“When you befriend your own brain,” Jean Houston says, “a great deal becomes possible.” At forty-five, with more than twenty years of indexing such human possibilities behind her, Houston’s credentials are impressive. Since her early years as an off-Broadway actress, she’s been an archaeologist, an author, a behavioral scientist, an educator, and a cutting-edge explorer of latent human capacities.
Much of her current work can be traced back to a turning point in 1961, when she and her soon-to-be husband Dr. Robert Masters began a scientific study of the effects of LSD on personality. They found that under the influence of the drug, subjects exhibited greatly enriched creative and mental abilities. Four years later, on their honeymoon, Masters and Houston collaborated on their ground-breaking book, The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience. That was the same year, however, that the government virtually outlawed all such studies, and many researchers went underground, or dropped out entirely. Masters and Houston took a different route. They set up the Foundation for Mind Research, out of their home in Pomona, New York, and shifted their research to exploring non-drug means of altering consciousness such as hypnosis, bio-feedback machines, and other, more complex devices. Soon they found that even these were unnecessary, that guided imagery alone was enough to open doors to deeper layers of the psyche.
In 1972, they published Mind Games, which channeled their findings into a kind of how-to book for exploring enhanced states of consciousness without drugs. John Lennon called it “one of the two most important books of our time.” (The other was his wife, Yoko Ono’s, Grapefruit.) Hundreds of groups around the country formed to work with these “games,” and the seeds for Houston’s current “Possible Society” work were planted.
Following her friend and mentor Margaret Mead’s deathbed advice, Houston continued looking for ways to create widespread “teaching-learning” communities — focusing not only on personal but also social and political restructuring. The vehicle she chose for this was “The Possible Society,” an organization geared toward promoting her “Possible Human” workshops throughout the United States and Canada. From these she works to create continuing grassroots organizations. Houston speaks of her weekend workshops with an almost messianic zeal. “The state of the art of human capacities quickening, in the light of social transformation,” she calls them. They include everything from living out ancient myths to recreating the evolutionary ascent from the primordial slime.
With her upcoming Chapel Hill workshop as impetus, I arranged to interview her in her suburban New York home, a house originally built for actor Burgess Meredith. We spoke in the few hours she could squeeze in between her many projects; she had just come home from days of teaching, and was flying off again in the morning. My father, Jerome Rubin, came along to take photographs. The large meeting room we spoke in was breathtaking, like a museum dressed to impress. In one corner loomed an Egyptian mummy. By a wall of books was a nine-foot brilliantly-colored Garuda (an Indian bird-god). Over an enormous wooden table, where King Arthur might have felt at home, hung a flying Balinese angel. In the adjoining room a two-thousand-year-old bust of the Greek goddess Athena was prominently displayed. Every nook and cranny was filled with similarly exquisite artifacts. When I sat down on the couch to begin , Houston mentioned Margaret Mead and a few other luminaries who had sat right there also.
What followed was a fascinating interview. Jean Houston explained her work, and her ideas about human possibility, with great power and clarity. Still, I was frustrated; it certainly wasn’t the Possible Interview. Why not? Well, I no longer judge interviews by what’s said, but by the quality of the interaction. Am I honestly seen and spoken to? Does heart speak to heart? If not, then my tape recorder would probably do just as well without me, and the world without the interview. I felt a warmth and ease about her before we began — while we drank herb tea in the kitchen and played with her two huge dogs — but during the interview something was missing. In a sense, she was too good a subject. With thousands of workshops and scores of interviews under her belt, Houston’s style was well-honed and superb. Her answers were brilliantly thought out, and usually a step or two ahead of my ability to fit a word in edgewise. After spending some time feeling a little stupid, I began to sense that I was being given her basic rap, but not much more. In fairness, being a sounding board for ideas is much of an interviewer’s function, but if the spontaneous human connection isn’t there, then what are the ideas about? Looking back, I wish I had stopped things cold and voiced my frustration, found a way to make the needed connection even at the risk of disrupting the interview entirely. But I didn’t, and spent the next hour playing catch-up. It made me wonder: if I, a relatively well-educated, intellectual sort, felt a bit stupid and unacknowledged, what about others? I’ve never been to a Possible Human workshop, but I’m curious to see how her ideas translate into experience.
— Howard Jay Rubin
SUN: Let’s start with something basic: what are the premises and goals of your Possible Human workshops?
HOUSTON: For many years, I’ve been doing basic research into the nature of human capacities — neurological, psychological, psycho-physical, creative capacities — and after twenty years and three thousand research subjects, and perhaps several hundred thousand seminar participants, we feel that we have some perspective on what human beings can be. This leads us to believe that we have barely begun to use our capacities and in fact could not have begun to use them before today, except in very isolated, remarkable instances.
You needed first a planetary society, which we’re about to go into, where you have a sharing of the ecology of cultures, and a growing responsibility for being the directors of the earth, which up to now has mostly directed us. That’s one thing, this new planetary psychology, in which we’re beginning to see the whole earth as one living system.
