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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is James Hollis. Jim, as he’s called by friends and associates, is a Jungian analyst, a former director of the Jung Society of Washington, DC, and is a professor of Jungian studies for Saybrook University of San Francisco/Houston. During this recording, he told me that he was just turning 80 years old. Jim is a bestselling author whose 15 books include Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. Jim Hollis is a bestselling author, whose 15 books include Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, What Matters Most, and Living an Examined Life. With Sounds True, Jim Hollis has recorded an audio learning series called Through the Dark Wood, and written a new book, Living Between Worlds: Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times. Recently, I’ve heard more and more people talking about how we have come upon a time where people are admitting that they are looking for more meaning in their life. And in my view, this search for meaning is the topic that Jim Hollis has devoted his entire life to exploring. If there was ever a person that I would call a meaning expert—not an expert in where meaning is out there, but where it is for each of us in our own experience—that person is James Hollis. Here’s my conversation. Listen in.
Jim, your new book is called Living Between the Worlds: Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times. It sounds like a book that was written right now, during the COVID-19 challenge, this sense of being between the worlds and needing to find resilience in challenging times. And yet, you conceived of this book and wrote this book a couple years ago and over the past couple years; that’s how long it takes with Sounds True for a book to come through its whole passage. What do you think? Were you prescient in a certain kind of way?
James Hollis: No, I don’t think so. Frankly, it’s a subject that has been of interest to me from the very beginning, in all the other books at some level. We live in a civilization that’s in constant transition. And, as Matthew Arnold put it once and this quote’s in the book, we wander “between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born,” and we’ve lived in-between times, really since the 19th century, with the decline of a lot of the great institutions in the Western world and all that psychic identification and sort of containment and direction that has often fallen back onto the human psyche. Some people have been able to find very meaningful encounters with that opportunity, and others, of course, have regressed and/or joined mass movements of all kinds and secular distractions and so forth. So I couldn’t have known two years ago when I started what was headed towards us, but something is always headed toward us. So it wasn’t a question of prescience, it was a question of just saying, “Nothing is constant in life and we find ourselves frequently between understandings of ourselves and how the world works and we have to go back to the smithy and rework that periodically.”
TS: Well, then, let’s go on and talk about resilience for a moment. I pulled a quote from the book about resilience. And I’ve pulled several quotes from the book—it’s a very quotable book, I might add—that I’d love us to talk about. And here’s the one: you write, “Jung concluded that there was, within each of us, a deep resilience guided by some locus of knowing, independent of ego consciousness.” OK, that sounds like a mouthful, but I want to start here, because I’ve never seen as many broadcasts and conversations about the topic of resilience as I’m seeing now during this global pandemic. It’s a theme for our time, and here and [in] the writing that you did a couple years ago, you focused on it. And once again, “Jung concluded that there was, within each of us, a deep resilience guided by some locus of knowing, independent of ego consciousness.” Can you explain that locus of knowing that’s outside, independent of ego consciousness?
JH: Sure. The ego tends to appoint itself as the chief executor and thinks it’s the boss and it’s in charge and is conscious and knows what it’s doing. And in fact, there are many other independent operations going on in all of us, ranging from our digestion to our cellular exchange and so forth. And then we have to ask ourselves, “And what creates our moods? And what creates our dreams at night? What sort of spontaneously erupts and produces our symptoms?” There are whole other areas of autonomous “knowing”— and I put “knowing” in quotes, because it’s often in the unconscious. But they represent the sort of multiplicitousness of the human psyche. It’s not a single operation as the ego believes but a whole range of deeper responses to the tasks of life.
And there’s something inside of each of us—this is what you’ll call the Self, and with a capital “S” to differentiate it from the ego—that is observant, paying attention to how things are going from its perspective, and expressing its disfavor when it’s violated or ignored. What we call symptoms are expressions of psyche’s disfavor, expressions of protest from that other locus of knowing, that says, “This is injurious to the soul.” When I use the word “soul,” I’m meaning that the literal sense of the Greek word “psyche.” So it’s a form of summons, or accountability. And if it’s true that there’s something in each of us that’s observing our life, knows what’s right for us, and is seeking to communicate with us, it only makes sense from time to time to stop and pay attention and say, “What does that other deeper layer of my own being trying to communicate to me?”
TS: And then you mentioned symptoms can be an expression, messages from this locus of knowing. Can you give me some examples of that?
