Following One's Bliss at a College Reunion
|The Ivy League!|
|My best friends Sharon, Beth and I on the Dartmouth Green|
|Why so serious??|
Ariel Elizabeth Churnin
MFA Thesis April 20, 2009
Karen Wilkin and Graham Nickson, Advisors
This winter, I discovered the work of Joseph Campbell. His scholarship on the universality of myths and his emphasis on following one’s bliss have affected both my outlook on life and my studio practice. Campbell reawakened my interest in art, myth, magic, psychology and religion. Most importantly, he opened me to a world of artists, writers and thinkers who share an interest in these same subjects. As I am in the beginning stages of researching Campbell and reading the works of Carl Jung and Sir James Frazer, I can only touch upon their work in this essay. I look forward to the years of reading that lie ahead of me.
At the time that I first learned of Campbell, I was struggling at the New York Studio School. I felt as if I had spent the past few years skipping about without committing to a subject matter or method of working. I would land upon a subject and pursue it with the delusion that I had found something significant and sustainable. For several weeks I would immerse myself in the subject, guarding it jealously from critiques. I feared that the work would lose its personal significance as soon as it received praise or criticism from others. The solitary studio provided the freedom to work instinctually, without self-consciousness. The opinions of others stripped the work of its special qualities; a few words could render trite the most meaningful painting. I resented the power of others to change my feelings about the work. I also resented the tendencies of others to categorize me according to my work. They did not realize that the current subject matter was a by-product of my search for meaningful subject matter. Despite efforts to retain that initial relationship with the work, after the critique I found myself working in accordance with the comments I had received. In essence, I was no longer making the work for myself. Inevitably, interest in the subject waned, coupled with the sense of failure. I felt as if I had yet again disappointed myself and others by not sticking to something and pursuing it. So once more, I began another search for meaningful subject matter, hoping that maybe this time I would find something that would sustain me for longer than a few weeks.
One evening, while cat-sitting for a friend, I watched a video about Joseph Campbell. Although I had only a vague notion of his work, I was intrigued by Campbell because several friends had spoken highly of him. My cat-sitting friend said that I would particularly enjoy his theory of “bliss” with regard to my art. While I was wary of subjecting myself to strange ideas, I decided that I had nothing to lose by watching the video as my confidence in the studio had once again faded. What I discovered in Campbell was a series of stories and theories that encouraged me to trust in myself and pursue my passions. His theory about the hero’s journey, for example, applied directly to my studio practice. The hero’s journey is a common cultural tale which serves as a metaphor for how to lead life. According to Campbell, all hero tales follow a similar pattern: the hero feels restless and an impending sense of destiny; he breaks from the past and travels to a distant land to follow the call to adventure; he takes a mentor who teaches him to face future adversaries; he faces a series of trials where he must use the wisdom of his heart to confront death; he triumphs over death and attains the treasure, princess or spiritual enlightenment. This journey teaches that following one’s heart is the key to overcoming obstacles and attaining distant goals. In the studio, the hero would be an artist who follows his or her passions independent of the opinions of others.
Campbell came upon the idea from the three Sanskrit terms that teach how to reach enlightenment: Sat (Being), Chit (Consciousness), Ananda (Bliss or Rapture).  Upon discovering these words, Campbell thought: “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.” Rapture or bliss is the thing in life that brings us pure joy. We can identify our bliss simply by paying attention to ourselves and noticing what makes us happy. Campbell identified the source of bliss in his students while meeting with students at Sarah Lawrence College. While discussing course readings, he would often hit upon something that a student really responded to. As the student’s eyes opened and complexion changed, Campbell could only hope that the student would hang on to that source of life. Not every student held on to her bliss, just as many of us cast aside our seemingly impractical dreams. It takes courage to do what we truly want to do when people are always saying that this is impossible. Campbell, however, encourages us to stick to our bliss at all costs: “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”  When we do what brings us the deep sense of being alive, we are living in accord with our true nature and with the external world. When we live in harmony, we will discover other people who in the field of our bliss and they will open doors for us. There is no need to fear when the external world responds with a helping hand.
