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             Jean Houston 

interview by Douglas Eby

Author of 16 books, a seminar leader, advisor to universities, civic associations, and the U.N., Jean Houston has a Ph.D. in psychology, and with her husband is director of the Foundation for Mind Research. She is a leader in researching and educating about human potential, and her mentors have included Margaret Mead, Teilhard de Chardin and Joseph Campbell. 

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"Often what happens with gifted women is that they do a lot of things very well, and their essential self, what I call the daimon, the essence of who and what they are, gets lost in the process," Jean Houston says. 

"Margaret Mead used to say to me that she was completely interruptible, and many women are (a lot of men cannot be interrupted the way women are), so they're interrupted to do this and do that. 

"And they may do it at a high level of excellence, but in the course of it they lose their essential nature, and their entelechy. And that means the dynamic purposiveness in their life; it's the entelechy of an acorn to be an oak tree; it's the entelechy of a baby to be a grown-up human being; it's the entelechy of you and me to be so much more than we have any reason to believe." 

Quoting to Houston part of an America Online message board letter: "The challenge of being gifted is finding PURPOSE. Sometimes i feel like the mythical Midas. What ever i touch (focus on, put effort into) turns to gold, but pretty soon its meaningless to be surrounded by gold" -- Houston responds about finding purpose: 

"Until recently, entelechy [a dictionary definition is: "vital force that directs an organism toward self-fulfillment"] was caught up with issues of the tribe. When we were highly tribalized beings, we had very specific purposes and goals. And now suddenly the sky's the limit, but there are not sufficient paradigms out there, or paradigm creators, to suggest where we are going and why. 

"So we have this enormous essence rising, which before was configured into very specific arenas, and now the arena is no longer defined. The essence is there, the impetus is there, the lure from the past, the push from the future, the passion for a possible -- but with little sense for where it is going. This is as true in our society, as it is for individuals who are breaking out of ethnic or tribal boundaries. 

"So, my answer to that is that you give up some of the gold, and you just take sacred time for yourself, whether it's ten minutes a day, an hour a day, whatever it is, in which you allow yourself a variety of modalities. It might be drawing, or journaling, or painting, or meditating or walking in the woods; it's where you are essentially asking yourself 'Who am I? Who am I really? What is it part of my task to do on this planet at this time, with my remaining years?' 

"And allow a free association: at first you'll just get the usual gibberish or even junk, the detritus of the psyche flushing out. But suddenly there are images that are very bright and shining, or they grip you with an emotional sense of 'Oh my gosh, this is it.' And when you get that frisson, that sense of an activating presence and ideas, you know you're on the right track, or you tend to be." 

But this may require "giving up excellence, at least for the time being," Houston notes. "Giving up the gold, to really explore the depths. Otherwise you end up like Midas, you see everything you touch turn to gold, but you starve to death. 

"Since everyone is different, I cannot give one strategy that will work for everybody. For some, the contemplative path is a real path; for others, who are more kinesthetic, say, it may be a walk or a dance, or tennis. Joseph Campbell used to tell me he got his finest ideas just editing his manuscripts, just crossing out words on yellow pads. 

"So what I'm suggesting is that there as many strategies as there are people. The important thing is giving yourself that sacred time. For me, it means getting up at five o'clock in the morning (because I'm a lark; I'm not an owl) and regarding that time, investing that time with sacrality. This is the time where I tune in to who and what I really am. I have a variety of things that I do to make that attunement; I tend to be more contemplative. 

"But then I pull out my laptop computer and get going. I even dialogue with an archetypal principle, who I don't worship, but is just an idea, which we call Athena. 

"The press took potshots at me about that one, not understanding that to me the name and intellectual content around what I think of as "Athena" is just a sensibility about civilization. A lot of my life is about trying to help cultures improve themselves, especially indigenous cultures. So I use that archetype as an emblematic form within which to dialogue with parts of myself, you see." 

Houston believes people are essentially polyphrenic. "Schizophrenia is a disease of the human condition," she explains, "and polyphrenia - the orchestration of our many selves - is our extended health. We have a vast crew within, that used to be called sub-personalities. 

