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:


Remembering James Hillman

Well, it was two years ago today, October 27th, 2011, that James passed on. It was only in his passing that I am continually reminded of the gifts I received from him. Not from knowing him personally, although I was fortunate to have met him once, and will never forget that moment, the face-to-face, the silent stare – and being struck by deep love and kinship for his feisty way of seeing through ideas, the fearless invitation to rebel against conventional ways of understanding life and especially for his attention to language.

I have received many gifts from the years spent absorbing his ideas – lifesaving for me. From his deep love and appreciation of language, I have come to know that there are words for at least some of what is hidden in the world, and life brings us time, beauty and other gifts to share our expressions with each other.

I owe so much to this man…thank you James.

Here’s to James and his work, and to all who continue to be touched by his life and work.

James Hillman

An excerpt from an interview with Scott London on calling:

” I think the first step is the realization that each of us has such a thing. And then we must look back over our lives and look at some of the accidents and curiosities and oddities and troubles and sicknesses and begin to see more in those things than we saw before. It raises questions, so that when peculiar little accidents happen, you ask whether there is something else at work in your life. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve an out-of-body experience during surgery, or the sort of high-level magic that the new age hopes to press on us. It’s more a sensitivity, such as a person living in a tribal culture would have: the concept that there are other forces at work. A more reverential way of living.” 

On New Age vs. Science:

“Well, some reviewers have a scientistic ax to grind. To them, my book had to be either science or new age mush. It’s very hard in our adversarial society to find a third view. Take journalism, where everything is always presented as one person against another: “Now we’re going to hear the opposing view.” There is never a third view.

My book is about a third view. It says, yes, there’s genetics. Yes, there are chromosomes. Yes, there’s biology. Yes, there are environment, sociology, parenting, economics, class, and all of that. But there is something else, as well. So if you come at my book from the side of science, you see it as “new age.” If you come at the book from the side of the new age, you say it doesn’t go far enough — it’s too rational.”

And the best for last:

“I think it’s the pursuit that screws up happiness.”


…and if that is still not enough AND especially if you’re old enough to begin to wonder about aging:



The Soul of the World

The Soul of the World is the second part of James Hillman’s two-part book, The Thought of the Heart and The Soul of the World, in which he sees a world suffering a breakdown in much the same way as individuals suffer. A world ensouled, a psychic reality, in which we imagine with our hearts, connecting each of us to the things of the world, as part of the Anima Mundi. See Here for some of my recent thoughts on first part of the book, The Thought of the Heart. 

“The world, because of its breakdown, is entering a new moment of consciousness: by drawing attention to itself by means of its symptoms, it is becoming aware of itself as a psychic reality. The world is now the subject of immense suffering, exhibiting acute and crass symptoms by means of which it defends itself against collapse.”

So, is the world broken because individuals are broken, is it us, the family (or lack thereof), the community that are to be blamed for brokenness, or is it just as much the other way around? Are we broken because of the breakdown of the world? The essay was presented in the late 70’s and I think we have begun to turn our gaze outward a bit more, but perhaps we still need a way to enter into a sense of the world as ensouled; a world that, through an awareness of its images we sense is alive needing our attention and love. For some of us, too long have we lived convinced of the world’s deadness which risks alienating us from caring and just as importantly, from feeling cared for by the world.

“Rather let us imagine the anima mundi as that particular soul-spark, that seminal image, which offers itself through each thing in its visible form. Then anima mundi indicates the animated possibilities presented by each new event as it is, its sensuous presentation as a face bespeaking its interior image – in short, its availability to imagination, its presence as psychic reality. Not only animals and plants ensouled as in the Romantic vision, but soul is given with each thing, God-given things of nature and man-made things of the street.”

He is arguing for a readmittance of our animal sense, an aesthetic response to the face of the world, a world that is not just dead matter, but alive by virtue of its images presented in each particular thing. And this response is necessary as “…any alteration in the human psyche resonates with a change in the psyche of the world.”

“To interpret the world’s things as if they were our dreams deprives the world of its dream, its complaint. Although this move may have been a step toward recognizing the interiority of things, it finally fails because of the identification of interiority with only human subjective experience.”

