On Soul, Shadow and the American Psyche:
An Interview with Jean Houston
By Scott London
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.
London offers this report:
I was greeted in the driveway by several dogs and Houston's longtime assistant, Fonda, who showed me in. Houston's house is a quirky, sprawling structure originally built by actor Burgess Meredith. The main room more closely resembles a museum than a living space, filled as it is with statues, suits of armor, an old sarcophagus, masks and sculptures both ancient and modern.
These archeological wonders, (collected, I was told, over decades of travel to all corners of the globe), along with the room's large oriental rugs, chandeliers, and impressive floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, might have given the place a chilly and impersonal quality. But I found, to the contrary, something charming and inviting about the seemingly haphazard way all the room's component parts fit together. I was admiring a figure of the ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet when Houston came up and greeted me with both hands.
We had met once before and quickly struck up an easy rapport as we moved toward the sitting area. She had just returned from an extended trip to Bali, she said, and was still a bit groggy from the trip.
It might have been jet-lag, or it could have been a certain weariness before meeting yet another journalist in the wake of the Hillary Clinton controversy, but I found that something was clearly different about Houston this time around. She was more pensive and more attentive more wary, perhaps of the tenor and direction of the interview.
The first time I spoke with Houston, I found her a rather difficult interview subject. In spite of her warmth and candor, she seemed to approach the interview more as performance than as dialogue. Her vast repertoire of quotes, bon mots and anecdotes made for a fascinating interview, to be sure, but they also kept us from exploring our subject at any real depth. But things were different this time. At one point in our conversation, she even chided me for posing a superficial question: "Let's move deeper," she said in a tone of mild irritation.
Houston has a flashing intellect and is extraordinarily articulate. Her insights are always intelligent and refreshing, often funny, and occasionally brilliant. But eloquence, erudition and wit are only half the story in Houston's case. What is equally impressive is what one might call her unique relationship to the world: she seems to live in a universe filled with a very real sense of possibility and hope for the human race. How to glimpse that world and partake of that vision? That was the challenge as we launched into conversation.
We began with the subject of her new book, A Passion for the Possible, a slim little volume aimed at distilling Houston's discoveries and teachings over the past three decades into "a practical guide to becoming all we can be."
Scott London: I was struck by a passage in A Passion for the Possible where you say that we are all Helen Kellers, in the sense that we've had our senses blinkered, shuttered and closed down.
Jean Houston: Yes, we all live as inhibited versions of who and what we really are. Several years ago, I did a very stupid thing. We had a new microwave oven, so I stared at it and wondered, "Well, how is it that these little waves make things brown and bubble and pop." I had my eye too close to it about an inch away. Supposedly the rays don't come beyond the shielded glass door. Well, they do. I fried my eyeball and ended up with cataracts. Suddenly I went from light near- sightedness to massive near-sightedness. So I had to have a cataract operation and have a new lens put in. Now I see reasonably well. But this whole thing about cataracts made me think of how we really live life in a state of cataracts. We see and feel and know through the world very, very dimly. The cataracts come through habits, family, schooling, and just the sheer experiences of life that build up so much scar tissue.
London: What you're saying suggests that the business of seeing more clearly involves not adding new skills and insights so much as subtracting all the things that stand in the way.
Houston: Both are true. You can go through the via negativa (that is the classical mystical term) where you sit in deep meditations and if ideas stream by you simply concentrate on the blue sky of consciousness. That certainly works. But there is another way, the via positiva. This is where you add more ways of being and as you do this some of the lesser habits just seem to dwindle away because they are no longer being nourished.
London: This distinction is an interesting one. James Hillman talks about the difference between spirit and soul. Spirit is the thing that beckons us to grow and to transcend our day-to-day lives. Whereas soul comes through in those mundane realities that evoke something else in us and which deepen us is some very real sense.
Houston: I think it's a question of the English language which has very limited resources in describing this compared with, say, Sanskrit. When we talk about soul and spirit, there is always that linguistic question.
Essentially, I agree with Hillman. I think of spirit as that which evokes us the lure of becoming that keeps calling. And I think of soul as that which gets us through the cartography of everyday life.
London: But, on the whole, your work seems more focused on spirit than soul.
Houston: Well, I've written books on soul and the shadow. If you're working as a therapist, then it would be extremely important. But I'm not operating as a psychotherapist. I work primarily with large groups of people, in seminars and in other cultures.
London: Some Jungians feel that you concentrate too much on spirit, while neglecting the soul. Is that a valid criticism?
Houston: I've never heard that before. I would like to know more about it because this is the first time I'm hearing this. Jungians flock to my seminars in large numbers, so I don't know who is saying this.
London: Some people feel you gloss over the wound...
