Awhile back I wrote a piece for the website Reality Sandwich entitled “Why Following Your Bliss is Bulls#@%.” I took a mostly (but not entirely) critical view of the now cliched saying to follow your bliss, originally from the great Joseph Campbell.
I’m not going to rehash that entire argument but there’s one section from that piece I want to expand on here. Namely what precisely is the spiritual state of bliss.
In the earlier piece I explored the confusion of Campbell’s understanding of bliss from the two most common meanings of the word, one emotional and one spiritual. Bliss being the English translation of the Sanskrit word ananda, as in Sat-Chit-Ananda (Being- Consciousness-Bliss). Both the emotional and the spiritual meaning of bliss are not what Campbell had in mind when he spoke of following your bliss. This difference in meaning has created a serious amount of confusion and misunderstanding.
When it comes to the emotional meaning of bliss, I wrote:
“Sometimes people will translate ananda into English as happiness, joy, or even elation. Joy, happiness, and elation are temporary emotional states (good ones no doubt!) but ananda they ain’t.* Ananda doesn’t come and go like happiness or joy. Happiness or joy exist in relation to other emotions like sadness, grief, fear, and anger. Ananda doesn’t have any such relations. There’s nothing to compare ananda to. Ananda is not like happiness which we know as different from sadness (and vice versa). Moreover, it’s possible to experience ananda while also experiencing an emotional state of joy or sadness, boredom or elation, fear or contentment.”
The problem then with advising people to follow their bliss is that if they understand bliss to be an emotional state, then they will be seeking an “emotional high.” They will become addicts in other words. This thinking massively pervades the personal growth and spirituality of much of North America (aka “bliss junkies”).
So having made clear that the emotional state of bliss is not something to be attached to, in this piece I want to explore the spiritual state of Bliss. I’ll explore why I think the spiritual state of bliss to be a very grace-filled experience but also a signicantly dangerous one. In fact it’s likely the most dangerous spiritual state known to humanity. I’m not being overly dramatic. In a very sober way, I mean it when I say bliss is very dangerous.
For reference: I’ll use Bliss capitalized to distinguish the spiritual state of Bliss from the more temporary emotional state of bliss (indicated by lowercase ‘b’ bliss).
Here’s what I wrote in my earlier piece about the spiritual meaning of Ananda (Bliss):
Ananda is the energetic state of awakening. It’s the energetic space that comes from the realization of pure release in the state of utter liberation.
Now these are just words. Without the experience of actual Bliss the words are by themselves meaningless. Even with the experience of Bliss those words are far from perfect but at least work I believe as a beginning entry point to make sense of Bliss.
I’m going to unpack this statement and show why Bliss is so powerful but also at its heart very ambiguous. I’ll conclude with some thoughts on how to set a proper context for the integration of Bliss as an element of an overall human spiritual life. An element, not the element. I want to stress that last point–Bliss should be a part of an overall spiritual life it should not become the final and most important part of a spiritual life.
Saying “Follow Your Bliss” and understanding Bliss as a spiritual state creates its own set of problems–namely the bias towards Bliss as the final, most important form of spiritual awakening. Bliss is very important. Bliss IS NOT however the final and most important spiritual realization.
I’m interested then in exploring Bliss and figuring out a balanced view of its truths and limitations and how best to approach it in order that we can receive the truths and graces of Bliss and not become enmeshed in its limitations and potential shadow sides.
The English language on this point is really unhelpful. I want to describe spiritual experiences and interpretations that are my own but by having to speak of ‘my experience’ it carries a strong sense of personal ownership that isn’t correct in this context. For in Bliss, the normal sense of “I” or “me” isn’t present such that “I” could claim to have interpretations or understandings of that experience. “I” wasn’t even there (I in the normal self-sense that is).
That being said, I don’t also want to give the impression that my experience and interpretation is the final and complete one for all time and places. So I do need to claim some personal responsibility for the interpretations without it becoming an avaricious ownership kind of thing, like Gollum with the Ring of Power. This isn’t my precious.
Still with all that being said, I also am NOT advocating a view of “everybody’s got their own experience, so to each their own.” I do think what I’m proposing, while not the final ultimate interpretation of Bliss, is nevertheless A right and valid interpretation of Bliss. My interpretation is not THE final right and valid interpretation of Bliss, but there are many other interpretations of Bliss that I find wrong or misguided. So I am drawing some clear lines here.
As we proceed, I hope it’s clear I’m trying to tightrope walk with this one.
