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Jean Houston: An Inside Look
By Gail Rossi
NHNE SwiftWing Global Network Reporter
Tuesday, July 9, 1996
© Copyright 1996 By Gail Rossi
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Jean Houston: An Inside Look
By Gail Rossi
NHNE SwiftWing Global Network Reporter
As a great admirer of the work of Jean Houston, as well as a journalist, I watched with a mixture of fascination and dismay at the way the mainstream media portrayed the news surrounding the release of Bob Woodward's book "The Choice," which reveals that Jean Houston repeatedly met with Hillary Clinton in the White House during 1995 to offer advice on how to cope with the pressures of being a first lady in the 1990's. I have been looking at these events from the perspective of one who drove three hours to listen to Houston speak two days before the story broke, and who has spent many more hours completely immersed in listening to her tapes.
Instead of the woman I have come to know, Houston is being depicted in various descriptions as a "guru," a "psychic philosopher" and "the woman who gave 'New Age' to Hillary."
I felt the coverage deserved some counterbalancing.
At the conference, Houston, in her usual fashion, used her personal experience in the moment to illustrate a lesson she has repeated over and over in her work as a psychologist, author, and internationally-known speaker: that our lives are mythic and huge.
She believes that we are entering into a new era where events are "Soul-Size," and that we must reach into our own psyches to find both the personal and archetypal myths that have shaped our lives -- and to find the courage to start to live from those mythical possibilities. We were told, perhaps before anyone else, the news that excerpts from the book were to be printed the next day in THE NEW YORK TIMES. Here's what she said about the impending media flap in her keynote address:
"By allowing my wounds to remain open I can be more helpful to others who are seeking to revision their sufferings in a more profound and useful way. My own experiences of wounding, physical, psychological, emotional, loss of status, prospects, friends -- especially after next week -- and what had been my place in the world led me to understand that in times of suffering, when you feel abandoned, perhaps even annihilated, there is occurring at levels deeper than your pain the entry into time of the possibility of life in a reality at once more subtle and more evolved."
Here then, are some excerpts from a very different sort of book, "Tying Rocks to Clouds: Conversations with Wise and Spiritual People," by Bill Elliot. The text is arranged in simple question-and-answer format, with Elliot asking Houston questions.
Elliot: What is the purpose of life?
Houston: Life has many purposes. The deep purpose for me is to be a minstrel. At this point in time, this day and age, my purpose is so overpowering that I wake up with it every morning, and it is very obvious. The earth is at the greatest period of crisis in history. We are being called to be co-creators. I don't think we can finally destroy our earth, but we can cause an awful lot of damage to her in the next ten or twenty thousand years. Earth may eventually shrug her shoulders and go back to normal. My purpose is to warn that we are neither prepared nor educated to be co-creators, co-transmitters of this planet. We're not living in the year 1845! Suddenly, we have been thrust into an immense responsibility, which I call "Type-One Civilization." My purpose is to learn as much as I can about what it means to be a world co-creator.
We have to extend our minds, our imaginations, our capacities, our problem-solving, our thinking, our relationships, our relationships to our bodies. We have to understand our own bodies deeply and to train people in that. We then must work all over the world simultaneously to look at the deeper story that is trying to emerge -- because, as far as most people are concerned, when one discusses the abstraction of "earth," even with the picture of outer space being so powerful, people don't respond. They have to feel that they are themselves part of the story. That's what l'm looking for, the "we" world myth for today's age. The schools aren't going to do it! So I go into whole cultures and train people, not just in human development, but also in their myths. I say, "Let us look at the deeper story emerging that you are part of, so that you will feel a passion to be part of that development! Then, we can determine what you can do in your little or large ways, as the case may be. (Of course, there is no such thing as "little" or "large." Everything is immense right now!) What you do makes a profound difference. You develop the possible human, then help create the possible society that co-creates the possible earth. We are requested -- required -- by our planet to join with her and educate ourselves to become.
