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Sep 25, 2023

Living with Borrowed Dust by Dr James Hollis

Hollis grad_0912

Photo: James Hollis with a statue of James Joyce in Zurich in 1985

In the past four years I have had elective knee and hip replacements, non-elective cancer treatments involving surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, and two major spinal operations as the vertebrae of my spine dissolved and fractured, possibly as sequelae of the cancer treatment onslaught. So, the last few years have been pain-ridden and constrained by various procedures even as I continued to work as an analyst when out of hospital. As a result of my uncertain but life-threatening medical prognosis, my wife and I recently moved to a retirement center. Through it all, I found that my medical situation was less on my mind than my work with analytic psychology. Even I found that surprising, and I can only conclude that the work of Jung and Jungians continues to animate, direct, and feed the life of my soul. If that were not the case, I would be collecting stamps, or knitting doilies by now.

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Posted by: Leigh

The Jungian model and a search for meaning 

While analytic psychology remains on the periphery of modern psychological modalities, it never troubles me that we are such a small group, comparatively speaking. If we are doing what is right for ourselves and our analysands, then it provides a compensation for the focus on the mere symptom relief our culture values so highly rather than the problem of meaning which I believe undergirds most psychopathology. When we are separated from our own souls, there is a terrible suffering that inevitably spills into the world, into relationships, onto our children, and into the world at large. As Jung pointed out, neurosis is suffering that has not yet found its meaning. He does not rule out suffering, of course, but he does remind us that experiencing the meaning of our troubled transit helps one through difficult times. The Jungian model asks a lot of a person, but the reward is also substantial. As I have said to more than one client: this is not about curing you for you are not a disease, but it is a summons to a deeper dialogue that will make your life more interesting, and will likely take you through spiritual landscapes you hadn’t planned to visit, yet each will bring a richer, darker, more variegated hue to the tapestry of your life.

When I look back at the beginning, in my days as a professor of humanities, I began teaching Jung because I thought his understanding of symbolic formation was illuminating. When the psyche blessed me with a mid-life depression, and I had my first hour of analysis, something in me began to realize that my understanding of Jung and matters Jungian was superficial. Until the concepts became flesh, till they were modes of reflection on life as really lived, they remained what Whitehead called “the bloodless dance of categories.”

As a part of my training I worked in a state psychiatric hospital part-time for three years. Serving on a locked ward, I was told to wear a tie so that I would be thus identified as staff and allowed out in the evening. The magnitude of human suffering experienced in that hospital percolated through the layers of my life. As a child with various medical issues, I had grown up both fascinated and frightened by hospitals. The older doctor to whom I had been assigned took me to see an autopsy. For days thereafter I saw that distended body and realized that my own psyche had somehow engineered me back into that world that I had fled as a youth. As my analyst in Zürich said so succinctly, “when you have faced your own fears, the fears of others will not be so difficult.”

Shortly after that I helped a doctor suture a man whose face had been opened by a chair thrown at him. I could not help but be impressed with the wisdom, the autonomy of the psyche that had subtly pulled me back into the world I had fled for the tempting refuge of the academic mind. As we know, fear is natural and normal, but a life governed by fear is something else. Today I see that hospital work as a truly personal introduction to the universal healing intention of the psyche.

Honouring the world of dreams

Along with many others in analysis, I learned to honor the world of dreams, of active imagination, and to begin to ask questions such as, “But what is that choice in service to inside.” A simple enough question, but it begins the forensic deepening. The problem with the unconscious is that it is unconscious. Recently, while in hospital I was asked by a nurse what I did for a living. “How does that work differ from ordinary psychology,” she asked. “Well, for one thing, we try to evoke a conversation with the unconscious.” She thought awhile and replied, “Oh, I get it, you work with folks in a coma.” The more I reflected on her comment, the more sense it made for all of us most of the time are in altered states, that is to say, driven by fears, responding to life’s challenges with routinized and reflexive behaviors, and largely unaware of the vast psychodramas coursing beneath the surface of things.

During the last half-century, I have been devoted to the project of bringing the insights, attitudes, and practices of analytic psychology to as many people as possible through the venues of teaching, writing, and private praxis. While this is hardly a job, as such, it is a calling. If I think something is good for me, why would I not share that with others? As a result, what I have observed is that many folks are hungry for the life of the psyche and are willing to face the fire and open themselves to change. Even if popular culture itself is a vast panoply of distractions from the life of the soul, there are many who know something vital is missing in all that flash, flair, and razzmatazz.

