In this episode it is an enormous treat and honour for me to have as my guest, Dr James Hollis, a Washington D.C. based Jungian psychoanalyst and the author of sixteen books on finding meaning and purpose in life, especially the passage into what C.G. Jung called the “second half of life” that most of us go through somewhere between our late 30s and late 40s. I’ve drawn upon his work for many years, especially in my leadership coaching.
Dr. Hollis shares his wisdom on our relationship to work, how we move through the middle passage and into the second half of life, and how we find our true meaning and purpose.
N.B. This transcript is mostly done by AI, so there may be a few errors. Timestamps are left in for accessibility and listening along.
Andy Polaine: [00:00:00] Welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organizational transformation and onto the changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine. I’m a service design and innovation consultant, coach trainer and writer. I’ve always wanted Power of Ten to be more than just me talking to designers, talking about design. It’s an enormous treat and an honor for me to have, as my guest today, Dr. James Hollis of Washington, DC based the Jungian psychoanalyst and the author of 16 books, which have been translated into 19 languages and whose wisdom I draw heavily upon in my coaching work.
Dr. Hollis taught humanities for 26 years in various colleges and universities. There’s before retraining as a Jungian analyst at the Jung Institute of Zurich, Switzerland, he served as Executive Director of the Jung educational center in Houston for many years, and was Executive Director of the Jung Society of Washington until 2019, where he now still serves on the Board of Directors.
Additionally, he’s a Professor of Jungian Studies for Saybrook University of San Francisco and Houston. And that barely scratches the surface of a well examined life most certainly lived with meaning. James, welcome to Power of Ten.
James Hollis: [00:01:21] Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Andy Polaine: [00:01:23] So as I was researching this episode that I thought I’d read most of your books. And then as I started to go through, I thought, Oh no, hang on a second 16 books. You’ve been extremely prolific over many years. And so this could be a complete series in its own. And I have so many questions, it’s hard to know where to start. But I thought I would start with the, with the world of work, partly because that’s, you know, a lot of the stuff I do in coaching of course, but also it’s recently been thrown upside down.
I wrote a little, a little kind of rant on LinkedIn the other day about how the work should not be miserable, by which I mean not unpleasant occasionally and not difficult sometimes, but miserable is its own sort of special thing. It’s a sort of ongoing drain. in your book, the Eden Project: In Search Of The Magical Other, there’s a chapter in it on Eros in the organization that really stuck with me over the years. You talk about this kind of paternal dynamic that is set up in, in work. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about this idea where you, if I quote you, you said “most people experience their work environments as a society and not a community and suffer from the difference.”
What did you mean by that? And maybe if you kind of unpack that a little bit for us?
James Hollis: [00:02:37] Certainly. Well, society is, an arrangement of people and their energies to address a certain subject, like improving our crops or improve our water supply. And as long as that purpose is served or failed to be served, the society will disintegrate because it has no further reason for being, so kind of horizontal organization.
But a community is an organization that has a vertical dimension to it. So when, when that occurs, each person feels part of something larger and is partly defined by that, so societies are pretty fragile and easily sort of dispersed, communities have the capacity to persist. So religious communities through the years, for example, have sometimes been able to survive enormous migration, persecution and so forth.
As we know, because they had some sort of vertical identification, something larger than their own individual journeys and, and their common purpose, but some relationship to some transcended value of some kind. And too often at work is we know it’s all about the bottom line and producing as many of the widgets as possible. And no one’s particularly going to get excited about that. So it’s, it’s kind of hard to sustain community at a work environment, but it’s certainly a possible goal, I should say.
Andy Polaine: [00:04:01] This idea of the kind of paternal dynamic I’ve definitely seen where this there’s, this kind of - I think you talk about it in the book as well, actually - where this idea that workplace organizations kind of ask their employees to love them it’s impossible for, for them to be loved back. And there’s a kind of dynamic that gets set up that is, possibly quite unhealthy. And when people get so suddenly fired, like many have been during the pandemic, it’s not just, I’ve just lost my job, I’ve just been fired. It’s kind of a rejection from the parent too.
James Hollis: [00:04:35] Sure.
Andy Polaine: [00:04:35] Is that, is that you’re kind of reading of that or have I understood that wrong?
James Hollis: [00:04:39] Correct, because, we always carry with us our emotional needs and the person who doesn’t check that at the front door of the office, he or she brings into that environment. All of his, or her psychology. And that includes those parental needs. So it works out in various ways. If there has, has been a kind of positive or rental experience, one is looking to the corporation to be the good parent. So how dare they, they lay me off, for example. Why don’t they understand my emotional needs? Why does this get sacrificed? And on the other hand, you can have a sense of opposition, you know, a negativity toward the organization up to, and including something like industrial sabotage or people deliberately not carrying through on their assignments because they’re still reacting against some kind of internalized authority figure. So we don’t check our psychological history, the front door, we carry it everywhere we go. So it’s bound to be triggered.
I had a friend years ago who was a personnel director, HR director of a major British corporation here in the United States. And he gave a speech typically to the new employees. And he said, basically, and he was very thoughtful, humane person. He said, I want you to know the corporation does not love you. They will rent your behavior as long as it’s productive for the corporation. And they will cease to rent it on the day that it’s no longer productive and that’s kind of a bucket of cold water in one’s face, but he went on to say, therefore, your sense of value here, apart from a paycheck, which in the long run, they’ll never pay you enough or what, whatever it might cost your soul, your value here was your inherent sort of interest in your work. And your comradery with friends. And if you don’t have that, it’s going to be miserable indeed. And believe it or not, his whole motive was humane. He was trying to help people recognize what projections they were going to bring to the corporate environment and expectations that inevitably would have been frustrated.
