A Therapy of Ideas

“Psychology ought to make us feel at home in the world and interested in it and to recognize its beauty. Anything that’s beautiful, you fall in love with and anything you fall in love with, you want to keep alive. And that solves the ecological problem and the nuclear problem. You don’t want to destroy what you love.” James Hillman

In 2004, Joel Lang interviewed James Hillman at his home in Thompson Connecticut. The interview features a rare biographical sketch of Hillman as well as some of his observations and ideas during that time in his life. Hillman had just published his book, A Terrible Love of War.

The interview presents us with some great insights into Hillman, including his insistence that for us moderns it is not that we are sick, but that our ideas are. In 1969 Hillman had a personal crisis as a Jungian Analyst which led to his decision to leave the profession. Ultimately, he made his way back, although not specifically as a Jungian, by seeing  therapy more as a therapy of soul, meaning something much broader than a therapy of our personal, subjective experience, but one that includes the state of the world and especially our ideas.

The soul itself is “a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint toward things rather than a thing itself … ” It is, “an inner place or deeper person or ongoing presence — that is simply there even when all our subjectivity, ego and consciousness go into eclipse.” It is “that unknown component which makes meaning possible, turns events into experiences, is communicated in love, and has a religious concern.” It is “the imaginative possibility of our natures” and it has a “special relation with death.”

Here is an excerpt of Lang’s discussion with Hillman on depression:

Elsewhere, he described how he might respond to a patient complaining of depression. ‘I’ll want to get precise: What do you feel? Sad, empty, dry? Burned out? Do you feel weak, do you feel like crying? And where do you feel depressed? In your eyes — do you want to cry; do you cry? In your legs, are they heavy, can’t get up, can’t move; in your chest, are you anxious, and how does that feel, where, when? Is it like being tied up, or being poisoned?” Depression is a “big empty vapid jargon word … a terrible impoverishment of the actual experience.’

File:World Upsidedown.jpgWithin any culture or person, it is perhaps difficult to see how myth is operating in us and especially in a culture that believes itself to be modern and rational, looking to the science of “studies” of material facts to understand things such as health, well-being, ecology, culture, nature, science or sexuality.

When we posit a belief in what we call our reality, rather than our mythology, the metaphorical way of seeing leaves us, and so do the gods or the invisible archetypal powers leave us, because we have left them for a concrete, material idea of ourselves and the world.

“If you’re out of your mind in another culture or disturbed or impotent or anorexic, you look at what you’ve been eating, who’s been casting spells on you, what taboo you’ve crossed, what you haven’t done right, when you missed your last reverence to the gods … Whatever. It could be thousands of other things … It would never, never be what happened to you with your mother and father forty years ago. Only our culture uses that model, that myth … The myths we believe and are in the middle of, we call them `fact,’ `reality,’ `science.”’

The idea of what we refer to as Reality, is a dead-end view which claims that things are as they are, and can be no other way, whichever way we come to define our reality. To define circumstances or our relationship to others and the world through the mythological lens of Reality, is perhaps a way to stop imagining, or keep us from furthering the ideas about ourselves and the world. We mistake our ideas for the notion of reality, a word that has no particular meaning or image attached to it.

And one last quote from the interview on archetypes and myths:

“I don’t like the idea they’re located in our brains,” he says. “We don’t know any of this. These are theories. All we know is that there are patterns that appear again and again — in myth, in children’s stories or life stories and that in some places they call them myths or gods and goddesses.

“We don’t know how they began. We don’t know how the world began. And it doesn’t matter how it began as far as living goes. It makes more sense to a person’s life that what’s going on has a pattern and a meaning to it rather than it all began in a bang, or came out of a black hole or something.

From Hillman I have learned to dig into the guts of an idea, through the study of history, etymology, religion and science, so as to not take things only at their face value, or for their literal meaning, but to look for what an idea or a belief suggests about  the world or does for me, so as to not be bound to or by ideas, but to deepen them further into the mystery and ultimately ungraspable nature of life as it is humanly lived.

