Posts Tagged ‘James Hillman’

So, as I asked at the end of the previous post, what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

I need to repeat the caveats I voiced at the start of this sequence about their book, The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency, so that I do not come across as easily taken in. It is not easy to tread the razor’s edge between the default positions of intransigent incredulity and irremediable gullibility, but here goes.

Their book has echoes for me of Hillman’s The Soul’s Code in that it combines deep insights with what read like wild flights of fancy and carefully substantiated accounts of concrete experience with vague waves at unspecified bodies of invisible evidence. Even so, so much of it is clearly derived from careful observation and direct experience, and goes a long way towards defining what look convincingly like spiritual manifestations which are currently dismissed as mere madness. It seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

I am going to focus on what I feel are their strongest points: concrete experiences that illustrate their perspective and their brave and, in my opinion, largely successful attempts to make a clear distinction between mystic and merely disturbed experiences, not that the latter are to be dismissed as meaningless. It’s just that their meaning is to be found in life events not in the transcendent.

First I’ll deal with their account of one person’s spiritual crisis. In the last post I’ll be looking at their scheme of diagnostic distinction.

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘Glory Be to God’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

A Concrete Example

What follows is a highly condensed summary of one person’s story. A key point to hold in mind is one the Grofs made earlier in the book (page 71):

Often, individuals benefit from their encounter with the divine but have problems with the environment. In some instances, people talk to those close to them about a powerful mystical state. If their family, friends, or therapists do not understand the healing potential of these dimensions, they may not treat them as valid or may automatically become concerned about the sanity of the loved one or client. If the person who has had the experience is at all hesitant about its validity or concerned about his or her state of mind, the concern of others may exaggerate these doubts, compromising, clouding, or obscuring the richness of the original feelings and sensations.

Karen’s Story

They begin by providing some background (pages 191-92):

[S]he had a difficult childhood; her mother committed suicide when she was three, and she grew up with an alcoholic father and his second wife. Leaving home in her late teens, she lived through periods of depression and struggled periodically with compulsive eating.

Assuming that her subsequent experiences were what they seem to be, and I do, then it is clear that just because there is trauma in someone’s background does mean that the unusual experiences they report are entirely reducible to some form of post-traumatic stress response any more than they can be explained satisfactorily simply in terms of brain malfunction. Whatever is going on in the brain is just a correlate but not a cause, and previous trauma may have rendered any filter susceptible to leaks from a transcendent reality. I am restraining myself from leaping too soon to that last and much desired conclusion.

Interestingly, it’s possible that there was an organic trigger to her spiritual crisis (page 192):

. . . [F]ive days before her episode, Karen had begun taking medication for an intestinal parasite, stopping as the daily experience started. . . . . It is difficult to accurately assess its role in the onset of this event. . . . Whatever the source, her crisis contained all the elements of a true spiritual emergency. It lasted three-and-a-half weeks and completely interrupted her ordinary functioning, necessitating twenty-four-hour attention.

Her friends asked the Grofs to become involved in her care so they were able to observe the whole situation as it unfolded.

That Karen was able to avoid being admitted to psychiatric hospital was down to the support of a wide circle of friends. That this meant that she did not have to take any medication is important, according to the Grofs and other sources. Anti-pychotic medication has the effect of blocking the very processes that a successful integration of the challenging experiences requires. They describe the lay nature of her support (pages 192-93):

[B]ecause of Karen’s obvious need and the reluctance of those around her to involve her in traditional psychiatric approaches, her care was largely improvised. Most of the people who became involved were not primarily dedicated to working with spiritual emergencies.

What were her experiences like during this period of what they call ‘spiritual emergency’?

Their description covers several pages (page 194-196). This is a very brief selection of some of the main aspects. To Karen her vision seemed clearer. She also ‘heard women’s voices telling her that she was entering a benign and important experience. . . .’ Observers noted that ‘heat radiated throughout Karen’s body and it was noted that ‘she saw visions of fire and fields of red, at times feeling herself consumed by flames. . . .’

What is also particularly interesting is her re-experience of previous life crises: ‘[S]he struggled through the physical and emotional pain of her own biological birth and repeatedly relived the delivery of her daughter,’ as well as confronting ‘death many times and in many forms, and her preoccupation with dying caused her sitters to become concerned about the possibility of a suicide attempt.’ She was too well protected for that to be a serious risk.

