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How Do You Say Goodbye to the Teacher Who Has Changed Your Life?

The man who taught a generation about the soul's mysteries leaves this world for the next, surely to be remembered for generations to come as a great soul himself.
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Writers live by ideas; they are the very breath of words. So when I heard the news that James Hillman -- Jungian scholar, pioneering depth psychologist, renowned intellect, bestselling author, and many other things -- had died, I mourned his loss. How, I wondered, could I ever pay tribute to someone whose ideas had so profoundly shaped the way I think, write, and even live and love?

Much of what I've learned -- and am still learning -- from Hillman came through his brilliant writings and unforgettable lectures. But I count myself fortunate to have had the privilege of interviewing Hillman multiple times over the past two decades. The wit and weight of his uncompromising personality combined with his knowledge infused his words with crackling intensity. Indeed for most who knew him, Hillman will be primarily remembered for two things: his groundbreaking ideas on the psyche and culture, and the remarkable force of character with which he both lived and delivered those ideas.

From Hillman, for instance, I learned the radical idea that depression is not merely an illness to be cured, but a kind of suffering that, when meaningfully borne, yields wisdom and beauty; that we are each guided by an invisible "daemon" who safeguards our calling; that we are here not to rise above life, but to "grow down" into it; and that dreams are not just symbols to be analyzed, but vivid encounters with a very real psychic realm.

It was Hillman who taught me to value slow time, reflection, history and the ancestors from whom I am descended. He deepened my understanding of Jung, while adding yet more layers of psychological theory. Hard as it was, Hillman trained me to see soul at work even in such taboo topics as suicide, warold age. Of greatest value, he taught me to live within the outlines of my given character, as well as to honor my children's characters, even those traits that were eccentric or ill-suited to conventional society. From Hillman I learned that to every one thing, there is an opposite.

It was Hillman who reoriented my spirituality, bringing me down from the heights of meditation to the depths of psyche. Next to Jung, probably nothing I've read has affected me so profoundly as his essay "Peaks and Vales: The Soul/Spirit Distinction as Basis for the Differences between Psychotherapy and Spiritual Discipline."

In it, Hillman wrote that Western culture as it developed had over-valued the realm of spirit. Belonging to this vertical dimension were abstract "spirit experiences" such as visions, ecstasy, detachment and transcendence, as well as logic and the future. Soul, or psyche, on the other hand, wrote Hillman, was forged in the hollows of earthly existence. Sadness and depression, the mortal, the pull of memory and the drag of the past, sleep and dreams and the iconography of images and archetypes all belonged to the horizontal dimension of soul. This is the rejected material of our driven Western society. It is also, as Hillman pointed out, the stuff of our personal "case histories," the basis of therapy. "The soul involves us in history," wrote Hillman. "Our individual case history, the history of our therapy, our culture as history," while "The peaks wipe out history."

By bringing me down from the mountaintop, Hillman reanimated my relationship to nature and even existence itself. Life became less like a spiritual retreat, and more like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel of enchantment. For to Hillman, everything from the largest to the smallest thing -- from a seemingly godless place like Washington, D.C., to a mushroom, a bottle of wine, or a chair -- was possessed of a unique "eachness" of shape, voice and character. Hillman called this the anima mundi, or the world ensouled. This was the spoken world of the indigenous peoples, and the lost kingdom of my childhood. Returning to it made my life a far less empty, and much more intimate, place to inhabit.

Indeed the golden thread running through Hillman's work is the notion that the external world of today has become dead and soulless, stripped of meaning. This lack of soul has had aesthetic consequences, resulting in the barren strip malls, industrialized landscapes and banal office buildings of modern America. The environmental crisis likewise can be traced to our blindness to the world's soul. Thus no movement, whether ecological, feminist or pacifist, wrote Hillman, could save us until our way of relating to the world -- even our very idea of the world -- was transformed.

Though Hillman sought to change our way of seeing, he was not given to dispensing wisdom with spoonfuls of sugar. Little about him was soothing or reassuring. He aimed to rile up, unsettle and awaken. He didn't like words like serenity or hope. He deliberately went against the grain of the modern spiritual movement's upward-turning optimism, and once famously said people should stop meditating, as it distracted from the world's problems. Even psychotherapy came in for criticism, as he believed most conventional therapy isolated people's problems within the consulting room, rather than in the wider culture. Hillman could also be difficult to interview. Often he had to be coaxed, and could be irritable. "I'm no good at interviews," he grumbled one time. "Can't you just take what you need from my books?"

Yet this constellation of qualities made Hillman stand out as one of the greatest thinkers I've encountered. His mind was something to behold, and he had a talent for using the insights of psychology and mythology as a lens for cultural analysis. A kind of philosopher-psychologist, he thrived on dialogue, loving the questions as much as the answers. He shied away like a spooked horse from prescribing solutions -- that "American thing," as he called it. In such a forward-propelled culture as America, it takes courage to be backward-looking, but from that calling Hillman never looked away.

Hillman in fact was greatly preoccupied with politics and with America, especially its underbelly of depression. "What do you do with tragedy in America?" he said to me once. "The deep question that was so important to the Greeks and the Elizabethans? Where does it fit in? This is a huge American question." In my last interviews with Hillman for "The Huffington Post," I found him considerably softened from his illness. Nonetheless, his wonderful mind was soon engaged, as he spoke compellingly on America's "shift in ages."

So, once again, how do you thank someone who has left such a mark on your soul? How do you say farewell to the teacher who has deepened your understanding of life?

Though I have tried, words only go so far before paling into silence. In an email, Hillman's wife, artist Margot McLean-Hillman, wrote poignantly that she did not "wish to talk about his death just yet. The privacy of something so monumental needs time." In his moving reminiscence of Hillman, Thomas Moore, Hillman's colleague and arguably his successor, vowed to make his works better known to the world.

But perhaps one could also allow psyche to speak, as in a dream I had the night Hillman died. In this dream, I was attending Hillman's last lecture. The hall, located by a port, was full. Against the backdrop of a twilit sea, Hillman began to speak on the subject of death. He spoke with great solemnity, as this was also about his own death. Afterward, Hillman arranged two chairs in the middle of the crowd. One by one, he began the ritual of wishing each person who sat opposite him goodbye.

Finally, it was time for Hillman to leave. The whole crowd stood up with him and, in a grand, celebratory procession, filed down to the pier where two ships were waiting. As we drew closer, a wizened sea captain stepped forward, preparing to accomplish a difficult task. This involved swinging a gigantic "hook," joining a smaller ship to the larger ship that would take Hillman on his journey. Because this hook could harm someone if it swung in the wrong direction, the captain moved us all off onto a parallel boardwalk. As the group stepped away, leaving only Hillman, I heard a loud ringing sound as the enormous hook swung over our heads with a rush of air, then a loud clap as, all in one motion, it successfully connected the small ship to the larger ship's iron clasp. As we all waved, Hillman walked on board, his back turned and his head bowed.

And so, the man who taught a generation about the soul's mysteries leaves this world for the next, surely to be remembered for generations to come as a great soul himself.

For excerpts from some of my interviews with Hillman on depression, the soul's calling and other topics, please visit my blog at