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James Hollis : What is Healing ?

Edvard Munch - Melancholy (1894-96)

Extracts from :

James Hollis

Living between worlds

What is Healing ?

"(...) Admittedly, this particular animal, the human, is the most complex and needs the longest length of protection before it is able to manage on its own. Some animals arrive and minutes later are fending for themselves. We all forget, however, that nature brings us here with the requisite resources to survive. As Rilke put it to a nervous young poet’s querulousness, we are set down in life in the element to which we most correspond ourselves. Yet, as we all know, nature is not enough to get us through all the obstacles. We also need the blessings of fate to support us sufficiently until we can manage for ourselves, drawing increasingly upon the resilience that nature provides us.

Among our management systems is our imagination. Life itself is a big blooming profusion of stimuli so immense that we can never understand or absorb it all. This particular animal responds to the inherent traumata of life via the imagination. We are meaning - seeking, meaning - creating animals. Thus, we attempt to make sense of our experience, to understand the world in order to better survive in it. In doing so, we imagine fractal “stories” seeking to answer the questions of survival. “Who are you ?” “What is that ?” “Is it safe or hostile ?” “How can I live in the face of that ?”

Our “stories” arise from trying to make sense of our life, to make it predictable, perhaps more manageable. And, of course, the stories are the product of the limits of our imaginal capacity as chiidren — constrictions of time, place, cultural lens, and other delimiting factors. The “wrong” stories can turn us against ourselves. In time, we can outgrow many of these stories as we accumulate other experiences with a different slant, but the earliest stories persist and thread their way through our entire lives. We become servants of and prisoners to our “stories.”


Much of our lives are governed by what logicians call “the fallacy of overgeneralization.” What appeared to be true then is imposed over and over on other situations, creating a provisional verification of the original interpretive fiction. While we sometimes outgrow these stories, most of them — those involving phenomenological encounters between self and other and the traffic in between — persist in our lives.

We can see why, then, psychotherapy in later life involves working backward from the texture of our histories to identify the operative narratives, lifting them out and into consciousness, and challenging them with a larger frame of reference and enhanced resources than the child ever possessed. Indeed, reflection, therapy, and insight allow us the critique of our stories; they begin to separate us from our history and restore a connection to the internal sources of guidance.

The tenor of modern life is deeply vested in the idea of management and control. Our vast armamentarium of tools, from computers to modern medicine to ever-expanding technologies, feed the fantasy of increasing control over our lives, even as other aspects of our lives slip more and more out of our control. We must always remember that the human ego consciousness, which arrogates to itself vast presumptive powers, is rather a fragile wafer floating on a tenebrous sea. I have recently heard the following ego rationalizations: “I know what I think.” “I have no shadow.” “I am quite conscious.” And as a humorous sweatshirt I saw said, “I know I am right. Don’t you think I would know if I weren’t ?”

All of these assertions beg the question, “What do I not know that is in fact running my life ?” Fortunately, we are reminded again that we are “gifted” by psychopathology. What a strange statement that is, in the context of contemporary Western culture. How is psychopathology a gift? When we remember that the literal meaning of psychopathology is “the expression of the suffering of the soul,” we then begin to get a clue as to how this “gift” functions in our lives.

I have already described how our “stories” help us adapt, adjust, cope with the magnitude of life’s incursive demands on us. This species survived when parallel branches perished in the evolutionary smithy precisely because of its adaptability to ever-changing circumstances. Consider that if we were only creatures of adaption, without autonomous souls, then we would simply be creatures of habituation and channeled energies and values.

If, for example, we were instructed, as in fact we all are, on how to live our lives and in service to certain values and we had no soul, then the fulfillment of those instructions would be all that life would ask of us. But we possess an autonomous region of the psyche that apparently has its own agenda and expresses its displeasure when our adherence to our external assignment contradicts its intent. We can, and needs must, occasionally mobilize our energies in service to survival, regardless of the calling of the soul; over time, however, adherence to a set of aberrant assignments leads to escalating commentary from within. The more my ego focus insists on a certain behavior or commitment under the domination of an external claim or possession by a complex, the faster my energy is depleted, the more the body aches, and the less and less meaningful it all seems.

Psychopathology is a gift, then, because it gets our attention. It tells us that the soul is not pleased with where our energies are going. It seeks corrections of course from the executive - branch decisions, and the more we resist, the sharper the messages grow. The weight of our societal obligations is huge, and the power of our earliest stories of adaptation and conflict management is extraordinary. Hence, the power of the psyche’s expressions of dismay must grow apace. For us to simply medicate them away or rationalize them is to push the summons to alternative choices into a deeper hiding place.

