Does Bliss Take Practice?

About a decade ago, I was driving to work, on Chester Avenue in Cleveland, OH. At that time, I was running our family business, a coffee company with about 30 employees. I stopped at a traffic light behind a car with a bumper sticker that said “Follow your bliss”. The background was purple and the lettering was a bulbous, carefree, flowy kind of font, where the letters take up space in an old hippie kind of way. “Follow your bliss,” I read to myself. “Hmmm, what kind of person is driving that car? What does it look like to do that? What does that mean? Isn’t that irresponsible? Who does that? I guess artists do that?” Meanwhile, the meta-thought that lurked behind my inquiry was something like this: “Following your bliss is something people do when they aren’t earning a living, when they don’t have a family to support or people depending on them.” I remember I vaguely wanted to follow that person, to follow that car, and see where they were going. Were they going to work like me? Doubtful. I had an image of someone who lived on the margins of society, someone who couldn’t possibly be contributing in a meaningful way. Surely that person didn’t have a “real” job and “real” responsibilities, like me. Or if they did, then this suggestion of following one’s bliss must be something they did in the evenings and weekends. Yes. That’s likely it, I concluded… ‘nights and weekends’ bliss. Unless, of course, you’re an insignificant person…. someone who doesn’t matter. Then you can have fun and follow bliss. But for those of us with “real” jobs, that idea is a ‘nights and weekend’ kind of thing.

But still. I wanted to follow the car. What if their bliss was also my bliss? Could they be my guide? Following another car seems so concrete, clear, easy. But following my OWN bliss, what is that? Why would I do that? How would I find it? Eww. Such confusing territory, so unpredictable, tenuous, hidden, fickle. Not like the clarity of following something with four wheels and a steering column. Stopping when they stop, turning when they turn. What if following one’s bliss was that simple? Well, clearly it’s not, I thought. And off my monkey mind went, to work, to my many roles and obligations, to my life as I knew it then.

Now I can see that my “bliss” story and my “work” story were completely separated. I never thought to question those stories, since they were so fundamental to the architecture of my inner landscape. In the ensuing years, I have gotten to know a few of these stories and beliefs that lend a shape and a pattern to my inner world, in a deeply intimate way. Back then, I associated "bliss" with "not mattering". Now, I suspect that bliss may actually be all that matters. Furthermore, there are no such thing as people who "don't matter."

On July 19, 2015, on a drive from Cleveland to Baltimore, after a divorce, a re-birth, relocating my home after 20 years in one house, the death of my father, embarking on a career change, and in recovery from pneumonia, I listened to a podcast with Kevin Kitrell Ross and Heather McCloskey Beck. Heather described a practice of following one’s inner state of bliss, by inviting one’s inner child to lead the process, for 15 minutes a day. Right then and there, I signed up. “Let’s do this!” I said to myself. “Where will this take me? I can handle 15 minutes! I love my inner child! She’s so sweet and tender, and can play for hours. She’s also easily squashed, and can also throw a whopper of a tantrum and ALWAYS wants to have both pie and cake for dessert.”

Heather suggested accessing this blissful place by placing my child-like hands on the face of my own inner child, and asking her what she would really like to do.

The first day it occurred to me to actually try this, I was at a coffee shop in Baltimore. It was July 23rd. I had spent the previous couple of days feeling crummy, and still recovering from my pneumonia symptoms. This was the first day I felt somewhat human. I was sitting with my journal, my habitual partner in solitude. I sidled up to the idea of this bliss exercise. What if I tried it right now? I had forgotten about the hands on the cheeks, but I hadn’t forgotten the thrilling idea of inviting myself to that place in my own head. It was like asking a really good looking guy to dance; I would start by standing next to them, watching out of the corner of my eye, and looking for an easy way to connect without a head-on approach. My writing suddenly felt hollow. Why was I writing? Who was I writing for? Journaling can be comforting, maybe. But it wasn’t blissful. Where was the bliss? The feeling that settled was one of disappointment, a vague emptiness. In order to explore bliss, I was going to have to do something different, something that wasn’t necessarily comfortable, like journaling is for me. What, though?

I put away my journal and my pen and took my chai outside, since the air conditioning was freezing me anyway. I found a nearby park, with sunshine. Bliss? Where is bliss? Is it really inside of me? What would happen if I set the timer, like Heather had suggested? Would bliss just descend on me? Would setting the timer give me permission to find that blissful place?

As I set the timer, tapping the touch screen on my phone, and hitting “start”, it felt like stepping through a threshold, yet I had no road map or clear entrance or exit. My “destination” was no longer this known place of comfort or coping, I was looking to find bliss. What would happen? Could I find this place, this state of mind, sitting in a park in Baltimore in the sunshine?

I felt a thrill of excitement, like the moment a roller coaster train leaves the loading platform.

