but I am happy. I have a great family that supports me and wants me to grow and be happy. I can go hiking in the beautiful mountains and experience the seasons just enough right where I live. My career allows me to work part-time and help people while I spend time with my family and pursue my education. Maybe it is because of my humble beginnings that I am so happy with the life I have but are people with more experiences happier than I am? Do more travels, lovers, experiences, and self-introspection lead one to happiness?  Was Paul Gauguin happy because he “ left it all behind and followed his bliss?” Many Americans are fervently chasing some all-consuming force that could be the madness that Campbell speaks of with myth. So, maybe he is right and I am boring because I shun the drama of the madness and embrace the boring old happiness that I have found. I found my bliss right in front of me, within Campbell’s version of Maslow’s five values. My continuing pathway to bliss may not be the most interesting story to read and unlike Gauguin, I will most likely be forgotten after my loved ones are gone but my boring little life is filled with enough bliss for me and if that makes me a bore, so be it.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Novato: New World Library, 2004. Print.

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