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Joseph Campbell and the Magical Effect of Pursuing Happiness


The era’s most celebrated mythologist speaks on the surprising results of following anything which gives us bliss.

Sometimes life’s simplest lessons escape our attention too easily. Paradoxically, these simpler lessons can be more complex and difficult to understand than others. This is the case of one very specific lesson offered by Joseph Campbell – likely one of the past century’s wisest men: pursue what makes you happy, without fear, and don’t let it go.

In 1988, Campbell spoke of sacrifice and happiness in an interview with Bill Moyers for the The Power of Myth, a series of documentaries made by the U.S.’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). The professor said that the most important advice he could give to his students was to cling unconditionally to those things that generate happiness, those that are capable of producing a deep and lasting feeling of being, and that ignite both body and soul.

According to Campbell, sadly, many people go through life without doing what they really want to do. They follow the false idea that we have to do what we have to do, not what we really want to do. But from Campbell’s approach, success isn’t related to something outside of ourselves (fame or wealth), but to what we have inside.

To explain his argument, the mythologist spoke of these same terms in the Sanskrit language. For Campbell, it remains humankind’s most important spiritual language; Sat (the immutable being or essence of an entity), chit (total consciousness) and ananda, (ecstasy or outburst). These three concepts form the basis from which we may begin a true spiritual path. Of the triad, Campbell asserts that while he’s not sure exactly what it is to be or to have a total conscience, it’s nevertheless possible to find that which produces a rapture in the soul and the heart and from that to be and to live with conscience. In Cambell’s own case, it was through Indian culture, mythology, art, music, and dance.

It’s not necessary to be a poet to find happiness. Campbell explains that poets are the people who achieve a profession and even a lifestyle as a result of being in full contact with all of the above. The technique of discovering ecstasy and keeping in touch with this side of ourselves can’t be taught. It’s something that every person needs to look for as part of their own path; a path which anyone else could then access. Campbell then beautifully describes that moment when his pupils found their own raptures while in his presence: eyes opened, the complexion of their bodies changed and what he wished for was that they would never let this go, for the student had found life, there, in front of him.

The secret is to immerse yourself in your own depth, Campbell explains. This can be achieved through a completely intuitive process. You have to learn to recognize it and to trust what at some point Campbell describes as “invisible hands,” the force which leads us to the path which, when it’s before us, seems to have been waiting for us. It’s then that everything seems to fall into place, when life brings us closer to the people who share the same ecstasy, and when doors we didn’t know existed begin to open up. The secret, we might conclude, lies in an exercise simultaneously simple and complex: the act of paying attention.

Follow the link for an excerpt from the interview with Joseph Campbell.



*Image:  Jean Erdman, Joseph Campbell, and Joan Halifax, Montana, 1970

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