"But I think it has more autonomy than that, and we have to speak to 'the cook' and 'the healer' and 'the therapist' within. And 'the mechanic': I have great fun with my 'mechanic' when I have to fix all these computers around here. And you allow them to come into the forefront, so that local ego and its limiting and habituated structures are pushed aside for the time being."

Something else she directs to gifted women: "If you are so aware of being gifted, and thus being frustrated, that's only one part of your persona; you have other personas that have no problem with it at all. It's who you bring out of the background into the forefront that makes the difference as to how you feel about things. Or, as Francis of Assisi put it, 'What we are looking for is who is looking'." 

Houston comments about the Theory of Emotional Development of Kazimierz Dabrowski (which talks about domains of excitability or functioning), and about psychic ability in relation to giftedness - noting she learned about Dabrowski from Linda Silverman, who publishes the magazine for the gifted, "Advanced Development", from the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development in Denver. Houston agrees that 'psychic' has been used in our culture as a pejorative term: 

"Don't I know it," she says with a laugh. "I think what we call the psychic trait is something that is extended through our nervous system as part of our perceptual sensibilities. 

"When I made the long studies of Margaret Mead, over a six or seven year period, she was certainly what you would call, quote, psychic, but she never called herself that. She said she was a 'sensitive.' And that's what I think a lot of so-called psychics are; they have highly developed sensitivity patterns and perceptual patterns, and they are picking up peripheral things that most people are missing. 

"And then those things constellate in consciousness as images. Now, the images can then become probability patterns. And many of them are as wrong as many times as they are right; nobody talks about that. 

"But because the images are in their minds with such intensity, whereas many of us will just have a kind of a passing thought 'Oh, this is going to happen' or 'That's going to happen' and it's just a vague glimmer -- with them, it's a whole concrete thing, and when it does happen they talk about it, and they have a tremendous sense of its inevitability. It's like a hologram, operative in itself, a whole virtual reality, where for most of us it's a vague glimmer that falls away." 

Houston thinks "a lot" of giftedness, though by no means all, "has to do with having a broader palette of perceptual capacity, being highly sensitive to all the senses, and also operating on different modes of intelligence: the 'standard brand' ones of visual and kinesthetic and auditory, as well as the intuitive and emotional ones. 

"And when you have that, and you invest more time in it, you're just going to be taking in much more of your world; you're taking in a pluriverse all the time. And you're not living in an encapsulated state; you're available to the palette of the world, and thus available to many more patterns of possibility. And because your external sensibilities are so acute, your internal ones become equally so, and then that constellates as a pattern which is seen, touch, tasted, felt and emotionally juiced." 

She also thinks the word 'gifted' - like the word 'psychic' rises and falls in popularity: "Right now it's in a fallen state, and the thing is, you just find another set of metaphors. What might they be? Perhaps a person saying 'I'm someone who is really feeling my potential burgeoning within me, and I want to do something useful about it; I want to be of use to the world, and I'd like to use the best of what I have, to the degree that I can.' 

"Whereas to single oneself out is to already create a kind of semi pathology, you know. It's a whole question of labeling. Labeling always narrows. I think you just need more metaphors joined together: 'I believe that I have within me these kinds of skills that can be very useful to the world, as well as making for a better life.' 

"Another issue around giftedness is creativity, of course, and I think part of the problem with that is that creativity does not have to be an opus: it does not have to end up in a book or a play or a new objective creation. One of the greatest opuses or opi or whatever it is, is to recreate oneself, one's essential self." 

Asked to comment on the impact of shame on giftedness, she notes there is "the whole issue of transgression. The transgression of the cultural or familial norm. In other kinds of societies, indigenous societies, where I've worked, the one who routinely transgresses is allowed to become a shaman; the gifted one is a shaman, the one who's allowed to cross the taboo. 

