What I’ve learned from following my bliss (straight into the wall)

I Dream of Empty Chairs

I arrived home last night to a great sur­prise via Google alerts: Plan B Nation—described as “a smart blog by writer and lawyer Amy Gut­man on ‘Iiv­ing cre­atively in chal­leng­ing times’”—had been dubbed Web­site of the Week on the Sec­on­dAct blog.

Woo hoo!

There’s some­thing espe­cially sweet about recog­ni­tion that comes out-of-the-blue, and I quickly shared the news with my won­der­ful friends, who were duly delighted for me.

That is fabulous—congratulations,” exclaimed one lovely Face­book pal. “As says Joseph Camp­bell, Fol­low your bliss and the uni­verse will open doors where there were only walls.”

On the one hand, I loved the sen­ti­ment. On the other, I had to laugh. I can’t count the num­ber of times when no such thing has hap­pened. I’m liv­ing proof that you can fol­low your bliss head­long into a wall.

It’s true that in recent months, my life has been on the upswing—I’ve been pick­ing up pay­ing work and this blog (which I love writ­ing) has been fea­tured on New Eng­land NPR and oth­er­wise gath­er­ing steam. But it’s also true that I’m just emerg­ing from two quite dif­fi­cult years. And I got there (just as I got here) by try­ing to fol­low my heart, my bliss, or what­ever you want to call it.

I use the word try­ing for a rea­son. We often talk as if it’s easy to know the right thing to do, you just need the courage to do it. I don’t quite see it that way. To me, the whole process of chart­ing next steps is end­lessly mys­te­ri­ous (as well as end­lessly fascinating).

For exam­ple:  How do we know that we’re lis­ten­ing to some true, higher, authen­tic self (assum­ing that such a thing even exists, which, as I’ve writ­ten before, is sub­ject to debate) as opposed to inter­nal­ized parental tapes or other conditioning?

The best answer I’ve ever got­ten to this ques­tion (which I’ve asked more times than I care to count) came from Stephen Cope, author of the ter­rific Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. What he proposed—and this was a long time ago, so I may not have it exactly right—is to focus on two questions:

1. Is this desire one that has stayed with you over time?

2. How does your body—your phys­i­cal self—respond to this desire?

Over the years, I’ve referred to these ques­tions a lot, and I’m pretty sure they’ve helped.

Still, as I think back over decades of deci­sion mak­ing, it strikes me that my more prob­lem­atic choices have stemmed not from a fail­ure to con­sult my heart but rather from careen­ing between extremes.  

Not happy being a news­pa­per reporter in rural Mis­sis­sippi? Fine! Why don’t you go to Har­vard Law School and then prac­tice cor­po­rate law in Manhattan?

Not happy prac­tic­ing cor­po­rate law in Man­hat­tan? Fine! Why don’t you quit your job and study yoga and write mys­tery novels?

And so on.

It’s not that any of these choices were inher­ently bad ones—I liked law school. I had fun writ­ing thrillers. I was for­tu­nate to have the oppor­tu­nity to do any and all of these things—just  that they prob­a­bly weren’t the short­est or sim­plest path to a sta­ble and sus­tain­ing life.

Those who fol­low a mac­ro­bi­otic diet believe that when we eat extreme Yin foods (sugar, alco­hol) we crave extreme Yang foods (red meat, eggs).  It’s best to avoid such foods, they say, as we are health­i­est when we mainly eat foods at the mid­dle of the Yin/Yang spectrum.

Sim­i­larly, I’ve come to think that I make bet­ter deci­sions when I’m oper­at­ing from a base­line of equa­nim­ity, not when I’m attempt­ing to race from one peak expe­ri­ence to the next. You might say I’ve adopted a mac­ro­bi­otic the­ory of life.

In the end, though, I don’t really see any way around the fact that life is essen­tially messy and unpre­dictable, regard­less of what we do. It gets bad, then it gets bet­ter, then it gets worse, then it gets really really great, and then it sucks, then it’s okay for a while. You can fol­low your bliss to … well, bliss, or fol­low it into a wall. If you live a long and full life, you’ll likely do both more than once.