Jean Houston – Crossing the Great Divide of Otherness

From the interview in Ode Magazine July/August, 2012

Yay, yay, yay, yaaay,” Jean Houston starts singing over Skype as we discuss problem solving. She tells how she visited indigenous tribes in Africa and how these tribes use very different methods to resolve their challenges. “They dance, they drum and they sing and move. They are simply cooking on more burners. They are using much more of themselves, of their human potential. And solutions emerge like miracles.”

Ever since her mentor and teacher, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, sent her out on a mission–“Jean, go out and harvest the human potential”–the development of human potential has been the focus of Jean Houston’s work as an author and teacher and, as she would add, ­gardener, cook and “I crush my own grapes” winemaker. Her work seems more relevant than ever as humankind faces increasingly complex, interwoven problems that require cleverer and more integrated solutions than current political and institutional ­structures can provide. “We are using archaic ways of seeing,” Houston says, and we are ­facing what she calls an “intelligence emergency.”

Houston may have just turned 75–“I’ve been around since God had baby teeth”–but she speaks with the passion and power of a graduate student. She has so far traveled to 108 countries, and she has worked with the United Nations and governments all over the world. Her work as an advisor to Hillary Clinton in the White House made her both famous and controversial, as mainstream media were eager to misinterpret her creative ways of teaching.

“To meet the challenges of our times, we need to address our internal potential,” Houston says. She is frustrated with a dominant education system that is still very “one-dimensional. I’ve never met a stupid child. I’ve met incredibly stupid and diminishing forms of education that inhibit, that coerce, a child’s brain.”

The consequences are disastrous. These children may never be able to meet complex challenges because their talents are underdeveloped. “If a child is dancing, drumming and singing, they simply do not fail. They do not fail,” Houston repeats with emphasis. “We have demonstrated this in many places. But the same thing applies to adults. In any situation, you can actually go in and shift the modalities of thinking.” And so she advocates to put the arts back at the core of the curriculum. “We have let the soul of culture become a satellite to economics. Economics should become a satellite to the soul of culture instead.”

Harvesting cultures means bridging and understanding cultures. Jean Houston knows all about it, because she grew up doing just that. Her father was from Texas. Her mother was from Sicily, Italy. Her father couldn’t stand garlic. Her mother didn’t know how to cook without it. Jean became the family “fusion cook” at age eight to keep the marriage together. Fried chicken polenta was a typical family dish.

Her father was a writer for comedian Bob Hope, so the family traveled all over the United States–“I went to 29 schools before I was 12”–at a time when the differences among different parts of the country were much more pronounced.

At 16, as president of her high school union, she was invited to a series of meetings with other high school presidents and Eleanor Roosevelt, who had just retired from her work at the United Nations. The meetings made a deep impression on the young Houston, focusing her life’s direction on serving humanity (see Houston’s own story on page 40). Almost six decades later, Houston sees one strong positive development: “Women are, slowly but surely and with terrible backlash, rising to an equal partnership with men and jointly holding domain of human affairs. This is going to shift everything.”

I suggest that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, probably one of the most influential women today, doesn’t seem to add much femininity to world affairs. “Yes, a lot of women are still trying to become second-rate men because that is the pattern,” she replies. “But more and more women are really bringing the feminine genius. That’s changing governance, games and religion, and it is healing cultures and societies.” She says that, “with all due respect to Barack Obama, who is a great president,” the world would have been very different with Hillary Clinton as president. She sees IMF managing director Christine Lagarde as an example of this different leadership style. “The important thing is that you make people and relationships as important as whatever the product is that you want to create. That comes naturally to women.”

I’m reminded of the story Houston wrote in one of the very first issues of Ode in 1995. In that story she argued that history had to become herstory to reflect the need for gender harmony and partnership. It is time for the heroine whose journey is about healing and restorative justice and whose “weapon” is a chalice rather than a blade, says Houston.

Jean Houston’s biography is filled with encounters with many of the world’s great personalities, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Aldous Huxley and Margaret Mead to Hillary Clinton. But she was perhaps most deeply influenced and inspired by the weekly walks she took in a park with a man with a thick French accent when she was between the ages of 15 and 17. The man, whom she called Mr. Tayer, as she paraphrased his name, told her about nature, evolution and the human experience. “He would talk to trees and rocks,” Houston recalls. “He would lean into the wind and say, ‘This same wind was once sniffed by Jesus Christ and Alexander the Great.’ He would look at you as if you were God in hiding, and I would leave my littleness behind when I was with him.”

They walked twice a week in the same park for a year and a half, and one day Mr. Tayer didn’t show up anymore. Years later, Houston received the book The Phenomenon of Man, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. She read very familiar words and sentences and looked at the picture of the author: Mr. Tayer had been Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest, whom the Church did not allow to speak publicly about his work and whose books were banned and censored during his life. He had died days after his last walk with Houston. “Teilhard had no one else to talk to but for a schoolgirl,” she says.

Teilhard de Chardin is best known for his thinking and writing about the Omega Point, which he described as the ultimate destination of the universe, where a ­maximum level of consciousness and complexity comes together. Teilhard argued that the more complex social systems become, the more they will grow in awareness.

Jean Houston hears Teilhard’s call from decades ago: “We have to grow a higher level of consciousness fast, very fast. If we don’t discover ‘we,’ we are going to lose the human species. That’s what happened to the dinosaurs. The ecological agenda requires an internal ecological agenda, an ecology of our inner self that we have never had before. The outer issues are so huge that they can only be resolved by our own internal growth. My work is about discovering the ecology of our inner self that gives us a sense of sufficiency so that we may become stewards of the earth. We don’t just live in the universe; the universe lives in us.”

Houston is optimistic. She sees a major trend in the “individuation of spirituality.” People are moving away from institutional religion to find their own divine ­inspiration. That individuation opens the door to discovering “that we can be united in a ­common purpose. The challenge is to align our interior psychological and ­spiritual states with the outer infrastructures and architectures and sustainable systems that we really want to construct.” It is a vision she first expressed in the 1970s at the time of the Apollo space missions, when she argued that there was a need for an “inner space program” to complement the “outer space program.”

“I think this is too interesting an experiment to fail,” she says. “The human experiment doesn’t have to be over. We have so much experience, so many different ­cultures and so many different people, that we can find a new, larger story and a deeper concern.”

The planet calls and the grapes in her vineyard need attention. “If you were able to make one big change in the world, what would that be?” I ask at the end of our ­conversation. Houston pauses. Then she says, “It would have to be a change of understanding in the human heart.”

I realize that few men would have ­responded that way. “If I could ­implement something in the human heart,” she ­continues, “it would be crossing the great divide of otherness. To make us deeply available to each other.”

For video of the interview with Jean Houston, please click here .

To find out about Jean’s upcoming courses and events, please visit .

Photo: Jared Cruce

by Reviewer