Image by the author, Marie-Elizabeth Mali. All rights reserved.

Three oceanic whitetip sharks circle our group, turning from diver to diver as they make the rounds about 15 feet under our boat. A group of striped pilot fish scurry to keep up, following each shift of the shark’s attention.

I consider the position of the sun, find different angles to photograph the circling sharks. I aim for the precise moment where the shark’s closest to me just before it turns. Sometimes I nail it and sometimes I only catch a pectoral fin or a tail.

This is heaven on earth to me: getting to engage with one of the prettiest sharks on the planet, sun rays filtering through the warm water, as I feel for the moment of connection with this creature that will transmit through the image to have a viewer feel something.

I climb back on the boat and share my excitement over the sharks with one of the Egyptian crew. He says they have an expression in Arabic for the mixture of awe, joy, and gratitude that I’m transmitting: hamdulillah. The rough translation is Thank you, God, but the essence goes deeper than that, since the expression applies to any situation, joyful or not.

As I roll this new and delicious word around my mouth, it feels like hallelujah’s cousin.

Behind the scenes, the crew prays five times a day. I love knowing that even while working on the boat they maintain their devotional practices and that we can connect with one another across cultural and religious lines through this word I’ve now taken into my mouth and my being.

As the week unfolds, the crew and I say hamdulillah to one another at every turn. Since most of them don’t speak much English it’s a beautiful way we beam joy at one another. Woke up in the morning? Hamdulillah. Had a great dive? Hamdulillah. Stub your toe while putting away your gear? Hamdulillah!

In the series, Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers interviews Joseph Campbell in a wide-ranging series of conversations about ways that cultures all over the world have used to connect with the mystery at the heart of all life, the myths and rites that they created to get close to the ineffable. Originally broadcast in 1988 on PBS, it was recently re-released on Netflix. I watch all six episodes as I start the long journey home at the end of our dive trip.

We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about. — Joseph Campbell

As I emerge from a week off the grid, I find out about another unarmed black teen shot by a police officer, this time in Pittsburgh, and a shooting in a newsroom in Annapolis. Though I’m cheered by the Families Belong Together marches, it’s hard to stay in the bliss I felt underwater as the world seeps back in.

While acknowledging the shitshow that is the world, Joseph Campbell speaks of rapture, awe, and wonderment as our birthright, the aliveness available to us if we learn to connect directly to the divine.

Follow your bliss, he says, those things that bring you alive, and you won’t get deadened by the system and the pain of life. If each person were to choose to orient toward what brings them alive, it would change the world.

My bliss takes me under the surface of the ocean where I commune with the water, the fish, and the sharks. Hamdulillah.

My bliss takes me into coaching sessions where my clients’ lights come on when they realize something they hadn’t seen before and we sit in awe together in that naked space of freedom. Hamdulillah.

My bliss takes me into writing, poetry and prose, and shudders through me when I get to the essence of what I’m here to say. Hamdulillah.

In the West, we’re currently locked in a collective experience that is the outgrowth of a long-standing inherited cultural and religious belief that we’re sinful by nature and separate from a personified God and each other. This sense of separation allows us to do the most heinous things to one another.

In contrast, Eastern religions have a belief that an impersonal God, or field of consciousness, is an animating and unifying force shining through everything in this world. While either view can be argued for or against, what cuts through both is the direct experience of it. Experience both replaces and bolsters faith.

Still in Egypt, I watch an episode while waiting in Hurghada for my flight. Moyers asks Campbell if it’s possible to relate to an impersonal God. Campbell snorts a little and says, Well yes, just go east of Suez. Watching the show thirty years after it first aired, I’m practically standing on the geographical line of division Campbell draws between the Western and Eastern ways of relating to the mystery. It feels like consciousness just winked at me. Hamdulillah

The experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life. — Joseph Campbell

It’s not about turning away from the world, it’s about learning to step back and center ourselves first in wonder, awe, and consciousness instead of staying stuck in the suffering around and within us. In doing so, we can better face that suffering and create room for change. Centering first also helps us see which part of the juggernaut is ours to tackle instead of getting paralyzed by overwhelm and doing nothing, or getting demoralized by trying to fix more than our share.

In other words, we train ourselves to turn to hamdulillah no matter what, and learn how to stay steady through the ups and downs that are a side effect of being alive in a time-bound body in a culture in the world.

Activism becomes more effective when coupled with deep inner work. Each person who does the inner work to follow their bliss, as well as integrate the parts of themselves that they’ve historically disowned and projected on others changes the world.

This is not to say not to march. It’s to say the inner space out of which we march matters as much as the march.

More synchronicity: as I was writing this article I came across this blog post by Hiro Boga on how to heal a fractured society, in which she says, Remember, your own wholeness is the ground on which you stand, the ground from which you contribute to the restoration of wholeness in your society. So, do whatever is needed to remain whole, present, healthy, vital and engaged.

May you follow your bliss and work toward creating a kind and just global society from a place of wholeness, wonder, and hamdulillah.

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