Yeah. I feel like most people probably understand the concept of protection and people certainly use it all the time. It’s one of those things kind of entered, sort of common parlance of “you’re just projecting or whatever on me.” I wonder if it’s kind of understood in its nuance. Would you talk about what projection at actually is because the Eden Project is largely about that in terms of relationships all over.
Well, we don’t have projections consciously. We don’t wake in the morning and say, well, today I’m going to have a projection before 10:00 AM. A projection means something in my psyche has been triggered. It’s activated and energy that has the power to leave me and go out into the world. Now, I don’t know that that’s happened, but I start seeing the world through the lens of that projection.
In other words, let’s say two people meet. Are they friends or foes? Is this going to develop into a romantic relationship is going to be hostile? They bring their history into that engagement. And in that moment, each is projecting on the other person. The second stage of this is the other person, because they are other won’t fully conform to the sort of gestalt or expectations of that projection. So it produces some cognitive dissonance or discrepancy. That often leads to a little confusion. Maybe the power complex. It says, well, let me move you back into place here. Let me, let me just try to get you back to what I thought you were and fourth invariably, invariably, over time is the erosion of the projection and it falls back into the unconscious. And since I don’t know, that’s what I was doing. I’m literally unconscious, that that’s happened. So there’s a good chance to blame you for what happened, for example. And that’s usually where things in with disappointment, disillusionment, sometimes anger and bitterness.
The fifth stage, if it’s going to happen is a person could recognize what did I put out on you? What was I expecting from the corporation? What was I expecting from this affiliation? And now that energy has come back to me. And what am I going to do with that? That’s the key.
Andy Polaine: [00:08:46] So there’s that sort of classic thing of you wake up one day and you know, after in the middle of a row with your partner, “you’re not, you’re not the person I married.” Right? Because, because they not - you married your projection, which also seems to happen a lot. I guess that moment happens a lot more in, in work because people, well, most people probably swap their jobs more often than they swap their long-term relationships. And so there’s, “this place isn’t like it used to be when I joined” and so forth. And, I’m guessing some of that is the projection that falls away. But some of it is, of course, everything is constantly evolving and things do change.
During the pandemic, it strikes me that - certainly many of the conversations I’ve had with guests as well - it gave everyone kind of pause for thoughts to think about. It’s almost like a lot of that got stripped away perhaps, or the projection got shifted in some way, or people had pause to experience life outside of, and that when people are very, very busy - it’s almost one of the kind of myths of productivity - is when they’re very, very busy, they sort of end up in a kind of drift where the weeks and the years go by and then suddenly they’re in a place, that they didn’t mean to, which we’ll come to, but have you kind of experienced that? I mean in your practice, in your, analysis with patients, have you seen, or what are your thoughts about kind of that shift that’s happened during the pandemic?
James Hollis: [00:10:09] Certainly the enforced sequestering that we’ve been obliged to go through has required, I think then some severing of what I’ll call the plugins and what I mean by that - many people are learning “I didn’t know how much of my identity, my script, my set of val ues, my behavioral agenda were, were these plugins” such as getting up in the morning, going to work.
And what if you can’t do that? What if your work is closed or what if it’s constrained in a significant way? Well, those loose ends now often are dangling out there with that. Some anxiety at the end of each one of them. And, you know, that’s one of the things that is happening during our pandemic. A lot of people are being introduced to a new relationship to themselves, and they’re not very happy with the company there, you know, because it’s easy to avoid that kind of meaning because we have a world of distraction, 24/7. It’s not just work it’s popular culture.
Blaise Pascal in the 17th century said, “the biggest human problem of all is the inability of a person to sit by himself in his own private chamber”, which is extraordinary sentence in the 17th Century. Right now, if you take away people’s electronic gadgetry and all of the things that we have to distract us then you have to sort of say, “but who am I and what am I going to do?” And it’s, it’s that kind of inversion of all of those projections we were just talking about. And some people have found new interests and new talents and so forth. I know a lot of people are grateful now to be working from home and not having to spend time commuting to work and finding parking places or that sort of thing. And other people feel very much adrift and anxious.
Andy Polaine: [00:11:57] Yeah, work can also feel like a very worthy distraction, right? it’s probably one of the easiest things, it’s really drummed into us as well, I’d say particularly in the States as well, the kind of Protestant work ethic, or Calvinist work ethic, this idea that you can very strongly rationalize the reason why you should be doing it and focusing on it. And yet, when I was talking about people, I think I come across people that there really is some misery at work and it’s kind of long-term and it really feels like this dissonance between, that inner acknowledgement that people really know that they should be, be doing something else and actually what they’re doing. And it’s heavily laced with fear, it seems to me.
James Hollis: [00:12:43] Of course, well, there’s a huge difference between work and vocation after all. Work, what we do theoretically to put food on our table, and it’s certainly, existentially relevant. Vocation is whatever you call to do with your life. It comes from vocatus, vocal, what do you call your life?That’s quite different.
