What does our psyche want now?

I recently attended a talk by the American depth psychologist and author James Hollis, whose books I had long admired.

James Hollis

James Hollis

“I often ask my new clients if they they think they have a soul and what it may be asking of them,” he said. That made me think. Hollis did not mean soul in the Christian sense, but rather the part of us that is separate from our ego, that is part of our unconscious and that has a connection to something larger than ourselves.

In the traditional religious meaning, soul is opposite to body, but in depth psychology soul refers to the Greek word psyche. Rather than being this ethereal, floaty thing that many of us imagine, in this sense soul is closely connected to our human experience, particularly our deep emotions, our longings, our joys, our mystery. This was an idea developed particularly by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman.

By ego, I mean the part of ourselves that we are aware of and which we think of as ‘us’, but which is only the tip of the iceberg and does not encompass our unconscious. It is our ego that tries to control our lives, and our environment, and which is constantly on the lookout for threats.

We need our ego to run the business of life, but if its needs dominate then our psyche/soul may need to make itself felt through neurosis and painful symptoms.

Writing in his book What Matters Most, Hollis says soul is a metaphor to describe our essence: “It is the energy that blows through us, that enters us at birth, animates our journey, and then departs, whither we know not, at our passing.”

Soul, by its nature, is actually impossible to fully define. While it lives in the unconscious it is constantly making itself felt in our conscious lives, through our emotions, dreams and imagination.

The reason Hollis asks his clients if they think they have a soul is because he is wanting to get away from the assumptions many people bring to therapy; that they have a ‘problem’ and that it is somehow the therapist’s job to get rid of this problem.

Depth work is not about solving the problem but about recovering the life we’ve somehow lost along the way, he says. Clients often come with a symptom, such as an addiction, a depression, an anger issue or a relationship problem, and they want the therapy to eradicate this symptom.

But depth therapy does not “cure” people or eradicate symptoms. “We don’t solve these problems, we outgrow them,” says Hollis. But to outgrow them may mean exploring what the meaning of the symptom is, what is our psyche trying to get us to pay attention to in our lives?

Mostly we are governed by our egos and we think we know what we want or what we need. But the psyche/soul may have a different idea of where we need to go. It is our ego that desperately wants to get rid of the symptom.

Some approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), try to get rid of the problem the client brings. CBT can help, and I use some CBT  approaches in my integrative therapy. But my experience is that often CBT can seemingly get rid of the symptom, only for it to re-appear in another form. If the underlying issues are not dealt with this is always a risk.

But how do we know what our psyche is asking of us? One way of exploring this is through therapy with a practitioner who has experience in working with the unconscious. Other ways in include noticing our dreams and what they may be telling us.

As palliative care doctor, and therapist, Michael Kearney says in his book Mortally Wounded: “My own personal and work experience has [shown me]…that soul is connected to depth, to death, to the imagination, and that it brings with it a sense of meaning.”

 

Further reading

By James Hollis:

Swamplands of the Soul, Inner City Books, 1996

What Matters Most, Gotham Books, 2010

By Michael Kearney:

Mortally Wounded, Morino Books, 1996

Finding meaning in depression

 

Depression is, understandably, usually regarded as an extremely negative experience. After all, it is painful to feel and can rob us of our enthusiasm, energy and enjoyment of relationships.

Many people come to counselling and therapy because they feel dissatisfied with life, have unhappy relationships or are stressed in some way. Underneath these symptoms there is often a depression.

In our culture we tend to try and get rid of depression when it appears, using pills or pragmatic advice such as ‘take more exercise’ or ‘count your blessings’. While for some there may be a role for anti-depressants or practical tips, sometimes we need to go a bit deeper and look at what the depression may be trying to say.

Being curious

A therapist working in a soulful way, while acknowledging the pain a depressed client is feeling, does not automatically try to ‘fix’ the client by trying to take the painful feelings away. Instead, he or she is curious about what may underlie the depressed feelings.

For example, in some cases it could be a buried anger that has never been acknowledged by the client but has now been turned inward in the form of depression.  Or it could be related to extremely painful experiences in childhood that have never been truly mourned.

Depression may also be a symptom that we are pushing down – literally ‘depressing’ – a part of ourselves that needs to be heard or honoured. For example, if we are living a life that is really in line with what our parents approvd of rather than what we ourselves longed for, those unmet needs may result in depression.

