In northern California, they say there are two seasons – brown and green. Summer is brown and winter is green. This refers to the dryness of our summer months, when the foothills around the Bay turn wheat-colored and stay that way until the rain comes in January and February.
I visited Napa Valley earlier this month – one of the brown ones – inspired by the visit of my violin teacher who has known me since I was four years old. We went on the guided tour of Robert Mondavi Winery. As we stood in the 85-degree sun of the vineyard, my teacher asked our tour guide how often the irrigation pipes were used to water the plants. We all assumed that there was an elaborate watering system to maintain such lush green leaves on the vines surrounding us.
We were wrong.
The tour guide explained that the vines are deliberately stressed, and not given supplemental water during the dry season, because the growers have found that the more the vine struggles, the deeper its roots must go, and the more complex flavor is produced in the grapes, resulting in better wine. So prized are those roots that often the heartiest of the “rootstocks” (as they are called) are grafted onto newer fruit-bearing branches, to help enhance the hardiness of a harvest.
It surprised us all to hear this, especially as we strode into the dusty soil that supported the growth of endless rows of green-leafed grapevines. Who would have thought that good grape cultivation actually meant withholding water from the vines?
We were invited to taste some of the grapes. I braced myself to wince at the sourness. But they tasted amazingly good! I and the rest of the tour group each helped ourselves to a small handful of grapes before moving onto the fermentation room.
That story about the most resilient – and resourceful – vines producing the most complex and therefore valuable grapes stayed with me. I thought about it again today as I took a hike in the dry landscape of an open space preserve near my home, walking on dusty trails and surrounded by waist-high prairie grasses that were the color of straw. I noticed a tree, living there in the same parched landscape, somehow managing to have all of its branches teeming with blooms of bright green, shiny leaves. This was one thriving tree in the midst of a whole lot of dried out deadness.
Somehow, I thought, that tree must have dug deeper with its roots to find the water for all those leaves to grow out here. It must be like one of those resilient grapevines.
This got me thinking about the concept of bliss. I had always heard that famous phrase, coined by Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss.” I thought it was one of those woo-woo spiritual mantras spread by people who were promoting “the good life”, which I took to mean, do whatever pleases you in the moment, and most likely it won’t be work.
But I was wrong.
What I’ve discovered in reading Campbell’s actual words is that in saying, “Follow your bliss,” he meant to find and follow your deepest, truest self. This is your bliss. Said Campbell himself:
“If your bliss is just your fun and your excitement, you’re on the wrong track. I mean, you need instruction. Know where your bliss is. And that involves coming down to a deep place in yourself….by bliss I mean the deep sense of being in it, and doing what the push is out of your own existence – it may not be fun, but it’s your bliss and there’s bliss behind pain too.”
In other words, it is WORK to follow your bliss. Following your bliss is not always a walk in the park. And it certainly isn’t just about pleasure in the moment. Following your bliss is an investment you make in the discovery of your true self, and then sharing your true self in service to the world.
Incidentally, the yogic tradition also describes bliss (ananda) as “the innermost core of our being,… where our soul lives and where we can glimpse the universal oneness that embraces us all” (BKS Iyengar, Light on Life). How do we experience bliss? Many volumes have been written, and many lives have been devoted to the study of this question. But it seems that many of us have been forced to confront this question as we discover that the pursuits of pleasure, or power, or status, or material possessions no longer satisfy our longings.
One metaphor for following one’s bliss is the journey of the root of the grapevine. Somehow this vine “knows” it is destined to produce fruit. It will not be deterred by the dryness of the soil, or the heat of the sun, or the competition from other vines surrounding it. Its roots just simply keep going downward, struggling to bore deeper into the hardness of the earth until a drop of moisture is found. Not knowing when it will find water, the root just keeps twisting and turning, sending far-reaching branches outward in all directions but always headed toward the source. When the least bit of dampness is found, it is drawn up to the surface to nourish the fruit. The fruit then carries the essence of this journey – the determination, the struggle, the faith without knowing – in the complexity of its flavor. Without struggle, these experienced farmers tell us, the sweetness of the fruit is compromised. We don’t value it as much.
When we eat the fruit, do we taste all the wisdom that is encapsulated in that little round globe of juiciness? Do we appreciate all the hardship of the roots that produced this particular sweetness? When we drink a glass of wine, do we recognize that many vines each had to follow their bliss – to follow, against all odds, their deepest destiny to bring life to their own sweet fruit – in order for us to enjoy even one sip?
Follow your bliss. But just remember, it may take a whole lot of digging through dry, hard, tough ground before you get to the one drop of inspiration that will start to feed the very best fruit you were meant to produce. Embrace all that digging. It’s what makes your fruit – your bliss – unlike any other.
All photos: Lisa Chu, at Robert Mondavi Winery, August 2009.