In the last post I will be linking a therapeutic technique the Grofs advocate, Holotropic Breathwork, with some of my own experiences. This makes their description of how this technique can uncover repressed memories of traumatic experiences all the more credible to me. More of that later. That Karen should have been triggered into such regressions is not therefore surprising to me.

By way of supporting her through this, ‘telling her that it was possible to experience death symbolically without actually dying physically, her sitters asked her to keep her eyes closed and encouraged her to fully experience the sequences of dying inwardly and to express the difficult emotions involved.’ It is significant for their model that encouragement and support in facing what we might otherwise be tempted to flee from helps. ‘She complied, and in a short time she moved past the intense confrontation with death to other experiences. . . .’

Given my interest in the relationship between apparently disturbed mental states and creativity, it was noteworthy that ‘[f]or several days, Karen tapped directly into a powerful stream of creativity, expressing many of her experiences in the form of songs. It was amazing to witness: after an inner theme would surface into awareness, she would either make up a song about it or recall one from memory, lustily singing herself through that phase of her process.’

They describe her during this period as ‘extremely psychic, highly sensitive, and acutely attuned to the world around her.’ For example she was ‘able to “see through” everyone around her, often anticipating their comments and actions.’

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘The Glory of the Lord’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)


Things began to take a more positive turn (page 196):

After about two weeks, some of the difficult, painful states started to subside and Karen receive increasingly benevolent, light-filled experiences and felt more and more connected with a divine source.

Perhaps I need to clarify that I am not attempting to adduce this as evidence of the reality of the spiritual world. People like David Fontana and Leslie Kean have collated such evidence far better than I ever could, and sorted out the wheat from the chaff with honesty and discernment.

What I am hoping to do is use this as a demonstration that sometimes at least what could be written off as meaningless and irrational brain noise might not only be significantly related to early experiences in life, as the trauma work suggests, but also to a spiritual dimension whose reality our culture usually denies with the result that the experiences are pathologised. The outcome in this case strongly suggests that pathologising them needlessly prolongs them and blocks life-enhancing changes that would otherwise have resulted.

They go onto describe the end of the episode and its aftermath (ibid.):

. . . . As Karen began to come through her experience, she became less and less absorbed by her in the world and more interested in her daughter and the other people around her. She began to eat and sleep more regularly and was increasingly able to care for some of her daily needs. . . .

Rather as was the case with Fontana and his poltergeist investigation, as the vividness of the experiences receded, doubts beganset in (ibid.:)

As she became increasingly in touch with ordinary reality, Karen’s mind started to analyse her experiences, and she began to feel for the first time that she had been involved in a negative process. The only logical way of explaining these events to herself was that something had gone wrong, that perhaps she had truly lost her mind. Self-doubt is a common stage in spiritual emergencies, appearing when people begin to surface from the dramatic manifestations . . .

She was not blind to the positives in the end (page 197):

Two years later, when we discussed her experience with her, Karen said that she has mixed feelings about the episode. She is able to appreciate many aspects of what happened to her. She says that she has learnt a great deal of value about herself and her capacities, feeling that through her crisis she gained wisdom that she can tap any time. Karen has visited realms within herself that she previously had no idea were there, has felt enormous creativity flow through her, and has survived the previously frightening experiences of birth, death, and madness. Her depressions have disappeared, as well as her tendency toward compulsive overeating.

But her doubts persisted, and may have been to some extent fuelled by her family and friends’ reactions and the lack of informed support (page 198):

On the other hand, Karen also has some criticisms. Even though she could not have resisted the powerful states during her episode, she feels that she was unprepared for the hard, painful work involved. In spite of the fact that she received a great deal of assistance during the three weeks, she feels that she was not yet ready to venture forth into the daily world when she was required to do so by the exhaustion of the resources of those around her. Since that time, she has lacked contact with people with whom to further process her experiences. She considers herself somewhat “different” for having had the episode (an opinion also indirectly expressed by her family and some of her friends) and has tended to downgrade it by concentrating on its negative effects.

The support had to be reduced after the three-week peak period because the support network was burning out. The Grofs felt (ibid.:)

Many of these problems could have been avoided if Karen had had consistent and knowledgeable support immediately following her crisis, perhaps in a halfway house, and follow-up help – in the form of ongoing therapy, support groups, and spiritual practice – for a more extended period of time.

