I’m talking about real bliss, not the designer drug.
Occasionally over my lifetime, I have experienced brief moments I can only describe as “bliss.” The feeling is different than just a sense of “life is great” or “things are really going well” because it involves no conscious thought, no special appreciation of life’s blessings. It is suddenly just there, out of the blue, and then, in a moment, it is gone, unexplained.
The experience is unusual, occurring perhaps only once in several years, but I have lived long enough that there have been many, so many that I only specifically remember the first one that came as a complete surprise. I was about 14 and walking alone along Lansdowne Avenue near Balfour Circle, probably on my way home from the Highland Avenue School, when I was hit with a brief sense of bliss. Whoa, what was that? It was so intense, it was unmistakeable. I had gotten no awards or special praise at school, no special attention from a girl I admired. The only thing I was aware of was bright sunshine, and sunshine does seem to be a common trigger for these feelings, but not always.
According to Joseph Campbell (and many others), bliss comes from a brief loss of self-awareness for whatever reason, sexual or philosophical. When the awareness of self is suspended, there remains only the feeling of unity with the universe, and this is the experience we describe as “bliss.” According to a good many of the world’s theologians, this state of bliss is the true, underlying nature in all of us, but is normally obscured by our ego’s awareness of self. Strip that away and you will find the bliss that was hiding there all the time, “the Buddha within,” some would say. For some people, the feeling is triggered by a passage of music, a sudden view of nature, or a religious experience, anything that takes us away from ourselves. (Reading an engrossing novel does not count. There, we are projecting our ego onto a fictional character, not losing it.) Religions create this feeling in their rituals and try to extend it for more than just a moment. Japanese Shinto is nothing but this. Buddhists call it “nirvana,” Christians call it “the presence of God.”
The story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden can be interpreted as the consequence of humans acquiring self-awareness. (See posting Origins of Consciousness, 2/11/2011.)
What brought this to mind was a snippet of a radio program I heard while on a short drive to the mall. An author being interviewed said that he did not fear death, but he was concerned about that brief interval between life and death. He hoped it would not be too terrifying.
I wish I could have answered him. I expect that brief interval to be pure bliss, for what is death but the ultimate loss of self-awareness?
Many experiences support this. Near-death accounts often mention a feeling of bliss and a reluctance to return to life. Some say this is just the brain’s reaction to a loss of oxygen, but the feeling is real wherever it comes from. When a fleeing antelope is brought down by a lion and feels the crushing grip of the powerful jaws on its neck, it suddenly relaxes with a sense of peace. Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, is terrifying from a distance, but up close becomes our beautiful, comforting mother. (See Time, Time, Said Old King Tut, 8/29/2007 posting.)
An old Arabic saying tells us when the Angel of Death approaches he is terrifying. When he arrives he is bliss. Some Tibetan meditation Buddhas appear in two aspects, one peaceful and the other wrathful. If you are clinging onto your ego, the terrifying, wrathful one will appear. Let go of your ego and that same Buddha is experienced as a bestower of bliss. Psychologists tell us we can comfort a dying person by telling them it is okay to let go, meaning to let go of their self-awareness, their concerns. Do not fight the inevitable, go with the flow, and enjoy the bliss.
I am overdue for another feeling of bliss, but if it takes death to bring it on, I can wait a little longer.