Born 10 May 1939, Brooklyn, New York
Daughter of Jack and Maria Todaro Houston; married Robert Masters, 1965
Jean Houston, scholar, researcher, author of more than 17 books, calls herself a "midwife of the spirit." Her work involves the study, collection, and application of human capacities developed around the world under different environmental and social conditions. Her books expand our understanding of human possibility through the examination of states of consciousness, sensory imageries, self-regulation of experiential time, and the exploration of the personal and collective unconscious.
A "hybrid of hybrids," Houston's genetic background marries Scottish-Sicilian on her mother's side with her father's Texan and Cherokee heritage. Her father, a descendent of Texas hero Sam Houston, wrote comedy sketches for such notable personalities as Henny Youngman, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen, and others on the Hollywood scene of the 1940s and 1950s. "Gianuzza," as her maternal grandmother called her, had a nomadic childhood, moving from one city and school to another as her father's career moved them across the country. Rather than becoming the shy and reticent "new kid," she learned to walk into the schoolroom and command control.
Houston's formidable talents as an evocateur of human capacities advance her vision of the highest achievement of individual potential, a key theme in the field of humanistic psychology. What makes Houston's work unique is her ability to inspire individuals to see their own lives in terms of the larger world stage. Her experiential workshops, integrating imagery and creativity studies with exercises originally aimed at developing flexible body movement, result in improved memory, and the ability to think simultaneously on several tracks and reconnect with the mythic and symbolic realms of the deep self. The process contributes to both psychological and physical healing.
In 1965 Houston and her husband, Robert Masters, started the Foundation for Mind Research in New York City to study methods of exploring human consciousness. She was among a team of experts who had grant money to study the effects of LSD on personality. When legalized tests of the substance ended, they focused on nondrug methods for exploring human consciousness, developing a sensory deprivation chamber, an audiovisual overload chamber, and an Altered States of Consciousness Induction Device (ASCID). That same year, they published their first book together, The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, elaborating on their mutual and separate studies. The book, featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review under the headline "Psychedelicious or Psychedelirious?" launched Houston's career as a speaker on college campuses and talk shows. For the remainder of the 1960s she became a maverick against the indiscriminate use of psychedelic drugs, a proponent of controlled nondrug mind-expanding experiences, and an ersatz "drug counselor" trying to talk students on bad trips back to earth.
Mind Games (1972) addresses much of Houston's and Masters' work in the 1960s, describing their attempts to utilize altered states of consciousness for educational purposes. The late mythologist Joseph Campbell, with whom Houston conducted seminars and workshops, wrote that Houston and Masters had "broken through to a new understanding of the…disciplines of inward-turned contemplation," leaving behind Freudian techniques of the day. Their focus, he argued, was not on curing disease but on enlarging health and discovering the joy, mystery, and life-wisdom of the unconscious.
A protégé of Margaret Mead, with a matching sense of curiosity, independence, and mettle, Houston learned the workings of organizations and power structures Mead had observed in her work as an anthropologist. "Go out and make the money [for the foundation] yourself," Mead advised Houston. "Then the job you want to do gets done and you are beholden to no one." Both Campbell and Mead served on the Foundation Advisory Board, as did Israeli physicist Moshe Feldenkrais, artist Leo Katz, and philosopher Alan W. Watts.
In 1972 the Foundation moved to Pomona, New York, where it has become a center for ongoing classes, seminars, and workshops. As founder of the Mystery School, which meets nine times a year in upstate New York, Houston remains dedicated to teaching history, philosophy, the new physics, psychology, anthropology, and myth as well as "the many dimensions of our human potential."
Houston's range of accomplishments is prodigious; awards and citations include the distinguished Leadership Award from the Association of Teacher Education (1985); the Gardner Murphy Humanitarian Award and the INTA Humanitarian of the Year award (1993); the Lifetime Outstanding Creative Achievement Award from the Creative Education Foundation (1994); and the Joseph Campbell Award for Contributions to the Understanding of Mythology (1996).
During her 30-year career, she has lectured and taught at Hunter College of the City University of New York, the New School for Social Research, Marymount College, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and gave the William James Lecture at the Harvard Divinity School. Her work has fostered hundreds of teaching/learning communities throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia. In 1984 she founded the Possible Society, a nonprofit organization that encourages the solution of societal problems. She chaired the United Nations Temple of Understanding Conference of World Religious Leaders in 1975, served as president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology in 1977, and chaired the 1979 U.S. Department of Commerce symposium for government policymakers. As an adviser to UNICEF, she works to implement programs in education and health, primarily in Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh. Most recently, Houston made cross-cultural studies of educational and healing methods in Asia and Africa. "The world is set for a whole-system transition wherein all cultures have something of supreme value to offer the whole." This holographic vision of the future speaks to the salvation of the planet and the human race.
Listening to the Body (with Robert Masters, 1978). Life Force: The Psycho-Historical Recovery of the Self (1980). The Possible Human (1982). The Search for the Beloved: Journeys in Sacred Psychology (1987). Godseed: The Journey of Christ (1988). The Hero and the Goddess: The Odyssey as Mystery and Initiation (1992). Public Like a Frog: Entering theLives of Three Great Americans (1993). Manual for the Peace-maker: An Iroquois Legend to Heal Self and Society (with Margaret Rubin , 1994). The Passion of Isis and Osiris: The Union of Two Souls (1995). A Mythic Life: Learning to Live Our Greater Story (1996). A Passion for the Possible (1997). Erwachen (German, 1997).
Jean Houston website:www.JeanHouston.org
—MIRIAM KALMAN HARRIS, PH.D.