Follow your bliss. That was the advice a few friends gave me the past months because I am “between opportunities” ( the term I was told is better than “between jobs” or “unemployed”).

Sounds good. Except I don’t know what bliss I am supposed to follow.

Where did this phrase come from?

It seems that we can credit Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987) who was an American mythologist, writer and lecturer. His field was comparative mythology and religion.

In 1956, he made trips to India and Japan and returned feeling he had a mission to let Americans know about the world’s myths and cultures. He started writing his multi-volume The Masks of God. The book brought him much attention and he enhanced that by frequently speaking at colleges, churches, lecture halls, and appearing on radio and television.

He wasn’t the first person to come upon these topics. He drew upon the work of others who had influenced him like James Frazer (The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion), Adolf Bastian, and Otto Rank (The Myth of The Birth of The Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology).

In explaining his ideas on universal symbols and stories and their impact on people, he used the work of Sigmund Freud and even more so, Carl Jung.

I first encountered him through his book The Power of Myth which led me to other books like The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Strange things were contained in those books.

In my college literature classes, his monomyth, or hero’s journey, was taught as a basic pattern found in many narratives from around the world, and I was assigned The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

He took the term monomyth from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake – which was a book that no one I knew had actually read but everyone talked about. It’s admirable that he wrote A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork but it didn’t unlock the book for me.

I liked how the book showed the similarities between Eastern and Western religions, rather than pointing at the differences.

But certainly the phrase most identified with him and most often quoted (including on t-shirts, cups etc.) is “Follow your bliss.” It may also be the most misunderstood of his sayings.

He derived this idea from the Upanishads. The Upanishads are a collection of about 200 philosophical texts which form the theoretical basis for the Hindu religion. Orthodox Hindus believe they contain revealed truths about the nature of ultimate reality (brahman) and that they describe the character and form of human salvation.

Campbell said in  Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation  that he came to his understanding of bliss because in Sanskrit, the language of the Upanishads, he discovered three terms that are key to reaching the point of departure to transcendence. The three terms are Sat-Chit-Ananda. “Sat” means being, and “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture.

In his own honest self-evaluation, Campbell felt that though he wasn’t sure that his consciousness or being was transcendent, he did know where his bliss was. He saw following that bliss as the path to finding his consciousness and being.

People picked up on the phrase as a kind of mantra or life path. They felt that Campbell was suggesting it as a way to guide each of us on our own hero journey.

But the simple phrase unwraps a more complicated riddle of how to follow your bliss. You will read that your bliss is a kind of path that has been waiting for you all along. The life that you should be living is the one you are living.

When Campbell began talking about this on campuses in the 1970s, it caught the mood of the times.

Shortly after Campbell’s death, The Power of Myth was aired in multiple installments on public television (1988) which brought about a revival of his writings.

Campbell was not happy that the phrase devolved into meaning a kind of do-what-you-will hedonism.

One pop culture figure who readily admitted being under Campbell’s influence is George Lucas who credits Campbell’s writing for much of the “mythology” of the Star Wars universe.

His did interviews with Campbell and has discussed his influence and says that  The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other works were a guide for the story of Luke Skywalker. (See the Campbell biography, A Fire in the Mind)

Lucas met Campbell after the completion of the original Star Wars trilogy. The Power of Myth documentary was filmed at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch with interviews by Bill Moyers.

Campbell was very complimentary about the films saying that the trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI) were a reinvention of the mythology and hero journey for contemporary viewers.

Subsequent filmmakers have also acknowledged the influence of Campbell in films such series as The Matrix, Batman and some of the Indiana Jones films.

Which brings me in my journey in trying to find my bliss. I also had two friends who separately told me that they didn’t think I would find the next part of my journey but that it (work, rapture, bliss, vocation, passion?) would find me.

Maybe it’s more 1970s hedonism, but I’m coming to believe that.  And I am thinking that my life’s challenges, fears, dragons and battles, have brought me to a place where I am just about ready to return home as a changed person.

More information at Joseph Campbell Foundation