JH: Well, I think the first that comes to mind is what we call a depression. When a depression is not biologically driven, it’s usually psyche’s way of withdrawing energy from wherever we’re putting it. In other words, I could spend all of my energies trying to be successful, whatever that means, and climb the mountain and even achieve all the goals, but if that emotional satisfaction that we expect will arise then is missing, then you realize the psyche is not amused, it’s not impressed. And rather than just say, “Well, how quickly do I get rid of the depression? Or do I medicate that away?” We would say, “Why has psyche withdrawn its approval and support of my executive choices?” And then to ask a very radical and yet obvious question, “What would psyche want me to do instead?”
So let’s say if we’re adapted to and serving cultural goals around us that are supposed to give happiness and life satisfaction and they’re not, then maybe we need to re-examine those goals and what it is that really deeply touches and moves our souls. So frankly, we override our symptoms. We have them constantly, we override them until they intensify and knock on the door so loudly we can’t avoid paying attention to them. Not many people pay attention to their dreams, for example. But every night, on an average, we have about six dreams, and if you live to be 80 years old, six entire years of your life will have been spent dreaming. And that’s a lot of activity, and nature doesn’t waste energy. It would make sense to say, “What’s going on there, and what do I need to learn from that?” But looking within is often the last place we would think of looking.
TS: Jim, I want to bring this really down to earth for someone who’s listening, who is looking to be more resilient right now during this period. Maybe they’re suffering from an economic setback right now, or they’re feeling a certain amount of loss during this time, maybe loss of a certain status that they had, or maybe they’re even ill, they’re needing to draw and find some resilience in their life. How would you take this quote from Jung that you introduce right in the beginning of the book in a chapter called “Life in the Between,” that this power of resilience is guided by this locus of knowing, independent of ego consciousness? How would you bring that right down to what someone could do to feel more resilient?
JH: Sure. Well, first of all, I would want to empathize greatly with the sorrows and with the disappointments and frustrations that people are feeling all around us. The damage is real, and I think it’s going to continue for a long time. On the other hand, life has always been difficult and I would always want to summon the recognition by an individual that I have within me, the resources that carried my ancestors through very difficult times. I have within me the powers of bouncing back and of working through things. We often think about how our ancestors suffered and often had perilous lives. Well, we do too, in quite different ways.
And at the same time, to recognize, “All right, you go through something by going through it, not by finding a shortcut.” And part of what’s happening now, of course, is when individuals feel those distresses, it activates anxiety quite naturally. And when anxiety is activated, it triggers our earliest stories about ourselves in the world. Those are the stories of our formative childhood and often produces regression, such as excessive self-medication or depending on other people. But there’s also an adult in each of us that if we stop and remember the obvious, “What would the adult do with this? How does the adult cope with this?” And it requires that kind of recognition that, “I have resources, nature gives them to me.”
Rilke wrote in one of his Letters to a Young Poet, he said, “We are set down in life with the resources needed for life. Life is not alien to us, we are in it and we are equipped.” And I think for many people, they’re learning to find the equipment of survival and of adaptation and imaginative possibilities. And I don’t diminish the outer losses at all, which are real, severe, and I think lasting for many.
TS: Jim, right at the beginning of this call before we started recording, I asked you about your own situation. You’re 80 years old now and I had heard from an editor at Sounds True that you had been diagnosed with cancer recently, and you mentioned to me that you’ll be going in for surgery here in just a week. And I thought to myself, “Jim, here he is, he’s recording this podcast conversation with me. He’s working, he tells me he’s seeing clients.” You’re a living example, I think, of engaging with what’s happening, and you’re not collapsing in some way, which I think would be completely a legitimate response from my perspective, to just say, “I’m just going to go inside for a while, not work for a while.” aAd I’d love to know just how you experience your own force of resiliency in your life when faced with something that I think sounds pretty scary.
JH: Well, first of all, what would it serve myself or anyone else to collapse and crawl under the bed, so to speak? My family history had cancer, so it doesn’t come to me as a surprise. And I will be 80 on about five days after this, and the next day is the surgery, so it’s sort of expected and on schedule. But in terms of working, seeing people and so forth, clients, the work is valuable to me. In other words, it’s a meaningful experience. I mean, I don’t want to let folks down who want to engage that kind of conversation that we have in analysis. And I’m enriched by it. I mean, one could work in a frenetic way simply to sort of dance all night to try to stay ahead of the Grim Reaper, but I don’t think that it’s that, it’s probably the most meaningful way I know to live this journey.