The second unique factor is the rise of women to full partnership with men; fifty-three percent of the human race is joining the human race now as full partners. This couldn’t have happened before our time, because before today we needed a certain production of children in order to create, I suspect, the nervous system of the planet. We now have about five billion people, which is a sufficient nervous system. Much more than that we cannot support. Women are now being released for different roles. What is this female potential? To see things as a whole, to see pattern and ground at the same moment, to be able to look at whole patterns of possibilities. That’s the kind of ability that is needed in the present world. And women now rising to their own capacities are able to partner men in such a way that men are released to become what they can be. I find this extraordinary rise of the feminine sensibility to be happening across the planet. I see it in Africa, in South America. It’s a dissolving of the old polarizations and an entry into this extraordinary new pool of talent and potential. It’s a very different sensibility.
The third factor is the new science, the miniaturization of technology. I fly a quarter of a million miles a year, and as I look down on the planet, I see smokestacks going down, and dish antennas going up. As the landscape ceases to be blighted, the inscape becomes much more important. High-tech equals high-touch. At the same time you see that the paradigms of the new physics reflect the paradigms of inner space; everything is coincidental with everything else. This sensibility gives us a perspective on our relationship to the universe that at first might seem more mythic than real, but is also a justification of man’s deepest intimations over the last thousands of years: that the furthest star is in some sense right next door, that you and I are ubiquitous with the universe. Being ubiquitous, our brains have the ability to pick up much larger patterns, both of possibility and of information.
Fourth, of course, is the revolution of the understanding of human capacities not possible before our time. We needed the cross-cultural knowledge of many different kinds of societies, which we have gained since the nineteenth century. At the same time we needed the revolution in physics, in neuro-physiology, in styles of learning. And the understanding that people are not flakey, they are snow-flakey, seeing the immense variation between people. Seeing the fact that our educational systems are more crippling than effective because they are essentially giving people very limited constructs of what is ideal human behavior.
It is to me an exquisite irony that while we’re experiencing a failure of nerve in the social domain, never before has the image of what human beings can be been more remarkable. For as we begin to look at the whole brain, we are also becoming the directors of the whole earth. The problem is that extremely limited, uneducated consciousness has the powers once accorded to gods. Extremely limited consciousness can blow up the whole blooming world, lay waste to the ozone, interfere with the very genetic structures of life.
The question that motivates everything I do is: how can we begin to educate ourselves for sacred stewardship? How can we begin to take on those capacities for body, mind, and spirit that will enable us to partner the earth at this critical time? This is what my work has been about. One side of it has been research into these capacities. We’ve looked at many different cultures. How the Balinese — because of the great fluidity of their states of consciousness, far more fluid than our Western states — are able to release certain potentials and have children learn those extraordinary dances so much more rapidly. Seeing that people are operating on many more senses than we are and can pick up things so much more rapidly. I’ve studied the Eskimo. Why is it that they can walk around images in their minds, like they were a hologram. Well, they had to, because their environment was floating away all the time; they had to have extraordinary imagery. I’ve been studying how, among the Hasidic Jews, young boys are able to memorize so much. It’s the davening that sets up a very different kind of learning mechanism. And it is the oral demands back and forth between you and your learning partner. It creates an incredible focus, both neurological and psychological, a highly charged energy in which learning takes place at a much greater level. There is a tribe in West Africa that seems to have no warfare, no neurosis as we understand it: the people are extraordinary problem solvers. They have what is called a poly-ocular epistemology, meaning they utilize many different systems of knowing in solving a problem. They wouldn’t sit there and say, “A. Subsection 1. Point B,” none of that junk. They would be dancing a solution, and singing it, and envisioning it, and touching it, and then, by God, they have the answer. We go to these different cultures and study them. We bring this information back, and begin to work with individual research subjects, to see how much of this can be applied in laboratory conditions.
This room is actually a laboratory. We have all the machines and standard equipment, but I assure you, having a mummy in the corner, a flying Balinese angel, a two-thousand-year-old goddess down the hall, and a nine-foot Garuda bird — all of these things are deep in the wells of the psyche. These icons of the ages, these deep symbolic forms, charge the psyche with remembrance. The research is done in an environment that is testimony to the creative power of the human spirit. We work with these research subjects and try to see how people can learn to think in multiple ways, think in imagery, think kinesthetically, think with the whole body. How can they use this for solving problems? We’ve found out that there are many ways we can speak to the brain more directly. Bio-feedback is a simple technique, but there are many more complex techniques that we’ve been working with for many years to speak to the whole brain, and begin to orchestrate it. Because when you befriend your own brain a great deal becomes possible.
My husband’s work has been in part in psycho-physiology. We know from his work that the body can be psycho-physically restructured, not just for more flexible and fluid functioning, but to heighten the capacity for learning. What happens to us, according to a World Health Organization study, is that most people between the ages of three and seventeen decline in physical use by seventy-five percent. They stop using the body, and when they stop using it, the mind itself no longer functions as well as it could. I believe we are moving toward a society of life-long learning, and we need to discover the things which enhance the nature of that learning. Ten years ago I’d hear people say, “Every once in a while I get the urge to exercise, but then I just lie down and wait until that urge passes.” That’s not true anymore. In my travels all over the world I see people running, jumping, dancing and playing ball, taking up martial arts. It’s almost like the earth is trying to grow more musculature in its nervous system so as to be able to take on more. So much of our work is in learning to psycho-physically repattern and restructure the body so that the mind can function far more flexibly, and the emotions as well.