The only other prefatory comment to add is that my experience of Bliss is, to use some technical language, endogenic. That means it’s an experience internally generated, i.e. through spiritual practice like meditation. In contrast, there are people who experience Bliss through exogenic means, for example by ingesting mushrooms or taking an acid trip. I don’t have any experience in that realm so I can’t speak to it.
With all those provisos, back then to my working definition of Bliss:
Ananda [Bliss] is the energetic state of awakening. It’s the energetic space that comes from the realization of pure release in the state of utter liberation.
Breaking down that definition there’s three component parts:
In the actual experience of Bliss those three can’t be separated from each other, but for the purposes of teasing out the experience, we can differentiate them, at least conceptually.
Bliss is a spiritual state of Burning Fire. In Bliss it is as if the world melts into Liquid Brilliance. It is as if there is an electrical charge. There’s a dynamism, a vitality, an energetic “pow”.
Bliss is Aloneness. Bliss is solitude in a desert oasis at night illumined by fire.
In Bliss one is freed even from having to be free. One is freed from all constructs, including “good” ones like Truth, Freedom, Enlightenment, Goodness. It’s a Liberation from Liberation. In Bliss, stupidity as well as intelligence are Liberated. Confusion and Clarity are seen as two sides of one coin. Heaven and Hell, Nirvana and Samsara, are just forms of Bliss.
Bliss is an Undertow. It’s a Current. It pulls one out to sea. It’s an alluring pull. It’s as if Bliss opens up the pores on my skin. In the space of Bliss, everything else starts to melt away. I find myself simply taken away in the current. This current however has no destination. It’s just the experience of being pulled out to sea, Infinitely, Indefinitely, Eternally. No destination, no goal, no purpose, other than the ride itself.
In the space of Bliss, everything that arises is just gently poured in to the sea. It could be the most creative thought in the world, a most painful memory, a very pleasurable sensation, even seemingly fundamental aspects of my identity, it doesn’t matter. They all arise and simply get buried in the Sea of Bliss. Everything is left in the Desert Oasis of Bliss.
Put all three of these aspects together and you have the spiritual state of Bliss. Because Bliss so charged and because it takes out beyond all categories, all conceptions, all ways of splitting the world into right and wrong, it is very powerful. It is also however, for all the exact same reasons, potentially dangerous.
The Dark Sides of Bliss
Now there are significant dangers associated with each of those three elements. I hear spiritual teachers (or students) often extol the virtues of Bliss, but I hear less often an honest assessment of the dangers involved. I think it’s best to squarely face the dangers and bring them right out into the open.
Danger #1: Addictions, Trauma, and Psychological Shadow
The most obvious danger is the danger for all spiritual states–namely spiritual bypassing. Bliss can and is used as an escape for those suffering from addictions, traumas, mental illness, emotional disease, and/or soul ailments. As a spiritual state, Bliss is free from pain, terror, turmoil, confusion, or trauma. That is a gift of the state but also potentially a curse. Traumas, addictions, and nervous system disturbance are endemic within our culture. PTSD is not only for people who’ve been to war and addiction is not only for people going to 12 Step meetings for alcohol or drug abuse.
In that context, spirituality can then become a siren song, calling us wounded beings to an easy escape from dealing with our challenges on the level which they exist. For example, if you have an emotional problem, then you need to deal with it on the emotional level of your being. Having a spiritual realization will temporarily move you into a different space where the emotional problem doesn’t arise in the first place. That’s a great solution if you could hold that spiritual state for every moment for the rest of your life (which frankly is more or less the advice of classical spiritual teachers btw).
Assuming however you can’t hold that state in the entirely of your being for every waking moment of the rest of your existence (a good assumption btw!), then when the spiritual state recedes, the emotional problem will return. This return of the emotional problem can leave a sense of despair in the practitioner. They’ve struggled with something, then it goes away, now it’s back, so not surprisingly their initial response is to try to return immediately to the place where it doesn’t hurt. Worse still, the emotional problem (or addiction or trauma) can come back charged with spiritual energy. With Bliss this is doubly the case given how strongly energetic (in some cases even erotic) the experience is. A person with a trauma pattern can easily spin out from an injection of Bliss–i.e. they can experience a dissociative state. This isn’t per se a fault of Bliss but we live a pervasively traumatized society. The more we study about trauma the more we realize it’s not something relegated only to people in terribly violent accidents and the like. It’s a much more common experience. Consequently anyone teaching Bliss needs to be very aware of the risks involved and screen accordingly.