A number of years ago, I suffered a loss that was far greater than this, it was the loss of my son, and someone asked me, “Well, how can you cope with that?” And my only answer was, “Well, how would it serve my son if I were to shut down in some way? Isn’t it useful and important for me to honor him by continuing to embody, if possible, the values that he had and I had and we shared?” And so, to me this work, whether it’s writing or therapy or a number of such activities, is profoundly meaningful. So one way or the other, we’re all headed in the same place. So to me, it makes sense to try to find the ways that you most meaningfully live your journey and to do it. And one of the things I have found among so many people is not feeling a deep sense of permission to really be who they are, to feel what they feel, desire what they desire, and live the journey as best they can. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do in the last years, and I’ll keep doing it as long as I can because it still matters and it still means something to me.
TS: This notion of living a meaningful life, in some ways, Jim, I think of you as a meaning expert. You write a lot about meaning and you have a lot of meaningful things to say about meaning. And I’m bringing that up because I think especially here, during this time of the pandemic, people are admitting—at least I’ve heard this more and more—”Meaning is something I need more of in my life, I’m questioning my old life, the life I had before I started sheltering at home and doing certain things differently. And it’s clear to me that I don’t have as meaningful a life as I want.” So for somebody who’s in that inquiry within themselves, what are some directives from you, some directions, some suggestions of how they can deepen their own sense of living a meaningful life?
JH: Well, the first sentence of Aristotle’s metaphysics is that all humans by nature desire to know. By nature, desire to know. I would add to that all humans, by nature, are meaning-seeking, meaning-creating individuals. And meaning is not something we can go out and find in South Dakota or someplace or in a single book. Meaning is something that is confirmed from inside; what is real for me and important for me, is unique to me. And we may have something like that in common, but you have your journey, and I have mine, and if I say to you, “This is what you should do with your life,” and you try it in good faith and it isn’t right for you, then it’s not going to be confirmed from within.
We have these elemental systems in us that we take for granted all the time, one of which is the feeling function. We don’t choose feelings— we can choose to discard them, to anesthetize them, to project them onto others. But a feeling is a continuing, qualitative analysis of how things are going as experienced by the psyche. And so to pay attention and sort of say, “But what is that really telling me?” is to be in touch with this evaluative system that we have.
It’s also true that we have energy systems and when our energies are being spent in the right direction, as seen from the experience of psyche, then we’re on a roll, we have that sense of flow, we can put up with all kinds of conflict and suffering and travail. And when we’re pushing against the current, we find ourselves experiencing exhaustion, burnout, etc.
And then of course, as I mentioned, our dreams. They are other sources in which there’s this kind of continuing critique of our lives and a kind of rebalancing. Jung felt that the primary function of dreams, of which there are several functions, but the primary function was compensatory. As my conscious life and participation in outer culture pushes me in one direction, to a one sidedness, so the psyche has to start nudging us in the other direction to pick up other aspects of our life and our personality.
So meaning to me is so much more important than happiness. There’s nothing wrong with happiness, but it’s not a steady state. It’s not a permanent condition, it’s a byproduct of being in right relationship to our souls at the time. And if you’re living in a way which is meaningful to you, from time to time, you’ll be flooded with meaning, even if the going is tough. And we all know that at some level because everybody has experienced it at some point.
But you’re right, that people now are in one of those situations where this kind of reconsideration of life, I would say a kind of revisioning of Self and world, is necessarily going on in all of us. And I would hope and expect for some people it will be an opportunity for different priorities, different directions, to say, “All right, as a result of this, under these experiences, I have found something that matters to me more than the things that I thought mattered.” That film of Tom Hanks, Castaway, was a perfect example of that, where a person has to be on this desert island in the ocean for some time and he comes back as a changed person, because he’s been obliged for the first time to have a relationship to himself. He’s been obliged to go within and see, “Who or what is that person in there? And what do I need to learn from that?”
And that’s not narcissism, that’s not self-absorption, it’s a deepening of one’s relationship to one’s journey. If I don’t do that, then I could very well be, with the best of intentions, on someone else’s journey, living the parents’ unlived life or following the greatest cultural pressure that I experience at the moment. It’s in those moments that we have an opportunity, I think, or a redirection of our values, a redirection of our willfulness to find that in our lives. We’re here a short time, we know that. This is one of those situations which is sort of getting our attention and reminding us that.
TS: Now, you talked a little bit about how your work is one source of meaning in your life. And I think sometimes people use the word “meaning” and “purpose” interchangeably. And yet there can be a time where you can feel—I’ve felt this in my own life, very purposeful, I’m really on purpose, but I’m still deeply questioning meaning. It doesn’t feel meaningful anymore; it used to be, I’m still on purpose. So I wonder how do you see the difference between these?