It is dangerous to extrapolate too wildly but I feel that in Karen’s story there are real grounds for hope. She recovered from an apparently devastating episode of mental disturbance without drugs. She demonstrated modest but lasting mental health gains in terms of no subsequent depression or compulsive eating. There is every reason to suppose given this experience and the evidence of Dr Sami Timimi’s study, adduced by James Davies in Cracked and described in the previous post, that an outcome like this could apply far more widely across the so-called psychotic spectrum. Yes, the intervention was time intensive, but it was brief and successful. This compares with long-term interventions involving medication resulting in symptoms that continue to simmer for years or even decades, blighting the whole life of the sufferer and the lives of close family.

The Grofs then explore models of help and aftercare, which I won’t go into now as the main focus I want to take is on their ideas of how to distinguish a spiritual emergency such as Karen’s from other forms of disturbance. This is clearly an important distinction to be able to make as the approaches taken when dealing with trauma-related disturbances and spiritual crises will be somewhat different, though Karen’s case implies there might well be an overlap.

However, all the evidence that has accumulated since they wrote suggests that all such so-called psychotic episodes are better dealt with in a non-diagnostic way, which is an issue that the Grofs do not fully address, probably because at the time of their writing placing spiritual emergency on the agenda seemed a more urgent issue, given that it was and still is doubly disparaged.

Now for the difficult distinction in the next post, along with a brief description of their recommended intervention.

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Readers of this blog will remember that I was struggling recently to find more detailed discussion of the possibility that some severe mental disturbances have spiritual aspects. Isabel Clarke’s Spirituality & Psychosis left me frustrated by its lack of such detail.

Recently I came across a second hand copy of Christina and Stanislav Grof’s The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency. It was published in 1991 at a less than universally receptive time so it is hard to determine from the book itself how far things might have moved on since. This is something I will have to investigate further.

It has echoes for me of Hillman’s The Soul’s Code in that it combines deep insights with what read like wild flights of fancy and carefully substantiated accounts of concrete experience with vague waves at unspecified bodies of invisible evidence. Even so, much of it is clearly derived from careful observation and direct experience, and goes a long way towards defining what look convincingly like spiritual manifestations within mental disturbances which are currently dismissed as mere madness. So, it seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

Before I go into more detail I think I need to place its thesis in perspective. We need to understand how much of an uphill battle it is going to be to get the spiritual dimensions of the experiences currently labelled psychosis accepted in mainstream psychiatry and psychology. To do so we need to look back at the history of the way the effects of trauma have been treated.

Attitudes to Trauma in the Past

It has taken a century or more for the work on trauma and its basic consequences to be properly understood.

This struggle involved swimming against the strong tide of dismissive opinion.

There are many places to look for evidence of the slow progress towards an acceptance and understanding of the role of trauma in mental disturbance. There are few better than Judith Herman’s book Trauma & Recovery. I have covered her account in more detail elsewhere on this blog so I’ll just summarise it here.

Herman rightly emphasises that only if the social context facilitates, can trauma and its impacts be studied (page 9):

The study war trauma becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the sacrifice of young men in war. The study of trauma in sexual and domestic life becomes legitimate only in a context that challenges the subordination of women and children.

She lists, in her historical review, three forms of trauma (ibid.): hysteria, shell shock/combat neurosis and sexual and domestic violence. She looks at the work of Charcot, Janet, Freud and Breuer. The fruit of their extensive collaborative interactions with female patients was Freud’s The Aetiology of Hysteria, in which he wrote (page 13):

I therefore put forward the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood, but which can be reproduced through the work of psychoanalysis in spite of the intervening decades.

There was a massive backlash which caused a backtrack. Experiences were dismissed as fantasies or interpreted as subliminally desired. As Herman puts it (page 14): ‘The dominant psychological theory (psychoanalysis) of the next century was founded in the denial of women’s reality.’

Herman recognises how impossible it would have been for Freud to fight successfully to get his authentic theory recognised (page 18):

No matter how cogent his arguments or how valid his observations, Freud’s discovery could not gain acceptance in the absence of a political and social context that would support the investigation of hysteria, wherever it might lead.

Soldiers in the First World War triggered a similarly divisive debate. Lewis Yelland used shaming, threat and punishment as a ‘remedy’, for example treating the mutism that sometimes resulted from combat neurosis with electric shocks, in one case to the throat – it seemed the best was to get a traumatised soul quickly back to the trenches that had traumatised him in the first place.

