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In Memoriam: James Hillman

May 11, 2013

Hillman photoOn Saturday May 5th at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, just off Central Park, I attended a tribute celebration honoring James Hillman. The event was a beautiful and moving combination of short talks, music, memories, poems, artwork, animation, photographs, cartoons, films and videos – notably of James Hillman elegantly tap dancing on his 60th birthday.

The tribute was given by a wide range of people including: David Miller (Professor of Religion at Syracuse University); Rick Tarnas (Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies); James’s wife, Margot, and three of his grandchildren; James’s barber of twenty years and his tap dance teacher; Helen Hunt, the actress; John Densmore, the ex-drummer from ‘the Doors’; Coleman Barks (the poet and, in my opinion, the best interpreter of Rumi); Michael Meade and Robert Bly (from James’s days in the Mens’ Movement) and many others.

So what has James Hillman to do with Madre Ayahuasca?

As I wrote in a previous post about six writers, including James Hillman, well worth reading, I feel very fortunate to have had the benefit of attending three one–week workshops with James Hillman at Schumacher College in England in the 1990’s. These workshops were for a relatively small number of people – usually around 20 – and gave me an opportunity to be in the sustained presence of someone who it is not an exaggeration to call a genius.

One of the remarkable things about James Hillman, in addition to his huge erudition, great wit, low tolerance to suffer fools, and scathing cultural critique, was his ability to allow others into the process by which he formulated his thinking and let them participate in it.  Never have ideas seemed so exciting.

His thought was constantly being forged anew in the moment rather than being the expression of pre-packaged ideas. Rick Tarnas points out in his excellent lecture series about James Hillman on Youtube that, having known James for twenty years or so and attended many conferences in which he spoke, he never (unlike most speakers) gave the same talk twice. He always used the occasion to engage with the themes of the event and create something original. This is a rare ability.

I also attended one of the regular yearly weekend workshops he gave at the Pacifica Institute in Santa Barbara in March 2010 on the archetypes of ‘The Senex and Puer’, when he was 86 years old and still sharp as a razor-blade. This was just after I had drank ayahuasca for the first time.  In subsequent ceremonies, I often found his ideas, and sometimes his presence, coming back to me and helping me understand the experiences I was having with Madre Ayahausca.

As I continued to imaginatively engage with Madre Ayahuasca, James Hillman, and his ideas, I prayed that he would be able to give at least one more workshop so I could ask him the questions I had begun to formulate. I was therefore delighted to hear that he would give a further weekend workshop at Pacifica Institute in the spring of 2011 entitled “A Lifetime in Archetypal Psychology”. Sadly, the workshop was cancelled a few weeks beforehand when James became ill with a recurrence of bone cancer, and he subsequently died in October the same year.

soul of worldPerhaps James Hillman’s greatest achievement was to bring back soul into psychology. This was no wishy-washy, new-age formulation of soul but was rigorously imagined within the Western cultural tradition going back to Heraclitus and continuing through Plato, Plotinus and the neo-Platonists, the Renaissance figures of Vico and Ficino, and the English Romantic poets.

Hillman made a sharp distinction between soul and spirit, which are often conflated. He saw spirit as moving upwards, seeking transcendence, looking for unity, absoluteness and tending towards monotheism, whilst soul sought depth, attachment in the world, multiplicity and polytheism. If the home of spirit was the high mountains then the home of soul was wooded valleys. Hillman pointed out that soul was synonymous with psyche, was intimately connected with death, and was not a thing but an imaginative, personifying perspective that gave meaning to our lives.

In my ayahuasca ceremonies, I found myself exploring what I thought of as the imaginative landscape of my soul and Hillman’s ideas gave me further confidence in this exploration. I thought that it was not for nothing that Madre Ayahuasca was known as ‘the vine of souls’ or ‘the vine of death’.

In a remarkable essay called “The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World”, Hillman went further with his idea of soul. It was no longer just an attribute of individuals but was possessed by every being, both animate and inanimate in the world.

He was able to provide compelling arguments for the medieval idea of the ‘anima mundi’ (the soul of the world), which is typically understood by the dominant, scientific, materialist tradition to be a primitive idea, found also in indigenous, animistic cosmovisions. For Hillman, there is no sharp dividing line between the “I” and the world, that is, there is no strict division between what is inside and outside. The world, like us, is ensouled and enchanted. This has helped me take more seriously conversations I have had during ceremonies with supposedly inanimate things such as my vomit bowl and a wooden door.


Hillman took seriously Jung’s idea that image was primordial in the psyche and that imagination is the primary ground of our being, from which all thought stems. Furthermore we are always seeing and experiencing the world through these structuring processes of the imagination called archetypes, defined as “the deepest patterns of psychic functioning”. Hillman saw these archetypes expressed in the Greek gods, which he saw as offering distinct modes of consciousness contained within the multiplicity of the psyche.

I find Hillman’s ideas of soul, image and archetype invaluable in helping reflect upon my experiences with Madre Ayahuasca. I think it is important that the visions we have and images that we see with Madre Ayahuasca are not taken too literally – in the same way that we rarely take our dreams at face value.

The two questions that I had dearly wanted to ask James Hillman were the following:

“I have found your perspective on soul invaluable in helping affirm and take seriously the imaginative experiences I have had with Madre Ayahuasca. I see that others have experiences that I understand as being more in the realm of spirit – of blissful transcendence, and of white light, which I do not have. Do you think I am missing out?”

“I can see, following your work, how everything we experience is mediated by archetypes as fundamental ways of perceiving and interpreting the world. What, if anything, lies beyond and apart from these archetypes? Or is this a meaningless question”

I guess I will now have to answer these questions myself.

ADDENDUM: For an excellent and extensive compilation of tributes to James Hillman made by Thomas Moore click here.

  1. I, too, benefited from the work and presence of James Hillman, having attended several of his workshops in the mid-nineties. He totally rearranged my thinking, from the intensity of the workshops and reading a number of his books. In the last decade, I had put his work aside, although his influence in my thinking never waned, but since his death, I have been thinking a lot about him and so hope that his work and ideas don’t disappear from the cultural conversation.
    So, I have been re-introducing his work on a blog that I have been keeping in the hopes that others who share an interest in wanting to explore what is going wrong in the culture can consider Hillman’s ideas and keep the conversation going.
    If there was one book I would recommend to anyone interested it is the book you reference, The Thought of the Heart and Soul of the World. This work more than anything else I have read by him, sums up the trouble in our misplaced hearts that he writes about in the first essay, and the trouble with our dead world, that he takes up in the 2nd essay.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Five Reasons to Despise Positive Thinking | Conversations with Don Machinga and Other Beings
  2. The Council of the Elders | Conversations with Don Machinga and Other Beings
  3. Entering the Spirit of the World | Conversations with Don Machinga and Other Beings
  4. More on Moore: the Planets Within and Madre Ayahauasca | Conversations with Don Machinga and Other Beings

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