Follow your Bliss (the Sage and the Swamp)

Part 1 of a series on claiming happiness

Following the four-part post on suffering, time to flip the coin to the other side and explore the face of happiness. Happiness, just like suffering, is very much a choice. 

Burr Mil Park, Greensboro

Here’s a story. There was a wise sage who lived happily in the forest by a swamp. People came to visit him to seek his counsel. Word got to the emperor who sent a team of ministers to invite him to the court. The sage couldn’t refuse the emperor. On the way over, the ministers told him that he would be asked to serve the court — a great honor, they beamed. The sage knew it wasn’t his place. He was quite happy with his solitude in the swamp and didn’t wish to leave. 

At the palace, he was ushered into the imperial court where the emperor sat in a great hall on a gilded throne. Above the throne, mounted on the wall, was a giant bejeweled turtle, the symbol of the emperor. The emperor extended a welcome to the sage and after quizzing him and confirming his great insight said, I would like you to take a distinguished place here and to offer your wisdom on matters of the court. You will be richly rewarded and greatly esteemed. The sage bowed and said to the emperor, your majesty, it is indeed a great honor you have extended to me. May I ask if the turtle that is in a place of great glory above your throne would be happier here or in the swamp? Well, the swamp, of course, said the emperor without hesitation. Well, your majesty, that’s the same for me too. I would be honored to be here but I am most happy with my life in the swamp. Will you grant me my happiness? The emperor nodded, sadly, and allowed the sage to return home.

In a less mythical story, I read about a humble sanitation worker who was surprisingly happy at work. Asked why, given his job dealing with garbage all day, he said that it was great because it allowed him to care for his family. He knew his why. 

Bog Garden, Greensboro

Happiness is then about being true to yourself and your purpose. Joseph Campbell expressed this elegantly as a call to “follow your bliss.” This is not about the easy road, but it is being true to what makes your spirit come alive. This bliss is not the same for all of us. And it often isn’t money and fame. The thing about money, fame, and power is that there is never enough. Happiness also doesn’t increase as wealth does. It hurts to be poor but once you have enough to live on, more money doesn’t translate into more happiness.

Bog Garden, Greensboro

Real happiness, as researcher Sonya Lyubomirsky found, is much about being happy for no reason. She found that while half of our happiness is genetically-driven, only 10 percent is based on circumstance and 40 percent is driven by our attitude. Our happiness depends on us. It is a choice that is largely independent of our circumstances. If happiness is dependent on external things, those go up and down, and may go away. This is why suffering sits on the other side of the coin of happiness. Suffering surges when we lose things. The things we create for ourselves on the inside are ours to keep.

It was what the sage knew living in the swamp. He knew his why. He was living his bliss. He was creating his own happiness on the inside. I believe it is also what we are all challenged to find and manifest. I am working on it.

Bois Cherie, Mauritius

Related Posts

Walking the Path of Purpose

Follow the Sun

Love & Liberation — What we can learn from the lives of great change agents (Part 4 of an exploration of suffering & transformation)

Mural in Greensboro, NC

In this final of four blog posts on suffering and transformation, I wanted to explore how hardship is the crucible for helping us become our higher selves. A crucible is a container where objects are subjected to great heat so they can be remade. The lives of great change agents, people who became great souls and transformative leaders, were shaped by suffering that they transformed into immense good.

Take Gandhi. Gandhi was a young lawyer during the colonial British Empire. He tried hard to make it in the system. As a young man, he set out to become a barrister in London. Having passed the bar, the young lawyer was engaged for an assignment in apartheid-era South Africa. On a journey, he purchased a first-class ticket and, dressed smartly in a Western suit, claimed his seat. A fellow passenger complained about his presence in the cabin to the conductor. When asked what he was doing there. Gandhi produced his ticket and credentials which was met with a sneer; he was told that only Whites could sit in a first class cabin. When Gandhi refused to budge, he was thrown off the train into the cold night. Shivering on a deserted platform, Gandhi had an awakening about discrimination. It could have turned to hate, but it didn’t. 

Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest leader in recent times, spent 27 years jailed by the government on an isolated island in South Africa. He emerged with a powerful message about reconciliation that steered South Africa to a remarkably peaceful transition to democracy. Martin Luther King, Jr. too was repeatedly beaten and imprisoned in the struggle for equality in the US. He was consistent in his call for freedom and love. In each of these lives, great injustice led not to anger and revenge but empathy and compassionate action. Why did this happen? Here’s what I see. 

Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and others known for compassionate actions spent much time in contemplation that radically transformed how they experienced the world and engaged in it (see the story of the Laughing Buddha —

In an interview, Mandela was asked how it was that he came to embrace forgiveness and reconciliation after all that had been done to him by the apartheid regime. He explained that his many years alone and in silence in prison had enabled him to see his own soul, his own failings, and need for forgiveness. In this encounter with his soul, he became committed to the path of forgiveness and reconciliation for all peoples.

