A Midwife of Souls

Dr. Jean Houston, a scholar and researcher of human potential, is a leader and teacher who has distinguished herself by melding ancient wisdom with contemporary living. She was a friend of French visionary Teilhard de Chardin, protege of the late anthropoligist Margaret Mead, collaborator with the late mythologist Joseph Campbell, and spiritual guide to multitudes of leaders and seekers around the world.

She has specialized in ways to improve learning and creativity, and her work is central to the core work of learning communities on numerous continents. She founded the non-profit organization called The Possible Society to encourage the creation of new ways for people to work together to help solve societal problems. She has directed two three-year courses in human capacities development and a program of cross-cultural mythic and spiritual studies, now in its 13th year, in colleges and universities across the nation.

In 2006, she will present her 23rd consecutive year of Mystery School to assist people in acquiring the inner dynamics that will enable them to make a difference in the world. Her West Coast school begins at Lake Arrowhead in Southern California on February 3, and the debut of her Midwest Mystery School, in Chaska, Minn., will be on March 3.

“My decades of work exploring and applying the potentials to be found within both people and cultures have convinced me that we have the ability to shift and move the obstructions of millennia,” Dr. Houston has said. “Consciousness has capacities that remain unused, except by the few, to remake both world and time.”

She spoke with Edge Life about the relocation of her longtime New York mystery school to Minnesota, and about her work and the challenges of living in this day and age.

How would you put into words who you are and what you offer people?
Jean Houston:
Well, I’m sometimes called a midwife of souls and cultures. I have spent many years studying the nature of the human potential and capacities. I’ve also spent many years studying many different cultures and discovering that sometimes the capacities and the potentials of one culture are very well suited for another. So I’m a weaver, in sort of the Athena archetype, putting peoples, cultures and ideas together to try and make a better world.

I’m sometimes described as a philosopher, as a psychologist and as a cultural anthropologist, and all of these are partly true. But mostly I’m a person who is trying to make a better world.

I’ve been very fortunate in my life to have been exposed to some of the great teachers of our time. As a very young person, 14 years old, I used to walk with a man who I called “Mr. Tayer.” It turned out to be Teilhard de Chardin. And he lived across the street from me, at 84th and Park Avenue. We walked together off and on on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the better part of two years.

Then Margaret Mead decided that I was her second daughter and she lived with us off and on the last six years of her life. She sent me all over the world to study and harvest. She said, “Jean, go out and harvest the human potential and discover why this certain tribe in West Africa had very little neurosis or war as we understood it.” And I discovered that, indeed, they were thinking in many different ways. They were dancing the information, they were singing it, they were drawing it, they were envisioning it. They were cooking on more burners, you know. And, she sent me to Bali. “Why do these people have such high aesthetic capacities.” And, of course, what they had access to was an extraordinary range of states of consciousness, so they were not caught in one particular state. And, up to the Inuit people. “Why can they walk around machines in their minds and understand what’s going on?” They had phenomenal visual imagination, because they had to. The environment was floating away all the time.

I studied many different cultures and realized that for the first time in human history we have access to the genius of cultures that can now be applied cross-culturally.

I then made studies of probably 55 of some of the most sustained, creative people in North America and discovered that there were some very interesting similarities. Among my research subjects were Buckminster Fuller, whose last house, by the way, I live in now in Ashland, Ore. These people had an extraordinary access to their inner life. I found that as different as these people were from each other, each of them, in a sense, was an archeologist of his or her own inner space, a spelunker of the caves of his or her own creative imagination — and they developed these capacities. They spent a lot of time developing access to internal imageries, internal feelings. The creative process is always going on beneath the surface crust of consciousness, but what these people did is develop the tools, the hooks and eyes if you were, the internal sensors to be able to capture this inner creative process.