When sense and imagination of the world leave us we are left with “images without bodies and bodies without images, an immaterial subjective imagination severed from an extended world of dead objective facts,” we then sever the heart connection as the hearts way of perceiving is both sensing and imagining. “To sense penetratingly we must imagine, and to imagine accurately we must sense.”

Our modern troubles with the heart lie perhaps not only in the physical heart but this thinking heart of perceiving and sensing. Maybe our suffering hearts are sick from more than just what we eat or how much exercise we get, but from the suffering of the world and our relation to it. But if the world needs our aesthetic, animal sense to re-imagine our contact with it, Hillman reminds us that it’s not so much the beauty of arts and a sanitized, deodorized world that will heal it, but an aesthetic knowing leading us to “thing-consciousness,” felt and seen in all of the objects we encounter in our day-to-day; the chair we sit in, the cars we drive, the inornate and anorexic walls and buildings, erected quickly and built with practicality and efficiency in mind and not for their beauty or the beauty of the world.

Hillman insists that it is in the particular things, even the smallest things, including our need for speed, expansion, the hunger we are unwilling to live with that make up the soul of the world and that only through our attention to these things, and caring for them can the world in turn care for us. This revisioning would be itself an environmental movement, a love affair in which “each of us reworks our background” that is the world, a world alive that is ensouled.

“A world without soul offers no intimacy. Things are left out in the cold, each object by definition cast away before it is manufactured, lifeless litter and junk, taking its value wholly from my consumptive desire to have and to hold, wholly dependent on the subject to breathe it into life with personal desire.

When particulars have no essential virtue, then my own virtue as a particular depends wholly and only on my subjectivity or on your desire for me, or fear of me: I must be desirable, attractive, a sex-object, or win importance and power. For without these investments in my particular person, coming either from your subjectivity or my own, I too am but a dead thing among dead things, potentially forever lonely.”

All quotes from James Hillman, Spring Publications.

Thought of the Heart

A short break for me tonight from all things Non-Profit, here at National Harbor where I am attending a software users conference, enjoying a lovely view from my hotel room overlooking the Potomac river and Washington, D.C..

BlackBaud is a software company dedicated to providing database tools for fundraising and related enterprises. I am fortunate to attend and very much enjoy both increasing my awareness of the technical aspects of using the database to help the fundraising efforts where I work (which is my primary role at the Monastery that I work for), but also in hearing what other non-profits are up to. It is very inspiring to hear the stories of people who are so amazingly dedicated to solving, or at least lending aid to those most in need, alleviating some of the pain and suffering where and whenever it is possible. Here is a small list of BlackBaud customers and how they use the software to engage the public to help fund projects that help people.

Although it is a recent observation, working for a non-profit continues to influence my thinking about the state of the world and the ways in which people do and can help each other. I am grateful to be exposed, not only to the idea, but to the witness of charitable giving in others. Perhaps not every person with wealth is endowed with generosity, but there are many who are, and getting to know them through my work at the Abbey cautions me not to assume that wealth always leads one astray.

The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, two lectures given by James Hillman at the Eranos conference in 1969, and later published together in one book, may perhaps have something in common with the vision of non-profits. Both are examples of the different ways in which people can help others through very different talents and ways of giving.

For Hillman this vision meant restoring ideas and our sense of place in the world, and to lessen our sense of alienation from each other, and from the natural world of animals, elements, places and things.

In the first essay of this short book, The Thought of the Heart, Hillman presents to us the idea of the “thinking heart,” rather than the “feeling heart,” found in the writings of the Parisian Islamic scholar Henri Corbin. The thinking heart, says Hillman, is the imaginal heart:

“When we fall in love, we begin to imagine and when we begin to imagine, we fall in love.”

He begins by laying out the three imaginings of the heart:

Richard I. Cœur de Lion (Lionheart, Löwenherz) Illustration from a 12th century codex

1) The heart of humanity – my heart is my humanity, from folklore and mythology, the heart finds the courage to live, with strength, fierce passion, and an immediacy that knows no separation between subject and object; thinking and doing together. The image here is the Coeur de Lion, the Lion’s heart, ruler of the will.