The Second World War resurrected the issue with some progress. Even so (page 26), ‘systematic, large-scale investigation of the long-term psychological effects of combat was not undertaken until after the Vietnam War.’

This took an altogether different form from the expert-dominated approaches of the past (ibid.):

The antiwar veterans organised what they called “rap groups.” In these intimate meetings of their peers, Vietnam veterans retold and relived the traumatic experiences of war. They invited sympathetic psychiatrists to offer them professional assistance.

Their activism ultimately led to (op.cit. page 27):

. . . comprehensive studies tracing the impact of wartime experiences on the lives of returning veterans. A five-volume study on the legacies of Vietnam delineated the syndrome of post-traumatic stress disorder and demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt its direct relationship to combat exposure.

Activism remained a vital element in the further development of a proper understanding of trauma and its true prevalence (page 28):

For most of the twentieth century it was the study of combat veterans that led to the development of a body of knowledge about traumatic disorder. Not until the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s was it recognised that the most common post traumatic disorders are not those of men in war but of women into civilian life.

The incidence figures were as staggering then as they had been when Freud decided they could not be credible and backed off. A rigorous study of 900 randomly selected women in the 1980s revealed that one in four women had been raped, and one in three had been sexually abused in childhood.

Herman describes the way that research into rape led investigators from the street more deeply into the family (page 31):

The initial focus on street rape, committed by strangers, led step by step to the exploration of acquaintance rape, date rape, and rape in marriage. The initial focus on rape as a form of violence against women lead to the exploration of domestic battery and other forms of private coercion. And the initial focus on the rape of adults led inevitably to a rediscovery of the sexual abuse of children.

Later in the book they explore in detail how accepting relationships are usually critical to the fully effective treatment of trauma. I may come back to that in more detail in later posts but for now it is important to signpost that point for future reference when we come to look at trauma and psychosis in the next post. Herman writes:

. . . . group treatment complements the intensive, individual exploration of the trauma story, but does not necessarily replace it. The social, relational dimensions of the traumatic syndrome are more fully addressed in a group than in an individual setting, while the physioneurosis of the former requires a highly specific, individualised focus on desensitising the traumatic memory.

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After describing Hitler’s characteristics, he goes on to attempt to tease out the telltale markers of the demonic (page 223-224):

If the eyes are the mirror of the soul as tradition declares, then was the compelling power of Hitler’s eyes the stare of the demon? Did his eyes reveal the hollowness within, a glimpse into the ice-cold abyss, the utter absence of soul?

. . . . As we noted in so many of the biographies, the urgent certainty given by the acorn seems to put life in the hands of a stronger power. “I go the way that Providence dictates for me with all the assurance of a sleep walker,” Hitler said in a speech in 1936.

Hitler’s certitude also confirmed his sense of always being right, and this utter conviction utterly convinced his nation, carrying it forward in its wrongs. Absolute certainty, utter conviction – these, then, are signs of the demonic.

He develops this further slightly later in the chapter (pages 245-46):

Hitler only followed the demon, never questioned it, his mind enslaved by its imagination rather than applied to its investigation. . . . For what makes the seed demonic is its single-track obsession, its monotheistic literalism that follows one prospect only, perverting the larger imagination of the seed toward serial reenactments of the same act.

I absolutely agree that complete conviction, absolute certainty, are pathological and destructive. This is a theme I have explored a number of times on this blog. However, I have never felt it necessary to hypothesise the existence of a demon to explain it.

My very battered copy of this classic.

My alternative picture is based partly in Eric Fromm. In ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) he develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us:

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Eric Reitan is also relevant. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his book, Is God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way (‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136):

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. When Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

This is not too far distant from Hilman’s perspective (page 236):

Elevation of the profane by the most profane act imaginable raises its power until it is indistinguishable from the sacred.

There are two other concepts relevant to the contagion of such toxic patterns: the hive switch and the Lucifer effect.

The Hive Switch

Haidt explains the first. The root of this whole highly debated issue, for Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.).

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

The capacity for charisma to carry thousands with it only needs the factoring in of such possibilities as the hive effect.

The Lucifer Effect

Zimbardo explains the second in his brilliant analysis, The Lucifer Effect. His perspective is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behavior of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations which steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

Earlier work lends considerable weight to this thesis. For example, when I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).


