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James Hillman: Follow Your Uncertainty

Looking for answers? Hillman has lots of questions.

Each year therapists are required to get a prescribed number of continuing education hours to maintain licensure. Countless classes offer therapists technique-focused courses. Course catalogs are replete with promises to help us be better therapists, attract more clients and have more significant success with our caseloads. And while such classes have their appeal, it is the James Hillman event each spring, in Santa Barbara, California, that is the highlight of the CEU calendar; this is especially true for those of us who are psychodynamic psychotherapists, and certainly for me. Hillman's annual event draws therapists from all over the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and countries that don't even share a U.S. border. Participants find their way to Pacifica Graduate Institute in order to sit for three days with the Philosopher-in-chief of the psychological community.

James Hillman, the father of Archetypal Psychology and the author of The New York Times Best Seller, The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Re-Visioning Psychology, could be the Joseph Campbell of our day. If only Bill Moyers and PBS would invite the charming, funny, and alarmingly bright Hillman to sit down and create some pledge drive programming, I feel sure that Hillman would soon after be as misquoted as Campbell (Campbell would likely be horrified to learn how misused his "Follow your bliss" has become, and how one can buy bumper stickers, coffee cups and tee-shirts with this phrase that has had the life drained out of it by repetition); however, Dr, Hillman isn't as easily (mis)quotable as Campbell---Hillman is a man who doesn't offer much in the way of sound bite philosphy and perhaps that is why Wayne Dyer and the like are on PBS instead.

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Dr. Hillman is in his 80's and yet vigorously and energetically embodies the Puer Eternus (forever boy/Peter Pan) energy that he writes so much about. He embodies paradox and pairs-of-opposites in a way that transcends Jung's initial notions of Analytic psychology. Alternately, this energizes and confounds many (I have therapist friends who love him, and others who love to hate him. And those who fall in the latter category often call on me to defend my pro-Hillman position. People don't tend to be ambivalent about him). His rebellion against many psychological tropes (seriously, don't use words like "anima," "animus," "projection," or any other of the buzz words of psychology without expecting a serious reaction from him) belies his impressive psychology CV. Hillman, a now self-described "Jungian Renegade," was the former President of the Jung Institute in Zurich. Upon returning to the States, he developed a new school of psychology, Archetypal psychology, that has no official school or certifying body (other than Pacifica Graduate Institute that does offer many courses on Archeytpal psychology and embodies the spirit of Anima Mundi, which is at the heart of Hillman's Soul-focused psychology). Hillman, like Joseph Campbell, is leaving his archives to Pacifica Graduate Institute's impressive library of psychodynamic thought; he helped co-found the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture in 1978.

No one leaves a Hillman event feeling safe, secure and certain about the way they are practicing psychotherapy. Rather, Hillman, in the Trickster tradition, unsettles his audience and shakes up their assumptions. I have seen therapists melt down in his presence. Hillman, with his profound intellect, disarming charm and a suffer-no-fools-gladly attitude has shaken up all that they were sure about (note-taking, diagnosing, medicating, dream work, the importance of cure) and takes on politics, architecture, soul-making and other topics that therapists thought were outside of their purview.

His audience is filled with clinicians; however, Hillman no longer treats patients---he now treats ideas. Hillman takes on taboo topics that many in the field wouldn't touch with a ten-foot DSM-IV pole (civics, ecology, social justice, architecture, race and religion), and speaking of the DSM, Hillman prefers mythological texts or literature as a way of understanding human behavior, and encourages therapists to read mythology, philosophy and literature instead of psychology texts as a way to understand the human condition. He believes that they have more to teach us about psychology than anything that the DSM has to say. "She has a Madame Bovary crisis" is, according to Hillman, is a more meaningful way of describing a patient than as narcissistic.

Hillman, in his classic text The Dream and the Underworld, writes about dreams and yet refuses to make meaning of them; rather, he encourages clinicians to stay with the image (not as easy as he makes it sound).  Hillman believes that if you dream of a black snake and you associate that snake with your mother or the Garden of Eden, that you kill the snake of its aliveness. And he is a one-time clinician who argues that We've had 100 years of psychotherapy and the world is getting worse. That last piece of news does not make him the most popular man at the American Psychological Association's cocktail parties. If what you want is Positive psychology Hillman is not your man; James Hillman is no Martin Seligman. This is a man who isn't afraid of looking at the dark side or saying things that are unpopular or politically incorrect.

Hillman warns that hope is a cruel thing to give a patient, that depression is the appropriate response to the world we live in, and that adolescent rebellion and Dionysian wildness is not something to be treated but something that the world requires. He also argues against one of psychology's favorite terms: "growth." Hillman suggests that growth is cancerous. You read that right; Hillman is one of the few in the field of therapy to dare to question the idea of growth. Growth, according to Hillman, is for children and, after a certain age, growth means cancer. Hillman asserts that our obsession with growth is connected to the culture's unhealthy and stunted obsession with the Child archetype. He suggests that becoming more of one's Self is to become smaller, shrinking illusions and pretensions. These are not popular ideas in popular psychology yet Hillman's events are almost always sold out.

When Hillman questions some of the basic tenets of psychology, audiences turn to him to come up with answers. Hillman retorts to such pleas in his dry New England style, "I don't have answers. I have questions." And perhaps that is the real gift of being with Hillman: in the Socratic tradition, he leaves us with more questions than answers. He expands our capacity for ambiguity, uncertainty, not-knowing and tolerating the terror of not having answers for our patients' problems. It isn't the kind of goal of a psychology workshop that you hear advertised at your local Learning Annex, "Learn to Tolerate Ambiguity." I feel sure such a workshop, if offered, might have a lower attendance rate than "Fun with Tax Codes." However, it is a lesson that therapists need to learn and a lesson that Hillman is a master at teaching. As Depth-oriented psychotherapists, it isn't our job to have answers (even though there are occasions in which our patients want us to have them); it is our job to tolerate the unknowing and to help our patients do the same, which ultimately helps our patients come up with their own answers.

Ever since I first read Plato, I have had dreams of going to his Academy and learning from his unrelenting questioning. Since Plato isn't offering continuing education units, I will next month make my annual pilgrimage to the Hillman event. For two days my mind, psyche and ideas will be expanded. I will be filled with questions, doubts, uncertainty and not knowing---and I just can't wait. If you can't make the trip to Santa Barbara, March 12-13th, to see Hillman's presentation of "A Life in Depth Psychology: Looking Back, Looking Forward" at Pacifica Graduate Institute then you might want to check out these Hillman classics: Re-Visioning PsychologyThe Dream and the Underworld and The Soul's Code

Copyright Tracey Cleantis 2011

Photo of Dr. James Hillman by Cheryl Can Scoy

Tracey Cleantis is a writer and a licensed marriage and family therapist.

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