If I had been an abbess in a convent 500 years ago, my purpose would have been to create a harmonic realm to extol God and Nature and to find out as much as I could about God and Nature. I would have been a "Hildegarde of Bingen" type. That would have been a natural form for me. Now, my purpose is to extend the life of God/Goddess in the world; to be a Godseed in the world; to emphasize as much as we can the traits of serving, compassion, love, pleasure, while not avoiding pain or tragedy, because they are necessary complements to the former; to find meaning in, as well as patterns of connection between, all of us, even at times when society seems utterly leveled. Those levelings are part of a much larger story.
Elliot: Why are you doing what you are doing?
Houston: I feel urgency: This is the time and we are the people, and, by God, we have to do what we can. The more we do the deeper things, the likelier we'll feel the agony of the world. The "deeper" is going to be reflected in our lives. You don't get away with anything. That's one thing I've discovered. It's something women know: You don't get away with anything. What I do, and the way I work on myself, is going to affect profoundly my work in the world. As greater so called refinement comes, I can get away with less and less. The phone call I did not make that could have been a help to a person is going to haunt me, is going to come back and hit me. One can't be bad and get away with things as one used to.
To answer the depth of your question of why I am doing this: I am so blessed to be part of this time that, by God, I'd better do it! It's not just the responsibility for "I" anymore; it's "we" and "us." We are part of a community of body, mind, and spirit that is trying to make a profound difference, that is helping to make the earth move into this great stage I call "Type-One Civilization," which really is culture cultivating Godseeds. Maybe earth is a planet, but maybe this is a school. Maybe it's a school of Godseeds. Maybe that's what we are! We are finally coming to that awareness where there's sufficient complexity, crisis, and consciousness to wake us up to this wake-up time. This is the mythic time, more mythic than anything, than the search for the Grail or the descent into Hell. This is the time! Wake up!
I was the daughter of a very funny man who saw life as a paradox, a comedy endlessly entertaining. My mother was a very deep and wise woman, who really looked at life as service. She always saw the spirit in the world. My father was not religious; my mother was. I am from two very different ethnic groups, half Scot, half Sicilian. My mother's name is Maria Luciatti Serafini, and my father's Jack Houston. My mother was born in Siracusa, Sicily. My father was from an old Southern family, the Houstons of Texas, and Sam Houston was my great, great grandfather. Robert E. Lee was my great, great, great grandfather. I come from an old, old American family and from an immigrant family, too, and I embody all these cultures. I went to 29 schools before I turned 12. Dad was on the road, writing the Bob Hope show. I was always seeing many, many different kinds of people... often thrust into all kinds of survival situations, which I had no business as a little American girl being thrust into so early.
When we see the humor in it all, we always see things in new ways. Humor helps us see the healing, the whole, the larger situation. I have that sensibility. After I had that mystical experience when I was six, I no longer had any freedom. After that, I was utterly committed to a life of helping and looking and finding, of yearning, exploring, discovering, evoking what is possible. We can become citizens of and open to a universe larger than our aspirations, and more complex. This is where we are in history, and, by God, we had better do it!
Elliot: What about death?
Houston: I don't think there is such a thing. I am not sure there is birth either. I don't think this is a sunlit journey to a sunlit shore. There are multiple options. The universe is just too complicated to say, "You live, you go to a place, you get your lessons, and you go to another place. So you come back again, and live again." Life is continuous, and it takes many dimensions and many different forms of continuity, of which reincarnation may be only one.
In the stories of Buddha, he always smiled, so I've thought, if one were truly spiritual, one would always be happy.
Oh, no! Some of the most spiritually inclined people I know have been utterly despairing. Read the great book of Evelyn Underhill, the book on mysticism, where she talks about the great saints and the immense despair they've gone through -- even the greatest of them, like St. Francis of Assisi. At the end of his life, in Alverno, over the craggy mountain, he was looking out to God and saying, "Who am l? Your most useless little worm! I am a nothing. Forget about me." This, after his enormous accomplishment of changing the value system of Europe! And he, in utter despair!
Nothing's going to grow without suffering. Consider bread, tasty bread. What went into the bread? Seed went into the ground, and the ground opened up, suffered. Seed breaks out of its pod, comes up, and fruit grows. The fruit is ripped out, crushed. It's then baked, and then that's bread. That's suffering! The ruby is under tremendous pressure for hundreds of thousands of years. Fine leather is tanned. (Rumi talks about that.) Fine wine goes through extraordinary crushing.
