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:


Love and Mercy

There may not be a word used as frequently in our day that’s so lacking in a precise definition as the word Depression. Literally, to depress is to press down, which we still recognize when a doctor uses a tongue depresser to see the back of our throat. But since the latter part of the 19th century the word has been used to describe a state of our psyche, and more recently, the word itself has perhaps become victim to its own original sense by having its meaning “pressed down.” Rather than clarifying – repeated use of the word depression has given the idea a quality of vagueness. Perhaps it is the vagueness that allows the psychiatric community to take liberties in the diagnostics and treatment of what we now call depression.

But it seems to me that when we are depressed we cannot quite say what it is we are. Are we sad, tired, weary, hopeless, lonely, or have we lost our sense of meaning and purpose, becoming disillusioned? Maybe we don’t feel much of anything at all and so, we’re just not ourselves. But is every uncomfortable psychic state experienced an illness in need of a cure? In America it seems so.

So, you may ask, what’s wrong with that, isn’t there science aplenty to prove that our moods are just a by-product of brain functioning? And in taking drugs to regulate that functioning – if we do in fact feel better we must have had a chemical imbalance right? …and therefore an illness? Well not if double blind tests show that every method used to treat depression, including a placebo, show at best a 50% rate of alleviating symptoms in the short term (4-6 weeks).  But there’s lots of commercial interest in manufacturing depression as an illness when your business is selling cures.

The DSM-IV clinical definition does not attempt to explain how or why one would come to be depressed and doesn’t care. Their definitions of pathology attempt to convince us that we have a disease, something gone wrong in the physical state of our brain and body. Like most organizations with a vested commercial interest, there is a reason for the APA’s framing of conditions. They have a deep, long standing relationship with organizations that are benefitting from marketing depression. It’s not so much that depression or its symptoms do not exist, but that we don’t have definitive answers as to how our mental states relate to things like diet, habit, or other environmental influences.

There has never been a time when we humans did not seek to alter our moods through some form of substance or chemicals. But until recently there has never been an organized attempt to define a symptom as a disease. We do so now because the pharmaceutical companies have spent the last 60 years investing time and resources to develop their chemical cures that they can sell. Our ability to trust and believe in medication should be questioned, especially when the cure is occasionally much worse than the so-called disease. With revolving door relationships between the FDA and the drug manufacturers, the definition of illness and the drugs marketed to cure them have gained legitimacy and acceptance in the culture and that should be suspect.

According to the experts, for one to be diagnosed with a Major Depression:

“Five (or more) of the following symptoms have been present during the same 2-week period and represent a change from previous functioning. Some of the symptoms: (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure. (3) Feelings of worthlessness (4) Poor concentration (5) Thoughts of death.” These might as well be symptoms of stress or chronic pain or illness, but in this case they are symptoms of a so-called illness. With criteria as unscientific and commonplace as this, diagnosing a depression and prescribing drugs for a cure have led to an epidemic in mental illness in the United States. Again, 2 weeks constitutes chronic?

How about Major Happiness? If it’s true that lowered serotonin levels cause depressed states wouldn’t it also be true that heightened levels cause too much happiness? Of course you’ve never heard of this because the idea that serotonin levels are responsible for depression are speculative. And besides, who would want to cure themselves of happiness – even if it were a disease?

In many cases the psychotropic drugs prescribed for mood disorders do help people, by their own assessment. Who can argue with that and who would want to deny anyone their right to be medicated? But who decides what is best for us in a culture that relies on expertise with commercial interests judging the value and safety of both the definition of illness and the drugs used to treat them?

This is where we fail the most in a culture that is increasingly experiencing the breakdown in the quality of our relationships. No wonder we’re depressed. We should be, if not for the current state of the culture and the world at large, then at least for the mysterious, vulnerable predicament that humans have found themselves in since the dawn of existence that we moderns seem sometimes to have forgotten.

Depression, as a descriptive, is only useful for those interested in defining a marketable illness, and those willing to embrace an identity of themselves as pathologically in need of a label to understand themselves. If you take the word away, what other language would you use to define what is going on?  What do we mean when we say we are depressed?

I, for one, have always struggled with words and concepts used to define me because not only is it not helpful, but definitions attempt to keep us from the natural motion of living and because all attempts at embracing an identity tempt us into believing we are static beings, when we are clearly not. Life is hard, we often live in conflict shifting between competing ideas, we struggle daily to meet our basic needs, to give and receive love, and to make peace with ourselves and others. And in our modern world, where the level of comfort has reached unprecedented standards, we have heightened our expectations for perpetual happiness against a background of an often unacknowledged increased vulnerability. We have so much more to lose as much has been given.

For myself, having lived with a life long struggle with life itself, I had to examine my need for an over reaching sense of satisfaction and remember daily to forgive, both myself and others for failing to be all I envision us to be. Being human means being separate, limited, vulnerable, and making our way in a finite existence that includes sickness, pain and death. That is life’s premise, and although challenging, the greatest task may be to simply make our peace with that and do the best we can to be who we are and listen for what is calling us.

The one great thing about being an individual is the freedom we each have to define for ourselves a purpose and meaning that touches us (and hopefully others) enough to sustain us in the day to day. Never sell yourself short on what calls to you. Instead of pursuing happiness, perhaps we should embrace what, where and who we are now.