Houston: No, I think that's just somebody asking a rhetorical question. That just doesn't ring true. When we start making distinctions between soul and spirit, we're in very, very murky waters. There is the whole issue of the English language, which has a rather limited vocabulary when it comes to psychological descriptions, not to speak of spiritual descriptions. We're good mythically the English language is superb for myth. But we're not very good for psychology or spirituality.
London: You once did a research project involving some of the most creative thinkers of our time you studied people like Buckminster Fuller, Joseph Campbell and Margaret Mead. What did you learn from that research?
Houston: I found that most of them thought in multiple ways. Margaret Mead thought in images all the time. Bucky Fuller thought with his whole body. He was a very powerful little guy with an extraordinary muscular-kinesthetic sense. You can see it in his buildings. Joseph Campbell was also highly kinesthetic.
I could talk about that, but there was another thing that was really key. About 85 percent of them had a relationship to what I would call the beloved of the soul whether they referred to it as the God-self within, an active archetype which was perceived as the beloved, or what the Sufis call "the friend."
Though she wasn't a research subject of mine, I've had very intense, deep talks with Mother Teresa. I once asked her, "How does it happen that you're able to do these things that most international development organizations can do only with immense trouble." And she said, "My dear, it's because I'm so deeply in love." I said, "You are in love, Mother? Would you mind telling me who you are in love with?" She said, "Not at all. I'm in love with Jesus. I'm married to Jesus." I said, "Well, of course, all nuns are." She said, "No, you don't understand, I really am. I have such a love for Jesus that I feel the presence of Jesus everywhere in that day-old child that was left at the convent door who needs a life and an education, or that leper who comes to me and wants to be of some use in the world. I see Christ in that child and that leper. I cannot do enough for my beloved. And so my beloved, I feel, cannot do enough for me. That is why I am able to do these things."
For her, as a Catholic nun, Jesus is the beloved. It's the great collective archetype of Christ but felt personally. But I have talked to Indians for whom it is Shiva or Krishna or Lakshmi.
London: How would you characterize your own beloved of the soul?
Houston: Well, a great many people are individuating the archetype as very personal. And as you can see, I am wearing a 2,000 year old Athena [holds out her necklace]. I don't worship Athena, and I don't have the relationship to Athena that, say, Mother Teresa has to Christ. But the whole image of an archetype that weaves civilizations is for me very important. The sense of a beloved, co-creative friend represents one's own self writ large. So, in that sense, I am an Athena-type character, trying to weave civilizations, trying to be present to heros and heroines and to people who want to go to the edge. So that archetype allows me my larger story, that's the way I would describe it. Though it is not in any way a worship or a cult.
London: In A Mythic Life, you describe how this image has pursued you as much as you have pursued it. Even before you were born, your mother had dreams of Athena.
Houston: Yes, my mother had been dreaming of Athena at the time that my father was urging her to get me aborted. Every night she would dream that a limousine would come and take her to a temple to meet Athena. Athena would talk to her about keeping the baby and they would laugh and sing. Then when she would wake up, my father would say, "You got to get rid of her. We don't have time, and I just don't have the money. Wait until I get on the Bob Hope Show." The dreams would keep her going, and keep me going [laughs]. So that patterning was there before I was born. I never found out about the dreams until I was in my thirties, because my mother is rather quiet about those kinds of things.
Then, as a young girl, I was very much attracted to ancient Grecian imagery, and I learned ancient Greek. I read Homer, and by the time I was eleven, The Odyssey was my favorite book. My favorite teacher in High School, Mrs. Finnigan, the Latin teacher, looked like Athena. It was always there.
London: You said that the Athena archetype "allows me my larger story." What do you mean by that?
Houston: A story is our life writ large, seen symbolically. Once it's seen and experienced symbolically, it then can be actualized and manifested. What I often do in my work is to take a great story, such as the Odyssey, the search for the Grail, the story of Jesus, or the story of the great peacemaker who helped create the Iroquois Confederacy in the 15th century. I then use these tales as templates upon which to weave psychological and spiritual exercises which allow us to open ourselves up to the larger venue of a story.
London: So this is what you mean when you say we live "mythic" lives.
Houston: Yes. Sometimes my life has been Odyssean landing on strange islands of consciousness and reality and meeting very curious monsters who turn out to be very great teachers. Sometimes my life has been a quest for a grail of knowledge and education. Like Parsifal, my life has been a quest to pierce the veil, stumbling along but eventually finding it.
All of us have tremendous mythic stories within us. We are coded with stories.
London: Joseph Campbell used to say that as the world changes, so do the stories people tell. As you travel around the world and listen to people's stories, what are some of the emerging themes?
Houston: A common theme is that we are the children of the great mother planet. It's that picture of the earth from outer space. I've seen it everywhere. I was present in 1983 or 84 in China when a peasant in central China tore down a picture of Mao Tse Tung from his wall and replaced it with a picture of the earth from outer space.
