Soul Men: Gordon Tappan, James Hillman, and My Foray Into Archetypal Psychology

Soul Men: Gordon Tappan, James Hillman, and My Foray Into Archetypal Psychology April 3, 2017

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I’m futzing around with a memoir. Probably nothing that will ever be published, but at this moment in my life I see it as an opportunity to reflect back and consider. A privilege of aging. This is one passage about one mentor and something of how he marked my life.

I began taking classes at Sonoma State University, studying psychology while Jan finished up some general education requirements at several local community colleges.

I was working close to full time and I considered the BA nothing more than a ticket to a professional school, and so was pushing through as fast as I could. Some friends stopped me and said, “Do yourself a favor, James. Find a professor you admire and take whatever she or he offers.” They slyly added, “You’ll never regret it.”

One of them who knew the school, Sonoma State, a commuter college some sixty miles north of San Francisco, said “Take a class from Gordon Tappan in the psychology department.” A little reluctantly, but needing some relief from the grind, I signed up. Now, totally by accident I walked into a graduate seminar on archetypal psychology, a variation on Carl Jung’s work. I stood at his desk. Gordon looked at my paperwork, glanced up and said, “Been a mistake. No undergraduates here.” I said, “I’m on a tight schedule and can’t get another class in time to keep my load up, and as someone let me register, I’m not going to leave.”

He gave me the fisheye, then said, “Sit in the back and keep quiet.” I sat in the back but didn’t keep quiet. I ended up taking three classes with him, and found them pretty much the only things I recall from that whirlwind that led to my being able to get into grad school.

Gordon was an archetypalist. Now, while I sometimes have referred to myself as a pseudo-Jungian, I’ve never actually had much of a taste for Carl Jung’s work. I think while he was some kind of artist of the heart, he also liked to pretend his work was science. And that just annoyed me. But, his disciple James Hillman, well, he’s a horse of another color entirely. As is his subset of Jungian thought, archetypal psychology. A few years ago when I learned Hillman had died, I felt actual grief, as if it were the passing of one of my teachers. While I never met him, since Gordon’s class I’ve read a lot of Hillman. I consider him one of my important guides.

I’m particularly taken with what Hillman considered the soul to be for someone who doesn’t think there’s a parasite inside us just waiting for the moment it can break free. You may have noticed how spirit and self, and sometimes mind are, in practice, in our times, all taken as synonyms for soul. Actually this is a problem. Hillman suggested this represents a reductionism in our current culture leading to a simple Cartesian divide “between outer tangible reality and inner states of mind, or between body and a fuzzy conglomerate of mind, psyche, and spirit.”

He also provided me with a way to engage the classical Buddhist understanding of the Three Bodies. One is Nirmanakaya, the realm of history and causality. Another is the Dharmakaya, the realm of the absolute or vast empty. And, the third is the Sambkogakaya, the realm of miracle. Or, as I see it the realm of dream and story.
In this third place the absolute and the phenomenal meet, and there are eruptions, perhaps not disruptions of time and space, but absolutely disruptions of our sense of what is, which are might close.

For me seeing the two views, the classical presentation of the three bodies of the Buddha and Hillman’s three parts of being within mind, psyche, and spirit, opened up the dynamic I kept experiencing in my own life. Seeing neither is precisely it, but that each in its three-fold dynamic points to something more livable than even the great truths of the identity of form and emptiness suggest.

And Gordon provided a pretty direct example of how it all can come together in our lived lives. I was taking a dream seminar with him. One afternoon a member of the group described her most recent dream. The woman was ethereal, tall and thin, with long golden hair that frizzed just enough to create a halo effect around her head. She described how in her dream a woman, and I admit I had a hard time not picturing her, herself, walked toward her holding a golden ball. As she watched transfixed the ball started glowing, the brightness growing, and growing until there was nothing but light. Nothing but light.

When she finished the group was silent. That pause extended a minute or so, almost achingly long. Then out of that silence Gordon asked, quietly, simply, kindly, “What do you think all that light was hiding?”

I found serious pointers sitting at Gordon’s feet, learning Hillman’s wisdom. And I hope their influence has made me a better minister and Zen teacher, as well as a better human being.

Of course, others have to make that sort of evaluation…

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