Danger #2 Beyond Good and Evil
This one is straightforward. Bliss is definitely beyond our human conceptions of good and evil. It is deeply freeing to be released from our subtle bindings of wanting to be good people. But when Bliss is idealized as the final summit of spiritual perfection (as it often is) then we have a serious issue on our hands. Bliss does not give any indication about ethical behavior one way or another. Bliss is not interested in such matters. Not at all. In the most extreme cases, this can led a human being to claim that they are beyond good and evil. Charlie Manson made just such a claim btw. A person who has experienced Bliss can (mis)interpret the experience to mean that they exist in what is known as a “state of exemption”–i.e. they don’t believe the rules of being a good human being apply to them. Abuse by spiritual teachers, cultism and the like all flow from this basic error.
Danger #3 No Purpose
This element is also quite clear. Not only does the spiritual state of Bliss have no orientation to right or wrong, it has no orientation to purpose. It has no point. It has no direction or aim. This can be radically destabilizing and disorienting for the realizer. Again, if Bliss is articulated as the final, ultimate point of spiritual realization (of a human life even), which in some cases it is, then the final point is pointless. With Bliss there’s the strong possibility of wanting to flee or abandon the world to its own demise and suffering, while one simply “Blisses Out.” Here again is the problem of uncritically advocating “Following Your Bliss.”
The spiritual state of Bliss is not “your” Bliss or “my” Bliss or “anyone’s” Bliss. Bliss SIMPLY IS. It cannot be owned. Further, it goes nowhere, hence it cannot be “followed”. Only something with direction, aim, or purpose can be followed. Bliss has no aim, purpose, or direction. The only way one could “follow” the spiritual state of Bliss is by becoming overly fixated or even addicted to the state. And this, like all addictions, is an unhealthy response to unhealed trauma.
Given the severity of these dangers associated with Bliss maybe Bliss should be abandoned altogether? While I can sympathize with that idea, I don’t believe it’s the right choice. There is a reason the Indian tradition valued Bliss so highly by naming it as one of its triad of spiritual realization. Bliss has something to teach us about being human that nothing else can. Bliss has an utterly unique wisdom associated with it. If we deny Bliss altogether we lose access to that very important truth of our humanity. Bliss is part of us whether we acknowledge it or not. The only choice is whether we make Bliss a conscious, integrated aspect of our human existence or not. If we choose not, then we will suffer the consequences of not owning this aspect of ourselves. In that case, Bliss won’t go away it will simply express itself in unconscious, negative forms. Unconscious Bliss leads us forever seeking for some release elsewhere and forever suffering right where we are.
Therefore, the question we needing be asking is: how can we incorporate the beauty of Bliss without its dark sides taking over?
The way to responsibly work with Bliss involves two main pieces.
1. Proper Preparation
Teachers should be open and honest with students about the dangers of bliss. Students should not be introduced to Bliss until they have some capacity to properly regulate their nervous system, understand their emotions and relate to them in a healthy fashion, as well as having learned how to work with their shadow. They will also have to be introduced to other (somewhat safer) spiritual states first, like Peacefulness, Presence, Awakened Heart and so on. Only then are they ready to be introduced to Bliss.
Placing Bliss Within The Soul
Of all the controversial statements I’ve made so far in this post, perhaps this is most controversial. This site is dedicated to The Soul. It’s my contention that it is our nature as Soul that is the proper container of a human incarnation. It is The Soul, in other words, that is the proper context for integration of our spiritual nature. (For a little more on soul versus spirit see here and here.)
In very very broad strokes, spiritual enlightenment teachings of all varieties almost always advocate that our spiritual nature is the proper context for us to live as awakened beings. Basically we should be and live from our spiritual nature all the time and that’s the “meta-solution” to all of our suffering.
I get the argument but just look at the term: spirit-ual teachings. The bias is right there in the name. So it’s not surprising spiritual teachings advocate being our spiritual nature. I define our spiritual nature as that which is universal and the same for all of us. Bliss is one expression, one state of our spiritual nature.
Spiritual teachings often divide the human up into simply two parts: the ego (bad) and the spirit (good). The path then is very simply to deny, crucify, transcend, or in some way annihilate the ego in order to be spiritually awake. When spiritual teaching is set up as one part bad (e.g. the ego) and one part good (spirit), then inevitably the whole of the teaching is about how to get out of the bad and into the good and once having gotten into the good how to stay in the good permanently.
