Friday, February 8, 2013
On Soul, Shadow and the American Psyche:
In her autobiography, Jean Houston writes about the name her father, a Hollywood comedy writer, chose for his office: Dreamland. When she asked him why he called it that, he replied: "Cause that's where we are, kid, that's where we are."
Dreamland. Some would argue that Jean Houston has never left the land of dreams — certainly not in her more than 30 years in the far reaches of the new age/human potential movement. And Houston may not argue with that assessment, if by Dreamland we mean that place and time where people are free to think, talk and act creatively and daringly for a better humanity.
Houston, like the dream world and the new age movement itself, is a woman of paradoxes. Although serious about thinking, she would not be called a serious thinker — not in academic circles, at least. She is, many would argue, chiefly a performer, not a scholar of ideas. Her own scholarship, in fact, doesn't play by the rules of the academy, just as Houston, an accomplished student of history, is more a futurist than a historian.
For her detractors, it is these qualities that make Houston a dilettante. From this point of view, Houston rakes over the top of volumes of information while being a master of none. Her admirers, however, see Houston as a Renaissance woman whose mastery lies in having a little to say about everything — and in having a comprehensive in which everything has meaning. These people point to the power of her ideas and to the fact that she affects many people powerfully.
Most Americans first heard of Houston when, in 1996, the national news media went wild over a scene in a book by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward which described several sessions Houston conducted at the White House with Hillary Rodham Clinton. During those sessions, Houston led the first lady through imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt and other icons, all long dead, in an effort to help the first lady get through a particularly difficult time.
But Houston has been a major force in the human potential movement a long time. At 21, she was one of the few people in the country with a legal supply of LSD. She used the controversial hallucinogen to take "depth soundings" of more than 300 people.
From LSD, Houston moved on to lead thousands of people through the mysteries of the mind without drugs. Among her tools was a sensory deprivation chamber built by her husband, Robert Masters. This device, and others like it, encouraged hallucinations by leaving subjects in total, silent darkness, starved of normal sensory input.
In the 1980s, Houston, turning more and more toward ritual, founded The Mystery School, where students embark on a year-long study of mythic stories which are meditated upon and enacted. Both The Mystery School and other "teacher-learning communities" started by Houston were apparently inspired by the deathbed instructions of her friend and mentor, Margaret Mead, who had told Houston, two weeks before she died in 1978, to forget working with governments and bureaucracies. "The world is going to change so fast that people and governments will not be prepared to be stewards of this change," Mead told her.
Houston's work led to lecturing stints at such places as Harvard Theological Seminary and publishing her visionary findings in academic journals of religion and philosophy. Her major impact, however, has been in the seminars and workshops she has conducted around the world, for groups ranging from spiritual seekers to IBM executives to the United Nations.
The primary focus of these sessions are the "mind games" devised by Houston — exercises designed to move participants to lose their inhibitions and begin to use untapped sources of creativity to tackle their problems — and the world's. When she and the late Joseph Campbell led seminars together, Campbell lectured and told stories of the great myths and the Gods and Houston led the students in exercises so that they could experience these myths and realities within themselves.
Out of these experiences there are many personal success stories. Some report experiencing visions during or after their sessions with Houston. Others offer less-dramatic but mostly positive testimony of the potent force behind Houston's technique.
Houston's books have sold well (The Possible Human has sold close to 400,000 copies) but they have never been the kind of runaway best-sellers like the books of some of the real new age gurus such as Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson. The reason may be that it is Houston's presence that is the transforming factor. While in written form her ideas sometimes seem tedious and uninspiring, in the flesh she is like Zeus hurling out thunderbolts. Her energy seems boundless. She has been known to lecture for 10 hours or more with only short breaks, her intense brown eyes sweeping across the audience, taking in every face, every expression, connecting immediately with hundreds of people before her.
Much of her talent for performing comes naturally. Her father was a writer for the likes of Bob Hope, George Burns and Henny Youngman. As a student at Barnard, where she was heavily involved in the school's drama society, this talent was obvious enough for her to be offered a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures. Greatly influenced by her religion teacher, Jacob Taubes, she turned down this offer and a career in show business to pursue her new interest in archeology.
Some critics and even some admirers say that Houston is given to exaggeration and name dropping. During the Hillary controversy, much was made of the fact that Houston had never been awarded a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University, as she claimed. (Houston explained she had done the work toward the degree but had never complied with the request to make changes in her thesis.)
There can be no doubt, however, that Houston has had an uncanny ability to befriend some of the most interesting individuals of our time, including Teilhard de Chardin, Martin Buber, Aldous Huxley, Campbell and Mead. There can also be no doubt that Houston possesses a breath-taking memory that allows her to weave bits of knowledge into a comprehensive fabric in which every human plays a vital role.
Is Jean Houston, then, a new age guru, a dilettante or a Renaissance woman? Whichever the case, one thing is certain: Houston cuts a wide swath wherever she goes. She dares to be outrageous — and in the age of protocol and tight-assed experts — that, at least, is refreshing.
In order to explore the paradoxes in Houston's personality (as well as the new age movement itself), we asked radio journalist Scott London, whose radio series Insight & Outlook is heard on National Public Radio stations around the country, to interview Houston in her woodsy compound about an hour's drive from New York City. London seemed an obvious choice for the interview, both because he was familiar with Houston's work (he had interviewed her once before for his radio program) and because of his reputation as an interviewer of frontier thinkers such as James Hillman, Sam Keen, Marion Woodman, and Huston Smith.
To read the interview go to:
And here's a link to Jean Houston's very own blog: