Jean Houston on the Fallacy of Self Mastery by Amy Edelstein
“I would never use the word ‘mastery’! I thought I’d tell you that right away. . . . To me, it smacks of galloping chutzpah!”
This was Dr. Jean Houston’s response at the very beginning of our interview, before I had even begun to explain what we meant by “self-mastery” and why we were so interested in exploring the relationship between self-mastery and enlightenment. And we were off! Like a thoroughbred racehorse breaking out of the gate at the crack of the gun, Houston was a rush of churning energy, exploding outward, swirling upward, full of color, imagery, dynamism and personal tales that seemed larger than life, mythic, heroic.
We had wanted to interview Jean Houston for this issue of What Is Enlightenment? because of her outstanding and groundbreaking work in the field of human potential. A great thinker, with an extensive background in research on the human mind, creative capacities and emerging social patterns, Houston has proven herself to be one of the most independent philosophers of our time. Central to her work is her exploration of the mythic hero’s journey. She has studied the significance, impact and evolutionary effects of mythic lore across many cultures, so we wondered: What would a philosopher like Jean Houston have to say about the modern-day superheroes we are calling the “Self Masters”? What would she think about their prescriptions for and conclusions about life? What does she think they have to teach us? True to our expectations, she had many fascinating things to say but, to my surprise, they were not at all what I had anticipated while preparing my list of questions for her. “I just don’t think self-mastery exists,” she began, and we proceeded from there.
Houston began her formal research on the nature of the mind in the 1960s when she was only twenty-one, in a government-sanctioned study examining the mind-expanding effects of psychedelics, but her curiosity about the outer edges of our potential and her precocious character were always a part of her nature. Half Sicilian, half Scottish, Houston’s variegated ancestry includes not only Robert E. Lee and Sam Houston (the founder of Houston, Texas), but perhaps one of the only Jewish Native Americans—with the unlikely name of Scarecrow Rosenblatt. Daughter of a stage actress and a brilliant comedy writer who helped to create the Abbott and Costello favorite Who’s on First?,Houston spent most of her first eleven years traveling while her father wrote for touring comedians, including Jack Benny, Bob Hope and George Burns. He encouraged the quizzical and outspoken spark in his daughter, which at times got her into hot water, such as when her exasperated first grade Catholic school teacher informed her that she had chalked up a total of 300 million years in purgatory for asking questions like, “Sister Theresa, I’ve been wondering, did Jesus ever have to go to the bathroom?” Houston’s life seemed charmed from the start; her stay in the hospital incubator after her premature birth was indirectly sponsored by the great Henny Youngman—he bought 350 jokes from her father, which paid the bill!
Dr. Houston has been a tireless and innovative researcher, documentarist, philosopher, psychologist, student and teacher of techniques to expand our creative capacities for almost forty years. She travels around the world on a virtually impossible schedule, logging as many as 250,000 miles in a single year. In the three weeks during which I tried to schedule our interview, she crossed from coast to coast three times to teach weekend courses at her Mystery School in upstate New York, participate in and then present the concluding talk at the Gorbachev Foundation’s State of the World Forum in San Francisco, host a radio show, cook a gourmet meal for her family and staff, and so much more. Her travels have taken her to remote cultures from Burma to Morocco, where she has learned the myths of the indigenous peoples and shared her own tapestry of knowledge with them, a tapestry woven with richly hued threads synthesized from her encounters with some of the most outstanding individuals of our time. She has presented her work in over forty countries and been a consultant to the United Nations, UNICEF, CEOs at Xerox, General Electric and Kraft corporations, as well as to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. In 1966 she and her husband Robert Masters established the Foundation for Mind Research, and in 1984 she founded the Mystery School, an annual, nine-month-long program where students practice various exercises designed to increase inner awareness and creative capacity; and in between, she has authored sixteen books.
If Jean Houston’s life seems mythic, it is—in fact, that’s how she views everyone’s life. An integral part of her approach to cultivating our human potential is seeing our experience as part of a larger story, seeing the patterns of the great myths in our own journeys. This takes us out of what she calls the “personal-particular” and puts us in touch with the “personal-universal,” lifting us into a higher and more impersonal view. In one of her recent books, A Passion for the Possible, she writes, “How we view our life as a story often determines how life treats us. If we see our life as a trivial story, we fall easily into inertia and defeat. Seeing our life as a larger story puts us back on our feet and helps us get on with living.”