Children's stories around the world are different as well. This as true in India, Indonesia and Japan as it is here. It's the theme of children working together to save the community or save the world. I think the children's books of Madeline L'Engle are examples of the new story.
London: There has been a lot of talk following the death of Princess Diana that she embodies a new story, or at least an emerging feminine principle.
Houston: Yes, this is a rising myth, with tendrils of many ancient myths especially that of Diana. The goddess Diana is a hunter, but she is also the goddess of the moon and is known to us in three aspects, the maiden (the young moon), the mother (the full moon), and the crone (the dying moon). You could see Princess Diana as the new moon the young, winsome bride. Then you could see her as the full moon a fierce mother. And then, together with the aged Mother Teresa, you had the waning moon the old crone. There is an old ballad that goes, "Look, the new moon is holding the old moon in her arms." That really came to mind when I saw the picture of the two of them clasping each other several months ago.
London: Twenty years ago you were quoted in Newsweek as saying that we've succeeded in launching human beings into outer space, and the challenge now is to launch human beings into "inner space."
Houston: I said we needed a "psychenaut" program to be the opposite of the astronaut program in order to explore the enormous domains and dimensions of inner space. We need inner space exploration. We need to have access to more capacities in order to be adequate stewards of this most incredible process of transformation in human history. Other times of history thought they were it. They are wrong. This is it. Not only have we inherited all the old problems and old patterns, but we have new ones that one ever thought of before.
London: Such as?
Houston: For example, women are rising slowly but steadily into full partnership with men all over the world, with very few exceptions. This is going to change everything. When the rich mind- style of women is available with an emphasis on process, rather than on end-product, and on making things cohere, grow and interlink - - then it changes the way we educate, it changes the way we govern, it changes the way we worship.
Another example is the slow growth toward planetization. We have new media, new forms of connectivity, and an enormous transference of knowledge. When you study evolution, you see that when new genes meet and multiply, they create new contexts and new species. In a sense, the gene-pool of knowledge and of people connecting at all levels is literally spawning a kind of mind-pool of possibilities.
London: The Internet certainly seems to be having this effect.
Houston: What I find on the Internet is fascinating because whole subcultures are developing. And they really are cultures. They have their art forms, their music, and their language. They have their spirituality, they have new names. It's almost like watching colonies of little organisms develop under a petri dish. You can really see these cultures swarming and growing and developing and spawning on the Internet.
London: Do you spend a lot of time on-line?
Houston: Yes, I'm a computer freak. I'm on the Internet every night. Sometimes I play dungeons and dragons with 15-year-old boys who think I'm a 15-year-old boy with a weird vocabulary. But I deliberately misspell words and I try to help them with their school work. I have all these names and all these identities.
I think it's glorious the way people take on other archetypal identities. I know a girl on the Internet who is about 16. A couple of years ago she launched a campaign to save the oceans. She got hundreds of people to work with her and they all thought she was 35. But she was just a 14 or 15-year-old living in New Hampshire with a little Apple computer.
You see, people have the possibility of being change-agents in ways they never had before.
London: I was very enamored of the Internet when I first discovered it some years ago. I found myself spending several hours a day creating all these wonderful virtual relationships. The trouble was that I was letting some real relationships fall apart in the process.
Houston: Yes, it's fun and it can be addictive. I have friends who spend 70 hours a week on it. I mean, they have lost their lives. They live in intra-space. I'm more interested in "inner space" [laughs].
London: You started to say that we're living at a pivotal moment in human history. But people have always said that, you know.
Houston: Sure, there are many pivots, but there is one great, seismic pivot and it's now.
London: I was reading the letters of Susan B. Anthony the other day. They were written about a century ago. I was struck by the fact that she used many of the same phrases and metaphors we hear so much today about living at a critical juncture of human history and so forth. Perhaps it's an arrogance on our part to speak of this moment in history as the moment.
Houston: I don't think so. The 19th century in comparison to, say, the previous 30 centuries, was a great pivot moment in history. Up to that time, most of our relatives had been living pretty much the same for thousands of years. There wasn't much change in the way they dressed, cooked, got about. They never traveled much beyond ten miles of where they lived. They got up with the crow and went to bed when the sun went down. The structures were essentially enclosed. Then, all of a sudden, you had the creation of cities and industrialization and its attendant demonology. New mechanical rhythms began to take the place of natural patterns of time. Space became inter-continental. So, yes, that was the big turning point. But this is jump time. This is different.
London: As much as I hate the phrase, we're essentially living in a new age, then?
Houston: Well, "new age" is an interesting term. It always comes up whenever a time feels itself ripe for renovation. You find a version of it in the Book of Daniel. You find it in certain scriptural forms. You find it in the great Italian philosopher Joachim of Fiore who wrote about three ages the age of the Father, the age of the Son, and the age of the Holy Ghost, which he called the "new age." Joachim's phenomenology of time was then taken up by Lessing, from whom Hegel got it. And through Hegel, Marx got it. Each one spoke about a "new age." It's even on our dollar bill novus ordurum the new secular order. And today we speak of the "new world order."