After watching the video, I contemplated Joseph Campbell’s ideas and realized that I had enacted the hero’s journey in my pursuit of making art. Since early childhood I made paintings and drawings, but it took years to realize that art made me happy above all other things. In order to follow this source of happiness, I had to sacrifice previous career ambitions that would have generated money and security. I also had to stand up to those who thought it ludicrous to pursue painting instead of practical subjects such as computer science, medicine or even graphic design. Although at times I was frightened of failure, I gained strength from supportive teachers, counselors, friends and family members. These mentors believed in me and taught me to trust in myself. As I continued along my path, I met people who shared my passion for making art. Often, these people offered opportunities or pointed me in directions that I had not previously considered. This string of mentors and coincidences had led me to the New York Studio School where I am currently pursuing my Master’s degree. Looking back, I am surprised at the strength of my own conviction to be an artist. As a child, art was simply something I loved to do. Over the years, art slowly overtook my life and my identity, as if I had no other choice.
The journey towards choosing life as an artist was a definitive part of my life, yet it is only one of many that compose my greater life journey. For example, there is the journey of my remaining months at the New York Studio School and yet another to come after graduation. I wondered if Campbell’s idea of following one’s bliss could help me in these present and future journeys. Perhaps the solution to my struggles in the studio and in the critiques was as simple as doing what made me happy. Campbell uses the wonderful metaphor of the wheel of fortune to describe the experience of following one’s bliss. The wheel of fortune is a medieval image depicting a revolving rim and a central hub. When you are attached to the rim of the wheel, you go up and down at the mercy of others. This likens the experience of relying upon external sources for your sense of well-being; you are not in control of yourself and live at the mercy of others. If you are at the hub of the wheel, however, you are in the same place all the time. This is the experience of doing what you love; you are living in your own center and feel at peace. By doing what I love in the studio and not relying so heavily upon the opinions of others, I place myself at the hub of my own wheel of fortune.
Campbell also speaks of the crucial role that artists play in society. Whereas most people are attached to other things, artists are those who made a profession out of being in touch with their bliss. Artists set an example of how to live in accordance with one’s true nature. Two artists whom Campbell felt exemplified this role are Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee. Both Picasso and Klee had the courage to submit themselves to the demands of their art at the expense of criticism. By trusting themselves and their work, they were able to push past conventions and make significant contributions to art. While researching Picasso, I found that his statements about life and art mirrored Joseph Campbell’s theory of following one’s bliss. In Picasso’s case, this translated into making that which delighted him:
It is my misfortune—and probably my delight—to use things as my passions tell me. What a miserable fate for a painter who adores blondes to have to stop himself putting them into a picture because they don’t go with the basket of fruit! How awful for a painter who loathes apples to have to use them all the time because they go so well with the cloth. I put all the things I like into my pictures. The things—so much the worse for them; they just have to put up with it.
Picasso’s ability to trust himself is the source of his career momentum and powerful self-expression. He is an embodiment of Campbell’s hero formula. According to Jaime Sabartès, Picasso believed that an artist must work instinctively, “for expression can be “pure” only when it stems directly from the artist; not when the artist is a medium for the transmission of other people’s ideas. The artist should harness his work to his intuition, as primitive painters do.” In order to follow one’s bliss, one must turn inwards and remove the influences of others. Picasso’s belief in himself and his dogged ambition provided the strength to follow his intuition. He states that: “For my part, I can’t do anything else but what I am doing.” Picasso is a perfect example of how one can make a life out of doing what you love and having faith in yourself. He inspires young artists to pursue their interests and careers. However, I am always put off by his tendency to self-aggrandize and deny such feelings as fear and doubt.
I found Paul Klee to be more sympathetic; his journals reveal the difficulty of pursuing what one loves to do. While Picasso wants us to believe that he never struggled as a young artist, Klee admits that he struggled. Until he found a way to break free from convention and pursue his passions, he led a rather tortured life. As a child, Klee sought to please his parents despite his growing artistic interests. “I would have gladly have left school before the next to the last year, but my parents’ wishes prevented it. I now felt like a martyr. Only what was forbidden pleased me. Drawings and writing.”  Klee’s inner conflicts subsided somewhat after enrolling in art school but even then he was plagued by his growing passion for writing and music. He felt that he had to choose amongst his interests, not realizing that he could incorporate all three into his life. “The recognition that at bottom I am a poet, after all, should be no hindrance in the plastic arts! And should I really have to be a poet, Lord knows what else I should desire. Certainly, a sea swells within me, for a feel. It is a hopeless state, to feel in such a way that the storm rages on all sides at once and that nowhere is a lord who commands the chaos.”  Klee’s inner chaos reminded me of the turbulence I felt within myself when I was deciding whether or not to pursue a life in art. Although I knew that making art was the only thing that made me happy, I was afraid of embarking upon a path that could lead to poverty and failure.