Now you can do your day job and still have your life outside of that. And some people flourish in that way. I had a client years ago who had a master’s degree in philosophy. There’s not too great a call for philosophers these days, you may have noticed. So what he did was he delivered an area newspaper - four different routes in the morning. And he said, when everyone else is headed off to work depressed, he said, at 7:30 in the morning I’m free. And he’s spending his life, enjoying his hobbies and going to a university and taking courses and so forth. In other words, he was able to split in a conscious way and say, this is how I pay bills. And here’s how I feed my soul. And one ultimately has to feed the soul or something will grow sour and pathologize within us. That’s why we can get all that we want in life and still feel an inner emptiness or even a kind of reactive depression, because our human psyche, has a life of its own and an autonomy. And it’s never silent. It’s always, manifesting its qualitative analysis of how our life is going or not going.
Andy Polaine: [00:14:12] Yeah. There’s also that whole culture - it sort of came out of, I think, I don’t know if it entirely come out of Silicon Valley, I see it a lot from the U.S., you know, this idea of the side hustle. So everyone’s kind of, everyone’s an entrepreneur and just kind of adds to yet another distraction and another stress. And in some respects kind of is wanting to have your cake and eat it right? Wanting to be able to have the kind of vocational thing, but then not have the pain, I guess, of, of leaving the secure parental job.
James Hollis: [00:14:43] That’s right, yes.
Andy Polaine: [00:14:46] So, I’m really fascinated… I normally do a little recap or get people to talk about their pathway here. Talking of, of that kind of shift in careers you were teaching for a very long time when you worked in academia for a long time. Can I ask you what was the… you talk about it somewhat in Living Between Worlds actually. What was the shift for you, or where was this sort of moment where you thought this is not for me or there’s this other thing?
James Hollis: [00:15:16] Well, the one thing I’ve always identified with and still, enjoying, considering my prime vocation, which is true, is teaching. In various forms, as you know, with you, writing, talking with clients and so forth. And in my early life, I was a tenured professor of humanities at a university. And I enjoyed the job very much. I love working with the students and so forth, but in mid life I found myself in a depression. You know, midway in life’s journey I found myself in a dark wood, as Dante said. And it’s the first time I ever stopped to sort of examine my goals. And I realized I had achieved all my goals. I had a doctorate by the time I was 27, I had a lovely family. I had a career that I valued. I mean, what, what could go wrong here? You know?
And yet the psyche itself was, protesting from within. And so it sent me to my first hours of therapy, not thinking at the moment “Oh, I’m starting the second half of life.” The one where I sort of get myself back again, because little did I know that the degree to which I had, as most of us, do invested and what I thought were the appropriate goals in life, you know, what the sort of scripts all around us tell us to do with our lives. And it wasn’t the teaching that was the problem. It was, there was something in me that was wanting to go deeper. And when I started the process, it wasn’t about changing my career. It was more about why am I feeling so bad? Why is the psyche autonomously, withdrawing its approval and support from the places where I want to put it?
You know, the executive suite up here in the brain is saying, well, here’s what you do, you build a career, you get tenure, you know, you get promotion, et cetera, et cetera, and something inside is in revolt. So go figure that one out. And I think that happens in most people’s lives, not everyone’s, but most people’s lives.
And the key is all right. What does that then call me to consider. Where do I need to sort of go back to the drawing board and be accountable for that? So it was a several year transition and it led me to travel to Switzerland and retrain in analytic psychology. And so I continue the good part, which is a teaching, but I left the bureaucracy.
Andy Polaine: [00:17:33] I can sympathize.
James Hollis: [00:17:35] Yeah. And since then, I’ve been basically a free agent. And, and what was interesting to me is when I left a tenured position, most of my colleagues thought I’d lost my mind, because that was one of the goals that was a lifetime job, you know, and a good job and security and benefits and a fairly easy schedule compared to most. And I walked away from that and I had to suddenly pay my own insurance. I had to suddenly generate my own clients. You know, the university wasn’t doing it for me. I had to find my office and pay for it, et cetera. And it was in one level psychologically shocking. But the truth is I never looked back. I felt from the beginning, the rightness of it, because if we’re doing what’s right for something inside supports us. You can be scared out of your mind. That’s okay. But if, if you’re doing what’s right for you, something inside supports you, and if you’re doing what’s wrong it will oppose you and we don’t always trust that, but that’s an important thing to recognize.
Andy Polaine: [00:18:37] Can I ask you just quickly? How old were you roughly?
James Hollis: [00:18:41] Well, when I first started my own therapy and began to look into these things, I was 35 right on schedule. It was almost planned, as it were know, assuming the usual 70 years. And, It was, it was about a six, seven year process of transition. Right about halfway through there, I left the university and moved into therapy and I’ve been doing that ever since.
Andy Polaine: [00:19:04] Can I also ask, I know it’s very personal, but I kind of to, to match it to where I see a lot of other people were you then married and had kids at that point in time or?
James Hollis: [00:19:14] Yes.
Andy Polaine: [00:19:14] So all the kind of a trappings of responsibility and everything. So hence the, the tenure where, you know, you’ve got to that final.. You got to the bit where you’ve got job for life, right? You’re finally kind of fully docked to the parental, organization, you made the break.
Going back to that thing where you said there was, I was scared as hell, but it kinda felt like the right thing to do. I felt I needed to do this, as well. It’s quite hard sometimes to differentiate between those two. And, you know, you’ve written many, many books about this moment in life, this, the middle passage, and actually in your most recent book, Living Between Worlds, it sounded to me like your time in Zurich was a very special and very kind of made a massive impact on you not just because of the training, it felt like it was a kind of very important time in your life. How, how did you, or how do we, differentiate between the anxiety of giving things up and the anxiety of I’m not doing the right thing if I don’t give those things up and start something new?
