Most traditional therapies seek to define an ego, strengthen boundaries, make clear the distinctions between me and Them. James Hillman thinks that with this goal therapy will never cure the soul. His own approach is more non-dual: a call for a therapy that instead of removing the soul from the world, recognizes that the soul is also in the world.
Such attitudes have not endeared Hillman to members of the psychology profession who view him as an irreverent gadfly, known for such controversial books as Inter Views and In Search: Psychology and Religion. The profession cannot easily dismiss him, however, because of his solid credentials as a Jungian analyst of thirty years, a one-time student of Carl Jung, and the former director of Zurich’s Jung Institute.
This most recent book has a three-part structure of two dialogues and an exchange of letters between Hillman and L.A. Weekly columnist Michael Ventura. Their style is informal and wild, that of two jazz players free-associating off one another. Some readers may be put off, as I frequently was, by Ventura’s L.A. vernacular (replete with “fuckin’s”), so urban one can hear the sirens in the background. Others may enjoy Ventura’s breezy tone as a counterpoint to Hillman’s elegance. The lively match of voices sustains a momentum that can encompass a broad range of topics: sexuality and madness, the New Age, ecology, the idealization of the Inner Child, as well as the glorification of support groups for binge-eating, incest, ad infinitum.
Much of the dialogue is a plea that we stop defining ourselves by our pasts, particularly by the dysfunctions in our family histories. Hillman says that the present is too often converted into the past, and the question of “Who am I?” reduced to “How did I get this way?” We remain trapped in a “me” created by memories and conditioning we take personally instead of seeing “my” feelings as a nexus of ideas and events.
Although Hillman is not a Buddhist, much of the time he sounds like one. He sees the self as a product of society, nature, history and conditioning, with no core identity of its own. According to Hillman, the self is not fixed early on but is created every moment, with every bite, every word. Fear comes from identification with the past and a belief in the individual me. This “me” needs to be dissolved so we can see that “existence is multiple, and I am never only myself.”
Because Western therapy tends to look exclusively at the history of the little me, it filters experience through a lens of causality about what happened back then. Other cultures, Hillman states, would not do that. They would look at a web of hundreds of other influences: the plants, the water, the tribe, who cast a spell on you, the gods.
Hillman’s sense of “a self among, not a self apart” calls for a therapy grounded in deep interconnectedness. Therapy needs to enable us to open our hearts from the pain of the past to the suffering of others now. The world is getting worse, because we stop at “my” feelings, “my” personal guilt. Along with a discovery of a self in the world comes the knowledge that part of sickness originates in the world—the buildings, the schools, the institutions—and so part of “our” healing must be the world’s healing.
We have gone astray, according to Hillman, on journeys that focus on personal destiny as opposed to the “psychic field.” Again in a non-dual vein, he says,
“By going in we’re maintaining a Cartesian view that the world out there is dead matter and the world inside is living,” instead of a view where the boundaries are less sure between self and the oceans and rivers, the air and the forest and the soil. “I would be with myself when I’m with others. And ‘others’ would not include just other people . . . (but) a psychic field. And if I am not in a psychic field with others—with people, buildings, animals, trees—I am not.”
An authentic therapy, therefore, would look beyond the ego to symptoms located in the disorders of multiple systems. Most therapy brings people into line so they can cope better, and this method perpetuates the unhealthy systems that produced the symptoms. An eating disorder, for instance, is as much a political as a personal problem, connected to agribusiness, fertilizers, advertising, diets and potato chips. We have to work on cures that are beyond “my” cure.
Although the positing of a non-dual self may have a Buddhist ring, Hillman has some harsh words about meditation. Withdrawal, retreat into the transcendent Absolute are attempts at individual salvation, as if the self were private property. In seeing through the personal self, one must orient oneself to a web of interconnections.
Hillman chooses these words from Wallace Stevens to speak for him:
. . . . . . . . . . The way through the world
Is more difficult than the way beyond it.
The lure of “beyond” is attractive, but Hillman challenges us to take the more difficult path.