Read the entire interview here:


24 thoughts on “A Therapy of Ideas

  1. Such an interesting post and dialogue with the comments section. I am relatively uneducated having read neither Jung or HIllman, but am powerfully attracted to the role of storytelling in the history of human consciousness. I have some idea that part of our experience involves an aspect of collective consciousness which is present in all, but more apparent in some, and sought by others. So there is an aspect of all living beings that can be metaphorically compared to a door. For some the door is open, for some the door is closed but can be opened, for some the door is locked. It is through that door that the landscape can open up to show vistas that are recognisable and familiar, although unknown. I ;have absolutely no comprehension about how this theory may work, just that it is a theory.
    Thank you for your thoughtful presentation, I need to do some research now on Hillman! Anne


    1. Hello Anne,
      Thank you so much for sharing the insight about the door. It really fits in many ways.

      I’m not exactly educated either, so I’ll never see that as a deficit in anyone. Reading can take us a long way into an appreciation of what it means to be human, yes?

      I think you might really enjoy Hillman’s book, The Soul’s Code. The book is primarily about reading life backwards. He uses the stories of famous people to show that our beginnings, however much we suffer them, serve our fate in our adult life. By fate he does mean “fatalistic,” but uses the metaphor of the acorn growing into an oak to describe a pattern of our being that makes us unique and yet our past as somehow a necessary contribution to our story.

      It’s a very readable book and gave me a whole new way to understand the story of my life and that of others.

      The door metaphor makes sense to me because it does seem that we all in varying degrees live as if contained or restricted by boundaries that we either recognize, and therefore can see the arbitrariness of them, or don’t recognize, insisting that life has a hard and fast fixness to ourselves, others and the world around us.

      Nice to meet you here Anne!



  2. I am very glad to have found you, and to read the discussions here. Yes, in some ways a mythos is a strength of belief – like the one the “scientists” have in the present era. Some myths nourish, and other myths confine and starve the soul.

    And “Depression” is an alienating label for finding out how this condition feels, and communicates itself.

    I love your Hillman quote about a therapy of the soul – a perspective rather than a substance … a movement towards … a verb rather than a noun, and therapy as a “collective” identity movement, rather than a therapy hooked around one’s personality which can be frustrating. “A therapy of ideas” becomes engaged in human healing.

    Did you ever read Yalom’s “When Nietsche Wept?” Lovely story … and such atmosphere.


    1. Hi Jane. Thank you so much for reading a leaving a note.
      Yes, Hillman’s works have influenced me greatly, along with many others. I’m not familiar with the Yalom piece on Nietzsche. Thank you for the suggestion though.


  3. Don

    Debra, his description of soul as a perspective rather than a substance is the best I have ever heard. His ongoing description after those words blows me away. Brilliant piece. Thank you.


    1. Whoops…

      …that we have a clear understanding of who we are, where we are, and dare I say, why we are. Softening that notion, we are more open to discovery. I think a central myth of our modern time is the myth that we are smarter and know more about ‘reality’ than our forbears. I’m not at all convinced this is in any way true.

      Hillman seems a deep and genuine thinker-feeler-human, which is always uplifting and intriguing to encounter.



  4. I’ll have to do some readings of his. So far, I’ve just been reading up/listening to on Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Jung himself (a little). And, as well, reading up on a LOT of Hermann Hesse, a long deceased German author who was analyzed by Jung himself.

    For a while I was confusing James Hillman (the name) with James Hollis, whom I have read a couple of his books.

    I’m not really articulate in any of these Jungian analysts. Though, with Estes, for sure, some of why I like her is that she is a female and understands the hundreds of ways the female is being “ambushed” by life. Something I don’t think men quite understand.

    I love her idea of descansos, writing up a timeline of all the little ways our paths have been cut off and putting crosses on those events…to remember and pin to the earth so they don’t follow us anymore.

    I love, love love listening to her on CD. She’s a marvelous storyteller and poet.