When I first saw her teach at the Community Church on 35th Street in New York City five years ago, Houston exuded the very stuff that myths are made of. Her talk billowed out of her, wrapping us in participatory imagery, taking us on mythical journeys to expand our horizons, our view and our perception of the context in which the real events of our lives take place. Houston has unusual presence—dramatic, earthy—and an impressive confidence, independence and sense of purpose. Many of her exercises center on discovering and accessing different “selves” within us. Her emphasis on “orchestrating our many selves” is, significantly, not an excuse for mediocrity or a license to indulge. Instead, she wants us to access all of our talents and abilities to serve a purpose greater than ourselves. She is driven by a geyser of energy, by a deep sense of urgency to make our lives count, and it is this passion that she is committed to awakening in others. Deeply concerned not only about our inner selves but also about the state of the earth and our frighteningly destructive capabilities, Houston earnestly proclaims, “These are the times and weare the people.”
So what did this dynamic woman have to say about the Self Masters—individuals who aspire to excellence and who call us to take action? It turned out that the very intimation of anything to do with a will-driven sense of progress was as inciting to Houston as a matador’smuleta to an excitable bull. In effect, Houston would have nothing to do with the term “self-mastery,” nor with the concepts that it generally represents, preferring instead to reinterpret the central questions of this issue of WIE in light of what she refers to as a “process-oriented” approach. “My problem with those who willthemselves to a certain end,” she explained, “is that they lose access to the coding.” She feels that in order to realize our deeper potential, we must come into touch with the timeless secrets of life, with the universal stories that she believes are “coded in our inner selves.” In Houston’s view, the deepening of our potential does not come about through striving and achievement but by accessing “the congregation of personalities within us” and “evoking the many different levels of the possible human.” In this, what she calls “a more feminine view,” differences are validated and one finds oneself in a large, warm, chaotic nest of possibilities, voices, timbres—a very different place than the singular goal of the Self Master.
The interview that follows provides a fascinating insight into the views on mastery and enlightenment of a woman sometimes called a “midwife of the soul,” one of the greatest contributors to the contemporary human potential movement.
AE: I’d like to begin by asking how you would define “self-mastery.”
Jean Houston: I would never use the word “mastery”! I thought I’d tell you that right away. Maybe that’s a feminine point of view—I can talk about an orchestration and a balance of capacities, but I don’t think I’d ever use the word “mastery.” To me, it smacks of galloping chutzpah! I just don’t think self-mastery exists. How’s that for a beginning?
I think the nearest that we can come to talking about self-mastery is to talk about the nature of essence; and when we touch into essence, latent abilities and skills suddenly jump into life.
AE: How would you define “enlightenment” then?
JH: I think enlightenment exceeds definition because it is so experiential; the mystics say it’s unexplainable. But if I can speak about it as a process, I can get closer. I’d say it’s an extraordinary effort of reweaving the self in body, mind and spirit that can be accomplished by a depth of loving, by a giving over of the local self to the godstuff. It is the honing of one’s inner and outer perceptions so one is able to see, hear, touch, taste, feel and intuit the immensity of what is really there. The veils of the self are lifted.
AE: Exponents of self-mastery and enlightenment each tend to see their approach as leading to the realization of our full human potential. Yet closer examination reveals these two approaches to be radically different. The highly accomplished individuals who we have come to call the “Self Masters” express what could be described as an “I Can” spirit. They are individuals who have made enormous effort to break through seemingly unbreakable barriers, and who exude a powerful confidence that comes from their fundamental knowing that“I can do it!” Jack LaLanne would be a good example of someone who embodies this “I Can” spirit. On the other hand, enlightenment is described by the great traditions as a fundamental groundedness in what is referred to as “Being” itself, or “I Am.” Would you say that the “I Can” and the “I Am” are basically antithetical modes of transformation?