Coming back to Hillman’s perspective, there is one element that he adduces that may be slightly harder to dismiss (page 230):

Then, too, when we read of the odd coldness in Mary (Bell) and in Hitler, of that impulse toward death, there seems to be something else apart from both upbringing and possible heredity, some lack in their souls, or a lack of soul altogether.

He is ruling out such explanations as psychopathy, abuse or disrupted attachment in childhood as explanations of a coldness that is observed very early in their development. This launches him into an explanation of possible causes for the Bad Seed, none of which are mutually exclusive (pages 230-238): Early Traumatic Conditioning, Hereditary Taint, Group Mores, The Rewarded Choice Mechanism[1], Karma & Zeitgeist, The Shadow[2], Lacuna[3] and finally his pet theory The Demonic Call.

He explains more exactly what he means by the last idea (page 235 and 241):

As the potential for art and thought were given with the acorn, so is the potential for demonic crime. . . . . As Galand’s and Manolete’s potential was given with the acorn, so is the psychopathic potential for demonic crime.

I still prefer the Reitan and Fromm approach here which I outlined in the previous post. There are other ways of explaining a ‘calling’ without invoking a daimon. We all need an object of devotion. Heredity, upbringing and peer influence may shape our sense of it, but the need itself is inherent in our nature at some deep level. We need to be wise in the choice we make, or else we will slide into a dangerous or a meaningless pattern, the former if we choose a dark ‘god’ and the latter if we choose no god at all, trapped in an unconscious yearning for something to give our lives purpose. In addition to the devotion issue there is the related pattern: we all have a thirst for meaning which a convincing object of devotion slakes.


Even though, in the end, I disagree with his core thesis, I have to acknowledge the value that lies in his having raised these issues for consideration in such a clear and compelling fashion. When I look at the book more as a poetic rather than a prosaic exploration it makes for an even more satisfying read.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken him quite so literally as I have in this treatment. After all he is quite clear that he is speaking in the language of myth. Maybe I fell into the trap he describes (page 95:

. . . three modes transpose the mystery of the invisible into visible procedures we can work with: higher math, musical notations, and mythical images. So enchanted are we by the mystery transposed into the systems that we mistake the systems for the mystery; rather, they are indications pointing toward it.


[1] He writes: ‘If each choice is met with accumulating success… then those successes will reinforce your belief that fate has you on the right track.’

[2] He writes: ‘The psychological propensity to destroy exists within all human beings. . . . Hitler knew the shadow all too well, indulged it, was obsessed by it, and strove to purge it; but he could not admit it in himself, seeing only its projected form [in those he sought to exterminate].’

[3] He explains: ‘[S]omething fundamentally human is missing.’

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I’m about to recommend a book published in 1996. Not only does that seem a bit late in the day, but also much of the book makes bold statements about a mythological ‘reality’ for which absolutely no proof whatsoever can be adduced and with some of which I completely disagree. Why would I risk my already suspect and flakey reputation with sceptics for such a dubious course of action?

Partly this can be explained by the fact that the book contains genuine insights too valuable to ignore. To support that contention here is a quote of one.

Twenty years ago James Hillman wrote in The Soul’s Code (page 225), in his analysis of what he calls ‘The Bad Seed’:

(Hitler’s rote-learned information) proved his transcendence and disguised his lack of thought and reflection and his inability to hold a conversation. The demonic does not engage; rather, it smothers with details and jargon any possibility of depth.

Our republic should learn this lesson from Hitler, for we might one-day vote into power a hero who wins a giant TV trivia contest and educate our children to believe the Information Superhighway is the road to knowledge.

This quote exactly illustrates the dual nature of this text. It speaks of ‘demons’ in one breath, terminology I find hard to swallow, and follows it up with a breath-taking piece of intuition, the accuracy of which I leave you to judge for yourselves on the basis of recent evidence.

So thought-provoking are such comments that even when they are not as spot on as that one, it seems to me they make the book of great value in spite of its fairy-tale aspects. I am now going to try and make the argument in favour of that position.

One of my main difficulties with his core contention is this concept of the daimon as he spells it. Early in the book he writes (page 8):

The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. . . . . The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is a carrier of your destiny.

As explained by the greatest of later Platonists, Plotinus (A.D. 205–270), we elected the body, the parents, the place, and the circumstances that suited the soul and that, as the myth says, belong to its necessity. This suggests that the circumstances, including my body and my parents whom I may curse, are my soul’s choice – and I do not understand this because I have forgotten.