James Hollis: [00:20:23] Well, for one thing we’re never free of anxiety, you know, people could be anxious about being anxious or they can be depressed about being depressed, literally not knowing that those are normal human conditions. A certain amount of depression, pockets of depression is what I would call it, I’m not saying where you’re so depressed you can’t get out of bed. The pockets of depression rise out of the fact that you’re your full life as being frustrated in various ways and so forth. And that’s appropriate reaction. Anxiety comes with being human. The key is what does that make you do? Or what does that keep you from doing? That’s the key.
In other words, being anxious, being uncertain, having doubt that’s human, but then does that shut you down? Because that, and this is going to sound very much like a cliche, but if at the end of your life, you look back at your life and you say, did I live my journey or did I constantly come up to the precipice of choice and then steer away? And something in us knows the difference and that, Satre said, mauvaise foi versus bonne foi, you know, are you living in good faith with your own soul because in the end, you’re your soul. And I’m using that in the sense of the Greek word psyche. That is to say who you most deeply are. It knows what’s right for you. And it’s not particularly interested in your comfort or fitting in, you see.
The people that we would admire most in history, stop and think who you admire in history. And in many cases, their lives were very conflictual, full of suffering, often without recognition in their lifetime. And yet we admire them because they embodied something that was meant to be embodied in this world. It wasn’t about their egos. It wasn’t about their fiscal plan. It was about being in service to something that mattered within them. And that’s, that’s what vocation really is. And when you do that something supports you. That’s the whole point.
There’s a big difference, for example, between happiness and meaning. We’re told to pursue happiness as if it’s an achievable goal. Happiness, as you know, is very transient, very contextual and can be delusional and meaning is something that abides. For example, as a therapist, It doesn’t make me happy to spend eight hours a day listening to people’s suffering, but it is profoundly meaningful.
There’s a difference and I know they’re different. If it weren’t meaningful, I’d be doing something else. I’d be driving trucks, or I do something else, you know, it’s, it’s meaningful and in ways in which your psyche makes that judgment, not your income and not your peers and not your resume.
Andy Polaine: [00:23:13] So in my work when I’m I’m coaching , I mentioned just before we’re recording, there’s a lot of, I think this probably true of other professions. I think it’s true in many, if not all, actually, but certainly in things like engineering and medicine and things, but designers have - and people in creative industries - have often made a decision kind of against this parental scripts or the scripts of teachers around them to take on a vocation actually of some kind of creative calling already. My sort of my theory about this really is that there’s a… they then start to lean very heavily into their craft because it’s very visible in a way of showing that they are achieving and they’re doing something that other people can’t.
You know, it might be something like being able to draw and people look at that and go, “Oh, it’s really great that you can draw like that. I couldn’t do that.” And there’s a sort of comfort that comes with that and then they sort of start very heavily identify with their craft. And as they move into more leadership roles, where they actually have to start sort of getting off of the tools and they’re starting to lead people. And actually their medium sort of becomes the team and the team of people and the people who they’re leading.
There’s what I have called The Design Leadership Dip, where they’re not very good at their tools and also not very good at the leadership role, because that leadership role is, is also about becoming more authentically them. And if they don’t, they sort often become , at best, not a very good leader. And, at wors,t they become kind of horrible draconian dictator. It seems that it’s a lot harder to let go than it is to kind of build stuff up. And that we’re talking about is the second half of life and the middle passage can you describe what you mean by - and what Carl Jung meant by the first and second half of life?
James Hollis: [00:25:08] Sure. Before I do that. let me just comment. There, there was a book back in the sixties by Lawrence J Peter called the Peter Principle. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. Basically what he said, if you do your job well, somebody’s going to notice and they’re going to think, Oh, well, that’s the person who should supervise the others and, you know, promote the same kind of productivity with them. And what it does is promote you away from your, your love promote you away from yourself. And sooner or later, you’re filling up budget requests, you know, and having committee meetings, that kind of thing. So it promotes the person to the level of his or her incompetence. And most of all, it’s abstract separates them from who they are.
Andy Polaine: There’s a lot of misery there
James Hollis: A lot of misery there, exactly right. Yes. Yes. Because remember the paycheck’s supposed to cover all of this. Well, we all know that if you’re put in a job that is thoroughly miserable and you’re given a million pounds a day or a million euros, and, you know, you’d say in a short time, you know, if they’re not paying me enough for this job, right?
Because there’s something else inside that’s in revolt. Now in terms of the passage. When I came back from Zurich and started seeing people in the United States, and they would come with different life stories, different biographical settings, except for chapter different presenting issues. One thing that was clear for virtually every one of them was that their understanding of self and world was no longer working for them.
Their roadmap was no longer applicable to the territory they were in. Something had played out. Because, you know, no one would go to a total stranger talk about your intimate life, pay the money, unless you’ve tried very hard to make your own systems work for you, which is typically a way of reinforcing whatever your script was and digging whatever that hole is deeper and deeper and deeper.
It’s usually because people are feeling an enormous sense of frustration, maybe depression, maybe they’ve been self-medicating. Whatever it is, kind of, sort of dead end that leads one to bring this to a stranger, as I said. So I thought, well, the obvious thing here is something is dying and something wants to live. Something wants to be emerging in the world through that person, but we have no idea what it is. And now we’re in that in-between and it could be a terrible in-between. It’s a time of unknowing. A time in which marriages fall apart where carears fall apart, where one no longer is able to take pleasure in what formerly works.