    1. Oh yes, Dances with Wolves! I love that book, and I also love anything by Marion Woodman, but must admit to having a preference for Hillman and even for male voices and perspectives.
      I have never warmed to the idea of myself as a female victimized by ______ fill in the blank. In fact, to my detriment, I have trouble with feminine voices and probably suffer a bit from lack of femininity, or at least I struggle with that.
      I like the idea of descansos. A friend of mine walked me through a burial ritual years ago that was very helpful to me in letting go of someone close to me that I felt haunted by.


      1. I don’t see myself as a female victimized by _______ because I spent a great deal of time in the math and sciences, and I was pretty gender-neutral and I didn’t have professional opportunities prohibited to me, but only because I was stubborn, I think. If you tell me I can’t do it, I’m going to prove to you that I can.

        I have, though, been victimized. I think that there is such a fear of being seen as stuck in ‘victim-mentality’ that we ignore the fact that we may ACTUALLY have been the victim of another person’s persecution and abuse. We can’t move beyond our woundedness if we are depriving ourselves the time to acknowledge and mourn the wounds.

        And, quite honestly, I have had such a severe mistrust of women since my mother and sisters had been so abusive to me, that I only relied on men for support for the longest time.

        Turns out I had been unknowingly set myself up for problems. In my experience, having had all my married male friends start seeing me as a sexual target for their mid-life crises, that I realized that that is not going to work. It caused a great deal of distress when I realized I had to let the friendships go because they were unrelenting in their attempts to bed me. Did I ever see myself as a victim? Not exactly, but I did see begin to see myself no longer as an equal, but a conquest. And, within a period of about 3 years, I had a lot of my guy friends start changing in their behavior towards me. I began to realize they were going through midlife crises and were looking for something to help them delay the acceptance that death was just round the bend for them. I wasn’t about to be that something, but for the longest time, it really confused the heck out of me.

        But getting back to the idea of femininity.

        Women have gone to the other extreme in recent years, disowning our feminine wisdom so that we can compete in the marketplace.

        Yet, in doing so, we are depriving ourselves of a rich resource that is always at our disposal. Yet we’ve been conditioned to ignore it.

        As Estes said, we may have broken through the workplace barriers, and yet we didn’t know what to do next.

        I’ve learned a great deal from men (both in real life and in my readings about philosophy, religion and psychology as well as many scientific and mathematical concepts). For that I’m truly grateful. But I also know my education has been predominantly limited to one gender and therefore, it’s kind of like going to the doctor and asking him how to change the transmission in my car. The doctor has lots of specialized knowledge of medicine, but I’d be better off going to a specialist in car mechanics if I want my car to work again.

        Men do have feminine aspects within themselves, and they can explore the women’s body from the outside, but there are just some things about the female they can only guess at but just can’t know like other women can.

        I am slowly, ever so slowly, beginning to trust in and learn from women. Had I never had children, I might never have needed that, and I spent a lot of time actually scorning women as being too flaky or emotional for me to handle. But, having had my children, and all of a sudden experiencing very definitely female problems, I’ve begin to open up to the feminine perspective out of necessity.

        I can embrace more than I ever had been able to before and now I have more becoming accessible in me.

        I still have a long way to go to sort things out. But I’m glad for my ever-broadening view.


      2. Yes, me too Casey.
        …and I agree, no matter which shoe you put on, which gender you are, there is separation and complexity between ourselves and others.
        At a certain level all I can do is accept the mystery of who I am and who you, as an other.
        During the years I was seeing a therapist, it came as a bit of shock to me to become aware of ways in which I colluded with men at the expense of myself in my attempts to disown my femaleness.
        Surprisingly, after that awareness was digested, I felt a compassion and love for women, and especially my mother, that I had never felt before.
        Let me never forget how human we all are; vulnerable, sensitive, yet capable and creative and needing each other.


  5. Joseph Campbell helped to liberate me from the trap of fundamentalist christianity by explaining its anti-myth of concretizing the stories in the bible. I explored the new age world for a while but felt that it was just as disconnected because it hovered in the polarized light.
    Every post of yours that discusses Hillman and his view of myth, the anima mundi, and the soul in general keeps me grounded and reminds me why the depth of his ideas touches something deep inside me.