Remembering Jung’s warning that we cannot take a person any further than we have traveled ourselves, I find myself still curious, still amazed at the simplest of things, and still wanting to know what is going on beneath the surface. As a result of this inquiry, life never ceases to be heuristic, never loses its capacity to challenge the assumptions that may have carried us through yesterday but prove insufficient for today.

Adaptation in place of growth


Photo: James Hollis aged 8 in Springfield, Ilinois at Abraham Lincoln's home

We all recall Jung’s observation that most of our problems stem from being separated from our instincts. As our journey begins in utter powerlessness and dependency upon those whom fate has assigned to us, we survive as creatures of adaptation. Over time, repeated on a daily basis, these adaptations become reflexive, even autonomous responses to the challenges that arise from our families and our assigned culture. No wonder one grows a stranger to oneself. No wonder we become our own worst enemy. We even cling to our maladaptive behaviors for they are the boat that brought us this far. Sometimes, the natural maturational process allows us to outgrow the childhood fears and epiphenomenal behaviors, but many times they become institutionalized within us as a shadow governments. Often it takes a crisis, a loss of energy, or a set of troubling consequences that oblige us to stop and finally settle accounts, perhaps start therapy, perhaps tough it out on one’s own.

We can see why the recovery of personal authority becomes the signal project of the second half of life. Finding and separating the tangled threads of personal authority from the plethora of voices crying for our loyalty within takes on a newly felt urgency. This sorting and sifting project, this task of discernment rises out of a newly found attitude of critical awareness. “Where is this coming from in me?” “Where have I been here before?” “Does this path make me larger or does it diminish my journey?” These are the kind of questions required of all of us to evolve into a more authentic presence.

Sooner or later each of us is obliged to traverse the savannahs of suffering. Sooner or later evil makes its way into our lives, along with loss, defeat, and the seductive temptations of lassitude and avoidance. But even the darkest of hours is part of the richness of this journey we call our lives. No matter what happens to us “out there,” so much more is asked of us from within. Sustaining the energy, the focus, the fierce commitment to growth and learning is difficult but critical to the depth and dignity of our journey. For each of us, the turn of the wheel of time brings us over and over to the question: “How shall you live in the face of this situation over which you, seemingly, have no control?” This question personalizes the challenge to us directly.

One remembers the 1950’s letter of Jung to Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn in which he said the opus of individuation consists of three parts, of which psychology can only help with the first stage: insight. Then, he said, come the moral qualities of the individual: courage to face whatever must be faced, and persistence, endurance over time until one has lived into a different place.

Dark night of the soul

I am also always reminded of Jung’s query: “What supports you when nothing supports you?” Sooner or later, the constructed edifice of the false self will erode, even collapse, and then one enters the dark night of the soul. Will one, in all that intimidating darkness, find even a scintilla of light that leads one through and out of the dark forest? If we find, hold onto, and risk that glimmer of light, then we know we carry something that transcends the ordinary ego limitations that bind us to the dreary cycle of repetition. Such a person knows from then on that she or he is never alone in one’s aloneness, that one is never bereft of support within, and that if we simply try to do the next right thing as we believe it to be right, something within will rise and support us. In the vast star-flung sea of the universe, the human soul has a resilience and a buoyancy that one does not know… until one knows it. Poet Emily Dickinson put it in an aphorism: “The sailor cannot see the north, but knows the needle can.” Her 1863 insight reminds us that when we venture forth on the high seas of uncertain voyage, we must remember to bring and to trust the compass within that tells us the true north of the soul.

Poet Stanley Kunitz wrote of himself, “I only borrowed this dust.” Sooner or later, we have to return the loan. I remain deeply grateful for the work of Carl Jung and other colleagues who have opened windows, methods, and larger perspectives along the way. They have sustained me, granted insight and hope, and told me I was not alone in my exile. Thus, when we come to the “return the dust” part, it helps if one can believe that we lived the rest of the journey with as much bien foi as we could manage.


James Hollis PhD is a Zürich-Trained Jungian Analyst in private practice in Washington, DC, author of nineteen books, and working on the twentieth.