Klee’s struggles as a young artist reminded me of an essay by Jules Olitski on his artistic development. As a young artist, Olitski also felt saddled by the teachings and expectations of others. He was finally able to ask: “What does the art I make have to do with me? Is it enough to make the kind of art I make? It seemed as if I had learned, from the art schools and museums and the art I saw in art galleries, to speak, as it were, in many voices—where was my voice?” In order to suppress the voices that crowded his mind, Olitski blindfolded himself and painted. Stripped of his sight, he could paint only through feeling and intuition: “If I couldn’t look out, my vision would be forced inward.” Olitski’s blindfolding process is a wonderful metaphor for the importance of self-trust. Once we stop trying to control our work, it creates itself naturally. Relinquishing control is the essence of trust. “There is something of a paradox in all this,” he writes. “In order to be most truly myself, I must give myself up. In effect, it’s winning through surrendering. I’ve come to believe that this power I can surrender to in my studio is indeed a higher power.” Although Olitski eventually moved beyond the blindfold paintings, they were a pivotal point in his artistic growth. The playfulness of the blindfold paintings opened him to the intuitive, imaginative and child-like aspects of his personality.
Olitski’s experience of letting go in the studio ties to the philosophies of Carl Jung, whose work also inspired Joseph Campbell. Jung’s emphasis on the union of the conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche is identical to Campbell’s concept of aligning the self with one’s bliss. According to Jung, the conscious mind is the observable part of the psyche, containing our ego, voice, thoughts and personality. Jung’s experience has shown, however, that there exists a larger and unknown portion of the psyche called the unconscious. He states:
My psychological experience has shown time and again that certain contents issue from a psyche more complete than consciousness. They often contain a superior analysis or insight or knowledge which consciousness has not been able to produce. We have a suitable word for such occurrences—intuition. In pronouncing it, most people have an agreeable feeling as if something had been settled. But they never take into account the fact that you do not make an intuition. On the contrary it always comes to you; you have a hunch, it has produced itself and you only catch it if you are clever or quick enough. 
We can access the unconscious by looking to our dreams, which occur “when consciousness and will are to a great extent extinguished.” In the absence of the smaller yet controlling conscious mind, the unconscious is free to express itself directly. Although the unconscious can be unruly, Jung professes that it “is capable at times of assuming an intelligence and purposiveness which are superior to actual conscious insight.”  This intelligence goes by many names: intuition, the higher self, God. In order to tap into this intelligence, Jung says we must let go of our conscious minds either through meditation or pursuing our interests. Perhaps following one’s bliss is a key to tapping into this unconscious aspect of our personality.
The union of the conscious and unconscious is often experienced as a religious phenomenon. According to Jung, religion is a relationship to the highest part of the self. “The relationship is voluntary as well as involuntary, that is, you can accept, consciously, the value by which you are possessed unconsciously. That psychological fact which is the greatest power in your system is the god, since it is always the overwhelming psychic factor which is called god.” It is difficult to accept the presence of a larger, uncontrolled force driving our lives because most people define themselves by their ego, or the part of their personality that they are aware of. If the ego is but a small island swimming in the great ocean of the unconscious, then how can we define ourselves? Are we our unconscious or our conscious minds? Or are we both? Jung says that it is impossible to define the ultimate character of the psychic existence because the entire “self” is the totality of both the conscious and the unconscious. People may describe personality integration with different words or attribute it to different phenomena, but they are essentially saying the same thing, whether they call it being at peace with oneself, finding peace with God, resting at the hub of the wheel of fortune, or living according to one’s bliss.
Jung sees the ultimate goal of the counselor as uniting both aspects of a person’s psyche on the conscious level. Peace of mind is attained by submitting the conscious ego to the larger unconscious force. This requires a great deal of humility, because the unconscious is regarded as inferior to the sophisticated conscious mind. Whereas the conscious mind is attuned to the rules of society, the unconscious contains characteristics that society frowns upon, such as jealousy, hatred, anger, sadness, envy, greed and bitterness. It is difficult to accept this “shadow” of our personality because we were taught at a young age that these feelings were sinful and selfish. But Jung says these feelings are not evil, they are simply younger, more primitive and childlike. Our mistake lies in repressing these feelings, which take their vengeance in embarrassing explosions of disagreeable behavior. When you see these aspects in yourself, you can no longer judge other people as harshly as you did when you believed you possessed none of these characteristics. “If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw these projections, all and sundry, then you get an individual conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong and they must be fought against.”
