Archetypal Expressions of the Body
One of my first memories was a car ride with my mother and my two older sisters to a water park. We were dropping off my sisters to spend a few hours playing. As I peered out the window, I saw the winding, twisting tubes of the water slides and imagined inside them a horror. The horror of a winding dark tunnel full of liquid that would take my beloved family members into the depths from which they would never return. I remember screaming in a panic to warn them of the dangers they so blithely ignored. They saw me as a wild child acting out of character; I saw danger. This memory has stuck with me all my life because of its now obvious symbolism of a physical experience which, in turn, is its own symbolic experience with messages of its own, a winding dark area of my own body which even as a young boy generated terrifying psychic images.
Though today I recall this memory as if it were a dream, it still acts as a profound living metaphor to my relationship to my stomach. The stomach and the associated regions of the small and large intensities affect our physiology and psychology. Because of the power this region holds, it has been held in high regard throughout history. So it is ripe for considering it through the lens of archetypal psychology: What does this massive, most intimate part of our physical selves have to tell me about my psyche?
Lying on the floor of my bathroom, my stomach pounding. My mom comes in to ask me how I am doing, and I tell her that small people are shooting off cannons inside my stomach. These gut-wrenching, painful attacks ultimately led me, at age 12, to the hospital, where I had my ruptured appendix removed. Until then, however, I was a sick boy, unable to understand what was happening.
These painful experiences would come and go through the years. Oftentimes I would dream of my sickness before it would occur. The dream images would repeat, creating a circle of seemingly random events that caused a nightmarish reaction in me while I slept. Being lucid in the dreams, I would observe these images and know that as soon as I awoke, I would be sick and the battle of the little people would be at hand. Nothing would stop these events, yet by listening to the dream and what it was trying to say, I could at least prepare myself for what was coming.
Years later, as an adult, I participated in a ceremony in which I took the medicinal drink Ayahuasca, which contains the plants Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria Viridis. When mixed together, these plants create a psychoactive purgative (Adams, 2019), drawing me into another deep encounter with my stomach. As the medicine ran its course, I envisioned the chaotic happenings in my stomach, which expressed themselves in various sounds and intense pressure, as a woman. She was old, Hispanic, and poorly dressed. Sitting near a large cauldron, she stirred a mixture in front of her with a large spoon; as she did so the pressure in my stomach built. I asked her to please stop. She said that she could not stop because she was helping me to get better. She told me that her job was to keep me safe.
A few years ago, I found myself in an ecstatic state while I left my body while lucid in a dream. I found myself in my room with a woman standing near my window. She radiated a shimmer of gold around her, and I felt I could trust her. She motioned me to follow her through the window, so I did. I was then quickly transported to some form of vessel, a translucent, veil-like structure that separated one side from another, and the women assisted and guided me to go through. I found myself surrounded by a group of gray and ghostly people. They noticed me, and as I looked around for the woman in gold, she was gone. The people started to notice me and grab onto me, and as they did I could tell that they were not people at all. I could feel my essence draining from my body and I struggled to get away. I was able to escape through the veil, and I soon awoke, feeling drained of life. I have yet to fully recover physically who I was before that dream.
This series of events and visions that have followed me throughout my life have shaped how I think about my psychology and have forged my relationship to my digestive organs. Here I live in a physical body, with parts doing processes that keep me alive. But how can it be that I have different beings or things inside of me that interact and create experiences that I envision as complex people or beasts that seem alive? Not only are they alive, but they continue to live with me, changing and autonomous. If I were to try to rationalize these experiences, their spirit would be diminished, removing parts of the characters, who seem just as alive as I am.