Did they know they were doing this archeology consciously?
Yes. Margaret Mead certainly knew that she was doing it consciously, and I think the others did, too. Buckminster Fuller certainly knew that. These people allowed me to have access to their own inner space, and I studied the way their minds worked. But I also then took depth probings of the human psyche with thousands of people over all over the world. I’ve probably had several million seminar participants during the past 40 years.

I’ve been just blessed, and honored, to be able to have gained this level of perspective on human capacity and human becoming, and even further access to the genius of cultures. It makes me so committed to the fact that no longer can one particular society dominate all others, because of its economic superiority. We have to make economics a satellite to the soul of culture, rather than the soul of culture being a satellite to economics.

How has the curriculum and the students of your mystery school changed throughout the past 23 years?
What an interesting question. The curriculum deepens. It continuously deepens. Our curriculum has always been a very rich one.

It’s hard to talk about the students, because they’re always a very large mix from people who feel a yearning, the hound of heaven yapping at their heels. They’ve been psychologists and school teachers and social workers and homemakers and movie stars and even state senators — a tremendous range of people, people who are going through the dark night of the soul and know that there’s another way through.

Mystery school is my modern continuation of the community of seekers who have been meeting for millennia in ancient Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, in the kivas of the indigenous people of the American Southwest and the Druid circles of old Europe. The fact is, these are schools that allow us to tap into capacities and potentials that we are not normally trained in to deal with a more complex world –and I think what has changed is the complexity of the world.

When I began mystery school in 1984, we did not have the internet. We still had the Cold War. We did not have access and connectivity to each other to the degree that we now have. So one of the major things in the mystery school that has changed is that everybody’s in connection all the time. We have regular daily work that we ask people to consider, and reflections. We have people talking to each other with great intensity on the internet, as well as on regular teleconferencing calls. We have people creating projects together to make better schools or hospitals or help the elderly.

In mystery school, every sense is engaged, every habit is shaken up. The body is stretched with the psychophysical exercises. The limbic system of the mind is quickened by the essence of ideas from many disciplines. I try to teach the things that I love best — history, sacred psychology, music, theater, philosophy, poetry, high and low comedy. It’s always comical because, I’m the daughter of a comedian. The new science, cosmology, has come on even stronger and stronger in my work. All of these processes engage people in a communal sharing of their own thoughts and life stories, and often they embark on visionary journeys.

I often have explored great myths as part of the curriculum, or the stories of the people who have taken the great journeys of the soul — Thomas Jefferson, Helen Keller, Emily Dickenson, Gandhi, Michelangelo, Shakespeare. These journeys allow people to live through their personal particulars of their own human, everyday existence as they’re illumined by the great journeys of those who have lived life large. Mystery School has always stretched the membrane of what you thought was possible and allowed you to enter into new ways of being with very real effects in your outer life.

Why are mystery schools needed in our culture at this time?
I think they’re needed because the mystery of the human condition has been constrained and contracted by looking at life through too narrow a lens.

One of the issues is the internet. It’s all well and good, but we live too much in the screens and not in the palpable, ebullient, buoyant stuff of our existence. We carry too many shadows and have not really seen the illumination that is there within us in our very selves in the very structure of our psyche, and in the higher purposes that are there yearning for us to be able to see them and be inspired by them — to take on the job of living in this, the most interesting time, the most potent time in human history. I realize that other times thought they were it. They’re wrong. This is it. What we do profoundly makes a difference as to whether we live or die.

This is the century that will be the one of the great decision, and that’s why I’ve chosen as this year’s theme: The Mystery of Making a Difference. Making a difference has never been more crucial in a world in which so much can go right or disasterously wrong. We have the great task of human history: Do we live or do we die? Do we grow or do we perish?

Do you think we’re at that point where we have to decide that collectively?
Individually and collectively. One of the things that I see is that when a person makes a change and allows for this unfolding of who and what they are, it often has extraordinary consequences that will ultimately affect millions of people.