Campbell speaks about this phenomenon as the breakthrough metaphysical realization that you and the other are one. Although we regard ourselves as separate from other beings, we are all composed of the same materials and we are dependent upon everything else as our source of life. The smaller ego with the worldly desires is called the conscious mind and the greater consciousness is the source of life that unites us all. When you realize that you are your neighbor and your neighbor is yourself, you cannot but treat others with compassion. We all have the same feelings, desires, fears and struggles but it is only our perception of physical and spatial realities that forms our notions of separateness. The surrender of one’s ego is required to see that “our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life.” When you are no longer attached to your own ego desires and fears, and can see your “ego existence as a function of a larger, eternal totality, and you favor the larger against the smaller,” then you will be able to live in a world where dualities do not exist. The rapture of being truly alive is attained through the union of opposites: the self aligns with the greater power, the conscious with the unconscious, man with god, male with female, and good with evil. By following one’s bliss, one taps into this higher consciousness and aligns the ego with the source of life.
This brings us back to the idea of the hero. A hero is someone who gives his or her life to a bigger force, who quits thinking about his or her own self-preservation.  This understanding rarely occurs naturally because most of us are content to hold onto our egos and worldly desires. The mythological hero stands out with the choice to embark on the dangerous journey, to follow his bliss, leave the familiar behind and face a world of frightening obstacles. Campbell’s heroes feel that is something more to life and set about on an adventure beyond the ordinary world to find out what is lacking. The journey into the unknown is not an easy path. The individual must undergo series of trials and illuminating revelations that result in a transformation of consciousness. This transformation is seen as death of the old self and the birth of the new self. We experience the cycle of death and birth many times in our lives: we transform from aquatic creatures to land-mammals when we are born; puberty is the death of the child and the birth of the adult self; marriage is the death of the single person and the birth of the partnership; giving birth to a child requires great sacrifice of the self. So in a sense, we are all heroes and our lives are journey replete with trials and revelations, deaths and new beginnings.
Above all, what I have learned from these writers and artists is the importance of listening to myself at all costs. While Campbell follows his bliss, Jung attempts to integrate the conscious and the unconscious. As Olitski gets in touch with his inner-child, Picasso does what delights him and Klee seeks harmony with his work. Being true to myself can be frightening because it often requires going against the advice of teachers, family members, friends and the larger society. Although I sometimes fear disapproval, I know that I would rather live as an outcast than lead an inauthentic life. Similarly, I strive to listen to myself in the studio. This often requires letting go of the art-making process and allowing the work to form itself. Olitski writes beautifully about the experience of relinquishing control in the studio:
Indeed the sense I have of my own destiny is merely of something unfolding and inevitable, something like the inevitability that the moment my mother-in-law arrives at our door for a visit, the plumbing will overflow. Maybe what I’m trying to get at is that my belief in some power outside of myself was there all along, but it was a belief that had little or no effect; it was of no use to me. But every now and then, though all too infrequently, while painting away in my studio, an event would occur that I couldn’t explain, and which I called inspiration. It would feel as if I were being given over to something, to a force, working through me. Afterward I never could remember the sequence of events. It was as if without knowing how or why, I had stepped from one level of consciousness into another and this other was powerfully charged with concentrated energy. All I needed to do was let it happen. When it did happen, that particular painting always appeared to me not only as a singular, but also as an opening into new territory.
Submission of the self to the art-making process often leads to surprising changes in the studio. For example, lately I have been allowing the material to form its own pattern, its own shape. Instead of buying new materials, I use what I find in the studio or in the school. If I run out of one material, I use another. This forces me to make art in a different way. The characteristics of the materials then dictate the piece. If I make a piece that does not seem to hold together, I find another method of combining materials. My increasing tendency towards making sculpture surprises me. Slowly, my paintings becoming more like objects as I move from painting on flat surfaces to constructing collages that hang on the wall. Perhaps I will identify myself as a sculptor one day or perhaps not. As long as I am true to myself it does not matter what I do or what label I assign to myself.
Joseph Campbell’s message about following one’s bliss is a wonderful guideline for living life. It has helped me enormously this last semester at the New York Studio School. I am no longer as attached to what I do in the studio, so long as I am doing what I love. I am also less fearful of making work that is different than others. Whereas before I searched for meaning in my work, I am now content to make things that make me happy. I have no profound message. I am very simple—I make things. I paint things. I draw. I mix colors. I take things apart and reassemble them. I am creative with salvaged materials. I depict images from life and from dreams. I am physically engaged in my work. I make images of people whom I love. I create.
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