We explore the sensory system, asking, how can we enhance it so that much more reality, many more patterns, can be seen? We studied fifty-five people whom the world deemed to be “high actualizing” types, people capable of sustained creativity, of whom perhaps the most interesting was Margaret Mead. In studying her, we found someone who had thought more, felt more, sensed more than anyone we had ever seen. She was trained as a child to have an enhanced sensory system. She was exposed to great music, paintings, and was taught to do whole processes from beginning to middle to end. If she said to her mother, “Ma, can I make cheese?” her mother would answer, “Yes, but you also have to watch the cow being born.” That’s a whole process. And she was the only person I ever met who completed virtually every process she ever started, because she learned process, something we don’t learn nowadays. People know the beginning and end, but haven’t got the foggiest notion of the middle. You just throw a switch and the light goes on. We’ve ripped out the middle. But our bodies seem to be geared to process. How much of the disease of modern times are the diseases of lack of process — “I want it now” psychopathology, cancer, heart diseases, stress related diseases? Our language has lost 7,000 words since 1900, words of process like sullied, harrowed. Great language is language of process.
I have friends who have great experiences: they meet the Dalai Lama, they go through India with a begging bowl, they cross the Black Sea in a kayak. And I say, “Hey, Joe, tell me about it.” And he says, “Oh wow, man, it was far-out.” And I ask him, “Can you give me an exegesis on ‘far-out?’ ” And he says, “Yeah, like too much, you know.” There is the decline of speech.
We have tried to help schools restore good arts-related curricula, so the child learns batik, collage, whole processes. If he’s going to weave, he’s also going to learn fractions on the loom. I’ve never met a stupid child, but I’ve met incredibly crippling systems of education. We find that when you restore the arts and whole-brain learning, you also restore a sense of esteem. In the schools where we put these programs, we find that these children do not fail, because they’re operating on more levels. Some children think in movement, some in images, some in words, some in terms of the whole body. And as you begin to extend the capacities of body and mind you also begin to expand the capacity to explore the depths of yourself.
We talk about imagery. They asked Mozart how he was able to compose so much. And he answered, “Well, it’s very simple. When I compose I sit down at the piano and I play what I hear. And whence it comes from I know not, but I thank the good Lord that it is at least Mozartish.” He was tapping into the immense internal capacity for what is called the self-creating works of art. He had great skills also, but he was able to tap into this vast creative process that we suspect is going on all the time.
When I was eight years old, my father was writing the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy show. And I used to love to go and talk to Charlie, who was the dummy. Charlie was sort of wise-cracking and smart-alecky. One day, we approached Ed Bergen’s hotel room, and the door was open. He had his back to us talking to Charlie. We thought he was probably rehearsing. But he wasn’t rehearsing. He was asking Charlie ultimate questions. “Charlie, what is the nature of life?” “Charlie, what is it to be truly good?” “Charlie, how does one know that one really loves?” And this dummy was answering like a wooden Socrates, with the wisdom of the universe pouring out of him. And Bergen was getting so excited, saying, “Bbbbbut, Charlie . . .” and asking other questions, and Charlie would just let it pour out. It was extraordinary. Finally, my father got embarrassed and coughed, and Bergen went beet-red. He said, “Jack, you caught us.” And my Dad said, “Ed, what in the world are you doing?” He said, “Well, I’m talking to Charlie. He’s the wisest person on earth.” My dad said, “That’s you. That’s your voice, your words coming out of him.” And Bergen said, “Well, I guess ultimately it is, but when I ask him these questions and he answers me, I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s going to say. What he says astounds me with its brilliance.”
In these depths are also mythic depths. Beneath our surface crust of consciousness, we are filled with the great stories: wise old men, wise old ladies, rites of passage, the grail, death and resurrection, the hero/heroine’s journey of coming home. First in my work with LSD and later, of course, with non-drug states of consciousness, we found that everybody is filled with the great stories. You can teach people, experientially, to engage these larger stories of themselves so that the personal particular of their stories deepens to become a personal universal — larger contexts, a deeper journey, in which the pathos and wounding in their life is not just a place to put bandaids, but the wounding is, in a sense, the gods coming through. By gods I mean the psycho-spiritual, psycho-physical structures that charge us with the evolutionary possibility. Christ must have his crucifixion, otherwise no upsy-daisy. Artemis must kill him who comes too close. And as one takes on the larger story in oneself, then one takes on a finer sensibility, a more attuned capacity to observe the patterns of possibility in one’s life. That’s why all of my advanced work, and a great deal of what I do, involves the great journeys.
It is to me an exquisite irony that while we’re experiencing a failure of nerve in the social domain, never before has the image of what human beings can be been more remarkable.
SUN: What do you see as the practical relationship between myth and personal transformation?
HOUSTON: In the old days I just used to teach things like, how you can work with the brain, how you can expand the body. Then I saw that wasn’t enough; it was too limited a scaffold. You needed a cathedral to contain the capacities in the body/mind system, and the cathedrals were the great stories — because a story has a call, a crossing, a road of trials. It has the agonies of the betrayals, the great adventures, and the finding of the boon out of the realms of sacred space and time. We bring all this back into the regular world.
SUN: How do you help people tap into these grand myths?
HOUSTON: First of all we don’t scare them. We start with an almost academic rendering of the history of the myth, and then, before you know, they’re in it. For example, last weekend, we had something we call the mystery school, which is my most advanced work. We were dealing with the ancient Celtic myths within the form of the hero’s journey. After presenting the ancient Celtic sensibility and looking at its heroes, we began with a call. Now you have to remember being called. How were you called? Often you blundered into it. You married the wrong person, you took that extra degree that you didn’t need, or you got too lazy, and yet you’ve been haunted. But often the blunder opens you up to new sensibilities. The blunder may be the wound in which you hear the call.
So, I’d say, for example, “You are walking along a forest path, and a black horse approaches you. On the horse is a skeleton in armor, who bows to you with great dignity, and hands you a golden chalice. You have a minute and a half of clock time — which subjectively will give you all the time you need — to find out what happens next.” And then I wait for that period of time.
SUN: So, they’re in a trance state now, where time experience can be easily altered.
HOUSTON: No, you don’t have to use trance. You can use music. I was using very ancient Celtic music, and I would talk them into it. Imagery creates its own altered state. And then the mind would give them these calls and what happens next. I would take them into it with stories from the ancient Celtic myths, and let them begin to probe. Then I would take them to the point where they would see their own journey and their own call mythically. I prime the mythic structures of the mind.
In crossing the threshold they gain supernatural allies, often magical animals. These magical animals are in your brain. We have an old brain composed of these magical animals. We have an ancient reptilian brain, which controls survival and a lot of our basic needs. We have a limbic brain, a mammalian brain, which controls emotions, relationships, sociability. And then of course the new brain, split in right and left hemispheres, the neo-cortex, and the pre-frontal lobes, which is our human brain. Part of the problem is that two of the brains don’t have speech, so they don’t communicate very well. We wonder why we overreact to trivia. Trivia comes along and we jump on it. It’s as if we’re operating on a survival level out of our old reptilian and mammalian brains, things that were cooked when we were living in crevices under the rocks — fight or flight responses, which are okay if you’re a lizard or a deer, but absolutely stinking if you have a little red button you can push. In a sense we have got to reorchestrate our brains in our own time. It’s so interesting that now, when we have the tools for massive destruction, we also have the tools and understanding for the massive, conscious orchestration of our brains. That is why we are literally in a time of grow or die. And we find in our work that when we begin to activate these earlier stages through movement and images and various things, we begin to put together what great nature in her infinite wisdom left asunder. We join a great nature in the co-creation of ourselves.
I do an exercise called prolepsis in which people recover the old brain by going through the movements of evolution for several hours. Of course, these movements also recapitulate the first three years of childhood. The little baby rolls. Then the next phase is amphibian: the baby pulls himself along. If you’ve ever seen 150 people do this, crawling across the floor over each other. . . . But they can’t talk, or say, “Excuse me.” They are literally in that realm. Meanwhile ocean waves are playing in the background. Then the reptiles, and the early mammals, then the higher mammals, the monkeys, the great apes, the early humans, the human, and then, the next stage of evolution. They go through this several times, and they feel it become integrated. I begin with the myths of the dragon. Why was the dragon so critical in so many ancient mythologies? I suspect it was because the great dragons are composed of all of these different animals; it’s almost like the brain, reconstructed. The dragon is the lure of becoming. They can feel the great potential of their whole body, but at the same time it’s a healing myth. It’s a gaining of the allies. Why did other societies have these animals as totems, like the Clan of the Cave Bear, the Clan of the Lion? I suspect it’s because they were to activate some part of their brain system that was still loaded with the potential of these earlier stages of evolution. We work mythically and we work spiritually, seeing that at the depths of our being we are the knower, the knowledge and the known.
A most important point came for me in 1978, when Margaret Mead said to me on her deathbed, “Forget everything I’ve been teaching you about working with the governments and bureaucracies.” And she’d been teaching me for many years. So I said, “Now, you tell me this? Now?” She said yes. She hadn’t taken medications, because she wanted to be a kind of anthropologist of her own dying. She said, “I’ve been lying here for several days, and I know, Jean, if we’re going to survive and improve our time, it’s a question of citizens coming together in volunteer groups, grassroots organizations forming in teaching and learning communities, empowering each other, growing to their cutting edge, deepening, and then going out and making a difference. No more of what you saw in the Sixties, people yelling for peace with venom dripping from their fangs.” She said, “You will help me do that when the time is right?” And I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She died a few days later. That has haunted me, and I knew I had to do it.
I’ve gotten into a situation where I’m able to give away eighty percent of my time, and we began to create something called The Possible Society. We go to different cities, work with grassroots organizations, and create seminars at the lowest possible cost. Some of the costs have really been very low, like $35 for the whole seminar. I give away my time, and virtually everybody who works with us does. But that’s not the issue. The issue is to bring in as broad a base of different kinds of people as possible, and give them something of the state of the art of human capacities quickening, in the light of social transformation. Because I really believe that the issue for the human race is not finding another economic or political panacea, but using who we already are. It’s the possible human creating the possible society. The workshops we do are very fast-paced and intense, comical, whimsical, celebrational seminars in which a lot of information is presented.
Lately the myth I’ve been using is the Wizard of Oz, in its depth, not the film version. Look at the original book, with the depth structure: the disempowered mind, the disempowered heart, the disempowered courage, the longing for the home that cannot be, the greening of the wasteland. We bring in all those great themes. And within this mythical context we begin to look at the possible human, the possible society.
Very disparate kinds of people, who normally would never meet, get to work with each other. They meet at the cutting edge of their humanity. Like this one pair recently in Indianapolis. One was helping the other, and the one who was helping turned out to be a janitor, and the one being helped turned out to be the president of the same corporation. They did not know that until the end.
My job is to go in and empower people with what they already have, not to give any kind of guidelines as to what they should do. The important thing is to create ongoing teaching and learning in the community. People end up meeting regularly, to explore, to grow, and to look at social and neighborhood problems and begin to work together to solve them. People have cleaned up the beaches in Santa Cruz. They’ve found the old people town benches. A lot has been done.
Part of the ecological holocaust is not just the gross overuse of external resources, it’s also the gross underuse of internal resources.
SUN: Still, your work has mostly reached fairly intellectual, well-educated. . . .
HOUSTON: No, that’s not true.
SUN: My question is, if you were to speak before a group of angry black teenagers in the Bronx. . . .
HOUSTON: Which I’ve done.
SUN: So you find ways to relate to. . . .
HOUSTON: I told you, I give away eighty percent of my time. I work with all kinds of people, angry youth, Mexican-Americans. I don’t talk in these terms, in fact I don’t necessarily talk. We do. Remember, I’m training a lot of people in the South Bronx. One of my best friends and students is a priest in the South Bronx who has been bringing all of this to those black, angry teenagers.
I live a very checkerboard existence. You want to hear a week. I flew to Las Vegas where the National Teachers Association gave me the educator-of-the-year award. Then I went down to southern California, where I talked to the heads of corporations about how they could create the possible corporation, and create teaching/learning communities within the corporation, which would make it a much more sensitive instrument of human growth and human change. Then I did work with Mexican-Americans, through a Mexican-American church, helping children learn English in very different ways — kinesthetically, assuming different body movements and postures. Then I went to the University of Arizona where I gave a seminar that was attended by a number of American Indians. We began to set up a relationship with them, to honor them, so that their particular skills would be recognized and employed in the local schools. Then I came back here and worked with a group of nuns on how to change their programs so that they would be much more revealing of the spiritual psychology of today, so that nuns could be educated in an expansive way. Then I taught a mystery school. That’s one week.
SUN: A key word I keep hearing from you is educator. It reminds me of a recurring dream I had again last night, which reflects to me the educational system as it is now. It was finals time in high school. In my dream I’d already finished college, yet if I don’t do well on these high school finals it will all be taken away. Not only haven’t I studied, but I realize that I don’t ever know where the class is. I haven’t been there all year. I haven’t seen the book. I panic.
HOUSTON: I’m always stuck in the fourth grade myself.
SUN: So years later, probably from the trauma of this educational system, we still have nightmares about it. I’ve spoken to at least a half dozen people who also have that dream.
HOUSTON: Yes, that is one of the most recurrent dreams in America. From studies of complex recurrent dreams, that’s almost number one. And you’re telling a very sad but true tale. So much of our education is a systematic forgetting of what we knew that was really important. I mean, education is what being human is about. We constantly have to renew ourselves. Continuous rebirth. And we’re living so much longer now. Most of us in our culture are prepared to die at about forty-five or fifty years old, and that’s not going to happen. So we constantly have to renew our minds and renew our lives. I lectured in China recently and saw thousands of very elderly people doing Tai Chi, with the exquisite movements, and then going about their work. They were constantly renewing themselves.
SUN: Just as you say that many people in our culture are ready to die at forty-five or fifty, in a similar way many of us have resigned ourselves to our whole species dying, becoming extinct. Now that’s one scenario of what could happen. Another, which you’re associated with, is that of a new age, some kind of rebirth.
HOUSTON: Constant rebirth. It’s not a new age; it is a constantly renewing age. It is not a new age.
SUN: So it’s not some kind of major break with history you’re seeing.