The Hillmanian Approach
James Hillman attempts to answer a number of these questions. The founder of archetypal psychology proposed that these beings that reside in the psyche are more than what meets the eye of the materialistic psychological approach to internal visions. Rather than rationalizing the images away as mere hallucinations that sometimes express themselves in dreams and altered states, Hillman (1992) asks us to consider these images with a depth-psychology approach, as independent forces that the consciousness wants to be revealed. Hillman extends this concept of image as a polytheistic, archetypal living force that exists in psychic reality. Through his own work in psychoanalysis, Hillman found that those who embrace these images and identify with more than just ego were also able to build purpose and meaning in life—a sense of soul. In this Hillmanian sense, the soul is closely related to the development of the individual over a lifetime. Those who don’t develop soul live a fantasy ruled by the monotheistic ego that allows no place for the psyche to develop.
In his book, Re-Visioning Psychology, Hillman provides a path to building this connection through a process he calls “soul-making” (Hillman 1992). Hillman envisioned a world in which the polytheistic motifs of the Greek gods still exist in that they express themselves as energies, ignored by the masses, and expressing themselves as complexes or psychological illnesses. By soul-making, Hillman meant that it is possible to give life to our being, which is separate from the ego, by building a relationship with the archetypal fantasies that help shape our lives. Hillman critiqued the monotheistic idea of the human ego as being the control center for the individual, envisioning it as a fantasy-like any other archetype; in his view, the idea that each individual can contain only one “soul” is in error. The soul in the Hillmanian sense is more associated with how we relate to experience generated by the psyche. He posited that over time, cultural belief has de-evolved from a polytheistic concept of human nature containing spirit, soul, and body to the dualistic approach of mind and body. Hillman believed that this was a degraded view that disrespects the archetypal found in nature, including the human experience (Hillman & Slater, 2013).
As is apparent through my personal experiences, my body is not just my ego; it contains multitudes (to borrow from Walt Whitman) that make me, in both physical and archetypal forces that demand my attention. What does it mean to me to try to understand or build relationships with these “others,” especially when I struggle to feel like myself because of them?
Paying attention means giving these parts their due, and treating them as if they are real and have something to say. Hillman’s principle of personifying speaks especially well to these soul-making forces (Hillman, 1992), and merits exploration.
On the bridge of the United States Naval vessel the USS Nimitz I stood late-night watch over the security of the ship with some of my shipmates. To trying to keep ourselves awake, I select my favorite nightmares and dreams to share. I describe a seemingly dark entity which I’ve named The Dweller, reminiscent of the Grim Reaper. He continually torments me when I try to sleep, and the nightmare finally resolved with me eating the Dweller. The story does its job, it keeps us awake. The story does such a good job because it feels real, not only to me but to those who hear it. They feel the story in their minds; they, too, have been attacked by this seemingly invisible entity.
As I tell the story I feel transported back in time. The dream environment takes hold of me, shrouding me in darkness and the terror that I felt many years before when I was confused and did the only thing I could think of to do, eating death itself. The details of the experience have changed over time, and when looking at these changes, it is obvious to me that this isn’t just one event that happened; it was happening at that moment on the ship. The experience itself contains the elements of both life and death and holds information about my relationship with both.
The act of eating the being in the dream is telling of the bond that I have with my stomach—the knowledge that no matter how dark and dangerous something seems, I can stomach it.
Whereas death is within the stomach so must be its opposite, life The stomach is the center of digestion and provides us nutrients for the rest of our body. It extracts from our bodies those things which can make us sick. It is the resting place and provider to trillions of bacteria that are essential to our wellbeing.
I recall this experience in a time when things are hard, it excites me and others it infects, scares them of the “other” they too experience inside of themselves as archetypal forces, yet they consciously deny their existence. It scares them because they do not want to believe that they are a container of parts, these forces which make up their own personality, moods, and psychology. To me, it provides comfort in knowing that I am not alone.
Nevertheless, the Dweller remains alive in my retelling of the story; it did not die when I ate it in my dream, and I can still feel it in my bones. As I recall the Dweller over and over ceremoniously, it is a somatic, imaginational, and spiritual experience. The Dweller expresses its essence in more recent dreams, as well, asking me to feel it again and again: the terror, the excitement, the heroic act of conquering it, or even the uncomfortable feeling of the Dweller overcoming me in my nightmares. This ongoing tug-of-war between the Dweller and me resides inside my psyche as an expression of, or a way to work out, suffering itself, the calcification of my body as it ages, my battle between death and my desire to remain alive and healthy. The Dweller could also be identified as necessary to my personal growth through the struggle of opposites.