Gandhi expressed this very idea as Satyagraha or truth-force which encompasses three principles:

Satya/Truth – commitment to openness, honesty and fairness
Ahimsa/Nonviolence – the refusal to inflict injury upon others
Tapasya/Sacrifice – a willingness to sacrifice oneself in action

Sacrifice in Satyagraha is a test of love. Martin Luther King explained: “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.” This alchemy of turning bad into good is connected to practice of “attend and befriend” ( discussed explored in an earlier post. 

In contrast, many other freedom fighters channel exploitation and inequality into rage. They turn adversity into a call to defeat the adversary by any means “necessary.” In the bargain, they can lose their soul and start to mirror much of what they started out fighting against. 

Great change agents, in contrast, operate from a place of oneness and love for all people, even their adversaries ( Martin Luther King stated, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Martin Luther King believed that it is possible to resist evil without resorting to violence and hate: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him.” Elsewhere he said, “In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you.” 

This path seeks the high ground and is willing to take the long road. There is the belief that ends don’t justify the means and that justice can take time to unfold. As MLK eloquently stated, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Nonviolence is the path chosen not because it is easy or expedient but because it is morally right. 

National Museum of African American History and Culture

With this moral clarity, these great change agents were willing to put themselves on the line. They led from the front, by example, in protest marches and public fasts, being beaten and imprisoned, and, as in the case of Gandhi and Mandela, encountering a violent death at the end. The day before his assassination and perhaps anticipating his end, MLK acknowledged difficult days ahead and said, “it really doesn’t matter, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.” 

Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Mother Teresa made the difficult journey up the mountaintop of freedom and justice with love and grace because they also simultaneously journeyed up an inner mountain to rendezvous with the soul within. To truly “be the change you want to see in the world,” you have to authentically become it. Gandhi’s words are a call to action and a call to our own transformation. 

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Further back in time, another agent of liberation, the Buddha, made a similar call. He indicated that he would be reborn until all beings were free. I believe he was calling us to be reborn as Bodhisattvas of liberation much like the great change agents. Like other great souls, he demonstrated that the way to create our capacity for courage and compassion in the world is through inner work. This was work, the Buddha said, that we must each do for ourselves: 

No one saves us but ourselves

No one can and no one may

We ourselves must walk the path

Buddhas only show the way 

As someone who has spent a lifetime working on social change, I am challenged by the examples of these great souls and the way they pointed to. Moved by suffering they saw in the world, they stepped up to address injustice at great personal risk. The difficult struggles they waged were powered not with anger and hate but with compassion and love. And– ultimately — they sought not just liberation from injustice in the world, but liberation from the animosity that suffering can create within us. Through their lives, these great souls shine a light on the path to fostering great change and liberation. It is a path that flows from within us into the world. It is a journey towards love made in the company of the soul. It is a journey that they beckon us to join. In doing so, our suffering is transformed into grace, a sacrifice offered on the highest altar of love. 

Following this series on suffering, I’ll turn to the other side of the coin — the pursuit of happiness. I welcome your insights and experience on the nature of suffering and the path of transformation.


One Love: What’s Love Got to Do with Liberation?

What the Laughing Buddha Knew — Part 3 on Transforming Suffering

In the last two posts, we explored the nature of suffering ( and how to transform it ( This third post in the series is about building the inner capacity to make this shift. There is a story of the Laughing Buddha that helped me see this pattern.

The Laughing Buddha was a jolly monk who lived in the 10th century in China. He’s often pictured with a big belly and a giant sack. The sack was key to his work. He wandered around town carrying the sack with things in there to give away to people he encountered — money for someone in need, a bit of food for people who were hungry, toys for children, and a smile for everyone. When he encountered people with means, he asked for something to add to his sack. 

The Laughing Buddha was recognized by the people around him as compassionate and in touch with a deeper source of being. One day, an admirer asked him what is the essence of the Tao. The Laughing Buddha smiled, put down his sack, and settled into a seated meditation. The observer was puzzled and then asked his question again, reframing it, what is the expression of the Tao. The Laughing Buddha opened his eyes, laughed, grabbed his sack, and went on his way to continue his work. 

This story was a revelation to me. Through this illustration, the Laughing Buddha expressed where he found inspiration for his compassionate actions — the space within — and how he expressed this inspiration — with his work in the world.  I have found this pattern in the lives and actions of many great souls who spent much time in meditation and solitude as an enabler of their efforts. But why does this work?

Meditation is about turning within, to silence, to the space of emptiness. One of the things that happen here in this infinite space of emptiness is the ability to connect with the oneness of all things. As we’ll explore in a future post, form (physical or mental) is bounded while emptiness is boundless. God, in many traditions, is understood to be formless, boundless, infinite. In dropping boundaries, it is possible to feel the divine and a deeper sense of unity and connection. This state of being can’t really be expressed in words, but it can be experienced. 

Another aspect of meditation or prayer is about becoming more centered and rooted in how we respond to the outer world. Gandhi once said I have a busy day today so I need to meditate an hour extra. What he indicated was that this inner work was needed for him to show up as present, calm, and intentional regardless of the external turmoil. This is often the reverse of what we may tend to fall into when there is greater stress and demands.  I tend to tip into trying to do more, working harder to milk more output from time. But, of course, under duress, we’re often not equipped to do — or be — our best. 