HOUSTON: Oh no! It is another phase that has always been there. Look, I think that America has not even begun to play its major historical role. America was founded on the hopes and dreams of millions of people for millennia. It was looked at, almost mythically, as that land beyond the Western waters where people would find a democracy thought to be only in paradise, and a tremendous amount of opportunity. That was the dream and a very heavy factor in our existence. Our country’s psyche is rich with these hopes, and the fact is that we’ve barely tapped into this psyche. Because America grew during the same time as the Industrial Revolution, we found our manifest destiny way too fast. We objectified too fast, in terms of our ideas about progress, our industrialization, our ability to create and consume. When I deal with people at the very top of the corporate ladder, which I do all the time, what I find is a sense of loss, and of grief, and a deep, poignant need to tap in much more deeply with what is there. And this is where America is. I tell my European friends that America is the oldest modern civilization on earth. They ask me, “How do you dare say that?” I say it’s because we’re the first to go through the full implications of the Industrial Revolution, the urban revolution, the racial revolution, the technological revolution, the outer space revolution, and now the inner space revolution. We’re a post-modern people, and that I think is why we are leading the world to what may be the next dispensation in terms of socio-historical structures — which is a society that is constantly renewing itself. We see it now merely in our technology; we do not yet see it in ourselves. Our technology renews itself every five or ten years, but we don’t yet see it in ourselves. But it is happening very rapidly. We see it in the spread of adult-education courses, in the fact that so many people are haunted with the need to do something toward renewing themselves — from Jane Fonda-type workshops on. [Laughs.] That’s the surface structure of something very deep. I don’t really laugh at that, except I don’t think it’s very good for the knees. We are seeing the surface of an iceberg that is rising and rising.
Our Presidency is demythologized. By that I mean, our Presidency in a sense died with Mr. Nixon. With Mr. Carter a kind of rigor mortis set in. Not that he wasn’t a very good man, but the Presidency had already died. And now we have the actor playing the President. And that’s a very positive thing, because when the actor plays the President, the mythological energy, the energy of creation, has gone elsewhere. And where it is going is back into human beings, not into social structures.
SUN: Although it’s in education where you see our most important work as a culture.
HOUSTON: But education is often not in institutions. It’s in homes. It’s in what happens between people. It’s certainly moving into business. It’s in citizens volunteering. It’s in people really honing each other, challenging, empowering, evoking each other, and then they can make a difference. When we refer to education, it’s not any kind of education that you or I grew up with.
You see so much human suffering, so much loss, that you are constantly humbled by the difference between the possibility and the reality.
SUN: You’ve used the term “cultural trance” in your writings. From your studies of different societies, can you pick out any of the marks of our particular 1985 American trance? And when you find yourself stuck in such a cultural trance, how do you see beyond it?
HOUSTON: Let me start it as a challenge to you. Where you live, what do you see as the marks of the cultural trance?
SUN: What comes quickly to mind is our fear for our security. People are channeling so much of their energy into fears about their jobs, their living situation. There are so many marks. . . .
HOUSTON: There have been so many different kinds of studies of what you could call our cultural trance. They’ve pointed to a trusting of linear/objective kinds of information, a trusting of quantity over quality, a trusting of matter over mind or spirit, a looking for the objective/objectifying forms of reality. It’s a kind of sorcerer’s apprentice approach to reality: if only I have the key word then everything will work out, and I don’t need the inner training. Of course, America is also many, many cultures. It is a melting pot, and the problem is that in melting, it tended to melt off the ecstatic edges of many people. The cultural trance is the patterns that your culture gives you. It gets you into a habit structure. Our cultural trance is that you’ve got to have an M.B.A. degree to get anywhere. I think that we are in the place of rising above our cultural trance, because the trance ends when the reality becomes too upsetting, when the wasteland looms. People are waking up from this trance, and are asking very difficult questions of each other. What does it mean? Is it worth it? What is the possible human? What is the lure of becoming? A human being can only stand so much stasis, so much stuckness, and then a kind of nausea and dread rises in them. Then they either act or they go to war. So the problem is, what is the moral equivalent of war which will get people out of their nausea and into something that will green the wasteland with great creativity, instead of warfare? We need the incendiary vision of possibility.
SUN: In those moments when you find yourself stuck — when you find that your intellect has overtaken your passion and your heart — how do you free yourself?
HOUSTON: How do I do it? You’re asking me? You see before you here a house full of dogs, and you just don’t stay highly intellectual or isolated in your mind-set with dogs around. I have a pup in the next room who is a boundless delight. She is in a state of wonder and astonishment all the time. I find that which is in nature and in animals full of engagement and reaching out, and in that I remember. For me it’s nature and animals, but everyone has some center of re-engagement. You have to know what it is, and remember to go back to it almost religiously.
SUN: One of our centers of re-engagement is also our frequent battleground — the relationships between men and women.
HOUSTON: But it gets people’s juices flowing. It gets them engaged in life again. Why does it have to be a battleground? That’s interesting. It’s like the question, why do we have to have warfare to have whole cultures be engaged again?
SUN: So do you think men and women can live in peace? And in your own relationship how do you work toward this?
HOUSTON: I think that it’s a question of transformational friendships — friendships in which people are there to help each other transform themselves. Not that I know what my husband should be, or he knows what I should be, but I think that one has to enter into relationships that are adventures, in which one agrees not to live out posthumous existences, like so many relationships. And that is a question of daily and deep challenge. I’ve been married for almost twenty years, and I won’t say that it’s all transformational, but this is something that we try to approach. And it’s not just the relationship with your husband or your wife, it’s also the relationship with your friends. I try to keep working at my friendships over many, many years, during which we are constantly challenging, honing, engaging each other.
SUN: What do you do in those moments when you find yourself arguing with your husband about who did or didn’t take out the garbage? How do you get beyond that?
