The Wizard of Us: Transformational Lessons from Oz

The Wizard of Us: Transformational Lessons from Oz

Jean Houston
New York: Atria, 2012. xx + 204 pp., hardcover, $24.

If you are like most people, the first time you watched the film version of The Wizard of Oz, you probably just enjoyed it for its entertainment value. You most likely never noticed the rich universal archetypes or benefitted from the movie's profound lessons about personal growth.

In The Wizard of Us: Transformational Lessons from Oz, American scholar, author, and philosopher Jean Houston exposes the deeper story hidden within L. Frank Baum's classic Oz fairy tale. Readers gain appreciation of Dorothy's experiences as Houston relates them to steps in Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. This is a universal pattern found in hundreds of key stories from around the world, in which a protagonist grows toward psychological wholeness by way of a series of events that follow a common theme.

In Houston's interpretation, Dorothy's old life back in Kansas is not working for her very well; she needs to move on. The tornado that sends her to Oz serves as her call to adventure and places her into the world of the unknown, where she is faced with numerous challenges on her road of trials. One by one, she surmounts each ordeal, many of them imposed by her shadow figure—the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy is helped by another archetypal figure, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North—a benign protector and Dorothy's entelechy, or her own essence realized to the fullest extent.

Houston claims that we in our culture are living in "twister times" The old ways of doing things are no longer working. To correct this we must each embark on our own Hero's Journey. By challenging ourselves to grow into our fullest potential, we can form the building blocks of a transformed society. (At risk of offending real-life Kansans, Houston calls this the need to move beyond the Kansas of our lives, which she describes as a gray, bleak, dreary, outmoded wasteland.) She weaves back and forth between comparing the Oz story with the Hero's Journey and offering exercises to help readers recognize their own "Kansas" and inspire them along their own journey. The overall theme of The Wizard of Us is progress beyond outmoded forms of existence toward the fulfillment found in a deeper story, in new ways of thinking, and in efforts to cocreate a better world.

Dorothy's three traveling companions serve as examples of growth. Each feels he is missing some crucial human element, only to learn he had it all the time—revealing that the very quality we may think we lack may actually be what Houston calls our "most potent potential"

The Scarecrow joins the trek in search of a brain. But along the way he exercises what brain he has to solve various problems, all the while building new mental circuitry and getting smarter all the time. Houston weaves this in with discussions about neuroplasticity, mirror neurons, and contemplative neuroscience. She provides exercises to help readers increase fluidity of mind and deepen access to intuitive wisdom, which she considers important for working toward a more sustainable society.

The Tin Man is invited along in search of a heart. Along with exercises to help readers find balance between heart and mind, Houston includes several touching stories of "Social Artistry"— people accessing their highest potential by opening their hearts to the needs of others.

The Cowardly Lion–in search of courage–displays his mettle in several particularly audacious acts while trying to save Dorothy from the Wicked Witch. Houston compares this to our present day challenge to find the courage to be who we really are and to do what we came here to do.

In the end, Dorothy's ultimate boon–the purpose of her quest–is realized. All she wanted was to go home to Kansas. But no longer will her Kansas be as gray and bleak, for she returns as a master of the two worlds, bringing with her the greening power of the depth realm she learned about in Oz.

Whether the Oz analogy works perfectly for everyone or not, this book is a wonderful tool for propelling ourselves beyond the Kansas of our lives, through a Hero's Journey along our own yellow brick roads, and toward an expanded life where our personal gifts play a crucial role in creating a transformed society– the Emerald City for which we all yearn.

Unless you have perfect visual recall, try to see the movie again just before reading this book. As Houston's exercises rely heavily on visualization skills, ready mental access to imagery from the movie will come in handy.

Margaret Placentra Johnston

The reviewer is author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind(Quest Books).