Hillman’s idea of story-making as a form of personification is a way to express these psychological forces that make us up to others and to breathe life into them (Hillman, 1992). As the Greeks did with the myths of the gods, we can see how my story is similar. It points to these archetypes which are personal in one element but relatable to others through storytelling.
Are the stories about my stomach telling of my physical stomach and the structures and psychological elements that make up the “stomach”? Yes, my stomach is part of my body, it manifests its images and feelings into my mind as it digests, fights bacteria, and keeps me alive. However, as the alchemical saying goes, as above so below, it’s important to note that the stories related to my stomach, the eating of death, the lady turning her caldron, the golden goddess and her dead beasts, and the small people firing off their cannons, are not what is only inside of me, they are my personifications of the archetypes. These are images that point to archetypal forces that extend out beyond what is physical; they create the relationship to the archetypal. They are like fishing line into the water of the unconscious, connecting to the radiating archetypal “fish” below, allowing communication to occur. As Jung explained, the archetypes cannot be fully realized, but we can use myth and images to describe them (Jung, 1954/1968).
Jung did similar personifications when he described the archetypes in his writing. The archetype of the Shadow, for example, is described as a “tight passageway, like a birth canal that leads us out of the “prison” of the ego-personality” (Le Grice, 2016, pg. 54). Yet still, it is made clear that we could never fully grasp what the Shadow is. In this sense, Jung made the archetype personal to him while keeping its universal power. If we take Jung’s description of the Shadow as a personification and applied it to some of the encounters with my stomach, we oddly can see similar relationships, including and not limited to, the ability to communicate with the Anima, which could easily be represented by my golden lady and the suffering that is experienced after my dream.
For Hillman, soul-making did not stop at personifying. He believed that suffering was an essential step in the process. Pathologizing in this context refers to studying the illness, or unpleasant aspects of the archetype, to better understand the archetypal forces the psyche is experiencing. Hillman defines pathologizing as “the psyche’s autonomous ability to create illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of its behavior and to experience and imagine life through this deformed and afflicted perspective” (Hillman, 1992, p. 57). Hillman’s definition doesn’t deny that sickness may be present in the individual; rather, it removes the notion that sickness and suffering are abnormal. To suffer is to long for the realization of the source of the problem. Through the experience of suffering, we can find the source, its image, and archetypes.
Soon after I awoke from my dream of the golden lady and the accompanying soul-sucking forces that existed through the vessel, I felt horrible. I started to suffer greatly as I could no longer think, I felt tired all the time, and my body ached. I asked myself why this was happening to me. Had I done something wrong? Eventually, I was able to consider what messages the dream had for me.
I considered the fact that my stomach can manifest images and content to convey a warning to me. I started to wonder if I had a parasite attacking me. In being open to this idea I started to be bombarded with other images from past dreams and dreams that were coming up at the time, images of terrorists breaking into a ship causing massive flooding, or a swarm of zombies breaking into the house trying killing me. These images were parasitic in their own way and only emphasizing the original dream which started my recognition of the suffering, zombies feed off the living, terrorists feed off the fear of those they terrorize. I took these images very seriously. I consulted my doctor, and tests confirmed that, in fact, I did have a parasite.
Though in this case, one could easily jump to the conclusion that the very physical parasite was the only cause of the suffering, I prefer not to limit it to merely the physical. The images themselves continued after the parasite was removed. Indeed, I had many parasites in my life, those things which consume my time, my imagination, my soul. The parasites that devour my soul, lifeforce, and immune system can still take hold of me psychically if I do not heed my stomach’s and my dreams’ warnings.