JH: Well, not from the perspective of God. You see, you can get extraordinary confidence from being “in the flow” in great sporting moments. For example, when I was fourteen or fifteen I was a very serious fencer. I really loved it and I was pretty good. Once, in New York, I was in a round-robin—where you keep competing until you lose—and what happened to me was fascinating. There were men and women, and we were fencing with foils. All the fencers were much older than I was, and they were some of the city’s best. Well, as I began to fence I suddenly found that I was in “the zone”! No longer just a pretty good fencer, I had tapped into the essence of fencing. Iwas the sport! Anticipating all moves, seeing all opportunities, I couldn’t tire. Endless waves of energy filled me. There was no possibility of beating me. One after another, twenty opponents came up and were defeated. And there I was, “Quarte, sixte, paré, et là!Strike to the heart!” On and on it went—my essence and the essence of the sport in a rapturous union of movement and spirit. That kind ofgallant élan filled me. I was all the great fencers who ever were, Scaramouche, Cyrano de Bergerac. I felt as if their spirits were joining with mine for one last great bout, until after six hours of continuous fencing, the match was stopped and I was declared the winner. How did this happen?!
Several times in my life I’ve been in that state, and it’s not a state of “I Can,” I assure you. It is as if your essence joins the essence of the action itself—almost like you tune into the god or goddess of the action, the very archetype of it. It’s much more complex than saying “I Can” and “I Am.”
AE: When speaking about cultivating our highest human potential, the approach of self-mastery advocates the use of discipline and effort to push ourselves through limitations, while the traditional teachings of enlightenment point to the realization of a condition of effortless “letting go” as the ground for deep and abiding change. What do you see as the fundamental basis for the realization of our full human potential?
JH: We’re so different from each other. We’re as different as snowflakes. I often say, “We’re not flaky, we’re snowflakes.” Some people are pushers and some people are relaxers-into. That’s why, when I teach, I always try to provide a variety of ways into the unfolding and enlisting of capacities. My workshops are filled with music and dance and jokes and enactments and “process” as well as cognitive exercises, because the point is to reach people through whatever form. That’s why there are so many different forms of yoga—karma yoga, bhakti yoga, hatha yoga, dhyana yoga, etc. You can’t just talk about one particular way.
AE: I understand, but just to pursue this question a little further, individuals who seem to have achieved an unusual degree of self-mastery often claim that through the consistent development of greater and greater control over our bodies, thoughts and feelings, it is possible to discover a deep sense of fulfillment and a profound experience of inner freedom. Enlightenment teachings, on the other hand, generally state that it’s only through a complete giving up of control, a submission to “Thy will” rather than “my will,” that we can experience true spiritual freedom. What is your view of these two different approaches to inner freedom?
JH: I would never use the word “control” here. I just don’t think it can be achieved! I would say instead a kind of “genial orchestration.” And you’ve also got to realize that you’re talking about the difference between the muscular West and the more relaxed East. Our Calvinistic theology is: Try! Try! “I will labor in the vineyard of the Lord to know if I’m worthy or not,” or, “Am I among the 144,000 elect? I can only prove it by trying harder and harder.” It’s a cultural lensing. Look at the stories that make up our culture’s mythic structures: Horatio Alger. Sail over the sea! Cut down the forest! Build! Push! Those are the words of a frontier psychology. And a frontier psychology will manifest especially in religious or spiritual experience as: Keep pushing, keep trying. Whereas the other is surrender: Surrender into love, surrender into being. The great mystics say, “My God, my Love, Thou art all mine and I am all Thine!” They talk about the intensity of loving; theirs is a culture of love. You see, the union with the Beloved is a different perspective.
What happens in either case is an alchemy, no question. It is an alchemy in which the human being attempts to become what he or she truly is, and in which they perhaps experience and express the greater life for which we have all been coded. You see, I believe that we’ve all been deeply coded for a much larger life. And I believe that what we’re calling “enlightenment” is coded in us as part of our inheritance. For different people from different parts of the world, there are certain patterns of journeys and stages of unfolding—not unlike the unfolding of the coding of the DNA structures in the genes.