I used to practice this way for years. I don’t agree any longer with that viewpoint. In that regard, I’m standing athwart much of spirituality yelling ‘Stop!’ (as William Buckley once famously said in an extremely different context).
I argue instead we should see our Soul–i.e. our singular, distinct manifestation and expression of The Universal–as the proper vessel or vehicle for living a fully human and fully divine life. What this means practically is that the spiritual aspects of us need to be incorporated into our Soul. Whereas in the history of spirituality most spirituality draws the biggest circle being Spirit and believing the Soul should fit inside Spirit. I’m advocating a reversal of the ordering (Spirit fits inside Soul).
Where spirituality would advocate No Boundaries, Soul-teaching advocates Sovereignty–the space where each Soul in an empowered way draws a sacred boundary around itself and incorporates and integrates all aspects of itself in a fully enfleshed manner. All aspects. Spiritual, psychological, emotional, etc.
So in other words, let’s imagine you experience the spiritual state of Bliss through meditation. Then you (I argue) should identify with your Soul. The Soul sets a proper container and context for Bliss to enter in and be welcomed. Bliss is not the final voice but simply now a Voice. Bliss is now “freed up by being limited” (in the words of Ken Wilber). Bliss is freed up to offer its wisdom without bringing in its wake all the baggage and dangers associated with it. These dangers largely occur when we look to Bliss to solve the problem of being human (which it doesn’t). When Bliss is not set up to solve a problem or be our salvation then it works quite well. It’s a profoundly amazing state and aspect of our being. But Bliss needs to held by the Soul–the aspect of us that does have a sense of purpose, of proper discernment (right/wrong), and doesn’t seek to route around or bypass any difficulties on any levels of our being.
What Joseph Campbell actually meant by Bliss was the Soul. So it turns out in the end he was right–we should Follow Our Bliss, i..e we should Follow the inherent impulses and charges of The Soul. But that is not what people hear when they hear the word Bliss. I think Campbell should have chosen a different word to describe the inherent drives and pull of The Soul than Bliss. What Campbell meant by bliss is neither a temporary emotional state of the personality nor is it the Bliss of our spiritual nature. I think we should leave Bliss to be what it is (a spiritual state of energetic awakening beyond all categories) and find a different word to describe the pull of our Soul.
Both are very important but they are very different and using the same term to describe both causes category errors and unnecessary pain and suffering for spiritual practitioners.
Coda: Special Note on Aurobindo
The great Indian realizer Sri Aurobindo gave an alternative interpretation to Ananda. He saw Ananda as the purposeful movement into incarnate reality of the spiritual. Aurobindo, as a consequence, was very critical of the classic Vedanta tradition of awakening represented by figures like Shankara or Ramana Maharshi. My experience of Bliss is much more in the Vedanta lineage. I do however believe Aurobindo was correct that there is a Creative or Incarnating Impulse. What some call an Evolutionary or Creative or God Impulse. For me this Evolutionary or Creative Impulse is actually a new revelation or insight. Where for Aurobindo the Incarnating Nature of Bliss was the original insight of the Indian lineage (he cited the ancient Indian texts the Vedas to support his claim).
I understand Aurobindo’s desire to ground his experience and teaching in his own lineage and his interpretation of the Vedas and the Upanishads is quite revolutionary in that regard. But I think he was actually talking about a new insight. There are some points of contact between his view and the ancient one–the connection is through the energetic pulsation of Bliss. But in the Aurobindian line that pulsation has desire to express and is existing within a frame of spiritual evolution, i.e. the Descent of Supermind, Supermind being the first expression of Sat-Chit-Ananda. In other words, I think Aurobindo (along with others) really discovered/co-constructed a 4th term to Being-Consciousness-Bliss. It would be for Aurobdino (as I see it) something more like:
In my understanding then there is room for both the Vedanta and the Aurobindian schools of realization and interpretation. The Vedanta tradition connecting more with the first three and the Aurobindian tradition the fourth.
* There is a way to speak of Joy in a spiritual sense as a deep underlying ease and sense of blessedness of simply being alive. Joy, in this understanding, is the Feeling of Being Herself. This view is totally valid but I still argue it is different from the state of Ananda, which is I think actually correctly translated into English as Bliss. The differentiation from Joy and Bliss is already there in the difference between Sat (Being) and Ananda (Bliss). Trying to translate Ananda into Joy conflates Sat and Ananda, which are intimately tied into one another but nevertheless are distinct.