London: But those who speak of the "new age" these days are often treated with contempt or ridicule.
Houston: Yes. We are still a pioneer culture in some ways. A pioneer culture has to put all of its muscle into surviving on the frontier and pushing back the wilderness. So when you start to talk about imagination, inner space, and the structures of the psyche, that becomes scary.
There is also fear of that which is not objective, rational and spelled out. Meanwhile, we allow an extraordinary amount of toxic fantasies to fill our minds. That's the irony. We compensate for what we don't do internally by projecting and allowing our minds to be marinated in chronic fantasy.
London: Some feel that the new age is really a new dark age for many people. James Hillman, for example, is not as hopeful as you are. He has even referred to our world today as a "sinking ship."
Houston: If you had been in Italy or England circa 650 a.d., you would have said, "We're in a sinking ship." But if you had been in Byzantium in 650, you would have said, "We're in an age of enlightenment and luminosity." It's a question of perspective.
This is not to quarrel with Hillman, it is merely to say that when I travel I go to cultures that are anything but sinking. They are feeling themselves in the full flush of adventure and creativity and emergence.
Also, remember that our culture is perhaps one of the most self- critical cultures in history. It might have to do with the fact that we were saddled by so many members of a Calvinistic and Puritanical slant, whose job in part was to regard themselves as denizens of the lower regions, or at least to be very, very severe with themselves. In many ways, we take a far more severe view of ourselves than at other times, or than other people.
If you're looking ecologically, then we are in very big trouble, yes. But if you're talking about people sinking, I'm not so sure that's true. There are cycles of rise and fall, as there have been since time immemorial. I should warn you, I cut my teeth on the great historian Arnold Toynbee I met him when I was a girl of 17.
London: His A Study in History is a whole education.
Houston: Yes, I spent my 17th year literally doing almost nothing but reading Toynbee and writing the world's worst book as part of a dissertation comparing St. Augustine's City of God with Toynbee's A Study in History. A friend from the publisher Harcourt Brace then said to me, "Well, you've got a manuscript there, let's take it to the editors." He was one of those boys who was a messenger but pretended to be more than that. So he took it and I never saw it again. Then I had to convince my poor professor that I had really done the work I had to marshall all my notes.
London: Maybe the manuscript will turn up and be published as a posthumous masterpiece someday.
Houston: I don't think so. I heard that somebody had seen a page of it at the bottom of a parrot-cage. [Hearty laughter] Considering the quality of my writing at the time, that is probably where it deserved to be.
London: But to come back to the new age isn't there a shadow to the new age?
Houston: Yes. Any movement will have its shadow. If you are talking about people wanting to find easy and blithe solutions and to deny darkness or evil, there certainly is that shadow. If you are talking about people becoming spiritual dilettantes and are always on a spiritual shopping spree, that certainly is a shadow. There is also the shadow of people who do not appreciate the wisdom of suffering.
London: Do you encounter the shadow of the new age in the seminars that you give?
Houston: Well, my seminars really don't appeal to those kinds of people. But, again, "new age" is a catchall term. Are you going to call James Hillman new age? Is Carl Jung new age? Is Joseph Campbell new age? Margaret Mead? They all participated quite deeply in the issues that many of these people are concerned with: Who are we? What are we doing here? Where are we going? How can we improve ourselves? How can we become stewards of the planet? Are there any patterns of history esoteric or exoteric that we can use to predict things to come? Those are the eternal questions that we've always asked.
London: Are you concerned that it's become a pejorative?
Houston: I think it's unfortunate, and it's inevitable. We are at a radical time in history. The pejorative slant may have something to do with the dread we feel before crossing a threshold into what is really a very different era.
London: What do you mean?
Houston: We have all been brought up with an ethical system of 2,000 years ago, an industrial-managerial system of 200-300 years ago, a statecraft system of 200 years ago, and so on. None of this is working very well for the requirements of a time as complex and variegated as our own. So we stand shuttering at the threshold, with no clear map. So I think there are more interesting aspects that underpin this than merely talking about a simplistic pejorative.
London: Some of these factors may help to explain why the press made such a fuss about your involvement with Hillary Clinton last year.
Houston: There are two great shadows in the American psyche. One is the rise of women powerful women, intelligent women. There have always been powerful and intelligent women, but they have not necessarily been in the public eye before. And the other is the fear before imagination. Take those two together and you really have the shadow of our age.
London: What actually happened in the White House?