    1. Yes, I like to think Hillman could see through any myth, any time, any place, but ironically, seeing through doesn’t protect us from being in myth, but is humbling, because we recognize that there are powers that be, no matter how much we think we know.
      An elegant mystery for sure 🙂


  6. When we are passionate, it can take great restraint to gently discuss or debate the great ” idea people”. How can we NOT be passionate? I learn so much reading the critiques here. I have always been in awe of Jung and his intellectual/ philosophical peers, never expecting to fully understand what is beyond my grasp.How lovely it would be to gather with Hillman, Jung, Maslow , etc in a circle by a fire sipping tea and soaking in every syllable uttered…

    I will speak for myself here and say that because I am a quick learner, I become humbled by what I find elusive. I am somewhat content that some writers are too complex for me to totally digest. I would feel even more isolated if there was nothing profound to chew on and slowly assimilate.



    1. I agree Linda. I think too, that passion alone can call us to want more, or want something, yes?
      I too love the discussions even when I don’t understand. I am in a much better place in my life where I find I have curiosity about other people and their worlds and ideas.
      Maybe each of us a poem being written that takes time and effort to hear and understand.
      What I like about the blog world, is that there is a lot of respectful engagement, even when we don’t all understand each other.
      Yes, it would be most lovely to have that fire with those voices that we admire so much. I’ll bring the wood and keep the fire going too! 🙂


  7. Rexie

    Terrific interview Deb. You know when I did my photo post yesterday on ‘mythical sin or human spin’ I myself was wondering about myth, their patterns and how they come about to be in this world. I know it is an outdated thought but I would really like to believe, like Plato, that they come from a world of Forms and Ideas that is behind the apparent. No explanations makes much sense to me and I would like to keep Scientism away because it is not so much about debunking myths but understanding them.


    1. Rex, it is worth wondering about, that regardless of culture or time and place, the mythemes show up. I think it may be a point of unity where we can find an impersonal aspect of what drives and motivates us, that doesn’t necessarily take away our individuality.
      Yeah, myths are something science can’t really address or formulate or rationalize away.


  8. Hillman was a phenomenologist in the sense that he wanted to approach everyarchetype with a fresh mind free of any fixed, ready-made answers. He never ripped out the heart of any image, he just stayed with it and listened to its pulse. I must say I am sometimes tired of his relentless style, especially when it gets too heavy. Jung was more of a magician – he dazzled with the gems of his intuition and rarely stayed too long with one concept, unlike Hillman. I hope I haven’t bored you with my reflections. I also think Jung’s writing is much more enigmatic and can be interpreted in so many ways.


    1. I can see that Monika. In some ways I am difficult too, as has been finding a way for me to be in the world. Hillman’s therapy of ideas led me to a way to work through ideas of mine that were poisonous to me.
      I don’t like to compare Jung to Hillman. I owe a huge debt to Jung too and I don’t think Hillman’s ideas invalidate Jung’s, but further them. You might disagree.
      Jung brought us the idea of bearing the tension of the opposites, where creativity is birthed in each of us. I think Hillman lived that tension as many of us do, but spoke from a reformed Jewish, post-Christian perspective that is heavy and difficult.
      As well, I am no expert on Hillman, and perhaps others would interpret him differently. I don’t see a lot of writing on his ideas period, so that does compel me to keep him alive. Or perhaps I just can’t bare his absence.


      1. I am really grateful for all your posts on Hillman. I am only beginning to get to know him better and perhaps you’re right that it would be wise to restrain from comparisons. He was a great thinker with breathtaking ideas.


      2. Thanks Monika.
        I hope you know that whatever your thoughts on Hillman, and even if we disagree, I admire your knowledge of myths and symbols, how much you know and your ability to draw from so many sources to bring the myths and symbols and your insights to share with us.
        Different perspectives are important, because it offers us ways to see differently, even when it seems difficult to understand.


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