And part of the role of therapy is to hold together the fragments during that disintegration period, until something else emerges. There’s a paradox here. We tend to walk down the street backwards, metaphorically, you know, that we’re always looking at the future in terms of what our experience has been. And that’s understandable because we can build on that experience. The problem is that experience is not necessarily germane to where we’re going. And if you walk down the street backwards, who knows what you’d fall into, but the future is just as real as anything that’s ever happened, but it’s so amorphous, so unknown people don’t realize that. Which is another reason why we cling to the thing we have known, whether it’s a relationship or career or lifestyle or, or whatever it is.
So what it occurred to me then at the time, this is a passage that occurs for most people. Not all of them, most people, somewhere around midlife, although it can happen later and I’ll give you an example in a moment. And, and when we talk about it as midlife, what are we talking about? Well, by the time, your mid-thirties, as I was, or 40. Two things have happened. One, you’ve gained enough ego strength to bear looking at yourself. You know, a young person can be very thoughtful and very intentional, but they can’t really bear to look at all of the things that need to be looked at.
So you need to have enough ego, strength and development. You need to have a sense of failure, which is what brings you a sense of urgency around this. And you need to have some life to reflect upon because of the 20 year old still thinks, at some level, I won’t repeat the mistakes of my parents. I’ll go out and find the right person to marry I’ll go out and find the right career by 40. I’m going to be where I want to be.
Andy Polaine: And live forever, right?
James Hollis: And live forever. I’m immortal on top, yes. And good luck with that, right? And that’s one of the things I felt in I’m teaching in a university, with all due respect to the students, is, you know, I was talking to 20 year olds and I thought if we were 40, we would have a different conversation going on here.
That wasn’t their fault. That was my, my issue. And that’s one reason I thought, well, I’m going to go and have adult conversation around these matters. So, this is not confined to midlife. It’s just that often it takes a while for our understandings of self and world to play out. But people hit it when they face aging, illness or divorce or downsizing or retirement or the hint of mortality and so forth. Anything that causes a person to very radically go back and say, “now, who am I apart from my roles?” which may be good roles or bad, but who am I apart from it? Who am I apart from my scripts? Who am I apart from my history? Who am I apart from my relationships?
In other words, it brings about the possibility of a deeper existential question “what is my life journey about?” Not just defined by social and economic and relational pressures around me. And that’s where you have an invitation to sort of recover a deeper relationship to yourself.
Another way of putting this is in the first half of life what we have to do is address what I’ll call social questions. Can I develop enough ego strengths to, to deal with my parents, meet their expectations, to deal with the school teacher, to deal with peers, to deal with a potential partner, to deal with an employer? The plan of that is ego formation. And you know, when our bodies get big and our roles get big, we think, well, I’m a big person now, little knowing what kinds of tapes we’re playing inside. Are we repeating or are we running from, or trying to fix something unconsciously?
And then in the second half of life, the real project is that ego consciousness has to confront the inner life. That is to say, confront the soul in the deepest sense of that word. Who am I apart from all of that. And what’s my journey about? What’s wanting to enter the world through me? That’s a different kind of question.
So, the second half of life is really a psychological question, maybe a spiritual question, because it has to do with finding our fundamental values and recovering a personal authority. You could be loss of a corporation, but be psychologically bound to your complex and, and never know that’s what you’re really serving. And what is worthy of your service is really a question of the second half of life.
Andy Polaine: [00:32:27] You often you described, I think Jung did too, the first half of life being kind of a mess, a kind of accident or a whole set of mistakes that you spend the second half of life trying to work your way out of.
James Hollis: [00:32:41] Yeah, it’s a gigantic, unavoidable mistake. I mean, parents often say to me with good intention, how am I spare my children this? You can’t. If they follow your script they’re going to maybe turn out like you, but that’s not who they are. They have a different journey and you have to go out and hit a wall before you begin to get conscious here.
That’s exactly what happened to me, of course, as I said, I had achieved everything I wanted and yet the inner life, deserted me. So then I had a real paradox.
Andy Polaine: [00:33:12] Yeah. And, you know, you described this mental passage also as the swamplands. You write about it in several books, but obviously the book called Swamplands of the Soul too. There’s a bit in The Middle Passage where you say, “we become strangers to those who thought they knew us, but at least we’re no longer strangers to ourselves.” You know, as you come to understand who you are, obviously, and change those scripts and no longer repeat those tapes and respond to those projections, obviously people around you suddenly, again, “you’re not the person I thought you were”, and that can break friendships and relationships and all sorts of things. It’s, it’s quite a lonely place to be. I mean, I can report myself and I know this is definitely - and I’ve seen it in others - it can be quite a lonely place to be. And yet you make the difference in Living Between Worlds about, loneliness versus solitude. Maybe you could… wht is the difference?
James Hollis: [00:34:06] Well, you know, we all have a terror of loneliness because we are social animals and some part of us feels I can’t survive without the presence of the other. And there’s a, half-truth there. On the other hand, nature has equipped all of us with resources. In other words, why should I think I don’t have the resources of my ancestors to survive and to move on and find resilience and so forth.