We can see that in my earlier age the story was the same. If I was sick or going to be sick my mind would be filled with images, figures which would convey their stories to me, and in suffering from those images I would find a reason, source. The images themselves can provide us hints and insights into how they relate to specifically, but if we expand this out into the universal, or how these images affect us as a collective, we can see through the initial idea that we head towards the image and see aspects of the archetype.
Denying the archetypal foundation of the image causes us to express the archetypal energy, either as complexes or as emotional, physical, and psychological disorders that have us until they are done with us. Psychologizing or keeping the relationship with the archetype in Hillmans eyes is a process. Psychologizing is the process of staying true to the image, which keeps us in a relationship with the metaphorical root, which points to the archetype allowing us to not have to express complexes (Hillman, 1992).
Finding the meaning of images can be a daunting task. Images are personal but also collective, and they contain symbols which, from a depth-psychology perspective, cannot be fully realized. Hillman (1977) supported this notion and insisted that the symbolic approach broke up the image into its parts and make a direct link to the archetype, and like a metaphor and the archetype themselves, they can’t be fully realized. Symbols are more powerful than words as they extend into the unconscious; like a fishing line; it’s easily visible entering the water in search of attaching to something hidden underneath. Symbols help build relationships with the archetype (the unseen, unsee-able), offering a graspable link between the archetype and its’ effects. We are not looking for answers to our images in this context, but focusing on relationship building.
In Chinese Qigong, the stomach and intestines are considered to be an energy center called the lower dantien, where qi is stored and then used by the body, either storing it in the stomach as energy or pushed throughout the body for other purposes (Rossi & Caretto, 2007). Other cultures find the intestines and stomach region a seat of the allegorical power. When visiting Papua New Guinea for a missionary trip, my mother asked them if the tribespeople knew of God, they said of course, and pointed to their stomach indicating that this was the source of the communication to the divine. In western culture, we use terms like “follow your gut”, or a “gut feeling” to associate seemingly unconscious feelings, warnings or desires to adhere to. In this regard, the lower part of the human body is important and seems to have a mind of its own. Though these examples are not visual images in their essence, they do meet the definition of the image in the Hillmanian sense. If we are to pull these images apart into symbols, we can dive even deeper into the relationship to the archetype.
As I look more deeply into my dreams and their many layers of personal meaning, I feel a special resonance with the symbolic images and philosophies of alchemy, which I feel fit well alongside the Hillmanian process of archetypal psychology—even more, in fact, than the work of Jung, who unknowingly seemed to limit how the psyche could interact with the archetypal forces by defining in his own words, what they were. In a 15th-century artistic depiction of the alchemical process known as the Ripley Scrolls, a glass vessel overlaying a man offers an obvious metaphor of man as a container. What is less apparent, however, is what exactly it is that the vessel contains. In this image, a serpentine green dragon bleeds into the round sphere, which I relate both to my earliest memory of those terrible water tubes that frightened me and the intestines of the body. Alchemical researchers Gordon James and Paul Case state that the dragon in alchemy “[represents] the human intestines, since they are coiled like a serpentine dragon inside the darkness of the body cavity (cave)” (James, n.d.). But these are still only symbols; the meaning is yet to be discovered and digested.
As Case describes in his book The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order, the role of alchemical symbology is to build the relationship between self-consciousness, subconsciousness, and super-consciousness. Freed of the expectation to point to any one specific part of the psyche, an image no longer needs to provide direct answers about what an image means; symbols are useful tools to look into what can’t be described and to build communication to the unconscious (Case, 1986). This keeps in line with the Hillmanian approach to symbolic psychologizing.
In my own process, the dragon and the intestinal tract have presented me with a number of challenges. I have found that my stomach acts contrary to my own desires and is just as in charge of my wellbeing and desires as I am. The symbol of the dragon is an accurate representation of this part of my body: a mysterious, often overwhelming source of physical and psychological power and wealth. If I were to speak to my own inner dragon, I may find it transformed into other beings, a feminine power, a goddess, or small people. The symbol of the dragon, turning lady, small people, and veil have me rather than me having these symbols. They impose their independent meaning into me, rather than my making meaning out of them. This is what Case (1986) calls the alchemical way of knowing.
