The last living legend of 20th-century American psychotherapy advocates “pagan psychology” at Santa Barbara’s Pacifica Graduate Institute
BY SMADAR DE LANGE — People go to psychologists and psychiatrists to seek help for universal issues such as loneliness, anxiety and emptiness. But what happens in a psychotherapy session is that those feelings are branded — and treated — as subjective experiences, phenomena that are unique to the patient. Instead of freeing people from the tyranny of the personality, today’s psychotherapy reinforces an individual’s separation and isolation from universal human conditions — and digs people deeper into the myth of subjective experience. It enslaves them more to this fragile construct called personality.
So argues James Hillman, the American psychologist who developed “archetypal psychology.” The perspective of Archetypal Psychology is that each being is a portal to the enfoldment of all humanity’s collective history. Thus, a client sitting on a couch in a psychotherapy session is not only an individual challenged by reality. The client’s psyche is also the product of thousands of years of the human story, which has conditioned the client’s mind.
It was amazing to watch Hillman lead a frontal assault on the very profession and practices of his audience of psychotherapists. He blames modern psychotherapy for emphasizing and increasing the subjective experience of isolation, which is the basis of all suffering in the human condition.
According to Hillman, the challenge of handling the conditioned mind does not necessarily rely on the thought process: the nude, I thought, leads one down a blind alley. Instead of inquiring into each thought and undressing it from its conditioning, Hillman suggests observing the perception, and keeping in mind that it’s the end result of thousands years of history.
The Western mind, he noted, has been conditioned for 2,000 years by the dualism coded into Christianity — the notion, for example, that “Father God” is an entity outside of us to be mediated, rather than a universal force or fabric that embodies us and animates us from within. Christian dualism also shows up in the apparent dichotomy between good and evil, heaven and hell, light and darkness.
Hillman pointed out that linear thinking, such as cause and affect, is the dominant paradigm of that conditioned mind. Yet in its place, one can develop a spatial perception of phenomena that appear in our reality. Hillman labels this approach to perception, the Pagan way.
When asked by a rapt listener if there is a future? Hillman answered that the future is the biggest delusion ever concocted by the mind and the machinery of thought.
A spatial perception and way of being, our natural state from the beginning of time, holds one’s experience within an eternal now.
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