He later unpacks a further implication (page 46):

Since ancient psychology usually located the soul around or with the heart, your heart holds the image of your destiny and called you to it. . . . . Each of our souls is guided by a daimon to that particular body and place, these parents and circumstances, by Necessity – and none of us had an inkling of this because it was eradicated on the plains of forgetting.

The Acorn Theory

While at one point asserting that the life we fall into is our ‘soul’s choice,’ he also states that our daimon has guided us to that decision. Either way I have a problem with the idea that we choose our destiny in this way, but that is not the main issue. I find it confusing that, while he makes it clear at this point in the book that we have a daimon and a soul, he proceeds, in my view, to fudge that distinction by conflating them.

He outlines what he calls his ‘acorn’ theory (page 6):

In a nutshell, then, this book is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the ‘acorn theory’, which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.

After explaining about the daimon and the soul, he states (page 10):

I will be using many of the terms for this acorn – image, character, fate, genius, calling, daimon, soul, destiny – rather interchangeably, preferring one or another depending on the context.

I find the original distinction unhelpful. My sense is that much can be explained perfectly well even in terms of what he is trying to explain and account for by simply using the word ‘soul’ and grasping that there is a dual potential in terms of the soul’s power and development. Turned heavenwards its impact is benign: mired in matter its effects are toxic. Either way it has immense power.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes this completely clear (Paris Talks, p. 97):

. . . when man does not open his mind and heart to the blessing of the spirit, but turns his soul towards the material side, towards the bodily part of his nature, then is he fallen from his high place and he becomes inferior to the inhabitants of the lower animal kingdom. In this case the man is in a sorry plight! For if the spiritual qualities of the soul, open to the breath of the Divine Spirit, are never used, they become atrophied, enfeebled, and at last incapable; whilst the soul’s material qualities alone being exercised, they become terribly powerful—and the unhappy, misguided man, becomes more savage, more unjust, more vile, more cruel, more malevolent than the lower animals themselves. All his aspirations and desires being strengthened by the lower side of the soul’s nature, he becomes more and more brutal, until his whole being is in no way superior to that of the beasts that perish.

This would be another way of explaining why Hillman wonders whether some people might have no soul (see below).

Even so, there was much I resonated to, not least the idea that we all might have a special purpose to fulfill in life no matter how modest our situation or our means. Hillman also rightly pillories the sterile banality of our materialistic way of life, argues against our blindness to the transcendent, and eloquently explains the importance of having a ‘calling.’ The relevance of these issues draws me into his explorations of them.

In the first part of the book he draws most of his evidence from the well-documented lives of celebrities – explaining that he has done so because this is the easiest place from which to draw illustrative data. This makes for a glamorous but unconvincing panorama of film stars and politicians, with the occasional matador (Manolete) and dictator (Franco) thrown in for good measure. Even so the scattering of thought-provoking comments kept me reading.

Perhaps, rather than compile an anthology of one-liners at this point, it would be best to focus on one more substantial illustration, a thread that runs across 70 pages woven into the tapestry of his overall perspective. Any reader of this blog will recognize immediately that this is a theme close to my heart, acorn, daimon, destiny, soul or whatever.



We are inhabiting a materialistic culture that quarantines the transcendent as though it were the plague (page 110):

In the kingdom (or is it the mall?) of the west, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.

This idea of course is nothing new. Even when he teases out little-mentioned aspects of its character, we are not breaking entirely new ground either (page 128-29):

Scientific psychology carves the kingdom of causes into only two parts, nature and nurture. . . . . We do need to recognise at the outset that division into two alternatives is a comfortable habit of the Western mind.

I did find it intriguing though to reflect on this insight and this was typical of my reaction to the book as a whole. We do live in a world that seems instinctively to dichotomise and categorise, that seems blind to dimensions and ambiguities. This makes what he refers to (page 150) as the ‘folly of reducing mind to brain’ appear almost inevitable and it’s therefore no surprise that it ‘never seems to leave the Western scene.’ As a result (page 151)

The simplistics of monogenic causes eventually leads to the control of behaviour by drugs – that is, to drugged behaviour.

So far a perspective that I agree with, well-expressed but mostly familiar. It’s the final devastating point that best illustrates the penetrating courage of his writing (page 184):

If a culture’s philosophy does not allow enough place for the other, give credit to the invisible, then the other must squeeze it self into our psychic system in distorted form. This suggests that some psychic dysfunctions would be better located in the dysfunctional worldview by which they are judged.