JH: Well, I think you’ve made an appropriate distinction there, Tami. We can work at many purposeful things, but is this your calling? Is this where the sort of payoff is the deep confirmation from your own psyche? And if we’re not doing purposeful things, then why not? But that in itself is not synonymous with meaning. When they’re together, then you have a clear indication, “This is how I’m to be spending my life at this point.” One of the ways to think about the present moment is to ask that basic question—”Given that so many of my outer options are curtailed, what is my calling at this point in this situation over which I have no control?” Reminds me of a letter that was smuggled out of the concentration camp of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German theologian, was asking himself, “What am I to do here?” And he said, “Was it God who created this concentration camp, brought me here?” He concludes—for him, he said, “It’s a summons to me to find the will of God for me in this situation over which I have no control.”
And I think that’s that narrow aperture into our final freedom, which is the opportunity to decide, “What is my task here? What is the attitude and the energy and the investment I’m going to bring to this? And to what degree am I needing to reframe or to sort of revision my sense of Self and world?” Because as systemic as our current crisis is, it’s a kind of macrocosm of what each person is subject to in the microcosm at any given moment. At any moment, we can have an accident, a health crisis, we can have something happen in our relationships or employment, in which our presumptions are completely thrown out and we have to go back to the drawing board. And it’s at that time when one is invited to a conversation with the depths of one’s own soul.
And of course, there will be shock and dismay and denial and looking to revivify the old methods, but sooner or later they don’t play out. And again, one has to say, “Can I be in touch with my own soul here?” Again as Blaise Pascal said in the 17th century, all of our troubles stem from the inability to be able to tolerate ourselves in a private chamber. And that’s in the 17th century, long before our world of constant, 24-hour distraction.
TS: Now, I want to highlight something that you said and you were very strong about it in the book Living Between Worlds, which is making this distinction between focusing on the goal of our life being happiness, compared to focusing on the goal of our life being something like meaning. And you write, “The goal of life is not happiness according to depth psychology, which is only transiently possible anyhow, but meaning which abides.” And I have a couple of questions about this. One is, does meaning abide? What does that mean, meaning abides? It seems to me like it comes, it goes.
JH: Well, meaning is, in a sense, something that’s autonomous—we don’t get to choose it. It’s the reward or the byproduct, as I said, of being in the right relationship. And it’s not in perpetuity. Meaning can depart—meaning departs in relationships, meaning departs in careers, meaning departs in certain attitudes and practices we have. And when that’s true, then we realize to continue to perpetuate them is trying to revivify something that has long since lost its energy. Because what’s involved here in the end is a kind of encounter with energy. When we’re tracking right for our own psychological growth and development, the energy is available and there, and when we’re headed in the wrong direction, we have to keep mobilizing it and keep— sort of generate it. And so underneath all of that, the question really is, “What is seeking me?” Because I can’t go find meaning, it’s something like meaning finds me when I’m in right relationship to my work, my relationships, and so forth.
TS: OK, and then happiness. Now I know you’re not against happiness, you were very clear about that in the book, but it comes—sometimes it’s a byproduct, welcome it, it’s great, celebrate it, but there was kind of a tone, a little bit, if I can say, Jim, where it seems like you think that we’re overly invested as a culture in happiness, happiness, happiness, and that seemed to be something that I think kind of annoyed you. And I want to first find out more about that, but also talk to that pro-happiness listener who says, “Look, I want happiness. That’s the truth. Happiness is as important to me as meaning, I really want that Jim, that’s important to me.”
JH: Well, first of all, I think the key word you used there was “overly invested.” And secondly, I don’t wish anybody to be unhappy, I want to be clear about that. Nor do I wish to be unhappy. I’m simply saying I think people have a certain kind of notion about happiness, that it’s something that you can accomplish and will have a sense of perpetuity to it. It’s a very transient experience. And I often think that a kind of frenetic search for happiness leads to a life of distractions, a life of sort of casual investment. Because I think many of the most meaningful experiences we have are experiences that are not happy. I don’t consider the work I do with individuals necessarily making me happy; what makes me happy is being able to have the kind of deepened conversation around the meaning of our joint journeys, that’s where the meaning comes from. I don’t enjoy being present to people’s pain, to their conflicts, their suffering, their disappointments, and yet I might be happier to go out and walk along the ocean or listen to music or watch a sporting event or something like that.