My problem with those who will themselves to a certain end is that they lose access to the coding, and then they only gain the culture’s notion of what is good and best and bright and beautiful. You just have to look at Vanity Fair or Vogue magazine to see what I’m talking about. I think our potential is much richer than that, and I think that the Easterners have a deeper and more subtle and perhaps even a truer grasp of it.
AE: You said you would never use the term “self-mastery,” and that maybe that’s a feminine point of view. It might intrigue you to know that it was very difficult finding women to interview for this issue ofWIE, apparently because women don’t tend to speak about their achievements in the same way that men do. For example, Susan Powter wouldn’t go near the term “self-mastery” either. In spite of the fact that she expresses many of the qualities of self-mastery in her own life, she felt strongly that “mastery” represents a patriarchal view, and she insisted that we speak about this subject only in terms of natural processes and other more “feminine” concepts. Why do you object to the term “mastery,” and why do you think women in general object to both the word and the concept?
JH: I think “mastery” offends the senses of anybody who has a real ecological sense of the world. Sir Frances Bacon talked about extending the empire of man over things, and we see where that has brought us—our so-called mastery has resulted in so much destruction. So I think that’s why. Mastery just reflects such a narrow bandwidth. It is like making a slave of the self and then mastering your inner slave. In this country with its horrendous history of slavery—with its “Ho Massah! Yessah Massah!”—the word has fearful connotations. In addition to that, there is the sense that you aremastering the self. Who is to say that the self doesn’t have its own agenda, which may be much larger than one’s own ego’s view of what that agenda should be?
AE: In the course of our research for this issue, we looked at many individuals who expressed the unusual qualities of self-mastery: control, discipline, perseverance in the face of obstacles, going beyond limitations and deep confidence and positivity. We read about some extraordinary women, including Billie Jean King, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jan Reynolds, who skied Mt. Everest, and Ann Bancroft, the first woman to go to the North and South Poles. To our surprise, we found that even these outstanding individuals didn’t describe their accomplishments with the degree of confidence and pride they undeniably warranted. In fact, King and Bancroft, in spite of their achievements, slipped into depression, disillusionment and despair. They didn’t sustain the same positive outlook on life—
JH: The way the men did.
AE: Yes! We were intrigued by this, and we spoke with Beverly Slade, a psychologist who has studied the way women relate to excellence. She had some very interesting things to say. One of her primary conclusions is that women don’t want to speak about their own abilities because it’s socially unacceptable for them to do so; and if they do, they risk losing their relationships—the friendship, support, protection, and affirmation of men and of women. It’s acceptable in our culture for women to stand out if they are nurturers, like Mother Teresa, but women risk censure if they speak with confidence about their attainments, about their cultivation of self-mastery. What do you think about her conclusions?
JH: I think that is partially true, but I think there is a deeper story to it. The deeper story is that women are devoted to process rather than product. I think the underlying reason is that women are devoted to making things grow—so you do something and then it’s time to move on and do the next thing.
AE: What do you mean by being “devoted to process”?
JH: Well, to be devoted to process is to really look at each stage as it unfolds, to see how the things cohere, develop, grow. The way or the path is what is important—it is the ways and the means; it is not the end. If you’re watching little children grow, if you’re taking care of things in process, then that’s what’s important and you get on with it.
AE: From all I’ve heard about your teaching work, you really give everything you possibly can to what you are doing—you go all out. It doesn’t seem to be just about process. It isn’t only that you enjoy the preparation for one of your talks, for example, but that you giveeverything to make it exceptional. This is one of the qualities that we’ve found in self-mastery—giving everything, going for broke.
JH: To me that is not a mastery of the self. That is merely an orchestration of many qualities that I have developed over many years. It is my self in its efflorescence, you see, the fullness of my being. A fuller use. I even hate the word “use”; I would say—”fuller unfolding” or “being in the service of something that it seems very important to do.”
AE: What do you think it is in you that drives you to go all the way when other people would settle for giving less than everything?
JH: Well, it is not ambition. I’ll tell you what it is—it’s a sense of time, of history, and a sense of urgency; knowing that we could lose it all. These are the times and they’re so critical. I figure I have maybe thirty or thirty-five good years left of my life. And I would hope in that time to continue to be able to do something to be of service to the planet, to people.