That final sentence exactly pins down a fundamental problem. We all too often place denigrating labels on those our culture has helped damage. He has shifted my understanding to a higher level. He does that often enough to make the book a rewarding read.

Vacuous Environments

Perhaps I need to add one briefer example.

We live in a world that has in general reduced our expectations from the numinous to the banal. This has become so familiar as to be largely unnoticed. Credit to him that he sees the issue clearly and refuses to fudge it even though his use of the term daimon may blind some of us to the basic value of his point (page 165):

Perhaps the worst of all atmospheres for your daimon, trying to live with your parents in their place and circumstances, arises when these parents have no fantasy whatsoever about you. This objective, neutral environment, this normative, rational life is a vacuum with nothing blowing through.

In case we didn’t get the point he repeats it later in slightly different terms (page 168):

. . . . It is not ultimately parental control or parental chaos that children run away from; they run from the void of living in a family without any fantasy beyond shopping, keeping up the car, and routines of niceness.

He’s nailed an essential truth again and, in this case, the spiritual aspect of his perspective lends his point an additional power for me at least.

However, in spite of all those positives I was still uneasy.

Bad Seed

The second challenging aspect for me of the first two-thirds of the book was that to Hillman it initially seemed not to matter whether the acorn produces a murderer, a Matador or mystic. There seemed to be a moral confusion blended with the murky mythology. It was only towards the end of the book that he confronts this problem head on and proves beyond doubt that he was not completely blind to it, even though in the end a skilled bullfighter still seems as admirable to him as Martin Luther King.

He first raises the question in the following terms (page 214):

Can the acorn harbour a bad seed? Or, perhaps the criminal psychopath has no soul at all?

He uses as his key example one of the three most notorious dictators of modern times – Hitler – locating part of the problem in the cultural assumptions and patterns of this age (pages 215-16):

Having once appeared in such a virulent form (as Hitler), may that demon not need to blind us again. Our enquiry also intends to lay out specific ways in which the daimon shows itself to be demonic, and a genius, evil. . . . . . Anyone who rises in a world that worships success should be suspect, for this is an age of psychopathy. . . . The habits of Hitler, reported by reliable informants and assessed by reliable historians and biographers, give evidence of an identification with or possession by his daimon. . . . As I want to demonstrate, the acorn theory offers as good a mode as any of imagining the Hitler phenomenon.

He begins by listing seven characteristics of Hitler that in his view capture the way he presents (pages 217-222): The Cold Heart, Hellfire, Wolf, Anality[1], Suicides of women, Freaks[2], and Humourless Hitler.

While these pointers may indeed be applicable to Hitler they don’t advance his case for the existence of a daimon, in my view.

More on that in the second and last post.


[1]. He explains: ‘Hitler gave himself enemas; he was immensely disturbed by his flatulence; he had obsessive ideas about touching and being touched, about diet, digestion, and personal cleanliness.’

[2] He explains: ‘Hitler’s entourage, however, was most unusual for its collection of freaks in high places, even as others physically like them were systematically expunged in the death camps.’

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In the kingdom (or is it the mall?) of the West, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 110)

Sharon Rawlette put me on to Leslie Kean’s brilliant and rigorous exploration of the evidence for an afterlife, Surviving Death. It was a compelling and inspiring read that triggered me to go back and re-read a book – David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? – which I had read long before I started blogging and from which I took no systematic notes.

As I went back over Fontana’s book I slowly became aware that there was a key issue I needed to explore that is flagged up strongly in both books. I decided that this took precedence for me at this point over their impressive research, because the feeling came through strongly from both writers that no matter how compelling the evidence and no matter how rigorous their presentation of it, there would be obdurate resistance to even considering it let alone accepting it. As I will examine later in this post such denial of legitimate evidence is far from uncommon in our supposedly scientific culture, and is not confined to matters of the spirit.

A key passage from Fontana reads (page 94):

We can go further and say that not only is the dogmatic approach by materialistic science to the mysteries of the human mind misleading it reveals a disturbing ignorance. Ignorance is not so much the act of not knowing something, it is the act of not knowing something but claiming to know. . . . . . Lacking any personal acquaintance with inner spiritual or psychic experiences, the materialistic scientist ‘knows’ that those who have such experiences are wrong in their interpretation of them, while he or she is of course right.