I work with whole cultures, as well, in my social artistry work, and I work with leadership literally all over the world in developing countries — especially the younger leadership. Too often, leaders have been trained to be white males of the year 1926. They have not been trained for the incredible complexity of the modern world. Actually, nobody has. What I’m trying to do is remedial humanity, to get people where they really need to be to deal with the level of complexity of this world. God knows, we have within us the capacities to be adequate stewards of this time.

In computer parlance, we need a big update, or upgrade, of our human systems.
That’s right. We’re upgrading from Humanity 1 to Humanity 6, at least.

And it’s probably jumping exponentially, isn’t it?
Yes. That’s what people experience in both the mystery school, as well as the social artistry program. They experience very substantive changes and shifts and growths in their body, mind and psyche. You have to deal on all levels. You cannot just intensify thought and ideation and intellectual possibilities without also doing work on the body and the soul and the emotional life, crossing the great divide of otherness so that we can really listen to others appreciatively and compassionately. It’s work at all possible levels.

You noted that this is a most crucial time in human history. I tend to be an eternal optimist, that more of us are recognizing ourselves as planetary citizens and dreaming of how we can be that way in community. Is part of our challenge becoming that?
Community has never been more possible. Even when we feel despairing, because of the daily news, we all remember that picture of the Earth from outer space. For the first time in human history, we could see ourselves as this community in this extraordinary blue and green and silver planet floating in the womb of the cosmos. I think that picture from outer space activated something very deep within us.

I worked with the astronaut Ed Mitchell not too long after he returned from space, and he said that he went up there an astronaut and he came back a psychonaut. He felt such a nostalgia for what the world could be.

And he was not the same person coming back?
He was not. He devoted himself to inner space and he created the Institute of Noetic Science [www.noetic.org], which has done extraordinary work in the field of human development.

You’re going to be presenting the seminar, “Social Artistry and Leadership” in Ashland, Ore., this summer. What is social artistry?
Social artistry requires that you have the same kind of focus and passion and variety of skills that a good artist would apply to his or her particular art form, but the canvas is the social canvas. Social artists learn to develop their own capacities in the light of social complexity.

It’s a very intensive program that allows us to learn the skills of working across cultures, working in many different cultures, being able to help people find a new story for their cultures. Now, the culture doesn’t have to be an international culture. It can be the culture of your family, of your community. Goodness knows, in this time of rampant and galloping diversity, you have all these different cultures coming together in ways that they never did before. With Social Artistry, you learn skills of activating your own inner system so that you become available to working with new ideas, working with different kinds of people, working with new stories and with myths and helping cultures find the new story and to create an Earth that really works for everyone. It’s a very intense program.

What’s the greatest deterrent to us being all that we are. Fear?
Same old, same old. The feeling that you’re caught in the nausea of an eternal return that will never end.

This is why people need teaching/learning communities. Margaret Mead, on her deathbed, said to me, “Listen. I’m lying here being an anthropologist on my own dying. Fascinating experience, there’s no hierarchy to it. And I realize that if we’re going to grow and green our world, it’s a question of people getting together in teaching/learning communities, empowering each other.”

And she said, “Doing your kinds of exercises, Jean, and other kinds of exercises, will activate and stimulate their own growth so that in the light of this growth — and working together and understanding each other — they can then take on social projects and make a difference. And when the time is right, you do this, Jean.” That was in November 1978.

I said, “Yes, ma’am, I will.”

And to the extent that I can, I have devoted my life to this: teaching people to tap into the vast capacities that they have, especially in light of making a difference in this world. The mystery school does it in one way and the social artistry in another.

For more on Jean Houston, visit www.jeanhouston.org or www.socialartistry.com


  1. Fear holds us all back and limits us in ways we can’t even imagine. Worse still, if we focus on our fears, we put so much energy into them that we create exactly that which we are fearing. If we can acknowledge it then put it aside we don’t give it power and things just seem to work out.


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