Houston: Well, the media focused on four minutes out of many, many hours of conversation it was essentially intellectual sparring in connection with the book Hillary Clinton was writing at the time, It Takes a Village. I asked her, "Hillary, who do you like in history?" She said, "I like Eleanor Roosevelt." So I said, "Well, if you can't focus today, let's try to get you focused by imagining a conversation with Eleanor. What would you say to her?" That was all there was to it. There was no seance, there was no guru.
London: The press told a different story.
Houston: I was in New Hampshire at the summer home of Mary Catherine Bateson, who was my co-partner in the White House during that time. We sat there as the fax just rolled out all this nonsense that was being printed in the papers.
I came home to discover my lawn covered with reporters who would not go away for days, all looking for news of something that didn't happen.
London: What was that like?
Houston: It was lousy. It felt terrible.
London: What about being the butt of jokes on the Late Night Show and in the funnies?
Houston: I didn't mind. That at least was comical. I'm the daughter of a comedian, remember. But the lies and distortions were bad.
London: I looked over the media stories from this whole period very closely. Aside from a few early pieces in Newsweek and other places, most of the reporting on this was solid journalism and treated it fairly. Several op-ed pieces in major papers actually came to the defense of you and Hillary. It was the late-night talk shows, the expert panel programs, the funnies and so forth that really blew this thing out of proportion, in my view.
Houston: Yes, the Washington pundits were throwing garlic around their necks and doing the equivalent of holding up crosses, yelling "guru" and "seance."
London: In the wake of Princess Diana's death, pack journalists are having to do some rather serious soul-searching.
Houston: Yes, poor Diana was literally chased to death. Interestingly enough, she went to her death on the Cours la Reine the Queen's road in Paris.
Journalists are among a select group, along with warriors and executioners (and I guess you would have to add police and doctors) who are authorized to do harm. As James Fallows says, a lot of journalists think that isn't so, and that everything will wash out ultimately. But I don't think they are aware of the long-term damage.
In my obituary, should I ever have one, they will talk about this nonsense with Hillary, which is really extremely unimportant. The poor Richard Jewel, the fellow suspected of bombing the park during the Atlanta Olympics, will always be remembered as the Atlanta bomber, even though it proved not to be true. Labels stick long after people's attentions move on. I still hear from people who say, "Aren't you the one who..."
London: Has this whole episode become something of a stigma?
Houston: You mean, has the stigma become a stigmata? [Laughs] No, I wouldn't go that far.
London: Did your own shadow come into play in all of this?
Houston: Yes, I suppose so. I grew up in show business, where the perception of one's self was very important. As much as I try to deny it, that's still true. I had been treated extremely well by reporters for a very long time, so I was unprepared for this.
London: So what does this episode tell us about where we are as a culture?
Houston: I remember when Katie Couric on NBC in the morning asked me that question. I gave her an answer that didn't please her at all. I said that America has recently lost its major projection the former Soviet Union. You see, you can always take a part of your shadow and project it onto another country. That's easy. You'll feel virtuous and good. But then you're left with that shadow when the object of your projection dissolves. So it has to go other places. And I think it has been projected on the new age, women, and a lot of other things. Our shadow also creeps through in our movies and television entertainment which has never been as violent as it is now.
America is looking for another story. We've lost our mythic structure. When a culture is not mythologically instructed, not instructed in story that gives us a call, then we start looking for quasi-stories, little toxic stories that keep our selves alerted and spared until we find another story. I think that what happened with me and with Hillary fell within one of those subcategories, one of those grotesque stories, in the hopes that maybe some part of it would lead to a greater story.
London: In your new book, you talk about this experience as being one of the most difficult episodes of your life.
Houston: Yes, it is one of the biggest wounds of my life. Lectures were canceled. A major appointment by an international agency that was coming up was canceled. The magazine Skeptical Inquirer wrote a nasty article using Daily News as their major source of information. It was written by Martin Gardner who had been a hero of mine for years. It was hard to realize that I had trusted the world with a kind of strange innocence. I lost some of that, in a sense.
London: You say at one point of the book that the interesting thing about a person is whether they have been touched by the center of their own sorrow and opened by life's betrayals, instead of shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.
Houston: We all get betrayed or we all betray. Life is so complex that it's almost impossible to avoid that. Betrayal is also a critical theme in all the world's great stories. If Christ had not been betrayed, would you have had the resurrection? Look at Job's wounds, or Prometheus's liver, or the rape of Persephone or Oden's eye. All the great stories have betrayal at the center. That betrayal then becomes an opening, a new life, a resurrection, a renewal of possibility.
London: Though it takes an almost heroic effort to see it that way when you are in the thick of it.
Houston: There is always that negative opportunity to fall into what we might call "sterile" choices. James Hillman writes about this. We become cynical and say, "Never again will I aim so high." You deny that you ever had any greatness in you. "I'm just this broken-down hack." Or, "I'm not worth it." Or, worst of all, you fall into paranoia and think the whole world is out to get you. It's a pity that such a beautiful word paranoia is tied to such a horrible pathology.