But on the other hand, people will avoid that kind of meeting with themselves. You see, in solitude, you’re present to yourself. There’s a relationship. In other words, when you have a relationship to yourself, there’s always a conversation going on. You’re never fully alone. That’s why there’s an old saying the cure for loneliness and solitude, which sounds, you know, truly paradoxical, but it’s true because that means that I have a kind of ongoing relationship to a conversation, if you will. About what is this journey about? And what’s unfolding here and what do I need to address? And this other question, what wants to enter the world’s through me?Because in the first half of life, as I suggested always about what does the world want from me? You know, that’s a social question I’ve got to deal with out there.
Well, when we start dealing with in here, then you have a different question. What wants to enter the world through me? I said a moment ago, we’re always in service to something. You better figure out what it is, because if you’re in service to the primal complexes, which is to say the clusters of history that a fate presented us, it’s always going to be in some way, someone else’s life, someone else’s agenda. It’s going to be regressive in character. You’re in service to what wants to enter the world through me. Then again, it doesn’t bring about necessarily a comfortable life. But it brings about a more meaningful life. And that’s the payoff here.
Andy Polaine: [00:36:06] You, talk about - talking about life - you talk about, in Living Between Worlds, you described very clearly, I think three of the essential principles of depth psychology, and I was thinking for this kind of really also obviously the three essential principles for life.
So they are, it’s not about what it’s about, what you see is compensation for what you don’t see and all is metaphor. It felt like to me, actually, as I was thinking about this just now, that it’s not what it’s about, it’s kind of like an overarching one that’s almost contains the other two in many respects. If all is metaphor, you know, and what you see as compensation for what you don’t see. What did you mean by, it’s not about what it’s about? Because this is,I think, again is one of those nice paradoxes that unpacks a whole load.
James Hollis: [00:36:51] Sure. Well, first of all, speaking as a therapist, when a person brings in a depression, what they want is the relief of the symptoms of that depression, or they want to work on their marriage or whatever the presenting issue, but it’s not about that ultimately. It’s who were you that entered into this situation? What did you bring to the table there? What is activated in you? And if we don’t look at that, we’re just going to be tinkering with the outer circumstances. That’s why so much modern psychology and pop psychology is superficial, because it is tinkering with the outer structure.
But, secondly, looking at an intra-psychically, if I accept the scripts that my family of origin and my culture give me, then I’m going to serve them and life’s going to work out, which is exactly what I did and most of us do in good faith. I had such curiosity at midlife to have a depression. If I’ve done the right things why is this inner division so pronounced this moment?
So if you say it’s not about what it’s about, well, it’s about something else. Now let me just mention here the word psyche is the Greek word for soul. Therapy means to listen to, or tend to, so you don’t have to be in therapy with a therapist to listen to your own soul. It means paying attention. What’s going on here? Asking some very pragmatic questions of any behavior that we do. But what was that in service to inside of me really? Really. In other words, I might do a good thing as I understand it, or as I was conditioned. Maybe it’s a codependent thing. Maybe it’s a fear driven thing. Maybe it’s a thing that says adaptation at all costs. If I really ask what was that really in service to then I’m beginning to deal with what it’s really about. That’s why behaviorism is so limited and much cognitive psychology. They have uses. They’re useful. I’m not dismissing them. I’m just saying that many times they don’t get to the real issue. And that is, we are creatures of Infinite adaptation. And with every adaptation, there’s the possibility of a further estrangement from the depths and purposes of our own soul.
Andy Polaine: [00:39:09] It’s hard for me not to connect loads of patterns in my head. Going back to design, for example, one of the things that designers pride themselves on is trying to see the problem behind the problem, but the real problem space behind the brief, or when, when they’re interviewing people, when we do contextual interviews, ethnographic interviews, where we go to people and ask, you know, in their workplace or in their house, and get them to show us a thing that we’re working on. There’s this classic method called the five whys where, you know, someone says, well, you know, what I really want is, is X. And you say, well, why do you want that? And they go, Y or and because of this. And then you gradually get down to the problem space, or you kind of ladder it up to a broader thing. Then the most famous one is people don’t want a drill, they want the hole in the wall and actually they want a hole in the wall because they want to hang pictures up. And then it’s not that they want to hang pictures up, it’s that they want to make their office feel more homely and so forth.
So you kind of move up there and as you were describing just now that process of I’m doing all the right things, and yet something feels wrong, it also reminds me of how many organizations and many companies end up in that place where it feels like they’re doing all the right things, but somehow this doesn’t really work. And it feels like that being true to that purpose and meaning, which is often lost, I mean, the founders of those companies are often long gone or, if not, then you know that, if they’re not from decades ago or centuries ago, in some cases, it’s certainly some of those founders have kind of lost their way, they kind of lose their purpose and meaning.
I kind of wanted to zoom up one more level, too. It’s hard to ignore where we are now. What’s going on in society and it feels like we’re living through this terribly turbulent time and it’s a kind of tipping point and yet there’s part of me that kind of also feels like, well, “‘Twas ever thus.”
In your book, in Living Between Worlds, you say, why should we believe that our lives should be any different, or our passageway, our pathway should be any easier than those that have gone before us? What is your view on where we’re at at the moment, because it does feel like we’re at a cultural moment of change. Is it just one blip in the rest of the kind of history of the world? Or do you feel something different going on?
