James Hollis on our Appointment with the Soul

Our gift to the world, according to Jungian analyst James Hollis, is “to return to the task of being who we are.” Such a super-effort can only happen if we are able to face consciously all the obstacles fate, our own fear and avoidance, and the perceived judgment of other people have flung up to bar our way.

A mighty aim, Hollis seems to say, but what is the task? It will be different for each person who steps up to the hypothetical plate, but it is always known deep inside the soul and it has to do with “showing up,” taking responsibility for the place we find ourselves in life, as well as our own gifts, talents and inner callings. While our soul in day-to-day life may often feel abandoned or overwhelmed, the call is always there for us to lean on, to lead us out of the maze, beyond what Hollis refers to as “the fantasy of fitting in.”


I attended last summer’s Rhinecliff workshop in which Hollis invited us to face the challenges of our life with the following in mind: “what’s important is to show up, to be wholly in the game and to be aware of the invisible world.” Nevertheless, as he points out, many of us suffer from overwhelmment. Like Hamlet, we know what to do and don’t do it, and thus become our own enemy. In fact, he labels Hamlet the first modern neurotic.

So what’s going on? What we don’t see is that our acquired sense of self often gets in the way because it’s in the service of how we interpret life—our history, our patterns, and our personal ways of avoiding conflict—rather than in the best interest of becoming who we really are.

Yet every time I wake up to the soul and decide to engage in a new relationship with the invisible world within me, I begin to ask important questions about what I really want and how I live my life. One question Jungians throw at us to help us along is What is your unlived life? If we truly allow it resonate in us, it can produce grief and even fear. Nevertheless Hollis insists that sooner rather than later it ought be faced.

Here are some other questions Hollis poses that open doors to a future of possibility:

Does the path I am on make me larger or smaller?

What wants to come into the world through me?

What am I in service of?

And a major wake-up call: Have you stepped into your journey yet?

He adds that, “It is really true that mortality affronts the ego. I don’t want to die or even be less than the best. And that’s OK if we play the game with integrity because it gives our life meaning. In fact, mortality is the single biggest neurosis of our time…our conspiracy against nature. We are part of the web of life. So in service to what should I live longer?”

If we can reflect on the mystery, we will realize that something is calling us, and “the quality of our life is the quality of our journey through it.” Or, as Marion Woodman often said, we need to “open to the mystery.”

Returning to overwhelmment, he points out: “That’s when everything seems to come to a stop. My thinking becomes foggy, my vulnerability is suddenly front and center and even my body’s balance is more erratic.” Because “We are energy systems and are summoned to a task, when something loses its energy the numinous is gone.” When this happens, Hollis suggests we ask ourselves, “Why has the psyche withdrawn its energy from my agenda? Track the gods,” he says. “Find out where it has gone, what you are now in service of. Our GPS is the Self-selving. Unpack the story that’s being told. Where are you stuck? Remember that what you see is compensation for what you don’t see.”

The other major base on which our psychic house may be built is Abandonment. So “we suffer from either overwhelment or abandonment at the magnitude of life.” He suggests that we “follow the anxiety trail back and see what is driving us. Then move on to fear, which is real. Anxiety paralyzes; fear can be addressed. The Monster within is something frightened that wants to help us. Like a moving van from the known world to the unknown, we carry our childhood fears.  But Instinct always knows what we should do.

“Ask yourself: What am I avoiding?

What do I want to control?

Where do I comply?

“If my story is that ‘I am worth what the world thinks I am worth,’ I will doubt my worth. So suffer as an adult. There will always be fear. We will always fall short, be overwhelmed or feel abandoned. The treatment plan is Life: show up and shut up!”





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