2) The heart as organ of the body – muscle, pump, mechanism and “secret holder of my death.” Hillman refers us here to the Heart of Harvey, from a book titled, “An Anatomical Dissertation Concerning the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals,” published by William William Harvey 2.jpgHarvey, a 17th century English physician who theorized about the circulation of the blood and the nature of the heart as a pump.

3) In the third imagining of the heart we see strong associations to the personal self. Here the heart refers to our personal feelings; love, in which heart is the locus of soul bringing us a sense of personal intimacy,
File:Saint Augustine Portrait.jpginteriority, identity and self as found in the 4th century writings of The Confessions of  St. Augustine of Hippo. A deeply personal account of the heart as subjective feeling and awareness of the individual.

In the lecture, Hillman expands upon each of these three imaginings of the heart, setting the stage for the next lecture, The Soul of the World, also called Anima Mundi.

In future writings I hope to continue the theme of this little book, moving on to how the three imaginal natures of the heart relate to the much needed sense of beauty in the things of the world, both natural and man-made, which takes us to the subject of the 2nd lecture, in which the thought of the heart moves outward into the world around us, a world that Hillman observes has lost its soul and vitality somewhere between Descartes and Kant. He concludes by returning us to the thinking heart – towards a more primative, animistic sense of the world ensouled, aiming to restore the animal sense in us in which we gain a mindfulness of the “ten thousand things of the world.”

Here is a link to the first lecture, The Thought of the Heart online:


Colour My World, Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black

One of my favorite James Hillman books is his, “Alchemical Psychology,” which I have just recently read. The book is a fascinating tour of the alchemical process and its correlative psychological journey as told to us by the Alchemists of old. Yes, they weren’t only interested in literally transforming substances, but about experiencing the transformation of the psyche and finding the Philosopher’s Stone. Hillman begins by suggesting that one of the primary sources of neurosis is a deficiency of imagination which can be heard in the one-sidedness of the language we use – which is an important means to understand ourselves and the world.

“My neurosis resides in my mental set and the way it constructs the world and behaves in it. Now, the essential or at least an essential component of every mental set, of every personality, is language. Thus language must be an essential component of my neurosis. If I am neurotic, I am neurotic in language. Consequently, the one-sidedness that characterizes all neuroses in general is also to be found specifically as a one-sidedness in language.”

He goes on to talk about the similarities in what drives people to therapy to what drove the alchemists to their work. It doesn’t matter so much what you want to change, but that you want to change something. The work, whether on ourselves or on physical materials, generates a psychic response. Hillman suggests that the difference for the alchemists was that they did not conceptualize their mental states in the way that we do today, but lived them through the work. In Alchemy there is what is referred to as the Opus, the Great Work. Hillman refers often to C.G. Jung’s writings on alchemy in which he refers to the Opus as the Opus Contra Naturam, a work against nature, which I understand to mean against the inclination towards entropy. The alchemical stages are experienced as colors:

  • Black
  • Blue
  • Silver/White
  • Red
  • Yellow

Each color represents a phase that is entered into in the work:
The first four color terms – black, white, red, and yellow – are also the primary color terms embracing the entire alchemical opus: nigredo, albedo, xanthosis or citrinitas, and iosis or rubedo. These color terms describe: (1) stages of the work; (2) conditions of the material worked on; and (3) states in the psyche of the artifex or worker-alchemist.”

He then notes that the idea of the color in each stage that we move through as we make our way through life is sensate and naturally embedded with images and ideas as compared to conceptual notions that especially modern psychology would use. In the black or nigredo phase of the work Hillman says:

“First, as non-color, black extinguishes the perceptual colored world. Second, the blackening negates the “light,” whether that be the light of knowledge, the attachment to solar consciousness as far-seeing prediction, or the feeling that phenomena can be understood. Black dissolves meaning and the hope for meaning. We are thus benighted.  Third, the two processes most relevant for producing blackness –putrefaction and mortification – break down the inner cohesion of any fixed state. Putrefaction, by decomposition or falling apart; mortification, by grinding down, as seeds in a mortar are refined into ever thinner and smaller particles.”