Suppression of life force

James Hollis, author of Swamplands of the Soul, believes that depression is often a suppression of a person’s life force and that everyone experiences depression at some point. He says: “The psyche uses depression to get our attention, to show that something is profoundly wrong. Once we understand its therapeutic value…then depression can even seem a friend of sorts.”

While it may be possible to understand some of what may be causing a depression, that does not mean it will necessarily lift quickly. A therapist working in a soulful way must be prepared to be with his or her client as they struggle with depressed feelings, resisting the temptation to “rescue” the client with false reassurances.

At times we do not know what is beneath the depression and we simply need to accept and sit with it in a compassionate way, trusting that it is there for a reason. This compassion can help heal, over time, even if our ego is desperate for the pain to disappear more quickly.

 

 

Therapy with soul

“Any therapy which does not address the issues of soul must remain superficial in the end.”

James Hollis

Although the word “soul” has religious connotations, when I talk about bringing soul into therapy I am talking about taking a deeper view, which embraces the mystery of a person’s life and the problems they may be struggling with.

This means is that, as a soulful therapist, I try and resist the temptation to ‘fix’ the problem in a superficial way. Often attempts to resolve problems quickly do not last as the symptom returns in the same, or a different, manifestation.

Instead of seeing a client’s struggle with, say, addiction, depression or sexual problems as a symptom to cured I am interested in what this particular symptom may be saying about the person’s life and their unconscious longings and fears.

That does not mean ignoring the symptom. We need to, and the client will insist, that we attend to the problem he or she is bringing. But it does mean that we also look beneath the presenting issue to what else may be going on in that person’s life journey.

A major part of working soulfully is engaging with the shadow, which is what Jung called that part of ourselves that we reject because it does not match our self-image. The shadow often contains anger, jealousy, selfishness, lust and other ‘negative’ feelings.

Jungian therapist and author James Hollis describes working with soul in his book Swamplands of the Soul. He argues that it is the difficulties in our life – the compulsions, the  depressions, the anxieties – that mould us and create meaning. But we need to look beneath these symptoms, he says, and feel the feelings that are being covered.

He says; “Without the suffering, which seems to be the…requisite for psychological and spiritual maturation, one would remain unconscious, infantile and dependent. Yet many of our addictions, ideological attachments and neuroses are flights from suffering.”

If we are able to explore what feelings are being covered over by addiction, depression and anxiety we often discover anger (or even rage), sadness and grief. These feelings can seem so raw and frightening that we are afraid to touch them.

But, as therapist John Bradshaw says, “You can’t heal, what you can’t feel.”

A soulful approach takes us down, down into these feelings, down into the shadow. It asks what what meaning or purpose, if any, there may be in these feelings and related experiences. What it does not try and do is superficially ‘cure’ the symptom.

One way of giving painful experiences, such as abandonment or abuse, some meaning beyond our personal experience is through stories, myths and archetypes (universal symbols or patterns of behaviour).

In his book We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse, archetypal psychologist James Hillman gives the example of a man who, as a child. was abused by his father. Hillman opens up the possibility that this experience could be seen as a kind of initiatory experience, a way of understanding archetypal/universal themes concerning rage between fathers and sons, vengeance and submission.

By re-framing the experience in this way, “I’ve moved the memory, somehow, from just being a child victim of a mean father. I’ve entered fairy tales and I’ve entered myths, literature, movies. With my suffering I’ve entered an imaginal, not just a traumatic, world.”

While I agree, up to a point, with Hillman my concern is that this approach is not used to bypass the legitimate rage and sadness that the victim may feel. It may be necessary to first experience the victim feelings before being in a place to explore the mythical or archetypal elements.

But what I think Hillman is pointing at is our tendency to rigidly judge our experience as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Yes, being treated abusively is clearly ‘bad’. It affects our self-esteem, our ability to form trusting relationships and so on. But there may also something in that experience that forms our character, that perhaps gives us an extra sensitivity to other people’s suffering or that encourages us to seek an outlet in creativity.

As Hillman says: “Wounds and scars are the stuff of character. The word ‘character’ means at root ‘marked or etched with sharp lines,’ like initiation cuts.”