"And thus enter into ecstatic states of being, being a little weird, and is nurtured for that, because they know the nurtured shaman, the nurtured ecstatic, the nurtured crazy, will be able to reach levels of awareness that will help the society, to be able to say if there's going to be a poor harvest, or we're going to have too much rain, or we need to find a new healing dance or song or agricultural solution, or whatever it is. 

"This is why I think we need halfway houses for people who are in transition from a series of habits or kind of cultural enclosure, and to be able to go on to the next state. Similarly with ritual: til very recently, all societies had rituals of transition for young people, so that they could die to their childish selves, and take on the secrets of the tribe and move on to the next self. 

"We especially need rituals of transition for those who are different from their families, who are feeling gifted or simply have more life to them, so that they can go on and take on the re-sponse-abilities of a larger life. Our society is dying because of a lack of sense of the richness and abundance of the life process. 

"A lot of my autobiography "A Mythic Life" is about that: if we're going to live as diminished, insular versions of who we are, we're going to die, and kill the planet in the process. So I think that societies for, quote, the gifted (if only they could rename themselves) would be a help. 

"The gifted who are acclaimed in society are people in what's called the 'attention economy' -- the media. Whereas you have attention economies which are not economical at all, where people may be hugely gifted, but they're not out there singing and dancing for their supper. For every Barbra Streisand, you may have thousands of other highly talented people who never get to be seen in the media." 

Houston notes she "grew up" in show business, and recalls there was so much talent she saw that was never acclaimed. "And that's the problem with the 'attention economies'. So it's a question of how do you create a society, or how do you create teaching and learning centers, where people can truly acknowledge and empower each other, even though it may not result in wealth or huge visibility. 

"The problem with a media-ized society is that we give our laurels and acclaim to talented people who may go on to fame and fortune, but then when other talented folk remain unacknowledged, they fall into a sense of shame because they are not Barbra Streisand. 

"And that's a disease, and a terrible thing, and it was never known before this time in human history. Because in the past one didn't have the flip of a switch. What I'm hoping is that with all these cable networks, a lot of people will have more opportunity to express themselves. Mensa, for example, is a group of people who are self-identified, and are doing some useful things between themselves. But how many people can join Mensa? 

"What I see is small groups of teaching learning communities: five, six, seven, eight people, getting together. 

"This is what Margaret Mead said to me on her death bed, 'Jean, I've been lying here being an anthropologist on my own dying. It's a fascinating experience. There's no hierarchy to it. Forget everything I've been teaching you about working with governments and bureaucracies' -- now I wish I'd listened to her -- 'because I'm seeing that if we're going to grow and green our world, it's a question of people getting together and teaching in our communities. 

"No guru, no money, just bring good food. And really grow together by doing physical, mental, psychological, spiritual processes together. And as together you grow in body, mind and spirit, then go out and make a difference in the world. Continue to empower each other. Hold each other's dream, because I can't always hold my dream, but my friends can hold it for me, if I'm on a downer.' 

So this is part of her own work, Houston continues: "I've tried to help encourage creating these kinds of communities and to write books for these communities to be able to use processes that can offer very specific ways to develop themselves. 

"In conclusion, I think of the Balinese, who have these extraordinarily beautiful dances, sculptures, paintings, music, rituals. Seventy five percent of them are artists. And I said to one man 'How is it you're all geniuses, all great artists?' And he said, 'Oh, no,you do not understand. We just try to do everything as beautiful as we can.' 

"So that whole issue of giftedness was just lifted away. For in a society of high art and culture, everyone can find their niche. Everyone is Barbra Streisand." 

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Jean Houston's website

books by Jean Houston :   

A Passion for the Possible
"Over the past 30 years Jean Houston has dedicated her life to helping people unleash their creative and spiritual potential. As a result she has worked with some of the greatest cultural and spiritual visionaries of our time, such as Margaret Meade and Joseph Campbell. In [this book], written as a complement to the PBS series by the same name, Houston explains what helps people become creative geniuses." [Amazon.com]

Jump Time: Shaping Your Future In A World of Radical Change

Seeker: Traveling the Path to Enlightenment: Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious

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intensity / sensitivity resources : articles sites books

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