Finding the Messy Middle: How Archetypal Psychology Helped the Zen Priest Understand Soul

Finding the Messy Middle: How Archetypal Psychology Helped the Zen Priest Understand Soul July 26, 2020

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I see that Carl Jung was born on this day, the 26th of July, in 1875. Noting that has triggered a cascade of thoughts.

For some time I’ve been puttering around with a memoir. It hasn’t gone particularly well. Memoirs are tricky things, and at this point the great pile of words I’ve compiled over the past few years are more of the “I did this and then I did that” than the lively narrative that would be worth publishing.

Still there are a couple of things in that memoir that could be of interest to someone other than me. One of these things is how an aspect of Jungianism has touched me. And with that how it might be useful to others on the intimate way.

I’ve told versions of this before.

In the 1980s (ah, someone just reminded me how the 80s are as far from today as the 80s were from the 1940s…) my spouse Jan & I could see some writing on the wall, and the words were not promising. I was a High School drop out working in used book stores. I could go anywhere in the country, it seemed, and be qualified for a seven dollar an hour job. Jan, who had dropped out of UCLA in the late 1960s to join the revolution, had since settle into work as a typesetter, a computer generated process that followed “hot type,” and proceeded the coming personal computer revolution. She knew eventually her profession would if not die off completely, it would shrink dramatically.

Our hearts had been elsewhere than making a living. Ours had been lives focused on the spiritual quest.

It was time to get our “earth plane” act together.

And with that I began taking classes at Sonoma State University, studying psychology while Jan finished up some general education requirements at several local community colleges before returning to university, herself.

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.

Here is soul. Here is soulfulness…

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 with that a sense of soulfulness.

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 have no idea what she did with that. But for me, it was a tumbling into deeper places. It was an invitation to the other side of the light.

It was a moment when I could experience the messiness of soulfulness.

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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