London: What are some of the keys to transforming the wound?
Houston: I write about this substantively in a book that has just been reissued called The Search of the Beloved. I talk about how to really look at your wound mythically and not just see it in the same old broken-record style over and over.
For instance, What I try to do with myself and with others is say, Wait a minute. Stop. How do we open the story? If I had not been wounded, I would not have such compassion for others. If I had not been wounded, I would not have made some new choices and gone out there and found new ways of being, or a new profession, or whatever. I then have people tell their story in a new way. "Once upon a time there was a..." In this way, they recast it mythologically and go from the beginning through the middle which is the betrayal or the deep wounding. By giving ourselves the exercise of telling our story mythically, past the wounding into the discovery of new things, we recast and reorient the pattern in our body-mind so that we then have the capacity to see our life in a different way.
London: Some wounded people never get to that point.
Houston: Right. Many don't.
London: We become very easily identified with our wounds. They become part of our identity.
Houston: We did trenches in our wounds. That is part of my problem with certain psychologists who just dwell and dwell. Before you know it, you have a graduate degree in your own wounding [laughs]. You can talk brilliantly about it.
I have to fly a lot, and I can't tell you how often I find myself with a seat-mate who just wants to spill for six hours about their wound. Hopefully, I can be of some use to them.
London: I remember a passage in Carl Jung's book Memories, Dreams, Reflections where he said that the most difficult and ungrateful patients were the ones who over-intellectualized their problems. They seemed to understand their wounds perfectly, and this of course prevented any real healing from taking place.
Houston: I have a friend who is getting herself into a lot of trouble in a relationship. She has so many brilliant justifications. She can quote Freud, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard. She has built up a tower of illusions. We all feel as if we're sitting at a play of King Lear just as King Lear is about to banish Cordelia. We feel like saying, "Don't do it. She's the good one. It will wreck your life. Don't run off to Regan and Goneril." But you can't stop the play. That's the way I feel about my poor friend. We all know she's headed for utter disaster, but there is nothing we can do about it because her intellect is so extraordinary that she has built up these mammoth ways of justifying what is exceptionally stupid behavior.
London: Is that an example of what you mean by "the shadow"?
Houston: That's a big shadow, yes. Over-intellectualizing can justify practically anything. Reason has reasons that can create holocausts. In the 20th century, we have certainly seen how much killing and disaster has been championed with superb intellectual reasons.
London: What are some of the other manifestations of the shadow?
Houston: The shadow has many mansions. There is the shadow that is the collective refuse heap of immature or unskilled behaviors (what we used to call "sin" we can now call "unskilled behavior"). There is the shadow of the age the age of materialism and ecological disaster. There is the shadow of fundamentalisms, when people back off from the present complexity and fall into ideological fortresses of "truth." The sanctifying of mediocrity or even active stupidity is a shadow. There is the shadow of recalcitrance, of not allowing oneself to push the edge of who and what one is as a human being. Then, of course, there is the shadow of guilt, or of the repressed feelings one has not expressed that inevitably explode.
There are so many different kinds of shadows. But it all has to do with a certain psychic or physical or social constipation. There is no movement, so it constipates itself into something that gets heavier and heavier until it explodes all over the place.
London: Do some people cast bigger shadows than others?
Houston: And some people cast bigger lights. I've known some people who cast a huge light, and they generally had rather large shadows. I'm not going to name any names [laughs]. I've known people who, by anybody's standards, were larger than life, but they also had very substantial baggage.
A person who writes interestingly about this is Robert Bly. In his latest book, The Sibling Society, he talks about the shadow as a great leaf-bag where all of the things "Oh, Bobby, you're such a good boy" are collected. All the stuff that never gets resolved just sits there, and before you know it you have this huge weight from the past.
What happens is that you discover you're carrying so much weight that 90 percent of what you thought yesterday you are thinking about today and will think about again tomorrow. Your mind doesn't change because you are carrying too large a load. So the mind is caught. It's seized by its own structures. It can't consider different ways of thinking or doing or being or relating. It's all you can do with your psychic energy to keep pulling yourself along with this huge bag that you are dragging behind you.
London: A Passion for the Possible is a very slim little book, nothing like the two books you published last year A Mythic Life and The Passion of Isis and Osiris. I remember hearing admirers of your work complain that those books were just too massive to read all the way through.
Houston: That's right. People said, "For goodness sake, Jean, write a simpler book." It was a challenge for me to write a simple book. I hope I've succeeded without offending too many people who expect me to write one of these scholarly tomes.
London: It's funny that even though you've written a number of these scholarly tomes, your message is not especially academic.