Some thoughts from James Hillman on depression: http://www.newtherapist.com/hillman8.html

“Today this depression has lost the confines it had in earlier psychiatry. It’s in youth, children, and the term is used very broadly. But it is so important to get back to what experience that person (depression sufferer) is in.”
“In practice, for people to say I am depressed is insufficient, it won’t do. I want to know what, where, how, what are the physical correlates, what do you eat, what happens when you are in that chair and when you get up out of the chair. I want to know an enormous amount about your body.”

Thanks Brian, Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight.

Don’t Give Up

Perhaps the Greeks had it right and the common strand running through all of our lives is tragedy- of one sort or another. Often, I wonder why in these modern times, it seems so hard to acknowledge our struggles and yes, our deepest, darkest personal tragedies. Why do our lives seem to be lived with the frustration of a fleeting self “not quite yet where or who I need to be?” Perhaps that is how it should be, and our sense of incompleteness drives us ever onward, providing an open-ended impetus to live life as it comes to us and to “keep on keeping on.”

In reading Peter Ames Carlin’s “Catch A Wave,” the story of Brian Wilson, I am touched by how it is, that after striving for and achieving so much in his life, a life he almost lost to drugs and despair, that he somehow finds his way back. It doesn’t always happen that way. Even among the Wilson brothers, both Dennis and Carl died young from the consequences of their addictions.

It may be hard to say why some don’t make it back, and that’s not my task here because perhaps there isn’t always a way to answer for that. For some, the story ends too soon, in the midst of tragedy, a life may end and there is no redemption that we know of. No way to find the story in one’s unique person, time and place, perhaps because life can be lived too caught up in a myth not truly ours, but living through us like some unknown god that we can not see- with a claim on us never fully understood.

But for those who do make it back, we can, if nothing else, at least appreciate the struggle- both the pain and the beauty of redemption.

I believe that one of the gifts that we humans have that can bring us back is that of finding ourselves within a particular story that is both uniquely ours and yet still shares some common theme of what it is to be human.

At the heart of that struggle are our ideas of ourselves, the very language we use to tell the story that is uniquely ours. Without a story, there is no comprehension, no chance of parsing through and separating out what makes us unique, and why we must respect what is uniquely ours and not fear it. It is our language that tells the story- giving us the words and ideas we need to make sense of it all.

That is why I would argue that the words we use, the ideas we have of ourselves and others that tell the story of who we are, how we got here and where we’re going, are what make us and move us to become more fully who we are. As a friend of mine brilliantly says, “there are two days worth celebrating- The day you were born and the day you understand why you were born.” There’s a power in language that we must acknowledge and respect if we are to live authentically.

And how we define ourselves, through the story of our lives, carries us from the past, holds us in our present understanding of both ourselves and the world around us, and allows or limits our potential for movement, from where we are now to some other place. That is our only hope of freedom, freedom from our past, from the gods that would have sway over us and our fate, and keep us from finding our unique path which ultimately brings into being, the true character we are trying to become.

So how we define ourselves is absolutely the most important thing we do. Words and ideas have everything to do with our ability to see ourselves in the world we live in. Words have power over us, like it or not. For instance, if we say we are depressed, without taking care to refine our language  and to say what that really means, we short change ourselves and at the same time, we shrink our understanding of what we feel by failing to give it a full chorus of meaning.

Here is Peter Ames Carlin’s description of Brian Wilson’s lyric writing during the darkest time of his life:

“When Brian lay in his bed for days at a time, listening to the music being recorded beneath his feet and pondering the distance between who he’d been in the mid 1960’s and who he had come to be in the early 70’s, there could be no more accurate portrait than the lyrics of “A Day in the Life of a Tree.

‘One day I was full of my life, my sap was rich and I was strong…

But now my branches suffer, and my leaves don’t offer

poetry to men of song.’

“From that point, when the music swells and the voices rise into the interlocking harmonies that Brian had once created so effortlessly, the conclusion they reach about the plight of the tree- or any sensitive creature- is chilling:”

‘No life’s left to be found…

There’s nothing left for me.’

“But now, with so much music behind him, the fruits of his success all around (including the shimmering Rolls-Royce he drove to the beach), and the power to do anything he wanted with the rest of his life, Brian realized that he still felt as lost, alone and terrified as he ever had. Back at his piano a few hours later, the feelings become a series of floating augmented chords, a melody, and then, finally, words.”

‘I’m a cork on the ocean

Floating over the raging sea

I lost my way.’

“Til I die, as Brian came to call the song, was another of his small musical miracles, so removed from traditional pop structures that the chords seemed to drift from key to key as if they were just as unmoored as the narrator. The lyrics, written without the assistance of a collaborator  are both straightforward and evocative as the physical analogies in each verse- the cork adrift on the ocean, the rock tumbling into the valley, the leaf losing its grip in a windstorm-conclude with a concise expression of the feelings the image represents: ‘I lost my way, it kills my soul, until I die.’ “

There’s no simplicity of diagnosis; no depression, but rather enriched language, seeing oneself in nature’s metaphors, placing oneself at the mercy of deep feeling, not seeking an escape from one’s circumstances, but through the ideas that language presents, a chance to be furthered along, saved by the possibilities that the metaphor presents. A cork may float, but may also reach some new place and so find itself further along in the story of its life.

Thank you Peter Gabriel for the theme:

“Though I saw it all around
Never thought I could be affected
Thought that we’d be the last to go
It is so strange the way things turn

Drove the night toward my home
The place that I was born, on the lakeside
As daylight broke, I saw the earth
The trees had burned down to the ground” Peter Gabriel