In speaking recently with a man whose entire life has been governed by the demands of a very narcissistic parent, he complained of his anger leaking out inappropriately in situation after situation. This leakage derives from the vast cellar of anger he carries at having been enslaved to the power techniques of that parent. It is easy enough to say move away, act differently, and he has. But we also have to recognize how that early story of powerlessness before the demanding giant told him he was doomed to fruitless suffering.

I reminded him that two functional definitions of depression are “anger turned inward” and “learned helplessness.” As a child, he got the indelible message that the giant Other was impermeable, devouring, and relentless. So, he learned helplessness, and he turned his legitimate anger back upon himself, the only one he had permission to assail. Predictably, a history of depression and self - medication emerged as a by - product, sequels to a once - accurate story but a story long outgrown.

The central theme that threads through the second half of our lives is accountability for whatever the first half produced. (I use the term “half” of life in its psychological, not chronological, sense. The second half can begin as one faces aging and mortality or the death of a loved one or a thousand other moments when we step back and begin the radical reassessment of our lives.) The first half of our lives is pretty much a large but necessary mistake as we enter the world thinking we know who we are, what we want, and what is important to devote ourselves to. Some of those choices are quite appropriate and bring enduring meaning to us, such as caring for our children; other choices are driven by our response to external pressures or our “stories.” And thus, we bumble into and through life, but somewhere along the way, the psyche keeps knocking on the floorboard of our flimsily constructed psychic dwellings and gets our attention. Then, hopefully, we have acquired enough ego strength to bear looking at the topography of our lives, and for sure, we will have accumulated much to observe by then.

As obvious as this encounter with ourselves seems, not everyone shows up for the appointment. Kierkegaard told of a man who was astonished to find his name in the obituary column of the morning newspaper, suggesting that he did not know he had died because he did not know that he had lived, either. So much of our life is on automatic pilot that we all risk waiting until the end to try to figure out what this life has really been about.

On that note, I have noticed with my clients seventy and older the many, many dreams that survey their histories. In some cases, one might conclude that those distant events still contain residual energy, perhaps unfinished business; but I also think that the psyche is deliberately parading our life before us in order to get us to better see what the drivers have been, the operant stories, the remaining tasks of assimilation, self-forgiveness, and continuing vigilance. It might behoove us to awaken while we are still here, still writing our story on those remaining blank pages. Failure to do so consigns the sovereignty of our lives to our demanding histories.

What profound sorrow must arise from this failure to be the bearer of being that seeks expression through us. What life asks of us, how we are to carry it forward, how we are to serve it — all this is left empty and discarded. As Rilke counseled the young poet, everything is gestation and then bringing forth. And what if we do not bring forth what wishes to be born from us ? As the gnostic Gospel of Thomas observes, if we bring forth what is within us, what we bring forth will serve us, and if we do not bring forth what is within us, what we do not bring forth will destroy us. Those are pretty harsh statements, but they are millennia old and from someone before us who reached this same conclusion of accountability.


Healing is the act of nature. But we can assist that process by respecting what wishes expression through us, even if the world around us does not. Do not think, as we often did as children, that if we are outvoted by that noisy world, then we are wrong. We are simply outvoted. Throughout the world, crazed and crazy people clamor for our attention, for our votes, for our spiritual allegiance. If we are ever going to be true to our own voice, it has to be now, while there is still time.

If healing is an act of supportive nature, vocation is a summons of the soul. What larger picture, what unrealized possibilities are destroyed when we do not embody that which wishes expression through us ? As a Near Eastern sage once wrote, it is as if we were sent to this land with a royal assignment, and if we have only dithered about and forgotten our task, then we have violated our reason for being here. Each of us must remember that we were sent with the gift of our personhood, and if we fail to embody that in the world, we have failed our mission.

The work of healing begins by attending to the soul’s desire for expression. Whatever the impediments life brings — social, physical, mental, spiritual — the soul is forever seeking to work its way through all barriers, not unlike that blade of grass that emerges from the concrete imposed upon it. The work of healing begins by attending to the soul’s desire for expression. Recall that the word psychotherapy means “to listen to or to attend the soul.”

Thus, the work we do to attend the soul’s intent is called “healing.” This summons for accountability for our own healing has long been recognized. One especially plangent voice expressing such desire for healing comes again from the nineteenth century : Matthew Arnold in his poem so aptly titled, “The Buried Life.”

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course;

A longing to inquire

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us — to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.

The buried life is buried but still alive. It remains to us to risk pulling it up into realms of consciousness and lived experience. We did not have much say over how and why we got so separated from ourselves, but we certainly do have some say about how we bring ourselves back together again."

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