I hope to continue on this theme and at least run through each stage of color and briefly describe them. I will leave you with one more quote from the book:

“This is the Nekyia,  the night sea journey through the underworld made also by Odysseus, Aeneas, and Hercules, and by Eurydice, Inanna, Persephone, Psyche, by Orpheus, by Christ. Whether this underworld is frigid and ghastly or burning with the hots of hell, it is a realm characterized by temperatures suitable only for demons, ghosts, heroes and heroines, goddesses and shades who are no longer altogether of the upper world. Outsiders. Marginals. Alchemy is a profession of marginals; those at the edge. Those who live from their own fires, sweating it out, self-sustaining their own temperatures which may be at variance with the collective climate.”

All quotes taken from: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 292-293). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thanks to Chicago for this lovely tune:

Links to all posts in the series: Colour My World , Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black http://wp.me/pZ0y1-T7 Alchemical Psychology, Part II – Blue http://wp.me/pZ0y1-TA Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver http://wp.me/pZ0y1-Um Alchemical Psychology, Part IV – White http://wp.me/pZ0y1-UT Alchemical Psychology, Part V – Yellow http://wp.me/pZ0y1-WV Alchemical Psychology, Part VI – Red http://wp.me/pZ0y1-XT Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air http://wp.me/pZ0y1-11b Alchemical Psychology, Part VIII – Caelum http://wp.me/Z0y1

Born at the Right Time

“By means of personifications my sense of person becomes more vivid for I carry with me at all times the protection of my daimones: the images of dead people who mattered to me, of ancestral figures of my stock, cultural and historical persons of renown and people of fable who provide exemplary images–a wealth of guardians. They guard my fate, guide it, probably are it. “Perhaps–who knows,” writes Jung, “these eternal images are what men mean by fate.” We need this help, for who can carry his fate alone?” – James Hillman

With gratitude I remember James Hillman and the many ways he influenced my life. It could take a lifetime for me to articulate with precision in what ways his ideas unstuck my thinking and understanding of life, language and human experience.
Twice, I was able to participate in his “work shops,” one up in Seattle in 1996, and again in San Francisco in 1997. These were intense, sometimes bordering on frightening engagements of conversation, poetry and music between Hillman, Robert Bly, and Michael Meade and all of us who attended as we came together to reflect on the shared experience of our place in time and the disintegration of our culture.
In the late 1980’s, shortly before moving out west, I came across one of Hillman’s books, while in the course of reading the works of C.G Jung. His writing immediately gripped me. He had a way of penetrating, seeing through, in his reflections on any and everything that he wrote  about. Here was someone who was not afraid of traveling in the dark, going deeper and deeper to be with the more unwelcome aspects of our human experience and particularly our sufferings.
In the mire of my own psychic confusion, I was attracted to Hillman’s insistence that we need to be in the dark, and stay with what presents itself to us in our suffering and ask what it wants from us, rather than the more common insistence that we make the pain go away, that we fix it, whether with drugs, or by refusing our emotions and the seeming helplessness of our situation.
The insistence that we shouldn’t be broken in our very broken world should in and of itself be an idea for us to challenge.
Hillman was both masterful and poetic with language and understood that we live by the metaphors that have us in their grip and that it is our language, habits, lack of reflection and a false dichotomy between reality and imagination that keep us stuck and cursed by the literalizing and concretizing of our ideas and notions of both ourselves and the world we inhabit.
His 1997 book, The Soul’s Code, In Search of Character and Calling, would become his biggest seller, and even landed him an interview on Oprah’s show. By far his easiest read, written for a wider audience while still capturing the essence of his ideas and reflections on where we go wrong with how we understand ourselves and our culture.
My life’s journey has moved me some distance from a crazier time in my life when it seemed I had to unravel a bit before a gradual reassembling. I still greatly admire Hillman even when I find myself in disagreement with some of what he says. I’ll leave those disagreements for another post, another day.
Here is a link to a more recent and rare interview between Hillman and Scott London:

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

“Picasso said, “I don’t develop; I am.” And the puzzle in therapy is not how did I get this way, but what does my angel want with me?” James Hillman

Although continuing to meditate, I stopped attending Ananda after a brief conversation with one of their ministers. I asked him how he would know when he had reached the coveted state of self-realization. There was no answer to this that satisfied me. I think the Ananda devotees enjoy a lifestyle with like-minded friends and family and I do not begrudge them that, but for myself, there was something calling me away from them. I wanted words for, and some place to be with, the all consuming swell of emotions, and I needed someone to guide me through the dark place I now found myself in.