As I sat in the sunshine, looking at the intricate and perfect vasculature of the leaves on the ground near my chosen seat, the riotous yellow of the flower petals, the pleasing roundness of the acorns with their tight brown lids, the cold white marble of the nearby monument. My lower back felt like it was turning a glowing orange in the sunshine, and a peacefulness came through my breath. “Where is bliss?” I asked, gently, and sank into a silent presence of waiting and breathing. I collected six acorns, and arranged their unripened turgid green bodies in a circle on the marble. Then I picked some bright three-leaved clovers from the lawn, and arranged them around the acorns, in a wreath. My fingers felt clumsy and huge as I tried to arrange their tiny, flopsy leaves. I noticed how much more crisp the green of the clover became next to the stark white marble. My breath got thicker with pleasure, gazing upon this simple pattern. I gasped and tightened a little when the wind came and started to grab the leaves and carry them away. Then, I relaxed again, as I was reminded of the impermanence of all things, and I smiled as most of the leaves drifted across the marble. My eyes had already consumed some pleasure from the shape I had given them, no need to cling to that.  I could feel there was infinitely more pleasure on its way.

I had left my phone with the timer running, several feet away. How many minutes had elapsed? I glanced over… About nine, the timer said. So I had at least six more minutes to sink back into this state of self-forgetting. I was glad about that news, I wanted more of this. I became aware of who in the park might be watching me. I wanted them to come talk to me about what I was doing, because in some ways I wanted to share. But I also wanted complete privacy, because what I was doing felt transgressive. I had just stepped over some imaginary line in my head. I was proud of my “courage”, and simultaneously aware that in the grand scheme of things, this little experiment could be written off, dismissed as being completely insignificant. Yet I was exploring completely new territory, right in the familiar soil of my own psyche, and I wanted someone to applaud or appreciate the brilliance of this.

Next, I collected eight brown, crispy oak leaves and arranged them in order from biggest to smallest, considering each one for a moment as I chose its respective place in the lineup. Some of them were relatively close in size, so I had to pause and look back and forth between them to discern which one was longer. It was like I was having a micro-conversation with each leaf as I held it, noticing not only its respective size, but also its unique organic shape. Some of the lobes were shorter, others longer. The shape of the veins on each leaf, just slightly different. For a moment, it seemed like each leaf had something different to “say” to me. I considered for a moment the number of unique leaves on the dozen or so trees in this particular park, and then considered the number of leaves in the world. How does nature create these myriad variations on the same theme of ‘oak leaf’?. They lay still in this ordered arrangement for the length of an inhale, until the wind came to play with them, too.

Next time I checked the timer, 18 minutes had elapsed. “Phew,” I thought. I clicked the timer off, and put my phone away and picked up  my backpack. Before I turned to leave, I looked at the oak leaves and the acorns, wondering if anyone walking by would notice them there. I thanked them for their participation in my inner world. As I walked back to my friend’s house, I felt like I had just had some sort of intimate experience in a public place, like I had just met up with a lover for a quickie, yet my clothes hadn’t come off.

Now it’s November. I have been tracking this practice for four months now, and watching my relationship to bliss. Just about every day, I step into this state of bliss, or somewhere near it, and I often memorialize the experience on Instagram. I have discovered the practice of “miksang” or contemplative photography in the process. And this week, I remembered how much I love to make collages, so that has been added to my bliss repertoire. Now I see that this "pathway" to bliss always exists in me; it's totally reliable, accessible and ready, every time I choose to open it up. 

Bliss is not the same as comfort or safety, because one knows not where bliss will lead. Bliss seems to have no upper limit; I always check out before the bliss runs out. The more I engage with bliss, I do see patterns emerging, and I feel more willing to step into it more deeply. I am becoming more aware of why this bliss practice reminds of sex. It responds well to small adjustments in position, and there is a heightened receptivity to feedback from my body. Some feedback loop that is not activated during “normal” life gets switched on during bliss practice. It’s a very refined loop, too, that is able to take in all kinds of detail and nuance that would normally not be observed.

Bliss is a state of self-forgetting. Which is why, some days, I have resistance to actually practicing it. Because some days, I’m really worried about my “self”; my ego is working hard to maintain its existence, and the practice of bliss feels threatening.

I have a working theory (based on something I remember from one of my spiritual teachers) that spiritual development depends on how one works with sexual energy. It seems to me that the practice of bliss offers the possibility of healing, and spiritual evolution, and the actual “growing” of one’s inner capacity or presence.

There’s also the idea of “embodying one’s soul”, which fascinates me. By discovering this place of bliss, day after day, I think it is part of this process of soul embodiment. It’s taking the unique topography of our innermost world, which has been created by our life experiences, beliefs, aesthetics and trauma, and allowing it to be seen, to appear outside of us as well.

What the world needs is more people who are “fully alive”. In that spirit, I would love to hear about your blissful experiences, and welcome collaboration on this journey of bliss!