Houston: Yes, I speak to a variety of people. But I've also lectured at Oxford and Harvard, so I do speak to scholars as well. I live in divided and distinguished worlds and I try to comprehend all of them.
London: How will the scholarly world respond to your new book?
Houston: I don't think they will respond at all. But what good is putting out a book if no one is going to read it except scholars and a few friends.
London: You've been known to criticize traditional education. One of your old chestnuts is that we have an education system designed for the year 1926, not for the 21st century.
Houston: For white males of 1926, yes. This is especially true of North American and European culture. We are not educated for present-day complexity.
London: What would such an education look like?
Houston: It is an education that addresses the many modes of learning and understanding. It makes use of imagery, for example, because imagery excites imagination and speaks to the brain's neurochemistry. When you use imagery, you have the ability to visualize information in a new way, it doesn't just fall through the cracks.
London: Like so much textbook learning.
Houston: Yes. If you are going to learn mathematics, you have to learn it not simply as an abstraction but as it is applied. I always say to teachers, For goodness sake, take the kids out first to look at the stars in order to understand infinity. Tell stories about mathematicians. If kids don't understand numbers, get them to feel the numbers in their body. For example, I've seen many kids who grew up in a culture where rhythm is very important learn math by dancing and playing the numbers. This kind of learning makes a circuiting or a bridging between the abstraction and what is felt and experienced in the body.
London: I know that you have done some work with governments abroad on rethinking their systems of education. You spent quite a bit of time in Bangladesh, for example.
Houston: Yes, one of the things we were doing in Bangladesh was training teachers to utilize multi-modal education, not just sticking to old British missionary education. It was so stultifying that even the Brits gave it up a long time ago. The idea was to bring in the art, the music and the poetry of the culture, as well as their tradition of high craft, and do it in such a way that children are able to develop all their intelligences the intuitive, the mathematic, the verbal and linear, the imaginative, the visual, and even the muscular-kinesthetic kinds of intelligences. I try to activate well-known modern principles of education, but do it by utilizing the cultural forms. Then kids don't get bored. They love it. We had a project that introduced 50,000 Bangladeshi schools to this new program.
London: I talk with a lot of Gen X'ers. I don't mean to over- generalize, but what I hear is that society has let them down in some profound way. They came into a world without many of the promises and the possibilities their parents had. They share a sense of collective betrayal and have deep misgivings about the future.
Houston: I'm old enough to remember the existentialists. I was a little kid after World War II and I remember them having the same sense. They were the "beat generation" and they all wore dark clothes and talked about angst and the lack of opportunity.
I think this is a cyclical thing. If you look at history you see that it skips one or two generations and then it happens again. A culture rises to a kind of flowering and then decays, then it rises again and decays. We're in a decaying culture now. Naturally, the young people in the culture are going to feel themselves to be products of the decay.
What is interesting is that I don't find it to be universal. I've been in cultures where you don't find Gen X. In Bali, for instance, the young people are continuing to learn the arts and the crafts. They are rice farmers by day and great artisans or dancers by night. They are very excited about their culture.
London: What do we say to young people coming of age today?
Houston: One thing I would say is, don't keep collectivizing your pathology. The more you complain and kvetch and carry on, the more you are going to deepen the shadow. It may make you look funky and interesting, but it's not adding to the world. As I like to say, mythologize rather than pathologize. You're part of the new story.
I'm not as negative about Gen X as many people because I find that a lot of the collective shadow is really a stance, a pose, a style. But beneath that style are people who are really working deeply in themselves to regain and reconstitute. There was a time when young people didn't do that. It was just apocalypse for its own sake. But after the boredom, then comes the commitment to do something.
I think there is this huge evolutionary pulse that is in almost everyone of us. And I find that a lot of these people, because they have been reflecting perhaps morbidly on their society, are now beginning to reflect internally on what they can do about it.
London: What do you mean by "evolutionary pulse"?
Houston: Well, when you have a certain amount of complexity, crisis and consciousness, the next levels of potentiation wake up.
London: So how are we different from people who lived, say, 150 years ago?
Houston: We have so many more experiences per capita, as it were, than our ancestors. I'm one of those people fortunate enough to have some of the journals of my ancestors, so I've been able to study the phenomenology of their lives. Yet when I look at my life, I see that I have anywhere from 5 to 50 to maybe 100 times the amount of sheer experience that they had.
London: How much of it is vicarious experience?
Houston: You mean television?
London: I mean the full range of new technologies that make up our world today. Not just television and movies, but high-speed travel, the Internet, and even virtual reality.
Houston: Well, a certain amount is. In my case, however, with the kind of life I lead, it isn't vicarious at all. I've been known to travel 250,000 miles in a year and work with many different cultures and people. Yes, for some it would be vicarious. But it is still a loading of imagery in the mind that our ancestors would not have had.
London: What about the sheer pace of human life today?