But the whole point is, there’s nothing wrong with happiness, you can’t force it. When Thomas Jefferson wrote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” scholars say what he really meant there, in the 18th-century context of that word was a life that you find that provides satisfaction to you, you see, and I think that puts a different spin on it. Too often happiness is associated with a kind of blissful feeling. And it’s also true, and I don’t want to sound really pessimistic here or negative, but when I am happy, I’m also mindful of the extraordinary suffering and injustice in this world. And that’s always present, because one has to be mindful that the other is always there. Therefore, happiness is not something that is just a kind of oblivion, it’s always mindful and present to the suffering of the human condition, too.
TS: OK, and you mentioned that in just a few days’ time, you’ll be turning 80 years old. And here I’m going to ask you, as someone who’s just about 80 years old, when someone says, “Jim, the meaning of your life,” when you hear that question, what comes up for you?
JH: I think the meaning of my life has been the pursuit of questions that I had as a child. And I wouldn’t have necessarily known it along the way, but I look back upon it, I think the basic questions that every child has, curiosity, is, who am I? What am I called to in this world? What’s the world about? Various questions of wonder, maybe even fear-driven at points. Those questions are the things that I think have animated and driven my life.
I would say that I’ve been fortunate on the one hand—I mean, I grew up in a working class family with no education in their background, I was fortunate to be born into a culture where a poor child could go to school and learn and travel and develop and so forth. Not all pieces of history have provided that, of course, but that opened doors for me. And I think living the questions—I mean, it’s another line from Rilke, he says, “We’re not ready to live the answers.” He said, “We have to live the questions.” And if you live them faithfully, in time, you might very well live into the answers to your questions. So I’m perfectly able and willing today to live with ambiguity and uncertainty, which would not have been easy to the youth, but to recognize large questions are never solved, they’re to be lived. What matters to you now, go live that. And if you live it, again, you’ll have a rich and rewarding life all along the way.
TS: OK, believe it or not, I have more questions about meaning. You have a chapter in the book called “A Map to Meaning: What We Can Learn from Jung.” And there’s a quote from that chapter, “Only when we engage the numinous in our lives, can we reframe our suffering and find its meaning.” And I thought that would be a wonderful quote for you to explain to our listeners, “Only when we engage the numinous”—people may or may not know what that means—”in our lives, can we reframe our suffering and find its meaning.”
JH: Yes, sure. Well, the numinous comes from a Latin verb that means “to nod or beckon,” It’s something that comes to us, and when it comes to us, if it’s important to us, it stirs a resonance in us, it stirs a response. I have often thought of a poem by Rilke, in which the speaker is looking at this ancient statue of Apollo. And he’s describing in detail and then as he describes it, he realizes that there’s something in this stone that’s also interrogating me, something’s looking at me. And then the poem breaks off, and it ends with a kind of non sequitur. It just says to the speaker, “You must change your life.” And I used to puzzle over that poem, and I think what Rilke was getting at was, the speaker observing how the human spirit had once entered stone, dead matter, and had animated it and provided a spirit that lasts for millennia, that there’s something marvelous about that, something mysterious. And once you have been in the presence of the large, you can’t afford to be small anymore. This calls you to a larger place, a reframing of your experience.
Jung said once, the only cure for a neurosis typically is a religious experience. And by that he didn’t mean joining a religious group, although that may very well be the proper vehicle for one person or another. He meant when you have an experience or perspective that transcends the apparent contradictions, the apparent negativity of the experience itself. Grieving is one of those. And the proper use of grieving is to recognize, “I only grieve what was rich and valuable for me, and I can carry that with me. Even if I don’t have the experience or the person with me at this moment, I honor them or it by valuing it in my life.” That’s how even the terrible comes to us as something that becomes the enriching parts of our lives. Numinosity is not something we create, it’s something we respond to.
So let’s just say if you and I walk into a museum, and one painting moves me to tears and you’re bored by it. Which of us is right? Well, it’s a foolish question. There’s something in that painting, the arrangement of colors on a canvas, that touches something deep in your soul, and it doesn’t in somebody else. And so, the numinous means that we are really responding to the activation and resonance of our spirit in the encounter with the mysteries of the world, it can happen with people. The Hindu tradition of putting one’s hands forward, Namaste, saying “to bend,” is not to say I’m bowing to you, I’m bowing to the numinous that I see in you. Of course, that becomes as conventional as a handshake, and nonetheless, the metaphor is a profoundly stunning one. I see depth and soul in you, and it is to that that I pay my respects.
TS: Jim, again, I’m going to get personal for a moment and I hope it’s OK. You shared how the loss of your son was such a huge tragedy and grief for you. And I wonder when you hear this quote about reframing our suffering, and finding its meaning through engaging the numinous, was there something in that loss, after that loss, that allowed you, through an engagement with the numinous, to reframe the suffering and find its meaning?
