Experiments with Bliss by Paul Westfall
Bliss has lately been my frequent companion. Like a lazy cat, stretching out under my feet, Bliss rubs against me asking me to scratch behind her ears. Bliss appears suddenly out of nowhere and I am momentarily incapacitated by awareness of warmth in my belly, blood and breath flowing, death and life growing, energy billowing in and around and through me and you and all that we are is singing silently everywhere all at once inside of me. Or maybe this is just the caffeine? Hey, look, I am no guru, no Bodhisattva meditating my way to the open door of enlightenment. I’m just this guy who for some reason has suddenly started feeling joyful. A lot. So for all I know this could just be a happy accident of chemistry. But I am suspicious that something else might be going on.
I grew up with precious few models of men exploring and expressing their emotional boundaries and being listened to, acknowledged and respected for their honesty. And before I continue let me just say that this article will not be a treatise on the unfairness of gender roles in western society. Others have already covered that ground far better than I could. I am writing about my own personal experience, and it so happens that my having been raised male in urban America in the late 20th century heavily influences the context of my experiences. That being so, as I considered the role I wished to play for my partner and her new child [see “Poly Pregnancy – Alternatives Issue #52, Winter 2009] it did not at first occur to me to take my own needs, wants and desires into consideration. Once Anna became clear that she wanted to keep the child, it seemed impossible for me to consider any path other than leaving my life at Breitenbush and joining her in Portland where I could find more lucrative employment and be by her side as a full time co-parent. I felt tremendous internal pressure to do this. And yet, I also felt conflicted for reasons I could not easily identify.
Fortunately for me, in my later youth (i.e. early 40’s) I have found myself surrounded by people who not only can hear men sharing their deepest feelings, but who actually celebrate them. Throughout the first trimester Anna’s mother Kara was, in her own words, a “relentless champion” of me having my own sacred process. In an amazing gesture of kindness to Anna, me, her grandchild-to-be and the child’s father, she flew out from Philadelphia to spend three solid days with us in a marathon listening session. She created and held a safe space for us to say everything to each other that was true for us and express every feeling, no matter how small or large, difficult or uncomfortable. During those three days I engaged in a deeply personal discovery of my feelings and boundaries. I am very fortunate to have had the love and guidance of a skilled listener in possession of both a keen awareness of peoples’ emotions and a rock-solid conviction that all feelings are valid and worthy of being heard and acknowledged.
In the weeks that followed Kara’s visit, Anna and I embarked on a long-planned road trip to Chicago for a cousin’s wedding. The timing of this trip seemed ideal, providing as it did an extended period of intense one-on-one time for Anna and me to continue the journey of truth telling that we had opened up with Kara. Anna is no less skilled a listener than her mother, and as one amazing vista after another rose up before us and fell behind, we allowed each other room to explore possible futures, and I began to have space for what seemed to me a miraculous revelation: not only do I have feelings and boundaries, but it’s OK for me to live like they are just as important as anyone else’s.
As I sought the courage to understand and act upon this breakthrough, I was blessed with the compassionate listening of other friends and family members. My sister Anne reminded me that my number one job in this life is to get to know Paul Westfall as best I can. My friend Todd, who’s central philosophy is “be psyched about everything,” staunchly advocated for me to do what made me happiest, even if it seemed to fly in the face of my story about “the right thing to do.” And my friend Peter, who’s raised several children, some not his own, shared compassion and wisdom from his own heart that found practical application in mine. These are all extraordinary women and men with whom it is my great fortune to be connected. I am grateful to them all.
Somewhere along the way, I began to listen to my heart, to take it seriously. And when I listened, what I heard it saying was: “be happy.” Moreover, with the support of my friends and family, I began to feel brave enough to act upon my heart’s advice. I really didn’t want to leave my job, my home and my community to go live in the city. I also truly wanted to love and support my partner. These wants appeared to be mutually exclusive, until I realized that it would do no good for anyone, least of all my partner and her child, for me to sentence myself to a life that didn’t make me happy. Said another way, I realized that the surest support I could give to Anna would come from me doing what I most wanted to do and working out the details from there.
I think it is no coincidence that my heart began to sing right at the moment I started listening to it and acting like it was in charge.
What’s followed is a series of delightful days. Don’t get me wrong — I have angry moments and sad moments and moments when I wish life were happening differently than it is, but all of these happen against a background of deep, quiet joy that never quite goes away. Sometimes the feeling of Bliss is overwhelming and I just have to stop whatever I’m doing, feel my breath and appreciate the heck out of everything around me. This most often happens in the morning when I’m sipping coffee and eating breakfast (hence the caffeine reference above), but Bliss can sneak in and pounce on me at any time. Anything can trigger it—the way a shaft of light peeks out from behind a tree, a drop of water hanging from the bottom of my hummingbird feeder, the sound of an owl at night—and suddenly I’m just present.
Recently during one of these fugues I started ruminating on the counsel of Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss,” and Confucius: “If you Love what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life.” As a New Age Renaissance Post Hippie Dude, I’ve naturally found a way to use these words to punish myself, and have taken them to mean that if I don’t have a fabulous job that I love and that makes me a boatload of cash then I must be doing something wrong. Maybe I’m just not enlightened enough. Maybe I need to dig deeper and find out what I’m really passionate about. Maybe I should read a book or take a workshop... The problem with all of this is that I’m passionate about a lot of things. There are any number of hobbies and interests that I could focus on and enjoy doing for a while, but none of them grab me and take hold for the long periods of time it would take for me to make them into a career. Every time I’ve tried, that which I Love turns into something that dominates me and becomes a drag pretty quickly.
But what I’ve realized in my recent experiments with Bliss is that I already have a fabulous life! I work in I.T., and let me tell you that, as exciting and inspiring as that might sound, I don’t really identify as a “computer geek.” Heck, I don’t even really like computers, though I am pretty inspired by some of the human possibilities that arise through their existence. But here’s the point: by taking on being the I.T. guy for Breitenbush Hot Springs, I’ve opened up an incredible life for myself. Back when he was working here, my friend Tucker was fond of saying, “On the worst day at Breitenbush, the bills are paid, your rent is paid, there’s good food to eat, clean water to drink and you’re surrounded by people that give a rip about you.” That and more is certainly true for me, and that puts me into the nth percentile of the most fortunate human beings of all time. So who cares if I’m not a planet-morphing Bodhisattva big shot? Who cares if the most exciting thing I’m going to do at work today is replace a failing fiber optic switch? Maybe by listening to my heart and doing what makes me happy, by living in a place that brings me true joy just by being here, I am ending world hunger. Maybe by being happy I am spreading the tiny bit of Light and Love that will trigger the spontaneous enlightenment of every human soul. Maybe.
One thing I can say for sure is that by taking the deep risk of heeding my heart rather than what my culture or upbringing or whatever labeled “the right thing,” I seem to have invited just a little bit more Bliss into the world. I assert that that is no small thing.
May you find Bliss on your own path today.
Paul Westfall lives and works at Breitenbush Hot Springs as the resident Techno-Wizard, a fancy term which he invented because the words “Network Administrator” just don’t even come close to describing the fascinating variety of things he gets to do in the name of keeping an advanced network and phone system running in the middle of the woods, high up in the mountains in the wilderness. When he’s not fiddling with technical jiggery pokery, he serves on the Breitenbush Board of Directors and the Breitenbush Fire Department as a firefighter, and creates public rituals with the Breitenbush Magic Team.