Literature

A Life Spent Following Her Bliss

San Francisco author Lynne Kaufman studied with – and has lived out – many ideas of legendary teacher and author Joseph Campbell 

By Joe Castrovinci

“I felt like I had landed on Mars. It was all there – alternative medicine, Eastern religions, mindfulness, meditation, ecology, encounter groups and so on. We take these things for granted today, but they were strange, even radical, ideas back in the 1960s.”  

That is longtime Sunset District resident Lynne Kaufman talking about her first trip to the Esalen Institute, a holistic education center in Big Sur. 

“When we look back today on those years,” she continued, “we can see that Esalen opened a door that allowed a lot of important new ideas to enter the culture. It changed the way we live and think.”

Writer Lynne Kaufman. Courtesy photo.

Strange as these ideas seemed in the 1960s, there was an even bigger surprise waiting for Kaufman at Esalen. She drove down there from her home in San Francisco to hear Joseph Campbell talk about mythology – but, once he started speaking, she immediately began to sense that his teachings and charismatic personality were more than just interesting. They were going to have a big impact on her life. 

“A friend who had studied with Campbell at Sarah Lawrence College went to Esalen with me and introduced me to him,” Kaufman said. “I was so impressed with his talks that I asked if he would like to offer a class at the UC Berkeley Extension, where I worked at the time. To my delight, he accepted.”

That visit was so well received by continuing education students at Cal Berkeley that Campbell began returning once or twice a year to give more presentations. Those visits in turn led to trips around the world where Campbell took groups of students to study with him in places like Greece, Southeast Asia and Mexico/Guatemala. 

“The trips were some of the highpoints of my life,” Kaufman said. “There are a lot of things to admire about Campbell, and one of the most important is that whenever I heard him talk – and I heard him talk a lot – he always made his material new, fresh and exciting. Our students definitely picked up on that.” 

Campbell died of cancer in the 1980s, but continues to be well-known as the author of the classic text The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the subject of the most-viewed documentary in PBS history, “The Power of Myth” with Bill Moyers, and an inspiration behind the Star Wars movies, one of many works of fiction in which his ideas are brought to vivid life.

Campbell’s most famous offering of advice – and one that’s deeply embedded in popular culture today – was to “follow your bliss.” 

“When you do that,” he predicted, “doors will open where you thought there were no doors.” 

For Campbell, bliss was research, and he went at it tirelessly. For Kaufman, bliss was writing. Her contact with Campbell helped inspire her to launch a long, prolific and award-winning career as an author and playwright. 

Lynn Kaufman with Joseph Campbell. Courtesy photo.

Today, Kaufman has retired from the Berkeley Extension but is the proud author of 20 plays, a dozen short stories and four novels. She is also a teacher, hard at work spreading the word about Campbell’s works, discoveries, and lessons at San Francisco’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). She is offering a workshop in which students study passages from one of Campbell’s works, write personal essays about how these teachings resonate in their own lives, and, if they wish, share their ideas and learnings with each other. 

The OLLI workshop meets six times in April and May, and at each session Kaufman introduces a major concept from Campbell’s work. For example: “The gift of a lifetime is to become yourself,” or “As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think.” The workshop has three goals: discuss the work of Joseph Campbell; inspire students to reflect on their own philosophy of life; and give them a chance to improve their writing skills.

Many of Kaufman’s own works explore some of the most important ideas developed by Campbell. Her latest novel, Divine Madness, which arrives in bookstores and on Amazon on May 15, focuses on the tumultuous relationship between two well-known writers, poet Robert Lowell and Liz Hardwick, one of the founders of the New York Review of Books. Kaufman was attracted to their story because it is so intensely dramatic and because in it we see at work a Campbell maxim: “When you sacrifice in a marriage, you are not sacrificing to the other person, but to the relationship.”

Kaufman’s works also discuss the triumphs and travails of well-known women, including Sylvia Plath, Margaret Mead and Susan Sontag. All three of those solo plays can be viewed on The Marsh Theatre’s on-demand website.  “Who Killed Sylvia Plath?” starring Lorri Holt, was the winner of The Marsh’s 2001 International Solo Festival.

On Sunday, May 15, Kaufman will launch the publication of her new novel with an event at The Marsh San Francisco that features a dramatic reading of her one-act play “Divine Madness” featuring Julia McNeal and Charles Shaw Robinson. The reading will be followed by a panel discussion about how the work evolved into a novel.

For more information about Lynne Kaufman, visit her website. For more information about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at San Francisco State and its many programs for people over 50, visit http://olli.sfsu.edu.

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