Mythologist Joseph Campbell showed millions how the heroic journeys of ancient myth fundamentally connect with the stories of our lives. Through books such as The Hero with a Thousand Faces and his epic Power of Myth TV series with Bill Moyers, Joseph bridged mythic and contemporary worlds with a timeless invitation to engage deeply and courageously with life.
Yet Joseph moved between worlds in more ways than one. From the mid 1960s until his death in 1987, he taught at Esalen every year, with a tradition of coming for his birthday on March 26th. With his 40-year background as a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, Joseph didn’t necessarily fit the typical Esalen archetype as he moved between East Coast academia and Esalen’s more experiential realm.
“He was such an intellectual,” reflects Chungliang “Al” Huang, one of Campbell’s Esalen collaborators. “One year when we drove down together, as we approached Esalen he said, ‘Oh, this is such a beautiful place — but why do I still think, where’s the library?’”
Joseph was far from a bookish academic. “Not everyone knows this, but Joseph was a world-class runner,” Al shares. “I think he missed the Olympic team by just a few seconds, and he would ruminate on how he could have run that race differently. He also was a musician who played saxophone in jazz clubs. He was deeply engaged in the world.” Joseph quickly became a beloved and influential Esalen teacher and collaborator.
“At Esalen, people entrusted him with some of the more difficult stories of their lives,” says philosopher Sam Keen, who co-taught at Esalen with Campbell. “He acted more as a shaman than as a professor.” Sam recalls a student who carried the wounds of early childhood trauma. “Joseph entered her story with her. He told her, ‘Your pain has made you whole because you could look at it clearly.’ That’s a shamanistic intervention — something that just couldn’t happen anywhere else.”
At the same time, according to Sam, Joseph was humble about the mythic proportions of his own life. “Joseph said that although he was the cartographer of the Hero’s Journey, he himself in some ways never took it,” Sam shares. “Joseph always said, ‘My great yoga is underlining sentences.’”
Despite that claim, Joseph inspired and influenced countless people. Author and former Esalen faculty Lynne Kaufman attended Joseph’s very first Esalen lecture in 1965. “I remember in particular he shared about Orpheus and Eurydice’s descent to the underworld. That just opened the world to me. He had a multilayered spiritual, literary and practical knowledge of how to live your life. The weekend had a profound effect.”
Lynne and Joseph became collaborators and good friends. “A statement he made that has deeply influenced me is, ‘Be transparent to the transcendent,’ and he was. He looked at the world with a sense of wonder that also didn’t shy away from all the conflict and heartache. He showed us a way to connect with the essence of what it is to be human. Today, narratives have become so fragmented by the media, stories have become just disparate pieces of information that can easily separate people. Joe helped us see the connections among human cultures. That’s what we need today.”
From academia to Esalen, from underlining sentences to holding people in the most painful or joyful stories of their lives, Joseph embodied a deeply mythic archetype. Whether serving as a shaman, a trickster moving from one realm to another, an intellectual with a deep appreciation for ideas or a teacher sharing original insights gleaned from ancient stories, Joseph seemed simultaneously to belong to many worlds and none as he shared his gifts.
Below: Joseph Campbell 'dancing Shiva' at Esalen, photo courtesy of the Joseph Campbell Foundation.