Jean Houston Interview

Carolyn and I have admired the work of researcher, philosopher, and author Jean Houston, who was one of the principal founders of — and has been a leading voice in — the Human Potential Movement. She is the author of 26 books and is noted for her interdisciplinary perspective that combines extensive knowledge of history, culture, cutting-edge science, spirituality, and human development. Her philosophy, strategies, and perspective are valued by heads of state and government officials in countries throughout the world.

Jean Houston was born in 1937 in New York City. Her father was a comedy writer who developed material for stage, television, and movies, as well as for comedians, such as Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen, and George Burns. Due to her dad’s career, as a child, Houston moved around a lot, and she attended 29 different schools before the age of twelve.

In 1958, Houston graduated from Barnard College in New York City with a Bachelor’s degree. She subsequently earned two doctorates: a Ph.D. in psychology from Union Graduate School in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a Ph.D. in religion from the Graduate Theological Foundation in Sarasota, Florida. Houston has also been the recipient of a number of honorary doctorates over the years.

In the early 1960s, Houston became one of the first researchers to study the effects of psychedelic drugs in a government-sanctioned research project. In 1963, British writer Aldous Huxley, whom I wrote a profile about a while back, requested to meet with her about her research, and their meeting had an important influence on her work, she told me when I interviewed her. In her research studies, she also became acquainted with writer and researcher Robert Masters, and they became romantically involved. In 1965, Houston and Masters married and became a powerful team.

In 1966, Houston and Masters published their book The Varieties of the Psychedelic Experience, which became a classic in the field, and in 1968 they published the book Psychedelic Art. After the government banned psychedelic research that year, the couple shifted their focus to exploring other ways of achieving altered states of consciousness. Together they created the Foundation for Mind Research in Pomona, California, where they conducted research into the interdependence of body, mind, and spirit.

From 1965 to 1972, Houston taught at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York. In 1972, Houston and Masters published their book Mind Games, which detailed their findings that guided imagery and specific programs of bodily movement could “reprogram the brain toward more integrated ways of experiencing the world.” John Lennon of the Beatles called Mind Games, “one of the two most important books of our time.”

In 1975, Houston chaired the United Nations Temple of Understanding Conference of World Religious Leaders, and in 1977 she served as president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology. Houston’s interest in anthropology brought her into a close association with anthropologist Margaret Mead, who became the president of the Foundation for Mind Research, and who lived with Houston and Masters for several years before her death in 1978.

In 1979, Houston chaired the U.S. Department of Commerce symposium for government policymakers. In 1982, Houston began teaching a seminar based on the concept of “the ancient mystery schools,” which she taught at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, which I wrote about in a previous profile, and other educational centers.

In 1996, during the first term of the Clinton administration, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton invited Houston to work with her in the White House as an advisor. Houston facilitated creative thinking, and role-playing exercises, such as having Clinton engage in imaginary dialogues with Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt, and these exercises became an important part of Clinton’s writing process when she was working on her book It Takes a Village.

However, this relationship between Houston and Clinton developed into a public controversy when the media began reporting on it, and labeled Houston “Hilary’s guru” and the “First Lady’s Spiritual advisor.” Houston said that as a result of the media coverage, she “suddenly found herself the hapless butt of a thousand gags.” Houston was compelled to explain that “We were using an imaginative exercise to force her ideas, to think about how Eleanor would have responded to a particular problem,” and that she had “never been to a séance.”

Houston has worked at both the grassroots and government levels, offering her human potential development skills to local and international development agencies as they attempt to bring about cultural growth and social change, such as collaborating with UNICEF in Bangladesh and elsewhere. As an advisor to UNICEF in human and cultural development, Houston has worked around the world helping to implement some of their extensive educational programs. In 1999, Houston traveled to Dharamsala, India as a member of a group chosen to work with the Dalai Lama in a learning and advisory capacity.

In 2008, a non-profit, leadership training organization, the Jean Houston Foundation, was formed to teach “social artistry” in the United States and overseas, in order to promote positive social change. The organization works to find “innovative solutions to critical local and global issues,” and this is accomplished “through training, research, consultation, leadership, and guidance.” This training has been conducted in Albania, the Eastern Caribbean, Kenya, Zambia, Nepal, and the Philippines.

Some of the popular books that Houston has written include: The Possible Human, A Passion for the Possible, Life Force, A Mythic Life: Learning to Live Our Greater Story, and Manual of the Peacemaker. The late philosopher and visionary inventor Buckminster Fuller, who I wrote a profile about several weeks ago, said, “Jean Houston’s mind should be considered a national treasure.”

I interviewed Jean Houston in 1994 for my book Voices from the Edge. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

David: Could you tell us about the work you did with the Apollo astronauts?

Jean: I was one of those who was fortunate enough to work with NASA at the time of the moon landing. I was doing work that had to do with helping astronauts remember what they saw when they were on the moon, because they didn’t remember a great deal. I tried everything: I hypnotized them, I did various kinds of active imagination exercises, I taught them to meditate, I yelled at them— that’s what worked.

Finally, one of them said, “You know, Jean, you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not what we saw on the moon, it’s what we saw coming back to earth. Seeing that beautiful blue and silver planet gave us a feeling of such nostalgia for what the world can be. My hand hit the stereo button, and the music of Camelot came on.” Imagine that! I have seen that picture of the earth from outer space in a leper’s hut in India. I was present in China when a Chinese peasant took a photo of Mao off the wall and replaced it with a photo of the earth.

David: What do you think happens to consciousness after biological death?

Jean: I’ve nearly died four times. Once was when I was nineteen. I used to jump out of planes, and I had an experience of my chute not opening. My whole life went by. Not every pork chop, but all the major events at their own time. The adrenaline rush turned on life again. Another time, I nearly died of typhoid fever in Crete. It was very pleasant. I found myself leaving the fifth-class hotel and the room of this reality, and going into the next. A light went out here, a light went up there— and there was my car waiting. But I was a young kid, and I said, “I’m not ready, no!” and there was this tremendous psychic effort to pull myself back. I’m convinced of continuity— I can’t say reincarnation, because the universe is so complex. We have many different agendas and opportunities, but consciousness, at some level, deeply continues.

When I was in one of Professor Paul Tillich’s courses, he kept referring to a word that was central to his theology, and that word was “wacwum.” We theological students met afterward, and we would spin out epistemologies, the phenomenology and the existential roots of the “wacwum.” And we had a whole book by the end of the term. Finally, they asked me to ask the great man a question, so I put my hand up. When he said, “Yes?” I forgot my question, so I asked him one of blithering naiveté. I asked, “How do you spell “wacwum”? “Yes, Miss Houston,” and he spelled on the board “v-a-c-u-u-m.” That’s what we are! If you take a body and scrunch it together and get rid of all the empty space, what have you got what for every human being? A grain of rice!

David: What is your perspective on God?

Jean: Nicholas of Cusa said that “God is a perfect sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” I believe that we are always available to the omnipresent grace, and that part of our life is about discovering that we contain the God-stuff in embryo. I like to use a little bit of metaphysical science fiction and say that where we are on this planet is the skunkworks at the corner of the universe. We’re in God school, learning to become co-creators.

by David Jay Brown