Follow Your Bliss

By Ben Spencer, Teacher and Academic Director ()

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.” –Joseph Campbell

About a year into my own recovery—some six and a half years ago—Peter, a friend I’d met earlier on in college, approached me. We talked about how much things had changed over the past four years. We talked about how our majors had changed—what we planned to study ended up being vastly different than what we actually ended up majoring in. And we also talked about how our lives had changed in a similar fashion. Peter commented on my recovery, who I was when I first came to college, and the person I’d grown into, saying: “I feel as if you’ve lived two different lives. It’s hard to remember the person you used to be.”

Peter’s words have stuck with me all these years because he hit on something I couldn’t put into words—the fact that it was hard to remember the person I was prior to getting sober. Though each day carried its own difficulties in my journey in recovery, enough “One Day at a Time(s)” had accumulated that it was hard to remember that past self, a person I couldn’t see no matter how long I stared at my reflection in a mirror. In college, I earned a degree and received an academic education. But I also experienced a spiritual transformation in getting clean and sober, I obtained a kind of existential education by working the 12 Steps and surrounding myself by people in recovery, and this allowed me to decide, on my own accord, what was most meaningful in my life and what kind of life I wanted to live.

Since starting as the teacher at Muir Wood a year ago, I’ve come to notice a pattern.  In the case of almost every one of my students, I’ve seen them trudge up and eventually surmount what I have come to call “The Two Week Mountain,” a difficult period of adjustment wherein, upon coming to Muir Wood, many of the boys are unable to see the value of treatment and connect their past unhealthy actions and destructive mindsets to their current predicament, whatever shape it may take. Many of the residents seem stuck to that past self—the person who lied, cheated, and stole from the most important stakeholders in their lives, slipping into spiritual oblivion while operating under the pretext that they were living a life of meaning, convinced that the dysfunction in their life was everyone else’s problem, that if people would just relax, everything would go back to being normal.

After two to three weeks of fighting treatment tooth and nail, many of the boys begin to see the positive and promising flip side of things. And I think it comes down to the fact that when their brains clear up, they begin to identify what they truly care about.  They see a different reality, understanding that if they devote themselves to being open to learning and changing then they can actively pursue their “bliss.” It is remarkable to watch. The past self becomes a stranger, and in practicing honesty and humility, many of the boys begin to get in touch with who they actually are.

In the words of Joseph Campbell, they begin to comprehend the notion that they can “Follow [their] bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.” I appeal to the wisdom of Joseph Campbell frequently in class (as well as many other thinkers, writers, philosophers, poets, and great minds, introducing each school day with a quote and group reflection), as I believe that every human being undergoes his or her own hero’s journey throughout the course of their life. The archetypes and themes that Campbell identified in the foundational myths of human history apply to our modern lives as well, and when we begin seeing things in this light—whether consciously or subconsciously—we begin to comprehend that of which we are capable if we focus on our spiritual and physical well-being. If students are able to begin to identify their bliss—their complete happiness—I believe they can connect the concept of sobriety with their ability to recover and achieve it.

The mantra at Muir Wood is “Meaningful Lives, Infinite Possibilities.” In addition to asking my students to participate in class and consider living a life free from drugs and alcohol, I allow my students to decide for themselves what is meaningful in their lives. In my classroom and at Muir Wood at large, we create a safe emotional and physical environment for our residents to explore what is meaningful to them: what gives them purpose, a sense of fulfillment, and a renewed love of life. And once they crest the Two Week Mountain, students begin to see the virtually limitless possibilities that are available if they live a life free from the complications of drugs and alcohol.