“Follow your blisters”

There’s an apocryphal account that Joseph Campbell, the scholar of comparative religion and mythology and originator of the ‘follow your bliss’ saying, was unhappy with the hedonistic misinterpretation of his theme, and exclaimed:

I should have said ‘Follow your blisters.’

The original quote was apparently a reference to the Vedantic concept of Saccidananda: the threefold attributes of Brahman as ‘being’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘bliss’; not, it seems, an injunction to pursue freelance writing, or become a professional baker of cupcakes because that’s where you feel happiest.

Nonetheless, that’s how most people seem to understand it: do what makes you happiest and the path will open, and there are plenty of stories of successful people who took a chance based on doing what they loved.

But Campbell’s follow-up is equally apposite, because the whole point about doing what you love is that you are able to throw yourself into it more fully, to derive meaning from it, and therefore stand a better chance of excelling at it.

Take writing, for example: I’ve put more effort into two months of writing than I did in six to nine months of regular paid employment. It’s not that I shirked my responsibilities, just that initiative was not encouraged, and the work we were given was rather tedious and mediocre.

But because I love writing, I can put in comparatively huge amounts of effort and it feels like nothing. The effort still takes a physical and mental toll, but love of the work leaves me strangely oblivious to it, until I start wondering why I can no longer form sentences and my eyes feel like they’re filled with fine sawdust.

The fact is that Campbell’s transcendent Upanishadic triad of ‘being, consciousness, bliss’ and the more mundane idea of doing what you love do converge. In doing what you love, practising your art and your skill, pursuing something of the utmost meaning, you do in fact approach an experience of transcendence that accelerates and deepens your efforts. You love it all the more because it takes you beyond yourself, and brings you back with an even greater determination to transform this mundane reality, ordinary life, into something far more special, blisters and all.

7 thoughts on ““Follow your blisters”

    • Hi Wakadian.

      I think it is an interesting idea, to look at intelligence and argumentation in relation to dominance and power. I think it has merit. However, after rereading it, I am not entirely satisfied by your response to the challenge that “There is a difference between hitting someone and proving them to be illogical.”
      For example, you have shown that a person can use mental or physical confrontation to intimidate and show off, and have argued that we should therefore regard mental confrontation as analogous to the physical variety. But what we are criticising then is the intimidation and the showing off, not the confrontation per se, and I think it is quite reasonable to argue that we tend to view physical confrontation as wrong regardless of the intention behind it.
      I think it would make more sense to say that we oppose intimidation and showing off, ends which can be achieved through a variety of means where there is a disparity of power (you could add wealth disparity, social status/career disparity, ethnic disparity, etc).
      In addition to that, we oppose physical violence (except for self-defence and just war scenarios) because it is intrinsically harmful, whereas intellectual engagement is not.
      Looking at it this way, perhaps what you have identified is a tendency for our society to place more emphasis on the immorality of violent intimidation, whereas non-violent forms of intimidation can be just as malicious, though overlooked?

      Anyhow, I’m sure there are a variety of perspectives and ideas to be drawn from what you’ve written; the above is just what came to mind at the time. I’m not sure how useful it will be to you.
      By way of a final suggestion: I try to reread my posts immediately after publishing them. There’s usually one or two typos or omissions that will help the reader if corrected.



      • Dear Zac,

        Thank you for taking the time to read my essay, and to respond. I know I should have read it over, I just wanted to put something out there. I can be impatient about editing.

        I see your point, but I disagree that “we tend to view physical confrontation as wrong regardless of the intention behind it.” I think that for a growing number of Americans (or even world citizens) there lives exist devoid of physical confrontation, but think about arm wreslting, sports, playful fights with friends, pushing contests, taps on the head, I don’t think physical confrontation is definitively bad.

        I read a book once about the spirituality of war. The author made the argument that violence can be a language, and that for many socieites (and many young men) they fight not to actaully hurt someone, but to communicate a feeling in a way they know how.

        Actually, I think it is a problem how divorced modern Americans are from physical confrontations of all sorts.

  1. Great post.
    I’ll flatter myself by presuming that my “follow your bliss” joke set you off on these ruminations. If so, I’m glad to have helped!
    I used to really love Campbell and read as much of his work as I could, but I gradually came to see a little too much bluster in his conviction. Apart from being a horrible writer, the main problem for me is his weak scholarship: some of the footnotes he provides in the Masks of God are either meaningless or actively disprove what he’s saying (e.g, his supposed translation of “occam’s razor” in Creative Mythology.)
    That being said, he wasn’t really the butt of my satire in this case- I was thinking more of those people who follow his ideas as a mystical life philosophy without understanding the context or what he really meant. As you charmingly point out, the Upanishad’s aren’t there to justify your cupcake obsession.
    The best summary I ever heard of Campbell was uttered by a friend of mine, an Australian named Kaine. I wish I could claim it for myself, but alas, he beat me to it. He said: “The problem with Campbell is that he wrote books about mythology for people who don’t know a lot about mythology for people who know a lot about mythology.”

    Great blog. Keep it up.

    And thanks for the reposts, of course!

    • Thanks Throwcase!
      It was indeed your reference that got me going.
      I’m glad you said that Campbell was a horrible writer – I struggled to read his books about a dozen years ago and all I can recall is that I couldn’t get into them for some reason. Most of what I know of his theories comes from an old interview series from just before his death, and other secondary references.
      That’s a good summary – though I’m saddened to admit it took me about six readings to work it out.

      As time goes on I’m discovering the phenomenon of people following ideas in general without understanding the context or what they really mean, is depressingly common. Luckily, there’s a growing industry of people producing ideas that don’t really mean anything and the context of which are fundamentally commercial, to meet this need. I think we’re going to miss the days where people took sayings like “follow your bliss” and misused them for their own purposes. Instead they’ll have an expensive collection of affirming self-help and ‘spiritual’ books that are created with such use in mind.

      I sense another post coming….

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