Soul Searching

JEAN HOUSTON -- philosopher, self-described ""sacred psychologist'' and, of late, private tutor to Hillary Rodham Clinton -- was pacing around her darkened house in suburban New York, surrounded by statues of Greek and Egyptian mythological figures. She was in high dudgeon: a friend had just called from Austria to say that he thought more highly of the American president and First Lady after reading of how Houston had taught the Clintons to communicate with spirits. ""Of course, my friend is an occultist,'' Houston explained to NEWSWEEK with the grimmest of smiles. ""And in England, my friends tell me, the buzz is that I'm running the White House. Now Australia's on the line. I'm ruined. Thirty years of work -- just ruined. I've lost face.''

This wasn't the way she wanted to become famous. What brought Houston, 57, to the world's attention were excerpts (published in NEWSWEEK and The Washington Post) from Bob Woodward's new book, ""The Choice.'' Woodward described how Houston had led Hillary into imaginary conversations last year with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi. It wasn't as strange as it may sound. The Clintons are part of a frequently self-absorbed baby-boom generation that was raised to consider itself special. And Houston has spent 30 years teaching people how, through myths, mantras and guided meditations, they can become more powerful and creative. So it seemed a perfect fit.

But, as Houston learned, the White House isn't a retreat center. Tabloids and talk radio amplified her role, and Houston emerged a New Age Svengali. Her rsum was attacked; she claimed a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University that, in fact, she was never awarded. (Houston refused to make changes in her dissertation and later earned a doctorate in psychology from Union Institute in Cincinnati.) Feeling wronged, Houston fought back. She took her case to the ""Today'' show, ""Dateline'' and ""Larry King Live,'' where she helped the host converse with a hero of his own, the late Arthur Godfrey.

If Houston feared loss of face, so did the First Couple, who quickly distanced themselves from her. Still, there's a long presidential tradition of seeking spiritual advice; from Ike to Bush, Billy Graham virtually owned his own White House pillow. The Clintons, too, have opened their doors to scholars, entertainers and clergy -- and Renaissance Weekend regulars (chart). But they are the first First Family to welcome alternate psychologies and New Agey management techniques.

But why not? From Atlantic Richfield to Xerox, corporate America has spent millions every year putting managers through the same kind of exercises in personal transformation the Clintons have been sampling for free. Houston herself has run seminars for the Department of Commerce and other federal agencies. At Stanford Business School, Prof. Michael Ray has prepared future captains of industry with tarot cards and chants to release their deeper selves. Indeed, the fastest buck in the motivational marketplace no longer goes to successful football coaches but to organizational gurus who have discovered overarching ""laws'' or essential ""habits'' that increase health, happiness and productivity. Call it the baby boomers' middle-aged need to still have it all. If CEOs can enhance their potential, isn't it natural that the nation's chief executive and his spouse would try to augment theirs?

It was Marianne Williamson, the popular purveyor of a love-conquers-all spirituality, whom the Clintons asked to assemble a group of ""communicators'' at Camp David for a long December weekend in 1994. Among them was Houston, who wears flowing garments and pioneered mind-body relationships when Bill and Hillary were still sweating high-school exams.

Never rich or particularly famous, Houston has nevertheless been key to the per- sonal-growth movement. The author of 15 books and a cofounder, with her husband, the psychologist Robert Masters, of the Foundation for Mind Research in Pomona, N.Y., she began her career probing human consciousness with LSD. After the drug was legally restricted in 1965, she developed alternate methods of doing the same thing -- hypnosis and imaginative exercises. Tall, theatrical and exceedingly well-read, Houston gave early workshops that showed ordinary folks how to draw on their unconscious in ways that artists have always done. Just before her death in 1978, Margaret Mead, the cultural anthropologist who was Houston's friend and mentor, gave Houston a commission to spread the good word. Like Carl Jung, Houston is convinced that myths are stories that live in us all. ""People in sensitive places have been drawn to me for a long time, first as an intellectual and second as someone who can talk about their own problems in a period of seismic transition,'' she says.

After Camp David, Houston became Virgil to Hillary's Dante. They met numerous times at the White House in the spring of last year, and when the First Lady professed difficulty in writing her book on children, Houston had an idea. She asked Hillary to imagine her favorite role model, Eleanor Roosevelt. Put questions to her, prompted Houston, and then imagine what Mrs. Roosevelt would say in response. The underlying notion is not new: Plato taught that all learning is a form of remembering. Nor is the technique novel. Actors do it. Some novelists (even some journalists) do it to form narrative. And every Jesuit since Ignatius Loyola wrote his ""Spiritual Exercises'' 400 years ago has been required to imagine himself in the Gospel story and speak to Jesus and his disciples.

Jesus is an important figure for Houston -- yet another reason that devout Christians like Mrs. Clinton are drawn to her ""sacred psychology.'' According to Houston, ""sacred psychology is the process and practice of soulmaking.'' Houston teaches that everyone must suffer a ""sacred wound'' if they are to be ""resurrected'' to a new and more powerful life (Christ, of course, being the chief example). Houston regards both the president and his wife as wounded in the soul -- he by the Democrats' political humiliation in the 1994 congressional elections, she by her failure to produce health-care reform. And the answer for wounded people, Houston advises, is to view their individual life stories in the larger context of myth. That is why she sees the First Lady, for example, as a modern-day Joan of Arc -- and would argue that if Mrs. Clinton did, too, she would draw personal strength from the association.

Myth, soulmaking, storytelling, empowerment -- these are the concepts that link Houston's sacred psychology to the wider '90s culture of personal transformation. And they are being increasingly embraced by the corporate world as well. Last year Phil Condit, Boeing's president, gathered 10 top managers to tell stories of the company's life to date. Then they put the negative stories in writing -- and burned them in a ritual act of corporate death and rebirth. For nearly a decade, employees of Atlantic Richfield Co. listened to New Age philosopher Deepak Chopra explain how to explore their inner space to achieve a sense of ""bliss.'' ""We were going through a lot of changes at the time,'' explains a company representative. ""We needed to impress on people the need to look at the world differently.'' Even the World Bank has its own ""spiritual unfoldment society'' for ambassadors and development experts.

That business is exploring sacred realms may or may not be good news. The White House is another story. It is, in the American imagination, already a mythical kingdom where people in power sometimes forget just how limited they really are. Jean Houston is no longer welcome there: ""After all the publicity,'' she laments, ""I can't work with Hillary anymore.'' Maybe it's just as well. It's hard enough helping steer the ship of state without nurturing a sacred wound.