JH: Well, yes. First of all, for experiences that are real, death does not end them. These experiences continue. I actually have about a page [of] reminiscence in the book of my last visit with my son in the mountains outside of Santa Fe, and how I so enjoyed with him these conversations about the things that matter to both of us. Well, that goes on in me still. There’s hardly an hour I don’t think about it, certainly no single day is one which is a reflection upon that conversation. And for me, it actually sort of quickens the response that says, “All the more reason why you sustain that kind of interest in that kind of dialogue.” And it’s not lost if you continue to value it. It’s not lost if you continue to draw upon it.
And the same would be true of my deceased brother, my parents, and other people. Everybody goes through losses. And to say, all right, I draw upon them and I realize that I, through dumb luck, am privileged to live longer, and therefore I have some kind of obligation, I think, not just to be sort of frittering it away, but addressing things that matter to me. And it’s a way in which we realize that death does not end relationships, they continue.
TS: To be honest with you, I pulled about 15 quotes from the book because there are so many good ones. Here’s one towards the end of the book, where you’re writing about what makes a mature spirituality. And you write, “A mature spirituality is one that obliges one to grow, to perhaps go deeper into life than is comfortable, and that demands I live with grief, fear, and limitations rather than inflation.” I’d love to hear what it means to live with grief, fear, and limitations rather than inflation, because I think this is part of what some people are experiencing, especially now during this time of the pandemic, where our outer lives have been so interrupted and people are finding themselves with themselves, and saying, “Am I ready to go deeper into life, places where it’s not comfortable, places that demand I live with grief, fear, and limitation rather than inflation?” Explain especially that last part, rather than inflation.
JH: Sure. I think there can come an inflation, what we mean by that is the ego state is caught in its own delusion. And I consider a mature spirituality one in which the ultimate mystery of life, who we are, what this journey is about, what happens when we die, et cetera, that all of those mysteries are honored and preserved, and any theology, any philosophy, any psychology that has that sort of wrapped up into an easy package, I think it has a tendency to infantilize people. I think that our spirituality is one of our areas where we are summoned to grow up, and a grown up says, “I have to be accountable here, and I have to, in a sense, not simply settle for these kind of received answers. I have to say, ‘Does this make sense of my experience? Does this fit in with my journey?” If it doesn’t, have the courage to discard it.
And in no way will one’s sort of spiritual values necessarily spare one from the privations and travails of life. I mean, life is difficult, and then you die, as the old saying has it. So the question is, which is the path for me that keeps alive these questions? I’ve always felt that it’s the nature of the questions—again, that’s the interesting journey, not the answers, we all receive answers from our culture, our ancestors, our families, our religious traditions, whatever. And in a sense, for many people, that’s just where they sort of shut it down. I think that’s where you have to start.
You have to ask basic questions. Does this really speak to me? Does this conform in some way or illuminate or deepen my personal experience? And if it doesn’t, in some way, conform to your inner life and your inner realities, then it’s somebody else’s trip, and you shouldn’t be on their trip, you have to find yours. And it doesn’t, again, spare us from travail and hardship and loss, because that comes with being here on this planet.
But to find your own way ultimately means you have to respect the mystery enough that you’re open to its constant revisioning. Where do you go next when your old system doesn’t work anymore? Well, that happens to a lot of people, and it’s happening to a lot of people right now. Where do you go next? And by what standards or principles? And I think growing up here means, “I’m the one who has to decide this, I’m accountable. Nobody else.” You can’t turn that over to the tribe. You can’t turn it over to popular culture. You have to say, “What deeply connects to my soul and causes that resonance which I think is the measure of authenticity?”
TS: Now, Jim, what if someone says, “OK, I don’t mind not taking on other people’s answers, but I would like to come up with some answers myself. I mean, ‘living the question,’ I’ve heard that a lot. I’m a little tired of questions. I’d like to find some answers, at least for myself.” How would you respond to that?
JH: I would say, “Fine, good luck with that.” And I would say, “Whatever answers you find today, there’s a good chance by tomorrow or the next decade, they will no longer fit so well. And then are you going to hang onto them?” That’s like hanging onto the husk of something when the energy has long left it. And that’s what happens with folks—they stay stuck, many times, stay stuck by holding on to the husk of their experience when the energy has long left. That’s what Nietzsche meant when he said “God is dead” in the 19th century. He wasn’t making a theological statement, he was saying, basically, the energy has left most traditional forms of religion as I see it operating in the lives of individuals.
