Jean Houston can't stand it when she is described as the heir apparent to Margaret Mead. Her quick, expressive hands fly up toward her face as though someone had thrown something at her.
"Not that," she answers, "there can be no such thing as a successor to Margaret Mead. Margaret has many heirs, many children. I'm not the successor, I'm just noisy. If Margaret heard anything like that, she'd bang her stick on the floor and say, 'rubbish.'"
Then, recovering her calm, she may add that being Jean Houston is already a full-time job.
The Margaret Mead reference came up again Thursday (as it does frequently) when Houston gave the opening address at the national conference of the American Society for Public Administration at the Capital Hilton. The speaker introducing Houston said that "we are looking to Jean Houston to carry on Margaret Mead's leadership role."
The reference persists because Houston is a leader in the "human potential movement" -- those who want to see the world change its mind and look forward to the birth of a new kind of humanity.
As president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, a consultant on educational programs, and a teacher at the New School of Social Research, she travels 150,000 miles a year. She has also written half a dozen influential books -- by herself, with Margaret Mead and with her husband, Robert Masters -- to tell people that we are living at a small percentage of our capacity and to explore ways of improving the percentages. Among the most popular are "Listening to the Body" and "Mind Games."
If she doesn't like the Margaret Mead comparison, Houston must concede that she brought it on herself.
She is the great-granddaughter of Sam Houston and a remote relative of Robert E. Lee. Her father wrote comedy material for Bob Hope and traveled around with him, which explains why "I was in 29 schools before I was 12 years old -- Louisiana one week and Minnesota the next. That may have been the origin of my interest in cross-cultural studies." And in drama as well: She began a career as an actress, but instead decided to pick up a couple of doctorates -- in psychology and history of religion -- and she has never looked back. She made the choice 20 years ago, when she was 19 and just out of college. She had been an actress since high school, and while still in her teens had turned down a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures which would have included a co-starring role with Errol Flynn in "Jane Eyre."
She was in Greece for some archaeological digging when she decided to change her life: "When I was in Athens, I got a telegram from Joseph Papp offering me a job in his Shakespeare in the Park Series.
"I went and sat for a long time in the little Temple of Athena. I realized I was at a turning point and reviewed my whole life. Finally, I decided that I was living in a time of tremendous change and ferment and I thought there would be a lot of things to do that would be more interesting than acting."
As a result, she was here to tell the ASBA meeting that the crises of our time are forcing us to realize "that we are not encapsulated bags of skin dragging around a dreary ego"; that we must discover "new forms of consciousness and fulfillment, new forms of human energy apart from those of consumption, control, aggrandizement and manipulation."
"At a time when we are experiencing a loss of hope in the social domain," she said, "the vision of what human beings can be has never been more remarkable. We are living at the beginnings of the golden age of brain, mind and body research. We may well be standing, with regard to these, where Einstein stood in the year 1904 with his discovery of the special theory of relativity."
Houston's vision of what may emerge when psychology takes the kind of leap physics has taken in this century sounds a little bit like a world populated by people like Margaret Mead -- not in the incidental details but in richness of their self-realization.
"In some ways," she said, "we are still being educated for the demands of the early 19th century -- I'd say around 1825. We use but a fraction of our capacities -- perhaps 10 percent of our physical capacity and five percent of our mental capacity. We live as crippled, limited versions of who and what we really are."
For 14 years, Houston and her husband were engaged in basic research at the Foundation for Mind Research in New York. He continues, but she has left to put some of their findings into practice -- for example, their discoveries on the close interaction of body and mind.As the muscles are taught new movements, she has found, the brain also increases its ability to sense and be aware: "the extensive changes in the brain's motor cortex which must precede changes in the muscle system affects adjacent brain areas as well... The changes in the motor cortex will have parallel effects on thinking and feeling."
In other programs people learn "to think in images as well as in words," to accelerate thought processes, to "think kinesthetically with their whole body," to acquire voluntary control over some automatic body functions.
"As an exciting extension of this kind of research," she said, "we find that subjects can be taught to speak to their own brains directly, so entering into conscious orchestration of mood, attitude, learning, and creativity."
In the New York home she shares with her husband and three dogs, Houston said, "there is a sarcophagus in the living room and a couple of hundred ancient gods scattered around the house," reflecting her interest in archaeology. She reads several ancient languages -- not merely the commonplace Greek, but also Hittite, and finds that "old languages are very rich in psychological resources. They have more words to describe states of mind."
At breakfast each morning (Wheaties), she reads cookbooks "to get a variety of flavors and textures in my mind" and when she's not writing a book, lecturing at the New School, slipping off for a vacation digging holes in Greece or the Middle East, she likes to talk to schoolteachers: "They're the most important profession of all, and they have the lowest self-image. We have to upgrade that profession."
Most of us, she said, "think of ourselves as a sort of building, it is as though we were living only in the attic, with the first, second and third floors and the basement uninhabited -- unconscious."
Part of it she blamed on our school systems ("I've never met a stupid child. I've met some very stupid educational systems") and part on habitual patterns of thought ("We must learn to disinhibit the brain, learn how to relate body and mind.")
Then she recalled a man she once knew who had learned these things by himself. "When I was 11 years old, one day in Manhattan, I ran into an old man -- literally. I was running to school and I knocked him down. I picked him up, and he said to me in a French accent: 'You are running?' and I said yes. 'You must run?' and I said yes. So he waved to me and said, 'Bon voyage.'"
"A few days later, I was walking my dog, and I saw him again and he chatted with me and we went walking together in Central Park. I had never seen a man who resonated so completely with his environment. He would notice everything around him. He would kneel down and watch a caterpillar -- talk to it: 'Allo leetle caterpillar. I wonder what eet ees like to be a caterpillar. Do you wonder what eet ees like to be a butterfly?' He told me his name was Mr. Taylor. I went home and told my parents, 'When you are with him, you leave your littleness behind.'
"We began meeting and walking in the park a couple of times a week, and after a while, people began following us around -- not to make fun, but to share our enjoyment. He seemed to know a lot about bones and stones. After about a year, I didn't see him any more, and I thought he must have died.
"Then, years later, I saw his picture on the dust jacket of a book. The author's name was Teilhard de Chardin."