HOUSTON: Beyond the garbage can? Well, you know you’re going to have that. I don’t think you ever get beyond that. I’m sorry. I think there are those kinds of clouds, necessary clouds because they bring the rain. That’s the real raw stuff, the manure of existence [laughs] that makes things grow. I just think that you do not focus the relationship on that, or the resentment of that. You look in terms of the whole balance. Nothing is a joyous, adventurous going off into the sunset. There’s always that manure on the ground. In my house it’s not so much the garbage as who is going to pick up the dog’s piddling.
SUN: Also on the practical side, how do you see your ideas translating into effective politics?
HOUSTON: In the original meaning of the word politics, we find the coming together of people to create forms of governance in action. I think for this wider meaning, there are certain things that we need. We need a politics of hope. We have one now of silver-screen hope, but not real hope. The gentlemen who founded this country, the Jeffersons and the Madisons and the Franklins, were filled with a passion for the possible. We need this imagining of the possible going on all the time, in the government, and in the people. As well as a politics of hope, I think we need a politics of healing which knows it’s no longer us against them, this against that, but looks at ways of having non-adversarial relationships, people with different views working together. We need a politics of vision. We need a politics of ecology, to realize that we are in a shared earth, in a world of shared cultures. Part of the ecological holocaust is not just the gross overuse of external resources, it’s also the gross underuse of internal resources. We need a politics of participation that engenders in people a feeling of wanting to participate, if not on national levels, certainly on local levels. We may say, that is impossible. But it isn’t if we also engender a politics of celebration. By celebration I mean that we need juicy songs of possibility. We need songs and dances and myths and stories and plays. Nothing travels the world faster or deeper than a great song. If we’re going to have participation, we’re going to have to have celebration. We need a politics of appropriate technology, realizing that when we have a lot of people and little capital, we need a labor intensive economy instead of just a capital intensive economy. It’s not just the use of solar and wind and geothermal energy, but the empowering of people to utilize resources in creative ways. We need a politics of appropriate scale. A politics of technological creativity so that science can be restored to the human sciences, doing things for the good of human beings, not just for high technology, so that technology can be used to create things of great and wide use, not just for consumers, but for the needs of people. We need a politics of nursing the whole life cycle. We need a politics of parenting, of education, of nutrition. How do we die beautifully? How do we care for the elders so that elders become the wise ones, and not just the vegetables sitting in front of the television sets? And a politics finally of spirituality, that comes out of something Thomas Merton said: “My dear brothers and dear sisters, we are already one, but we behave as if we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to become is what we already are.”
SUN: That is a beautiful vision, and one that’s indeed far from the stonewall politics we have now. Do you have hope that the one you describe can be created from the other?
HOUSTON: Yes, but I think people will do it. I don’t think that governmental institutions are likely to. Local communities can. I think that in the late Eighties and Nineties we’re in for a tremendous grassroots movement. The grassroots has to remythologize the political sensibility. We are suffering from a defunct and outmoded political imagination, and so I think it has to come up from people again. We’re in a holding pattern right now. I think Ronald Reagan is a natural phenomenon of our times. If Ronald Reagan didn’t exist, I think we’d have to invent him.
SUN: Which we did.
HOUSTON: You’re right, which we did. We invented him. He’s an invented being, and he tells people, in terms of the old values they can still remember, what they can understand. And it is simple, so you feel it’s all right. But that’s fine, for the surface reality. Meanwhile, people like you and your splendid publication are working in the depths to engender the next visions, the next myths of political and social life. But Ronald Reagan is a great cover story. If he were too exciting, if he were too novel, then the depths could not gestate.
One of the problems of being an American is that because of our widespread instant pop, instant celebrity-hood, cycles that should take longer happen too quickly. The hippie movement, for example, happened too fast. It went through in five years. That’s not good. It had tremendous potential for art, music, and poetry. It was just starting to touch its own depths.
SUN: Well, it was touching thousands of years of spiritual and political ideas.
HOUSTON: It certainly was, but it went through much too fast, five years. And that’s because it was exploited in the media. Maybe it’s a good thing that THE SUN only has two or three thousand circulation, because it allows you deep periods of time for gestation. You need at least ten or twelve years to really deepen any of your sensibilities. Things are happening too rapidly to set down their roots. If we’re going to become great, rooted blossomers we need the time. And I think a lot of people in the Sixties went inward because they realized that they had not done their homework. I knew people in the Sixties who were great at organizing revolutions in the colleges, but once they took over a college, what did they do? Nothing. They had no sense of what to do next, because they did not have the depth of vision. Many of these people went through the Seventies and deepened, and now they’re starting to emerge, with far more complex sensibilities and visions. And they are not the same visions of the Sixties; they are much more interesting. They are richly textured tapestries, and we are just beginning to hear them.
SUN: You just spoke about the problems of pop culture. The new age movement is as much or more overridden with this as mainstream culture.
HOUSTON: Oh, yes.
SUN: As you’re reaching the equivalent of superstardom in the new age culture, how do you deal with the fame, prestige, adulation and other silliness that goes along with it?
