The Circle of Life

The Beatles, The Bible, and the Sanskrit word for bliss: Jeff Swain explains how by following our bliss, we find our purpose.

“I think that meant more to me than anything else in my college years—the track. I think I learned more about living then than any other time in my life, what it takes to win, and what it takes to lose. All of that.”
—Joseph Campbell

I didn’t think my man crush on Joseph Campbell could have gotten any larger. Then I read that passage. I never knew Campbell ran track at Columbia where he was a world class runner in the half mile. I equate running to a mythological journey and so did Campbell. In this particular interview he talks of how physically challenging the body can bring a person to a state of bliss.

When Campbell spoke of bliss he spoke of following what you were called to do, to become the person you were destined to be. He stated he came up with this idea from the Sanskrit word Sat-Chit-Ananda, which translates to being (sat), consciousness (chit), bliss or rapture (ananda). Campbell said he wasn’t sure what his being or consciousness were but he sure knew what his bliss was so by following that the others would fall in line.

“People are beginning to realize that there is a kind of mystical bliss that comes when the body is overtaxed. I experienced this when I was running in college and a couple of years after college. As I look back there were a couple of moments over the last eighty yards of the half-mile when I was running in championship time…you know, you’re spaced out then. If anyone would ask me what the peaks were, the high moments of my life experience—really,zing! the whole thing in a nutshell—those races would be it. More than anything else in my whole life.” —The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work

Amen. I totally get that. I understand what Campbell is saying down to the molecular level of my being. There are certain runs in my life when I felt this way. The first time I ran 18 miles. The second time I ran Philly (my only BQ). Last summer during a 22 mile training run. On each of those runs I could have run forever, to eternity. Because at a certain point in each my being ceased to know it was running. Instead it understood itself as being called to do what it was meant to do. And when you’re answering the call of the divine, the infinite, you can do it forever.

“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say, but you can learn
How to play the game
It’s easy.“ —“All You Need Is Love”, The Beatles

The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” came on my Nano when I was running the neighborhood Wednesday evening. I always dug this tune and thought of it as sort of an anthem for the peace movement but, for the first time I understood it as so much more. It’s actually a religious song full of mythological imagery. Look at the lyrics. They’re circular. Put it side by side with Ecclesiastes 1:9 and you see they are saying the same thing:

“What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.”

The circle is probably the most used cultural symbol because of what it represents, completeness. A whole. No beginning. No end. No corners. No points. Each segment of the circle has the same shape of its brothers. None better. Not one. All different because of where they are located but, nevertheless, all equal.

Circular imagery is all around us. It’s in the seasons where spring represents the annual rebirth of the world. It’s in our life cycle. When we are born we emerge from our mother’s womb and when we die we are returned to the womb of mother earth. Even the school year is based on this circular notion where Fall represents the time of birth and rebirth in the start of the school year. It’s part of why I love being in the academy so much. I get to be reborn every year.

If you think about it, life is a series of births and deaths and rebirths. That’s what The Beatles and Ecclesiastes are saying: You’re not doing anything that someone else hasn’t done before. The “game” Lennon refers to isn’t the cynical take on modern society I originally thought it was. No, Lennon is talking about the game of life where we all represent the circle of birth, death, and rebirth. The Universe is not giving us a task it hasn’t given to everyone else. Our job in life is to find out what it is we were called to do. This is true for everyone. The task may be different but the call to service in the same.

“Nothing you can do, but you can learn
How to be you in time”

In the chorus when the Beatles sing, “All you need is love” they are not referring to love in the physical or even the mundane sense. What they are really singing about, I think, is love of the self. It is the love in finding out who you are and what purpose you were put here to serve. Because by doing that, you cannot help but love others. It gets back to the origins of the word itself when it was used to describe “care and desire” for someone or something. You can’t do that unless you start from within.

“All you need is love. (All together now).
All you need is love. (Everybody).
All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.
Love is all you need.
Love is all you need … ”


“It is a cluster of sacred symbols, woven into some sort of ordered whole, which makes up a religious system.” — Clifford Geertz, “The Interpretation of Cultures”

I was reading Geertz while soaking in the tub after my run. Geertz, like Joseph Campbell, can ground me when the world stops making sense, which is a frequent occurrence for someone such as myself. Anyway, Geertz is one of, if not the most prominent cultural anthropologists of the second half of the 20th century. His great insight was in recognizing that the study of a culture’s symbols, the things the people place a collective importance on, can be an insight into how they interpret the world and how they act upon it. It’s like the iceberg: only 10 percent of it appears above water while the rest remains hidden to us. Geertz explores cultural symbols to get at the 90% that remains hidden from us but is responsible for shaping so much of what we do. Geertz reminds me of this line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

“When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

To open up the subconscious for us to see and understand what it is that makes us what we are: human. It’s what the Beatles were getting at. And Campbell. It’s about going inside ourselves to break through to the outside and the greater meaning of it all.

It’s why I dig Geertz. And the Beatles. And Campbell. It’s why I dig T.S. Elliot, Henry Miller, Kerouac, and Ginsberg among a lot of others. It’s also one of the reasons why I love Vonnegut so; his Humanism alone was strong enough to be the counter-weight to keep me grounded. He could pull me back from the shadow world.


Read more of Jeff Swain’s column, Man on the Run, on The Good Life.

Image credit: jerome2002c/Flickr

About Jeff Swain

Jeff Swain claims to be an expert on nothing. He's just a humble seeker, looking to find out what it's all about. Aside from searching for the meaning of life, Jeff likes to run marathons. You can follow along with his life and adventures on his blog, Twitter, and Facebook.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this article. I seems to me that you might be talking about “flow” as defined my Cziksentmihaly. That feeling of being totally in the moment when you’re undertaking an important challenge — especially doing something you truly love — and your skill level is just enough to embrace it. I’ve felt it when running and feeling as if I could run forever. I’ve felt it running the rocks in creeks and skiing bumps and climbing frozen waterfalls. I’ve also felt it writing, teaching, speaking. Although, to be accurate, you usually don’t feel flow when you’re in; you realize afterward that you were flowing. Great article!

  2. Jeff,

    Loved your article. I’m a huge Joseph Campbell fan too. While you are digging on people, you might as well throw Jesus into the mix. He knew all about self-love. When asked the great commandment, he said, “Love God with all your heart, mind soul and strength….and love you neighbor as yourself.”

    Gotta love yourself if you are going to be able to love anyone or anything else. He got that. So did Joseph Campbell. And the Beatles. And a bunch of others……

    Thanks for an engaging article….

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