AE: What do you think about the message of individuals like Anthony Robbins, who teach that the force of transformative change is materialized through taking action, that we control our own destiny through the decisions that we make? Or Jack LaLanne, who says he doesn’t know anything about grace, and asserts that “God helps those who help themselves”? Or Dan Millman, former world-class gymnast and author of books about human transformation, who endorses as a way to live the popular slogan “Just do it!”?
JH: That’s a very Western point of view!
AE: The enlightenment teachings, on the other hand, point to surrender as the way to transformation. Would you say that genuineevolution is achieved through our own efforts, as these extraordinary individuals suggest, or is it found through naturally surrendering to that process of “unfolding,” as you have described it?
JH: Well, my point of view is that it is both plus much, much more—it’s not one or the other. As I said earlier, people are very different in the ways that they approach this. To be able to give a cogent answer, not only would I have to study these people’s work, but I would also have to look at long-term results in people’s lives. And I mean long-term results, not just people saying “I had a wonderful time at the seminar,” because that’s easy to get. We live in a testimonial world. To me the proof of the pudding is: are they kinder? Like the Dalai Lama says, “My religion is kindness.” Also, what is the service to the world that people are giving? Are they trying to make a difference and make this a better world? I feel that it really comes down to that.
AE: You write in your book A Passion for the Possible that “human beings are not constituted to be content with living as thwarted, inhibited versions of themselves. Throughout history and all over the world, people have felt a yearning to be more, a longing to push the membrane of the possible. They have entered monasteries and mystery schools, pursuing secular as well as esoteric studies. They have practiced yoga, martial arts, sports, dance, art. They have left home and family to adventure beyond the ordinary, embarking on visionary and spiritual quests.” Are you suggesting that what motivates an individual to pursue excellence in any of those disciplines, be it creative or athletic, is the same as what motivates an individual to pursue spiritual evolution or enlightenment?
JH: I think they come from different levels of the self. I talk about four levels in my work—the sensory, psychological, mythic and spiritual levels. So I would say that more likely what motivates people to pursue excellence is from the sensory and psychological levels, and what motivates them to pursue spiritual realization is more from the mythic and spiritual levels. But that impetus, the great sounding chord that says “it is time to be what you are” is there all the time. This is what I try to communicate in my workshops, seminars and books. The simplest book I ever wrote was A Passion for the Possible, in which I try to lead people into ways of enhancing each of the levels. And all of this works to some extent. But if you’re talking about enlightenment, I think it is a balance between all of the levels. At different times in life one level may be more emphasized than another, but above all it is the finding of the essential self that then becomes the orchestrator, the evocateur of these many levels of the self.
AE: You speak about being “a conscious participant in an unfolding drama,” about the personal drama of life as an impersonal event and about our own struggles as equivalent to the challenges faced by heroes in the mythic stories. You also very passionately ask people to act with strength, courage and perseverance, and not to stop in the face of obstacles. In light of this, would you say that you are calling people to live from the realization of what you refer to as the “unitive level,” or could we say that you are also calling people to live a life of self—determination or, in other words, self-mastery?
JH: Again, I will not use the term “self-mastery”! I’m calling people to live out of the larger story, out of the capacity of their own destiny. The reason I use the great stories like the search for the Holy Grail and The Odyssey is that these myths help us tap into the extraordinary coding, which allows us to express the deepest truths about ourselves. We can find these deepest truths through realizing that we are part of a greater story. You see, we are storied beings; stories are just flowing through our bloodstream. We are a story at every second of our life, and the stages of our lives are great stories. What I try to do is help people to find these eternal stories that are there. These mythic tales of death and resurrection, rites of passage, quests and discoveries are organic constructs of the deep psyche. And they are there to show us that the story isn’t over. A few of us may get stuck, get depressed, get caught up in our own insularities, but when we find the motivating story, then the personal-particular becomes part of the personal-universal and we move on. The yellow brick road unfolds and the journey is before us.
AE: Would you say that we need to live from these higher levels in order for evolution to take place?