The question, then, is where’s that energy today? What really brings us into proximity with the deeper parts of our journey? What brings us into relationship with the mystery? And when you track that, then you find, well, the answers are fine. But all answers are provisional, they work until they stop working. And then you find yourself in those in-between times, which is exactly what this book is about, living in in-between times, both individually and as cultures.
TS: The final chapter of the book, you address this question of homecoming, and you make this really beautiful statement: “The journey is our home.” The journey is our home. How does it change us when we start to see the journey itself being our home and not some destination, some place where we have all the answers, et cetera, we can finally land, but instead it’s this journey.
JH: Well, I can remember as a child thinking if I’d found the right book or found the right teacher, then I would have the answers. And that’s a natural assumption that many people have. But again, life is constantly flowing forward, and it will cause us to leave behind, autonomously, those places where we were once comfortable. And if you get used to the notions of the journey, you see, then you realize home is where you are. Home is where your soul is. Home is where you find your sharpest edge in engaging life’s mysteries. And, again, sometimes that will be in the arena of relationship with others, sometimes it’s your own contemplation, sometimes it’s physical activity or creativity. It’s different for each of us, or different for any one of us at any single time. But again, the key there is to track the energy and to pursue where it takes you.
Now, I think most people, because of this enforced solitude, have experienced oppression, and oppression can easily transform into depression, which is learned helplessness. But the key then is to say, “Alright, what is pressed down here is my former understanding of myself in my world. And I am still, at some level, the same person. I still have the same capacities. And the question is, how am I to see them and reframe them and redirect them in the times to come?” And that’s going to require a lot of adjustment, a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of experimentation. But again, there’s nothing wrong with the answers that we have, it’s just if they continue to apply in ways that one really feels authentic and one feels that resonance, well, terrific. But for many people, most people I would say, it’s like trying to fix a river—it keeps flowing, and we need to keep growing and developing as we go. Today’s certainty becomes tomorrow’s constriction. And where’s life taking me the next time?
TS: When you say, Jim, to track the energy, I’m imagining someone saying, “Well, I know there’s no energy in this, this, this,” they can identify the places where it’s not alive, it’s not scintillating, but they’re not quite sure where the energy is, not quite sure what is emerging, what does feel numinous or even just exciting, where the sense of being turned on and lit up, that’s not there. What would you say to someone in that situation?
JH: Well, that’s exactly what a passage is. A book I wrote years ago, we talked about that happening in people’s lives periodically, apart from our present situation. A passage is where something is played out, it’s died; you may still be observing its forms and saluting it, but the energy is no longer there, and you have to suffer that terrible in-between until what wants to grow and develop and come to the surface, appears. Often, I thought that’s part of the role of therapy is to help hold together the fragments, while a person sort of deconstructs their previous understanding of Self and world and a new development is tracked and begins to move them to the next stage of their journey.
So life’s a series of passages, some large, some small, and passages are the way in which I think nature renews, the way in which we grow and develop. And I think for all of us, there are some things that fire our imagination, some things that still interest us. And the key is in this set of circumstances, where you’re in some way perhaps invited to go back to the drawing board, is it possible that you can reconfigure your life under conditions at this moment we can’t fully predict? Is it possible you can reconfigure your life in a way that you will find much greater satisfaction in your journey? We know the old paths and we know its rewards, and we know its deficits. And we may or may not be able to recapitulate the old paths, but either way you’re alive, you have energy, something in you wants expression, something in you wants to enter the world through you. What are you going to do to be accountable for that? And when we look at it that way, then frankly, it’s not so much scary as it is kind of exciting. I think it’s summons, really, to the heroic journey that each of us has to face.
Jung said once, “The spirit of evil is a negation of the life force by fear. And only boldness can deliver us from fear. And if the risk is not taken, the meaning of life is violated.” And so we have, within each of us, fear and lethargy, and they’re the enemies that keep us from moving forward. And those are intrapsychic—those are in us, that’s not in the world out there. Fear is intimidation by the magnitude of this journey, and lethargy is saying, “Let me just sort of chill out, tomorrow’s another day,” and both of them are the enemy of life.
TS: OK, well let’s talk about that because I’m certainly imagining someone who says, “God, especially during this time, I’ve been feeling a lot of both of those things, fear and lethargy. Been feeling a lot of both of those things, I’m wrestling with the enemy.”
JH: Yes, yes. What better wrestling is there? [Laughs]
TS: “Help me, Jim Hollis.”