This insight follows immediately after his account of the life and death of Socrates and the conclusions he draws from that (page 93):

How interesting that nearly two and a half thousand years ago Socrates was giving very much the same explanation of mediumistic gifts and their inhibition by the conscious mind that we might give today. This brings home to us an essential but often forgotten truth, namely that the knowledge of the spiritual dimension possessed by the ancients has hardly been bettered. The myth of eternal progress in human understanding, which lies behind so much of our delusory intellectual arrogance in modern times, can clearly be seen at least in spiritual matters for what it is, a myth.

In his view we have sold ‘the birthright of our innate spiritual wisdom for the mess of potage of material progress.’

The arrogance of our ignorance goes back a long way and across more than one dimension of human experience.

Take for example John Fitzgerald Medina’s exploration of the misguided attitude of the European settlers to the native American mode of agriculture in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology.

The sophistication of the Native American model lay not just in politics (pages 199-200):

Contrary to the American colonists’ misinformed judgements, much evidence now exists to show that the American Indians were in fact, quite adept at cultivating a large variety of plants in a diversity of climates, soils, and environmental conditions. They utilised the Earths resources wisely, gently, and reverently.

This system may be at least equal if not superior to our environmentally disastrous monoculture (pages 201-02):

Unlike the Europeans, who planted row after row of the same plants, the Indians throughout North and Central America cultivated small plots of land that often looked like wild, haphazard gardens. . . . Scientific studies have shown that such Indian-style plots, call milpas in Mexico, are resilient to pests and weeds and protect the topsoil from erosion. . . . . .

Modern agronomists marvel at the simplicity and productivity of Indian-style agricultural plots, and some are actively studying it as an alternative to the European style, monocultural plantation form of farming, which leads to widespread soil erosion and degradation of topsoil due to the massive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers.

Nonetheless, in the arrogance of our ignorance we dispossessed the native Americans of their land in the mistaken conviction that we knew better and they just didn’t know how to grow crops properly, justifying our actions by a distortion of scripture.

The irrigation system in ancient India was similarly disparaged with drastic consequences. Fred Pearce explains in his 2006 book, When the Rivers Run Dry (pages 301-02):

Until the early nineteenth century, much of India was irrigated from shallow mud-walled reservoirs in valley bottoms that captured the monsoon rains in summer. The Indians called them tanka, a word the English adopted into their own language as tanks.

Most of the tanks were quite small, covering a hectare at most, and irrigating perhaps twenty hectares. Farmers scooped the water from the tanks, diverted it down channels onto fields, or left it to sink into the soil and refill their wells. . . . Farmers guarded the slimy nutrient-rich mud in their tanks almost as much as the water. They dug it out to put onto their land, and turned silted-up former tanks into new farmland.

. . . The system thrived until the British took charge in India. . . . The British water engineers largely ignored the village tanks, apparently not realising that they were how India fed itself. . . . As the British and later the Indian government itself promoted more modern water gathering technologies, they gradually fell into disuse, but today, as the formal irrigation systems established on the Western model fail across the country, and as farmers are having to pump from ever greater depths to retrieve underground water, the old tanks are starting to be restored.

Before we get too smug about it, we need to realise that this kind of blindness is as prevalent as ever.

Sometimes it’s entirely wilful as with Holocaust denial, where the evidence is unquestionable and easily accessed. Sometimes it’s partly motivated by self-interest or an ostrich approach where keeping our head in the sand seems less of a problem than facing up to reality, but also the sheer complexity of an issue such a climate change can make denial seem rational in the face of such demanding data. I’ve dealt with the complexity issue elsewhere on this blog so won’t rehearse it all here.

My long-standing personal commitment to investigating issues for myself and checking out the evidence carefully has been further reinforced by the faith I have chosen to follow. Bahá’í Scripture is unequivocal on this issue. We must investigate for ourselves if truth and justice are to be well served (see link for a fuller exploration of this theme).

At the individual level justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, Justice is ‘the best beloved of all things[1]’ since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or group.

(Prosperity of Humankind – Section II)

There is no get-out clause:

If, in the Day when all the peoples of the earth will be gathered together, any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: ‘Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My beauty and turned away from My Self?’ and if such a man should reply and say: ‘Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal,’ such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – LXXV)

I won’t labour the point any further. In the next post I’ll move onto to considering further implications.


[1] Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic No: 2.

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