HOUSTON: I don’t pay any attention to it. It doesn’t really reach me. I told you how much of my time I give away. I give it away in places where they could not care less. I’m dealing with the nitty gritty all the time. I’m really surprised to hear you say that, because I don’t see very much of it. The reality is quite different. Very little of the world that I touch has anything to do with what you would call new age. Most of it is the very concrete, problem-solving world. I work in the business world a lot. My work crosses many, many different kinds of cultures.
SUN: How do you deal with your own messiah complex, that part of you that would like to be the one who saves the world?
HOUSTON: When I was fifteen, I lived that one out so fully, that I got it out of my system. You want to hear about it?
HOUSTON: Between the ages of eleven and sixteen, I was in a messianic stage, to say the very least. I’ll give you an incident as an example. I was the leader of a group of boys, about twelve of us. We started out on bicycles and then moved to motorcycles. They thought I was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and I sort of agreed. We would go all over east Texas saving people. It was my version of religion at that time, which was different parts of Roman Catholicism, Southern Baptist, Evangelical, Divine Scientist, Vedanta, all in a great stew. We had a boy with us named Leroy. He was a great big old boy, six foot three. He must have weighed 230 pounds, and was not considered to be very bright by his cohorts. I’d try to encourage him. [Begins speaking in Texas drawl.] I’d say, “Why, Leroy, do you know that in ancient times kings and conquerors would have come across the waves to write odes to your physique?” He stuttered back, “RRRReallly?” “Oh, yes. Tell us, Leroy. Tell us how you achieved your strength.” He said, “JJJersey calf. I got it by lllifting the jjjersey calf every day since it was a lllitle bitty thing. And as it got bigger, I rrreckon I got sstronger. Now it’s a bbbig old thing and I can still hheft it off the ground.” I said, “That’s great, Leroy, but as great as that is, there’s something greater.” He asked, “What’s that?” “Self-discipline.” And I’d preach to him about applying himself to books or whatever. Anyway, one day the boys and I were on our motorcycles. I had on my cowboy boots, and shorts, and very long hair, a white flaring shirt and a big leather belt with a cow’s head buckle. That was my mythic costume. We were polishing our motorcycles under a big old tree, and the town school teacher came down the road. She was in her late seventies, and she knew everybody’s secrets. So she came down the road, babbling secrets, her old dog Rufus with the mange following. She came up to me and said, “Jean, your time has come. Your time has come.” Now I had a sort of boyfriend in this group named Floyd. He said, “That’s right, Jean, time for you to do like the other preachers, like Oral Roberts, and start healing people.” I said, “No, I don’t want to do that.” “You got to start doing it. Why don’t you start by healing Leroy of stuttering.” So we got on our motorcycles and drove to this grassy mound, and something got hold of me. I said, “Come here, Leroy.” He said, “Nnnno, I’m not worth it.” That got to me. I said, “Come here, Leroy,” and grabbed him by the hands. And suddenly I was just seized by sobbing, and I sobbed without stop for about five minutes. Then I said, “Talk to me, Leroy. You can talk to me!” He said, “What do you want me to say? What do you want me to say? I can say anything I want to, and my tongue won’t get twisted!” Then he took three or four minutes of silence, and I was just sure that he was recalling all the poetry and dreams, and the deepest yearnings of his life, and we knew that the first sentence that would come out of his mouth was going to be electrifying. Finally, after the minutes went by, he said, “You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse!” And then this terrible tirade of American commercials poured out of him. “Use Ajax, boom, boom, the foaming cleanser.” And it went on and on. The boys were so shocked they just left. Finally after about a half hour of this stuff pouring out of him, he was so happy. He turned to me and said, “Hot damn! I’ve got to show my mom! See you later, alligator!” So my boyfriend Floyd said, “Now Jeannie, that was pretty good, but you’ve got to get better at this sort of thing. Don’t take quite as long. Now I want you to cure the school teacher’s dog of the mange. Then you can try my uncle Buddy Joe’s shingles. Jean, I figure in about three months you can get on to where you can raise the dead!” I said, “Shut up, Floyd!” And my interest in the whole messianic business collapsed at that moment. I was told later that Leroy went home to his mamma, a great big, 350-pound, redneck lady, who was cooking up some chicken-fried steak. And Leroy went on and on talking to his mamma, until she looked at him and said, “What the ever-loving hell is wrong with you, Leroy?” And that was the end of that.
No, I don’t have any messianic feelings. If I have an image of myself it’s one of pure midwifery. I’m merely trying to be available to be a midwife. You don’t get much of an ego in this business; you see so much human suffering, so much loss, that you are constantly humbled by the difference between the possibility and the reality. That really shakes you up, and all you can do is do what you have to do.
I think we’ve come to the end of messiahs. The Hebrew word for messiah means “he that cometh.” And I don’t think that there’s any he or she that cometh. Not in a planetary culture. We’ve passed that. What we’re experiencing is a rising, like the earth leavening, like rising dough. Everybody is the messiah, everybody is Christ, everybody is Buddha. What was it that the Buddha said? “What real unfolding is about is to see all people as Buddha, to hear all sounds as mantra, to know all places as Nirvana.” If you try to do that, as a daily discipline, then you really can’t take yourself very seriously.