JH: I would say that it’s as if we have a million potentials and we tootle and hoot on about twenty of them. Part of my work has been saying, “My God! Look what we’ve got! Look what’s there!” It’s not just in our body and mind, as Joseph Campbell thought, but in our very psyche. It’s not just cultural, it seems to be structural. It’s part of the resonance of the universal story that is activated in us, and when we tap into it, all kinds of potentials begin to unfold. If we are exploring our lives through the larger personae which we have within us, through the greater story, and if we are ultimately spiritually sourced in the ground of our being, we’re cooking on more elaborate burners, and the fire is under the crucible of spirit.
AE: In your travels all around the world, having met thousands of very unusual individuals, who would you say would be the greatest example of self-mastery? Who would you say was the greatest example of enlightenment? And what was it about them that distinguished them from each other?
JH: I wouldn’t describe an example of self-mastery, but I would of enlightenment. The most evocative example for me was an old man who I used to take walks with. When I was fourteen years old my parents got divorced, and I was just grief-stricken about it. I took to running down Park Avenue, late for school—I would run from my grief. And one day I ran into an old man and knocked the wind out of him. I picked him up and he said to me in a French accent, “Are you planning to run like that for the rest of your life?”
I said, “Yes sir, looks that way.”
He said, “Well, bon voyage!”
I said, “Bon voyage.“ And I ran to school. The following week I was walking my fox terrier, Champ, and I saw the old man coming out of a building. I lived at 86th just off of Park Avenue and the old man lived somewhere around 84th and Park.
He said to me, “Ah, my friend the runner, you have a fox terrier. Where are you going?”
“Well sir, I take Champ to Central Park after school. I just think about things.”
“I will go with you sometime, okay?”
I said, “Well, sure.”
“I will take my constitutional.”
Now he was something. He had no self-consciousness at all. He had leaky margins with the world. He had a long French name but he asked me to call him by the first part of it, which to my American ears sounded like “Mr. Tayer.” So I called him Mr. Tayer. We walked for about a year and a half, off and on, mostly Tuesdays and Thursdays. He would suddenly fall to the ground and look at a caterpillar: “Oh, Jean, look at the caterpillar! Ah, moving, changing, transforming, metamorphosing. Jean, feel yourself to be a caterpillar. Can you do that?”
“Very easily, Mr. Tayer.” I mean, here I was, a fourteen-year-old girl nearly six feet tall with red dots on my face—I felt like a caterpillar!
He said, “What are you when you finally become a papillon, a butterfly? What is the butterfly of Jean?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Tayer!”
“Yes, you know, you know. I know you know. Now, what are you transforming into?”
“Well, I think when I grow up I’ll fly all over the world, and maybe I’ll help people.” It turned out to be largely true.
AE: It certainly did.
JH: “Ah! Bon, bon, bon.” And he’d say, “Oh, Jean, lean into the wind!” There are these strong winds off of Central Park. “Ah, Jean, smell the wind! Same wind once went through Jesus Christ.”
“Jesus Christ felt this?”
“Yes. Oh, Marie Antoinette, here she comes! Genghis Khan, not so good. Joan of Arc, Jean D’Arc! Be filled with Jean D’Arc! Be filled with the tides of history!” We had all these wonderful games about life: “Jean, look at the clouds, God’s calligraphy in the sky!”
He would suddenly stop and look at you, and he would giggle and you would giggle, and he’d giggle and you’d giggle, and then he would look at you laughing and laughing as if you were the cluttered house that hid the Holy One. I would go home and tell my mother, “Mother I met my old man again and when I’m with him I leave my littleness behind.”
Toward the end of our walk together one day, he stopped suddenly and he turned to me and said, “Jean, what to you is the most fascinating question?”
And I said, “It’s about history, Mr. Tayer, and destiny, too. How can we take the right path in history so that we even have a destiny? My friends at school all talk about the H-bomb, and I wonder if I’ll ever get to be twenty-one years old. Mr. Tayer, you always talk about the future of man as if we had a future; I want to know what we have to do to keep that future coming.”
He said, “We need to have more specialists in spirit who will lead people into self-discovery.”
