In Memoriam: Roger Woolger & James Hillman

Roger Woolger

In Memoriam

“Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.”

~Tennyson, the first lines of In Memoriam, for the death of his friend.

The end of 2011 saw the deaths of two figures whose work has shaped my understanding of the understanding of depth psychology and the realms of potential offered by expanding psychology into the realms of the transpersonal and the soulful power of the imagination. One was Roger Woolger whose book Other Lives, Other Selves opened up the doors of perception into the world of prior life regression in a way that was totally cognisant of the therapeutic power of such a perspective.

Woolger categorised four main vantage points for viewing the question of reincarnation and prior life experience and recall: the Psychic approach of mediums and visionaries; the Parapsychological approach of trying to bring empirical research methods into a scientific study of the field; the Religious approach of reincarnation as an aspect of faith or the journey of the Soul through union to God or Enlightenment; the Psychotherapeutic approach that utilises prior life understanding and experience in order to enact therapeutic transformation.

Whilst Woolger was articulate and respectful of the authentic efforts in all of those spheres, in placing the therapeutic approach as the central one he grounded the whole field in the principle of service to the individual’s healing journey and personal growth. This is an approach I have always followed and one that I feel cuts through the considerable intellectual suspicion and derision surrounding the field itself.

I have found this suspicion to be prevalent in amongst the therapeutic profession generally. So even the world of depth psychology has entertained a narrow view of prior life experience whilst remaining so committed to the Soul or Self of the individual in a number of other ways it has cut off from the aspect of memory as experienced by the psyche of so many individuals as if those prior experiences somehow manifested a resistance to the present moment in which the therapy was being experienced.

In Memoriam is for absent friends as I write this today, yet it is also for these aspects of the experience of Soul that are denied in even the most open minded of fields, that of depth or transpersonal psychology. If such an otherwise open minded arena closes itself off to these other realities what hope is there for understanding or validation of the experience of the individual?

For as I have recorded in Healing the Soul: Pluto, Uranus and the Lunar Nodes my first encounter with prior life recall in a client session occurred spontaneously whilst conducting a simple relaxation/grounding exercise. It was as if in the alchemy of the consulting room to relax and pay attention to the body in a witnessed and held space was for the individual concerned an opportunity to break through to an experience that both symbolized her struggles and possibly expressed one of the formative past experiences that underlies those issues.

In emphasising the therapeutic approach to the issue Woolger was supporting people like me who are working with people who have prior life flashbacks, intuitions or recall. Even though I never met him, though through my association with his close colleague Patricia Walsh I may have if he had lived a little longer, I was helped by the integrity of his vision on behalf of his clients which I was able to extend to my own. For in making the client’s experience the central tenet of the process he removed the intellectual fascination and taboo with working out just what prior lives really are or mean.

James Hillman

In many ways the literal attempt to ‘figure out’ what is going on in the healing process or in the dreams and life of the Psyche (Soul) is one of the great traps for both therapist and client alike when journeying together. James Hillman, the other figure to pass away last year, was one of the great voices against what he named the ‘sin of literalness’, the failure of the imagination that he saw as evidenced by psychology’s great love affair with the medical model and its pseudo-scientific pretensions that were set in motion by Freud and have remained in the behaviourist, cognitive and clinical fields ever since.

Hillman saw the white lab coated dreams of the psychologists to be a central delusion in psychotherapy and constituted what he saw as a denial of Soul. He extended this critique into the realm of depth psychology through what he saw as its obsession with interiority, as if Soul was just to be found inside the head, or the heart of the person and not in the world outside, nature and even the building in which the therapy took place. In Suicide and the Soul he realized that in the true intimacy of the therapeutic encounter there is a karmic exchange, a mingling that animated by an archetypal light changes both the therapist and the client in ways that could not have previously foretold.

In Revisioning Psychology Hillman revisited the myth of Persephone as an image of naive anima, the Soul in a state of natural innocence, the rape of Pluto then becomes the first heat-break, the wound that renders the innocence of the Soul more present and in its openness to the shadows of the underworld ultimately more real. In Dream and the Underworld he urged therapists not to over interpret dreams but to let the primacy of the image speak for itself, as if the panther in the dream was not a symbol of your animal nature in shadow but it was a panther in your dream: the isness (ding an sich – thing in itself, Kant) of the panther was the power of the dream expressing through the dark lithe shape of panther acting directly on psyche. Image becomes its own power: Image is truth, truth is image.

The subtly and incredible range of Hillman’s work is breath-taking, and its mercurial twists and turns alienate some, just as they inspire many others. In The Myth of Analysis and Healing Fiction he expands the idea of the image as central reality, and that interpretation of a life story or the meaning of a symptom was in the image. An extrapolation from Jung’s idea that diseases are the unanswered gods of the psyche within, the unacknowledged capacities in our nature that if we do not honour them come back to haunt us. In The Soul’s Code Hillman then shows through the biographies of various figures how you can apply the process of reversal of meaning through the idea of the Oak Tree contained in potential in the Acorn. In one stand out example he reverses the idea that a famous bull-fighter who was bullied for being afraid of the dark as a youth was compensating for his past by being a stand-out hero instead by musing that he had a premonitory awareness of his own early death from the dark form of a Bull. This was clever trickery for some, but even at his most mercurial Hillman always had a useful response cloaked in such beauty and range of analogy that to read him was more like reading poetry than a psychology book.
Michael Ventura who co-wrote with Hillman the book We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse in a recent remembrance piece shares;

Weeks before he died, Hillman dictated to his wife, Margot McLean, these words for his friends: “We are following a middle road, neither upbeat nor downbeat. And I am more and more convinced that upbeat tends to constellate its counter, so before wishing for recovery in the old sense, one should think twice. It’s what’s going on now and not what the imagination conjures regarding a so-called future. I am dying yet in fact, I could not be more engaged in living. One thing I’m learning is how impossible it is to lay out a border between so-called ‘living’ and ‘dying’.”

There is the beauty and power of the present moment in which we can be truly alive even facing death. Yet the multi-dimensional nature of that moment, as Woolger shows, can contain many mysteries, of which prior life memory is but one aspect.

Hillman was in his eighties with an enormous and highly respected body of work, yet he was bright to the end. Woolger was much younger, only mid-sixties, yet he left an international school for his Deep Memory Process and an incredible facilitator of his work in Patricia Walsh author of Understanding Karmic Complexes. He was also a vital and adventurous man to the end.

I end this memoriam to two great men, and to the unacknowledged mansions of Soul with Tennyson again, who seeks even in grief for lost loved ones to experience the expansive potential of life;

“Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,

But vaster.”