Thought Leader Jean Houston Chats with Oprah

On the Nov. 25th episode of "Super Soul Sunday," Oprah talked with legendary thought leader Jean Houston -- author of The Wizard of Us -- about the hero's journey we each take in our lives. Read on to find out what Oprah's version of Dorothy's tornado was....

OPRAH WINFREY: You know you have been described as a mystic, philosopher, historian, scholar. What words would you use to describe yourself?

JEAN HOUSTON: I would call myself "an evocateur of the possible and a midwife of souls."

OPRAH: Wow, did you evolve to that or did you start out as that?

JEAN: Well, I did have an experience when I was 6 years old. My father being an agnostic Baptist, he had to become a Catholic to marry my mother. So they sent me to Catholic school in the first grade, and I got in a lot of trouble with the nun for asking interesting questions.

OPRAH: What did you ask?

JEAN: Well, I asked, “When Ezekiel saw the wheel, was he drunk?” It was questions like that. Anyway, Sister Theresa gave me 300 million years in purgatory. And I went home crying and my father was laughing, because I asked the questions. And so to get away from my father and his laughter, I went and prayed in the closet.

[Jean remembers praying for a miracle that day, even promising to give up candy for two weeks if her prayers could be answered. And when she opened the closet door, she says, "something felt different.”]

JEAN: Suddenly, the whole world shifted. I didn’t see anything different; I didn't hear anything different. But suddenly the whole world moved into meaning. Literally, all of reality was there, and it was all moving together. And it was very, very good. And I was in a universe of fellowship in which everything was joyous and part of a great, tremendous unity of which I was a part -- in a state of a bliss.

OPRAH: You were good friends with Joseph Campbell.

JEAN: Yup, knew him very well, and we did some work together. Bliss for him was no mere metaphor. He would tell a myth and then I would provide experiences so that people could experience the hero’s journey, [asking], "How did they feel the call?"

[Campbell says the first step in the hero’s journey is what he describes as "the call to adventure." He says that somewhere inside all of us is a longing for something more, a knowing that your soul's path is calling out to you. Once you recognize that feeling and heed that call, your life -- which is your adventure -- truly begins.]

OPRAH: Do you believe that every human being has "the call"?

JEAN: In one way or another. Often the first is, “Well, I want to get married” or “I need to get a job” -- the usual calls. And then at a point I would call “second genesis,” the next level of our possibility starts to rise and you feel, “Wait a minute -- there is more to me than that. There simply is more.” And then the call, the yearning, comes. You start to seek and search and you explore deeper parts of your psyche.

OPRAH: Have you found that there is nothing out of order -- that everything that is happening can be used for the good of us?

JEAN: Well, I think ultimately that may be true. That’s part of what my friend James Hillman called "the soul’s code."

OPRAH: I interviewed him here a long time ago [about] The Soul's Code.

[James Hillman said that everybody, at some point, has an incident or incidences that lead them to their calling in life.]

JEAN: I think there is a deeper code that when you finally get frustrated or yearning enough, you say, “I am ready for the rest of my life to rise.”

OPRAH: Your autobiography, written almost two decades ago, is Learning to Live Our Greater Story. Does everybody have a great story?

JEAN: I hope so and believe so. It is a question of people getting together and growing in body, mind and spirit together. Really beginning to really expand their inner capacities, and expand their inner sense of radical empathy to others.

OPRAH: Wow, I have got to stop with that for a second. "Expand our inner capacity for radical empathy"! Okay… we were talking a little earlier about Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. How would you describe the hero’s journey?

JEAN: Yes, Joseph studied 200 separate cultures and myths, and it was a structure in all of them. Well, let’s talk about the structure of myths. I have a new book, as you know.

OPRAH: The Wizard of Us.

JEAN: Yes, and what happens in that phenomenal story [The Wonderful Wizard of Oz], a great deal of the world knows.

OPRAH: It is one of my favorite spiritual teachings -- what Glinda the Good Witch says: “You always had it my dear. You always had the power!” I remember, I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and I figured it out that it was more than just a story about a yellow brick road. That there was deeper meaning.

JEAN: You’re always wearing the red shoes! And the hero begins with a call. You were called, were you not? As Dorothy is called to get out of that outmoded situation of dustbowl Kansas. Many people feel a yearning and they say, “I don’t know” -- and that is called the refusal of the call. Then, finally, they can’t stand themselves. And sometimes it takes a big event to break them through…. What was your tornado?

OPRAH: My tornado was leaving Nashville. I felt the yearning to leave Nashville even though everybody said to me, "You're going to fail out there. It’s going to be tough." And then particularly, coming to Chicago. Every single person in my life except my best friend, Gayle, said, "You’re going to fail." I said, "Even if I fail I still have to go, because if I stay here I'm going to be smothered." Which is exactly what [Campbell] says in the hero’s journey -- which is, if you don’t accept the yearning, you end up dying inside.

JEAN: And you can't do that! Part of my work and the work of that book is to show people how to enhance their minds, how to enhance their brains, how to grow and amplify their hearts.

OPRAH: Are we getting better?

JEAN: Was it Steven Pinker who wrote a book that said there’s less violence and less war than 50 years ago? So that’s one thing. But I think more people are becoming more conscious. We are in the time of renaissance, of a radical new possibility, because we are in the time, truly, of either/or, of grow or die, of making peace sexy. Peace has potency. It’s sprouting, it’s planting, it’s this new energy, it’s people reaching out, crossing the great divide of otherness and making connections that they never did before.

OPRAH: Tell me, what is the message that is most imperative to you at this stage in your life? That you most want people to know?

JEAN: I want people to know that we have been gifted by God with human possibilities and capacities that are so huge, that in many ways, we have barely begun to tap into. That we are all on hero/heroine's journeys, and above all, that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, and by golly, we are adequate to the challenge of the time.