“What do you mean, Mr. Tayer?”
He said—and this is exactly what he said; I was taking notes because I knew I was in the presence of greatness—”We are being called into metamorphosis, into a far higher order, and yet we often act only from a tiny portion of ourselves. It is necessary that we increase that portion. But do not think for one minute, Jean, that we are alone in making that possible. We are part of a cosmic evolutionary movement that inspires us to unite with God. This is the lightning flash for all our potentialities. This is the great originating cause of all our shifts and changes. Without it there is nothing but struggle and decline.”
And I said to him, “What do you call it? I’ve never heard of it. Can something as great as that even have a name?”
“You are right,” he said, “it is impossible to name.”
“Well, try to name it, Mr. Tayer. I’ve heard that once a thing is named, you can begin to work with it.”
He seemed amused and he said, “I’ll try.” And then he said, “It is the demand of the universe for the birth of the ultra-human. It is the rising of a new form of psychic energy in which the very depths of loving within you are combined with what is most essential in the flowing of the cosmic stream.”
I didn’t really understand what he was saying, but I nodded sagely, and I said I would ponder these things, and he said he would also. One day toward the end of our time together—this was actually the last day that I ever saw him—Mr. Tayer began talking to me about thelure of becoming, a phrase that then became a part of my language. And also about how we humans are part of an evolutionary process in which we are being drawn toward something—which he called the “Omega point”—full of evolution. He told me that he believed that physical and spiritual energy was always flowing out from the Omega point and empowering us as well as leading us forward through love and illumination. And it was then that I asked him my ultimate question, the one that I must say has continued to haunt me all the days of my life: “What do you believe it’s all about, Mr. Tayer?” His answer is enshrined in my heart. He started by saying, “Je crois”—I believe. “I believe that the universe is in evolution. I believe that the evolution is toward spirit. I believe that spirit fulfills itself in a personal God.”
“And what do you believe about yourself, Mr. Tayer?”
He said, “I believe that I am a pilgrim of the future.”
It was the Thursday before Easter Sunday, 1955. I had brought him the shell of a snail. “Ah! Escargot!” he said, and then he began to wax ecstatic for the better part of an hour about spirals and nature and art, snail shells and galaxies, the labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral—which later became a symbol of my work—and the Rose Window and the convolutions of the brain, the whirl of flowers and the circulation of the heart’s blood. It was all taken up in a great hymn to the spiraling evolution of spirit and matter, “It’s all a spiral of becoming, Jean!” Then he looked away, and he seemed to be seeing into the future and he said, “Jean, the people of your time, toward the end of this century, will be taking the tiller of the world. But they cannot go directly.” He used the French word, directement. “You have to go in spirals, touching upon every people, every culture, every kind of consciousness. It is then that the newest in the field of mind will awaken and we will rebuild the earth.” And then he said to me, “Jean, remain always true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love.” Those were the words that he said to me. Then he said, “Au revoir, Jean.”
“Au revoir, Mr. Tayer! I’ll see you on Tuesday!”
And Tuesday came and I brought Champ, and Champ whimpered; he seemed to know something. And my old man never came. Thursday, Tuesday, Thursday. Eight weeks I waited and he never came again, because it turned out he had died on that Sunday in 1955.
Years later, somebody gave me a book without a cover called The Phenomenon of Man. And when I began to read it, I said, “My God! That’s my pal, that’s . . . oh my goodness. . . .” And I went to my friend and asked, “Have you got the cover to the book?” And she gave it to me and I flipped it over and, of course, there was my old man. No forgetting that face! Mr. Tayer had been Teilhard de Chardin.
AE: That’s extraordinary!
JH: He was the most enlightened person I’ve ever met. He certainly has had a profound influence on my life, on my sense of history and of who and what we are. He was childlike, always in a state of wonder and astonishment. Always in a state of, as I said, leaky margins with reality. There wasn’t a question of self because he was so embodied in all things, in all existences. And he saw spiritual and physical energy as utterly necessary to each other. So that’s ultimately what I have to say about the whole thing and what I really believe.
This article was originally published in EnlightenNext magazine, Issue 15.