Houston: I think a lot of pathology is chronopathology time- pathology. "I want it now!"
London: I remember talking with Mary Pipher, the family psychologist who wrote Reviving Ophelia. She said that when clients would come to her in the 70s, the big issue was sex. In the 80s, the main issue was money. But now, she said, the heaviest issues have to do with time managing stressful schedules, finding time to be with the kids and so on.
Houston: Yes, time has driven out sex and money as the central issues. Now if it could only drive out the issue of power we would be somewhere!
Where is the time for reflection in our culture? Where is the down- time? I think this is what is lacking. When you look at presidents and prime ministers, they are zipping all over the place. I think of Thomas Jefferson. He had to travel long, long miles on horseback. It's the same thing with singers. In some ways they may have more technical brilliance now, but they are not necessarily as great as they may have been if they had those long ocean voyages. Today, they are at La Scala one day and at the Metropolitan the next and their voices have no time to rest. People used to have time because they had time-in- distance.
London: You wrote a book about Thomas Jefferson where you talk about his life along with those of Emily Dickinson and Helen Keller as a journey of transformation.
Houston: That's one of my favorite books.
London: Is it possible to be a moral leader in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson in today's world?
Houston: I believe that with all the shadows people are now trying to project onto Jefferson (about him being a racist and so on), I think he was a real moral leader. Look at his cabinet, for example. They would sit and discuss philosophical issues along with the issues of the country. They took time.
Jefferson also had vision. He was constantly envisioning and then gathering immense amounts of details. He had both the horizontal vision and the vertical detailing that is so important in a leader.
London: Have our leaders lost that kind of vision today?
Houston: When I deal with heads of state, one of the things I ask them is: "What is your larger vision?" "Well," they say, "I have to do this and this and this..." and I get a laundry list. It may be a very important laundry list of things we care about schools and health and welfare and stopping violence. But rarely do I see a larger, more comprehensive vision.
I wrote an article in Tikkun magazine about this. It was an open letter to the President where I said that he has got to ask the big questions, not just questions having to do with what the polls say the really great questions of history that call us to rethink who and what we are. There is something about asking the questions that activates the moral sensibility of the questioner.
London: But is it realistic to look to the White House, or even the political world in general, for moral leadership today? President Clinton is for many people a living example of the kind of moral compromises that you have to make to be an effective politician today.
Houston: I think we have to look for moral leadership wherever it can be found. But it is very, very hard. I once asked President Clinton what he thought was his best quality. [With an Arkansas accent:] "I have a good heart. I really do." I remember being at the White House, and after I would leave and get to National Airport I would be a basket-case. I was collapsed from absorbing so much toxicity there so much of the daily struggle and trauma.
London: A friend of mine likes to say that what we need now are "reluctant leaders" because we simply have too many self-selected leaders in positions of power.
Houston: Yes, I would love to see people banding together around those who are reluctant leaders, speaking for them and calling them forth. One way is through teaching/learning communities.
Margaret Mead was a mentor of mine and we worked together for years. On her deathbed, she said to me, "Jean, forget everything I've been teaching you about working with governments and bureaucracies." I was shocked by this. She had been training me for six years. I said, "Now you tell me this!?" She said, "Yes, I realized that if we are going to grow and green our times, it's a question of people getting together in teaching/learning communities and growing together physically, mentally, psychologically, spiritually and then taking on social projects and going out an making a difference."
London: This echoes the Buddhist injunction to seek out the sangha that community of practice that is so essential to spiritual growth and learning.
Houston: Yes. The world is so complex, Margaret Mead said, that it's not enough for people to decide to do something and then go out and do it. They have to be able to and these are her words "cook on more burners." If they are in a community, then they can challenge each other to these levels of enhancement. "So," she said, "when the time is ready, you go out and do it." I said, "Yes, ma'am."
London: You've been called the heir apparent of Margaret Mead.
Houston: I think she had a sense of that in some way. She used to say, in her truculent voice, "You are just like me." And I always said, "No, I'm not. I'm nowhere near as smart, and I'm much nicer than you, Margaret."
London: I would like to come back to what you called the "big questions." What are some of the critical questions that each of us need to ask ourselves today?
Houston: Well, I can give you some of the questions that I ask myself. Where are we in time and history and why is it different? What does it mean to live in a time of whole-system transition? What is it that I need to do in myself to be an adequate steward in this time? Can I look at myself more critically and find out not just where my shadows are, but where my strengths are?
London: You once said that your deepest desire in life was to be a minstrel.
Houston: Yes. I try to listen for the new song. Listen deeply. Then I try to sing it. Right now, with my Balinese flu, I sound like a croaking frog [laughs] but hopefully sometimes I manage.
This interview appeared in the premiere issue of the "Salt Journal" (November/December 1997). Portions of it also aired on the public radio series "Insight & Outlook."