The Dalai Lama indicated that while meditation was not about thinking, it was not akin to sleep. It is, he explained, about being able to see more clearly. Our minds are busy, cluttered with a flurry of thoughts and emotions, especially under stress. We can’t see or think clearly unless we can let this noise settle. Part of seeing, is turning our sights to what’s within us and becoming aware of our own thinking, emotions, and behaviors. 

To practice Attend and Befriend (, we need to catch ourselves in the throes of unconscious and uncontrolled reactivity ( and move our response to conscious choice. It is not easy to do in the moment unless we are predisposed to doing so — roots after all take time to set. This is where steady spiritual practice comes in. 

In the end, spiritual practice serves not to help us escape the world, but to live more intentionally in it. What do you think?

Attend & Befriend (Part 2 — Engaging & Transforming Suffering)

In the last Spiritual Sushi post, about the nature of suffering (, the focus was on how do we shift from suffering to acceptance and compassion. Here I offer the most helpful guidance I have found. 

As humans, we are wired to react to threats with a fight or flight response. We respond by fleeing the source of the pain or turning around to attack it. Our brains are wired for this. The amygdala at the root of the brain stem is quick to respond automatically — almost unconsciously — to save us from threats.  To turn this around, we need to engage consciously instead.

The teacher Tara Brach offers a way to do this with the path of “attend and befriend” in place of fight or flight. The “attend” stance is to turn to see the other — the source of the threat or attack — with conscious awareness. The “befriend” response is to engage them with compassion. 

The following story from Terry Dobson when he was studying in Japan illustrates this well.

An American aikido student in Tokyo was headed home one afternoon on the train when at a stop, a big, drunk man stormed into the cabin roughly shoving a slow-moving woman with a baby ahead of him. He glared around the cabin looking to see who might challenge him. The aikido student thought if there was ever a reason to apply his practice it was now. 

So, he locked eyes with the man, who snarled and stepped towards him. As the student braced for the physical engagement, a voice from the other side of the cabin called out– hey! The two men wheeled around in the direction of the voice. It was an elderly man with kindly eyes. Have you been drinking sake, he asked the drunk, beaming? What’s it to you? said the drunk, now stepping toward him. Well, I love sake too, said the older man. Every night, I sit with my wife in my garden with my wife and we enjoy some warm sake. Do you also sit with your wife in the evenings? he asked the drunk, who was taken off guard. The man blinked and stuttered, I don’t have a wife, I don’t have a job, I have nothing. Then, tears burst down his cheeks. Here, here, said the older gentleman, patting the seat beside him. The drunk tumbled forward, slumping into the arms of the older man. The student watching it all unfold in amazement observed: Today, I learned what true aikido is. 

This story illustrates the power of compassion. It may seem idealistic but, as we’ll explore in the next post, is exactly how great social change leaders have created great change. 

This practice of attend and befriend can also be applied to ourselves. When we are upset with ourselves or our circumstance, we also tend to resort to the fight or flight response — to blame ourselves or others, or try to avoid and bury the anger. The attend and befriend response is to tune in and acknowledge our feelings with compassion. What I have found is that many things, when acknowledged, are released. 

My daughter, when she was a toddler, liked to run. Unsteady on her feet, she’d often fall, sometimes on the sidewalk. I found that I could tell her to be careful but this would cause her to wail more loudly; if I gave her a comforting hug instead and asked if she was okay, she’d quickly smile, nod, and so be back to her cheerful self. 

Kindness offered is not quickly forgotten and paid forward.

You may recall the classic Aesop fable of Androcles and the lion. Androcles, a runaway slave who had taken refuge in a cave, found himself face to face with a fierce lion who was sheltered there. The lion roared and Androcles was terrified. But the lion then raised a paw. There was a giant thorn there. Slowly Androcles summoned his courage and approached the lion and gently removed the thorn. The lion licked Androcles in gratitude. When they parted ways, Androcles and the lion were both captured. Androcles was put into an arena to be fed to the lions. As he was pushed into the ring, a lion was let loose from the opposite side. The lion charged at him but then recognizing Androcoles turned into the likes of a puppy, embracing and licking Androcles. The stunned emperor who was watching the spectacle summoned Androcoles. On hearing the story, both Androcles and the lion were released. 

Attend and befriend doesn’t avoid or seek to avenge harm but heal the cycles of abuse and hurt that ripple through the world. The truth is we all have plenty of thorns stuck in us that cause us pain and anger. These may be hard to see and frightening to engage. Yet, like the lion, we want someone to attend to our pain and offer us kindness. We too can offer compassion to others for the hurt that they may be carrying.

In a future post, I’ll write about how we can build our inner capacity for compassion. For now, what has been your experience in how to respond to harm with compassion?

Related posts:

Why Fore-giveness is better than Forgiveness

Anger! (and Conscious Choice)

Compassion is Contagious, too