After years of somewhat smugly and very much intellectually carousing with the  ideas of Jung and Hillman, I called an Analyst and started going to therapy. It was hard to trust enough to get myself to take this step. My past experiences with therapists was filled with disappointments ranging from a marriage counselor that brought my parents struggling marriage to its final collapse in a very cruel and deceptive way, to a therapist that I saw a few times in my teens that was more interested in watching me walk across his office than listening to anything I had to say.

As much as I wanted desperately to open up to someone, I did not easily trust that anyone could possibly be motivated to guide me by anything more than their own selfish motives, whatever they might be. I feared that their motives would take me off the path I felt called to stay on.

When I first talked with Jim, the therapist, I hoped he would give me a clear sense of how his version of therapy works, what our work together would be like, and most importantly, a sense that he will not waste my time.

Seems simple now, but it took months to get over the first few hurdles and to settle into a place of trust with Jim. Then came the dreams. Although I have always had easy access to my dreams, the more time I spent talking with Jim, recounting everything from the day to day of living, to bits and pieces of the past, my dreams kicked into high gear. So, without really knowing what would become of it, I started to keep a dream diary. Useful…

Therapy with Jim was nothing like I thought it would be. It was work to attend to the day to day and to bring it all into the place of therapy where we would sort, sift and weave together the pieces of my past that were bleeding into the present. Jim would question my assumptions and prod me to more clearly articulate what was happening in my relationships and how I psychically digested the world.

After some time I reached a critical point, both inside and out. I desperately needed to find a strong voice to stand up to someone I worked with and yet was very much afraid to. Eventually I was able to see that my fear of confrontation in relationships with others was of my choosing; a way to protect myself  which placed a wall between me and the world. I began to feel a strong sense of self-betrayal. The anger was sometimes useful, but could still drive me back to feelings of hopelessness and just wanting to crawl in hole and die.

The moment I was able to see that the one thing I thought was useful (not stirring the pot), was the very same thing that kept me from being close, or even being in relationship to others (and in some ways even to myself as much as outside mirrors inside), was the moment a newfound sense of daring seemed to come to me.

As I practiced speaking more from the heart instead of safely trying to mirror others, a breakthrough happened. I began to experience a very freeing meta-sense of identity. News to me, I didn’t have to figure everyone out, least of all myself.

Now I was able to see both myself and others as unfathomable beings of complexity. Always a work in progress, we have ideas and fantasies about each other, some of which may have more to do with the powers that be, archetypal realities that have no beginning or end but are there none the less.

No need to harden anyone’s identity into a safe, secure and predictable statue. The identity I thought I was missing, was the identity I didn’t really need or want. The freedom in being is not to be compelled to know yourself or others with any hard and fast definitions, but to be okay with fluidity. Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose as far as identity is concerned.

Who we think people are is a mix of bits and pieces of perceptions, memories and influences that are not possible to be fully aware of and absolutely conclusive. The real you and me live in flux, and it might be convenient and yes, necessary to create and store files of information on ourselves and others, the files will always be subject to corruption and will remain terribly incomplete.

If we want our idea of who we are to equal who we are, we will suffer from a deficiency, a stagnation and failure of imagination, losing the ongoing flow of psychic existence or what Hillman calls our purpose in life; soul making.

Our imaginations create and sustain us, we are poetry in motion. We are meaning makers. That is not to say that there is no objective reality to who we are, but more that our access to that heavenly view is not for mortal consumption but perhaps for God and His angels only.

“If therapy imagines its task to be that of helping people cope (and not protest), to adapt (and not rebel), to normalize their oddity, and to accept themselves “and work within your situation; make it work for you” (rather than refuse the unacceptable), then therapy is collaborating with what the state wants: docile plebes. Coping simply equals compliance.” James Hillman