JH: Hang on and dig through. I mean, I think it was Churchill who said, when you find yourself in the middle of a forest, keep walking. Keep fighting. What alternative is there except realizing every day in some way I have to show up as best I can, at least in relationship to myself? And that means sustaining a sense of personal dignity, sustaining a sense of accountability, and sustaining a willingness to show up in whatever way we can, and not simply veg out. Fear and lethargy are always with us any given day, they’re the enemies of life. And no matter what I do today, they’ll be there again tomorrow. So if I realize that the big struggle is always inside of me, it’s not out there in the world, and if I can face that, the fears of the world are diminished greatly, of that I have no question.
TS: You’ve used this word, “accountability,” a couple times. What do you mean by that, being accountable?
JH: Well, we don’t really know why we’re here. But if we are, it seems to me there’s some responsibility for paying attention to that. I don’t mean to say it’s a specific assignment, I’m saying you’ve got to figure out what it means to be accountable to your being here, your incarnation here. Our culture defines us as socioeconomic units and so forth and we’re defined by our roles, but as you understand yourself, what do you find is really your summons to your own deeper personhood? And if we’re not that, can we say we’ve been here? To move to the cliche of being on one’s deathbed and reflecting on all this to say, “Was I here? Did it matter? Were there times when I managed to show up as me rather than just filling a role or just sort of fitting in?” Which is what we learned to do as children. “Did I ever, any chance, stand for something that mattered for me, whether the world knew about it or not?” And I think that’s the kind of question that often haunts people, whether they’re aware of it or not.
TS: And there’s another word that you’ve been using in our conversation that I find really interesting, very evocative for me, this word “summons,” that we’re summoned in certain moments to certain things. What’s summoning us? Our greater Self? What’s summoning us?
JH: Yes, well, certainly in traditional terms, people would say divinity is summoning them to be accountable. But in our present terms, if it’s true, there is that other locus of knowing we talked about earlier, the Self, then it summons me constantly because again, it’s offering the kind of continuing critique that if I pay attention to it, it in some way helps me recenter my journey, and figure out what’s wrong for me and what’s right for me. So I have to recognize whatever it is, it, for example, produces my dreams and produces my symptoms and so forth, has some intentionality, and it is calling me to accountability. And if I deny that or anesthetize that or flee that, then it usually makes our life pretty much a turmoil, pretty much in disorder. And we’ve all experienced that somewhere in our life journey.
TS: Jim, I’ve loved sharing some of the quotes from the book that were particularly meaningful to me. As I said, there are many, many that I wrote down that I haven’t had a chance to share. But I wanted to end on something that I thought was kind of funny and instructive at the same time, which is you tell the story of how you live in a four-story condominium, and that you take an elevator down six floors to the garage, and while you do, you say a six-word mantra. And I thought we could end on that note with you sharing with our listeners your six-word personal mantra, and what it means to you.
JH: Sure. And even today, when I’m not going down to the car to go to the office, I still say them to myself, and the six words are—this is to me speaking to me, of course—”Shut up. Suit up. Show up.” “Shut up” is my reminder to stop whining; your problems are small in the great scheme of things. There are people out there that don’t have food today. There are people today whose children are being killed. There are people out there who don’t have a home. You’re fine, so just shut up, stop whining. That’s me speaking to me, OK, I wouldn’t talk that way to someone else. Secondly, “suit up” means, all right, prepare, do your homework. Life demands something from you, pay your dues. Don’t expect it to be easy. Do what you need to do to be ready to take it on.
And thirdly, “show up”—just do the best you can, throw yourself into it. It’s about the authenticity of your investment in your journey. I’ve always loved those so-reassuring words of Samuel Beckett who said once, “Fail, fail again, fail better.” So sometimes all we can do is fail better. And it means, though, that you’ve taken this life seriously, that you’re taking your freedoms and your responsibilities seriously, and you’re doing the best you can. And when you do, I think you’re also lifting that weight off of other people who somehow may have to pay for our unlived life. We may never figure it out entirely, but it’s a grand and glorious journey, and a great mystery. And the more we throw ourselves into it and take psychological and spiritual risks, I think the more rewarding it is. And that’s a good thing, in the long run, to share with other people.
TS: I’ve been speaking with James Hollis. He’s written a new book with Sounds True, it’s a beautiful book to deeply contemplate, called Living Between Worlds: Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times. With Sounds True, he’s also written the book Living an Examined Life, and created an audio learning series called Through the Dark Wood: Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. Jim, thank you so much for being with me and best to you with everything upcoming for you. And thank you so much for suiting up and showing up. That’s a great six-word mantra, I love it. Thank you.
JH: Thank you, Tami. It’s been a privilege to talk with you and I appreciate your making this kind of conversation available to folks. So thank you.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.