If we have the blush of maturity, we don't go back to being a little green apple! Wounding allows for the opening of ourselves. It evolves into the holes that make us holy. I have never known -- never -- a being of depth who has not undergone some sizable suffering. Wounding also takes us out of the limited, nursery sort of culture, out of our limiting innocence in which we have absolute faith in someone who is going to give us utter affirmation, the whole rest of our being. With that kind of philosophy we would never grow! Often, we feel betrayed and abandoned, thrust out. It's horrendous, but then, of course, it allows us to be able to reach out to others, to make networks, like scar tissue, like stars, which reach out to form multiple patterns of relationships.
At a certain point, one realizes the larger pattern that was there, the one not seen before. One forgives; one is capable of forgiving the betrayal. All the great myths portray suffering, and wounding is at the heart of them. Christ must have his crucifixion. Otherwise, no upsy-daisy! He becomes just an interesting teacher without crucifixion. Dionysus must be childish and attract titanic enemies. Prometheus must steal fire from heaven and have his liver eaten out. Job gets boils. Adam loses his rib. Odin trades his eye for wisdom. Every story has, at its core, extraordinary wounding, suffering. Every one. The Buddha becomes almost a dead corpse and almost destroys himself before he wakes. Jesus is in an agony on the cross. Enlightened suffering. After the suffering one of two things can happen. One can fall into a sterile choice: paranoia, denial, an attempt never to aspire so high again, utter disappointment, revenge (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth). If we get encapsulated in those forms of denial and sterile choices, we do not grow. Or suddenly, we understand larger patterns, and we give forgiveness. "Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they do." Socrates said wisdom comes through suffering. After suffering the entelechy begins to bloom, but the entelechy, like the seed put into the ground, seems to need to be bruised. We need that, and given what life is, it is unlikely that we will not have suffering. We are perhaps the most vulnerable and psychologically wounded people in human history.
Look back at the lives of your great-great-great-great grandma and grandpa 500 years ago. They knew who they were! They may not have lived very long or had much to eat, but they knew kinship, fellowship. They didn't have to ask the kinds of questions we're asking today. One wouldn't find books like yours being written. They were, reasonably, much happier than we are. But they did not have this incredible exposure. In pictures of faces in the 12th and 13th centuries we don't see faces haunted by the despair or suffering that we see in twentieth-century faces. It's because we are so wounded. What we do not have is a psychology of understanding sacrificial suffering as transformation.
Our local humanity will always feel inadequate to the Godsoul it is housing. In Eastern religions, there's a level of maintaining a type of equanimity that we do not necessarily find in Western religions, not to the same extent, anyway. I think we have some great surprises in store for us. Jesus was really very cranky, to the end. That's why I don't object to that new movie, "The Last Temptation of Christ." The Buddha was far more eccentric than we are.
Elliot: If you could meet anyone from history, whom would you meet and what would you ask that person?
Houston: There are a whole bunch of obvious religious figures I would like to meet, but also people who are not so obvious. I would want to meet Hildegarde of Bingen, who in the 11th century was able to do so much and create so much.
I would also like to be there for them, not just to ask them questions like, "How did you do it?" but to empower them to see the future: "Oh, boy, you wouldn't believe the influence you've had! I know you feel beaten down, but I tell you, it'll all be worth it." I would like to be there under the cross when Jesus is saying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and say, "Don't worry, this love is going to go out into the world and it is going to seed in the hearts and minds of many people and cause them to turn a corner on their existence." That is what I would want to do, to empower them in moments of their deepest despair. I'd like to go back and empower Adolph Hitler to be an art student! I'd say, "What a wonderful talent you have! You have a great talent -- let's pursue this." I'd give him a grant. Art was what he really wanted to do, anyway.
Most people probably would not give luminous answers. I have known some very great beings and have asked them many questions. What they really need from the future is encouragement. So it might not be just the great ones, but also the real lousy ones who needed to be empowered at an early stage, who needed someone saying, "Don't give up!"
(Reprinted with permission from "Tying Rocks To Clouds: Meetings and Conversations with Wise and Spiritual People," by Bill Elliott. Published by Quest Books, PO Box 270, Wheaton, Il. 60189, 1-800-669-9425.)
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