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.