James Hollis: [00:41:29] Well, there are several questions there. Let me just mention a moment one point you made as, you know, usually corporations and institutions are founded with a vision and a passion by somebody. And the purpose then is how do we transmit this to the next generation? How do we sustain this? How do we enlarge it while we broaden its impact? That’s when something gets institutionalized and then you start falling into the pathology of institution, whereby two things happen. The institution over time evolves into preserving itself at any cost, right? Even at the risk of violating its original principles.
And secondly, it tends to develop a priesthood of some kind, you know, an executive class that seeks to sustain its own privileges and so forth. No matter whether it’s an academia, the religious organizations, universities, government, whatever. So that’s why, you know, institutions are both necessary at one level and pathologized at the, at the other level. And that’s why they need renewal from time to time. They need critics. They need rebels.
Now in terms of where we are, we’re always in between to some degree. I I’m always drawn to Matthew Arnold’s lines from the 1860s. He said, we wander between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.
Now, what I think he was referencing, particularly at that point is that traditional religion, which had animated and guided his father’s life so profoundly, Thomas Arnold and master at Rugby. school, was no longer acceptable to him. He could no longer believe those things. And he, he knew that there was some profound transition going on. That’s been going on to some degree for centuries. But I think at the heart of it, what’s happening is the sort of have received authority first of all, from tribal mythology that was replaced by large institutions like church and government and so forth, the erosion of those authorities and therefore the task of meaning falls back upon the shoulders of the individual.
Carl Jung, put it once in a letter. He said the modern fell off the roof of the medieval cathedral into the abyss itself, you see, and with that you have an existential terror. It’s like, Oh my goodness, this is too hard, too much to handle. So you create a culture of distraction, devotee small as Pascal called it. You create a world of fundamentalism, let’s go back and renew the world that we knew at any cost, because there’s a certain security in the known and let’s anesthetize or divert ourselves. And that’s what happens.
And for some people, this is a profound dignity and invitation to say, all right now, meaning has shifted from the group to you. How are you going to deal with that? That’s that’s the telling question in your life. Now, I think it’s also true in this moment. This is when you’re talking about tipping point. Well, we don’t know where that’s headed, of course. But one thing I think we have seen to our dismay, some of our naiveté has been washed away, I suspect, in terms of the powers of government and the powers of our institutions and the powers of our scientific instrumentalities, including medicine to solve our problems.
There’s a certain naïveté that says, well, you know, our experts will just swoop in there and solve the problem. Well, we see how well or poorly that’s been managed, particularly in this country. And that’s one thing, but I think, you know, there are other shifts going on. The movement, for example, that occurred from the land to the cities, from the land and handcrafting to, you know, machines and so forth. Those are, those are huge shifts in a culture.
Well, as we well know, we’re shifting to goods and services and most of all information technology, and as they say, who controls the information will control the world. Now we’re we, we are at some level being tracked by - and I’m not being paranoid here, this is widely known, it’s in the newspapers - whenever you use your phone, you know, that’s part of national data and it’s being observed by governments, et cetera, et cetera, and your, your taarw, your politics, and so forth. And, and some studies have indicated, and I don’t remember the exact numbers, but there’s something like this. If someone has 250 pieces of data about you, they know you better than your parents know you. And if they have 400 or 500 pieces of data about you, which is easily accessible by way of electronic observation, they know you better than your partner does. Now that’s just something about the power to track people, to control them and to influence them in various ways.
So, you know, for all of this progress, there’s always a dark side. You know, it’s always been a place that wherever you make a leap forward, the shadow follows. I mean, I think the first great work of modern depth psychology was Dostoevsky’s work Notes From Underground, in which he’s talking about the famous Crystal Palace outside of London and this parade of self congratulations in 1851, the new technology. And he said, I can imagine in the next century, that technology will be used to kill more people more efficiently, which was exactly the case.
And about 60 years later, you know, you have the battle of the Somme, 60,000 British casualties in 24 hours, you know, so much for the wonders of technology. So there’s always a shadow side to progress. And no one knows where we’re going. Anyone who says they do is, is simply delusional on my view, but, and nobody’s particularly in charge, which is pretty scary. And would you trust somebody who’s in charge anyhow? So, I do think we, we are in some tipping points now, but I’m, I’m not prepared to speculate as to where that’s going.
What I can say is, it becomes more and more incumbent upon each of us to have a sense of our own inner compass, so to speak. And 1862, the American poet, Emily Dickinson said once “the sailor cannot see the North, but knows the needle can.” And I think she was saying, she was recognizing this erosion of institutional authority and she was saying, you better have a compass. And that compass better be inside. And do you know you have that compass? Can you trust it? And do you have enough courage to live that? And if you do, it’ll help you chart your course through this evolving time.
Andy Polaine: [00:48:32] So one of the things you say very towards the end, actually of Living Between Worlds is our best, most demanding and most useful job is addressing our own shadows. And you talked about the shadow just now. It’s a concept, maybe you could explain a little bit, one of the things I think is often viewed as just all the kind of evil stuff, but it’s not just that either is it?
James Hollis: [00:48:51] No, not at all. The shadow was Jung’s term for those parts of myself or my affiliation, such as a marriage or an institutional affiliation, that when I bring it to consciousness, I find inconsistent with my intentions or troubling, or perhaps too challenging for me.
So for example, none of us want to look at ourselves, at our jealousies, at our pettiness, at our shortcomings. Those are all aspects of the shadow. So the more I push it into the darkness, the more it’s going to be operating autonomously out there.
