Historical Biography: Jean Houston

Houston spurs creativity and has recharged educational and cultural institutions. Information on her work, career, life and influences.

She has counseled presidents and CEO's, studied with Margaret Mead, was inspired by and personally knew Helen Keller, and for the past thirty years has co-directed with her husband Robert Masters The Foundation for Mind Research in New York, doing work focused on expanding the human potential. She founded the Mystery School, a program of cross-cultural mythic and spiritual studies that fosters the teaching of philosophy and history, physics, psychology, anthropology and myth""as well as the latent capabilities in the human potential. Such is the amazing track record and brief resume of one very unusual and mind-expanded woman""Jean Houston, the closest thing to a female national guru we have in this country.

What made this amazing woman take off as she did? What was in her background? And what does she have to say about futures?

Born the daughter of comic writer Jack Houston, and descendant of the Texas Houstons, Jean grew up in a vagabondian lifestyle, attending 20 different schools before the age of 12. In presentations she has given she refers to the stimulating wit and mind of her father as instrumental in opening up the intellectual life and human awareness in her. She graduated from Barnard College with a B. A., was an off-Broadway actress, and received the exciting challenge at the age of 21 of joining a government-sanctioned research team to explore the effects of LSD on human personality. But within a few years her interests were expanding to phenomenal proportions.

She has lectured in Psychology and Philosophy at Hunter College, taught at the New School for Social Research, taught at Marymount College, and eventually met Margaret Meade, whose brilliance turned Houston on to anthropological and cultural studies. In India, Africa and Asia, she studied cultural phenomena, such fascinating topics as the connections between learning math and music, and the Intuits' capability of imaging in three dimensions. Everything she learned as she racked up a quarter million miles of international travel convinced Houston that we are all underdeveloped people, that our potential lies buried within thanks to bland and homogenous education, thin ego shells, and societal expectations.

Houston herself went on to obtain her Ph.D. in Psychology from the Union Graduate School, and went on to be the William James lecturer at Harvard, Visiting Scholar at the University of Oklahoma-Scholar-Leadership Program, and Lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She often worked with Joseph Campbell, doing conferences on myth and social development, and served as President of the American Association for Humanistic Psychology.

The Creative Education Foundation saw fit to award her a Lifetime Award in Creative Achievement, she was teacher-educator of the year in 1985, and was the INTA Humanitarian of the Year in 1993.

Everyone of these awards, and many since, were dependent on Dr. Houston's calculated and confident ability to inspire, educate and energize people regarding their own human potential. Perhaps, Houston insists, we have our wondrous futures inscribed within us when we are born, much as an acorn has within it the potential and systems for becoming a great oak tree. As she shares her own excitement in the human capacity, whether in her many volumes or in face-to-face programs, Dr. Houston's lessons hit home hard. Some of her many book titles include The Possible Human, The Search for the Beloved, Listening to the Body, and her own autobiography, A Mythic Life: Learning to Live Our Greater Stories. She has also published a dozen more.

Her presentations at workshops and seminars are flamboyant, dazzling, not to be believed. I saw her dismantle a room of 2,500 participants when she asked them to stand, lift their chairs and get them out of the middle of the floor so we could move, dance, express. The entire ballroom scoffed at the idea. "Impossible," people shouted. "It can't be done."

But Jean Houston insists that anything can be done. "You have three minutes," she assures the group of stodgy religion teachers as they gape up at her. "Do it!"

They do.

Within minutes she has us dancing around the room like carefree children, our chairs stacked mightily around the perimeter of the huge hotel ballroom, as we circle, sway and "pay attention" to our physical and psychic realities. Most people find Houston's dramatic flair and blazing theatrics loosen them from the chains of conformity and rigidity, motivating them to begin to reach for their potential. We cramp our own style, she insists: we don't allow ourselves big enough dreams, or the talents that lie within and at our fingertips.

One of Jean Houston's fondest theories is that we grow in leaps and bounds when we believe in ourselves, and trust in ourselves to aspire to something new, something more. She herself has become an expert in the new physics, because she dared to believe she could be. She is constantly learning new skills, like playing the harpsichord, or pitching a baseball. Anyone can do it, she insists, saying that "most of us have lost the access codes to our inner selves" and she goes on to suggest ways of recapturing those codes:

Learn new skills, like playing ice hockey, or doing woodworking; daring to dream big and ask a friend to hold your dream with you; speaking a dream aloud and entrusting it to someone who will guard it and remind you of it incessantly can be wonderfully inspiring; reframe your stories, she says""even stories of shame and embarrassment are meant to be opportunities to refine and rework the wonder of who we are.

As illustration of the last point, Houston tells the story of the time she was invited to the White House to meet with the Clintons and especially to coach Hillary Clinton in the early stages of writing her book, "It Takes a Village." After many, many hours of working with the First Lady, including helping her to conceptualize ideas and then editing text, she spent a few minutes advising her to imagine herself speaking with historical figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt about how one might make a better world for children. When the press got wind of the role-playing exercise, they called Houston a psychic and a mumbo-jumbo mysticism monger.

An oversensitive sort, as the attractive fiftyish woman calls herself, Houston was devastated by the outcry in the press, and her career was badly damaged as lies built upon the slimmest shadow of the truth. But such an albeit painful experience, she says, can prune away the detritus of our lives and clarify our vision, help us see where our next turn may be, and how to get the sunshine into the branches that remain. Our very undoing, she says, can lead to a redoing, and tolife as a more powerful person.

Evidently people all over the world are convinced. Houston has taught seminars or programs at more than a dozen colleges and universities in forty countries on six continents around the planet. Participants have witnessed her undaunting challenge to them to fulfill their potential, rise to more, and dance across the floor with her. She has sung for them, quoted poetry off the top of her head, recited physics equations and spoken in dozens of dialects and versions of several languages.

"Think I'm showing off?" Houston asks some of her audiences.

"No," they groan, dazzled, sparked, or hushed.

"Good! You, too, have this muchness!" she proclaims. Who are we to disagree? Who knows what depths have yet to be plumbed in the farthest reaches of our very human, possibly limitless minds?

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