On the other hand, shadow aspects, you know, we are all capable of evil, but our biggest shadow issue is not evil. It’s that we live small and adaptive lives. And Jung put it this way in a very homey metaphor. He said, we all walk in shoes too small for us. And I think that way of saying, all right, we had to learn early as children, the world’s big, and we’re not. The world’s powerful and we’re not, now, how are you going to survive a few decades with that?
You better fit in fella, you better learn adaptive skills and in doing so you leave something of your own reality behind. And that’s why I say the second half of life is about the recovery of that personal authority. And so the, the biggest shadow issue for us is how much fear governs our behaviors, if you really dig deeply, remember, it’s not about what it’s about. And how often we’re serving the sort of archaic messages from long ago and far away, which is walking down the street backwards. And, how seldom we step into the largeness of our own journey, because frankly it’s intimidating.
Andy Polaine: [00:50:34] Jung, I understand, talked about the gold in the shadow, right?
James Hollis: [00:50:40] Yeah. Yeah. Because, for example, just ask yourself the question, where did the natural joy and spontaneity of the child that you were, where did that go? Where’s your creativity, where’s this sense of freshness and joy in experiencing life itself? Things get so dulled and so routinized, you know, and as Keats said, habit is the great deadener, you know, and we recognize there that we all have a frightened child in us, but we also have the joyous, creative, spontaneous child in us as well. And that child doesn’t show up very often.
Andy Polaine: [00:51:21] I think one of the things that you’ve said, many times actually, but right at the end of Living Between Worlds, is always to push yourself to go further and keep going and going through as the way forward. And I can see that that’s the way to stay alive.
James Hollis: [00:51:41] If you’re curious, life is never finished. The body declines. I’m now 80. I’m very much aware of the limits of the body. But, I’m still curious. I mean, I love people whom I love and I want to be here for them, but I’m also curious, there’s so much more to learn. So, that’s the fire inside of each of us. And, and whenever that is quenched, you’re good as dead. Your body might continue, but you died a long time ago.
Andy Polaine: [00:52:09] Yeah. That feels like a good time to we’re coming up to time. It feels like a good place to, to end, or I hesitate to even say end now. As I mentioned before we recording, the show is named after this film by Ray and Charles Eames about the relative size of things in the universe. And, you know, I found it often a very useful thing to reflect on the awesomeness, in the proper sense of that word, of the universe, because it kind of reminds you not only of, you know, I’m just part of this kind of great thing, but it also puts a lot of major in problems that seem really big in your life into perspective. It also reminds you of how little time we have in our lives here. But from that I ask every guest what small thing do you think should be considered, reconsidered, maybe overlooked, has an out-sized effect or would have an out-sized effect on the world?
James Hollis: [00:53:08] Well, I would be concerned first of all, to have an outsize effect on us. Jung said once in a letter “life is a short pause between two great mysteries.” And I think we forget that on a daily basis. And one needs to remember, this is a very short pause and therefore we have to live it as luminously and as fully as we possibly can.
But secondly, we’re all swathed in mystery here. I don’t want to sound strange about this. It’s just, you know, we don’t know from whence we come or wither we go, but here you are, choices to make. And as I just mentioned with Emily Dickinson, you better figure out where your real compass is. You had it as a child, it’s taken away necessarily by the adaptations to the world around you, and it stays within you because there’s always something in you, what Jung called the Self with a capital S not to be confused with the ego state, that is in a sense, the organic wisdom of the person. And it is always in some way seeking your attention and what we call, for example, what we call symptoms is not something we try to get rid of. We’d rather ask the question, what kind of corrective is being asked for by the Self and how do I need to change my life?
So I’m less concerned at this moment about the big picture, I’m concerned about how do you govern your life? How do you navigate in these in-between times in a personal way? Because sooner or later, if you don’t take on that accountability, somebody else is going to be doing it for you, or you’ll be caught in a series of conditioned reflexes.
Andy Polaine: [00:54:53] That taking back of the personal authority is both empowering, but also quite scary, isn’t it?
James Hollis: [00:55:01] Of course. It’s very intimidating, because it means until we do that, we’re not yet an adult. You know, we may have big bodies and big roles, but to be an adult is, I think we would probably agree, it means to be, I am accountable for my journey. It’s a very simple definition, but it’s profound in the simplification. No one else is. I can’t blame anybody else. Fate happens. We have injuries and hurts and things that steer us in one direction or another, but in the end, I’m accountable for this journey and I’m going to show up in the best way I can.
Andy Polaine: [00:55:33] I could talk to you for hours and hours and hours. In the meantime , we’re going to have to stop. People can find you at jameshollis.net. They can find all your books there and links to your books. There’s, if not a lifetime, many years of very valuable reading there to be done.. There’s also, you’ve got quite a lot of other lecture series and all sorts of things on online, haven’t you?
James Hollis: [00:55:54] Yes. Yes.
Andy Polaine: [00:55:56] It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for being my guest on Power of Ten.
James Hollis: [00:56:00] You’re welcome, Andy. It’s a good conversation. I enjoyed meeting you. Thank you.
Andy Polaine: [00:56:03] As I’m sure you’re aware, you’ve been listening to Power of Ten. My name is Andy Polaine. You can find me at @apolaine on Twitter or polaine.com Where you can find more episodes and sign up for my newsletter, Doctor’s Note. If you liked the show, please take a moment to give it a rating on iTunes. It really helps others find us and as always get in touch, if you have any comments, feedback, or suggestions for guests. All the links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and see you next time.