These symbols and images allow me to go deeper into myself, but Hillman is still not done with me just yet. After exploring deep within in a highly subjective way, Hillman notes that the next step is to look at self and archetype in a more universal way that, ironically, leads to a deeper relationship with self and archetype.
When we look at the human body from the narrow eyes of the materialistic viewpoint, we see that it is made up of many parts. It contains a brain, a heart, a stomach, and intestines. Those parts are made up of cells and the cells contain parts themselves. Inside of the body are others, which we call bacteria, parasites, and viruses which shape our emotions, and desires all affecting each other neurologically through the electrical impulses and chemicals they release. Though we would like to think of ourselves as a static object of what we call “human,” these interactions with the others shape us moment to moment, changing not only our thoughts but our identity (Gallagher, 2018). But what if we took this a step further?
Hillman (1992) claims that describing the human body at only the physical is soul-killing. He implies that if we are able to stick to the image that the psyche provides, then we will see that we are not just our bodies or our personal thoughts generated by what we identify as ourselves, but we are filled with a plethora of archetypal forces expressing themselves as many gods. Hillman believed that we must dehumanize the human experience by identifying that we are one part of many experiencing what we identify as ourselves.
An excellent illustration of how we do this is found in the novel Flight Club (1996). Author Chuck Palahniuk shows dehumanizing in the character, who is never named but who is described as though his emotional states and body parts as though they are independent, sentient beings with wills of their own. They say things like, “I Am Joe’s Complete Lack of Surprise” (Palahniuk, 1996, pg. 100). The book’s narrator is a part of many other parts that reside within the book’s protagonist.
How does this very apt model apply to my stomach and me? My stomach is Lee’s________. My stomach has a mind of its own, and if it chooses to it can greatly affect how I act, feel, and think. The images generated in this region come into my mind as calm suggestions of the receptive feminine, a booming voice of an angry god, or something in between. In learning about these images and their voices, I have improved my relationship with my body, slowly healing the damage done through meditation and listening, and see my life as a collective of many—which requires me to give up my need to control. I am Stomach, and I am Lee’s feeling of power and his fear of loss of control.
Looking at the experiences of our lives in a more dynamic way, as symbols, allows meaning to be both imparted and made through developing relationships with the physical, psychological, and spiritual parts of ourselves. In doing so we are able to have a more complete understanding of what we are and realize that we are a continually changing collective that contains others who are experiencing life together.
Though Hillman is seen as revolutionary in his creation of archetypal psychology, these ideas are not new, as cultures and other qazi spiritual practices have considered the images they experience as being gods, goddesses, or as forces from the unconscious. What Hillman did do is bring back these archaic ways of seeing our lives back into the conscious attention of depth psychology. In doing so, he put words to a common experience, paving a way to again build the communication lines between these forces that have been lost to the centuries.
In applying a Hillmanian perspective to the experiences I have had throughout my life, I can see how I had already been personifying, pathologizing, seeing through, and dehumanizing the images that I come into contact with through my bodily experience. I ignored many of these images for a good portion of my life, and I have paid a tremendous price. In paying attention and communicating with these forces, I am now able to progress to what collectively is desired and live a healthier life. Though most of the attention I give to my body and those images associated with the stomach have been about de-pathologizing my ailments, I am slowly understanding that it’s not about fixing anything and isn’t just about what I identify as my body or my mind. It’s about soul building in the true Hillmanian sense. Though Hillman may have missed the mark in many aspects attributed to the truth which is the human experience, he at least attempted to define the patterns that exist.
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Jung, C.G. (1968). Psychology and Religion West and East (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (eds.), The Collected Works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 11 pt. 1, 2nd ed., pp. 255-272). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1954.)
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Rossi, E., & Caretto, L. (2007). Shen: Psycho-emotional Aspects of Chinese Medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier.
 The archetype, in this case, are “dynamisms, comprising a system of responses based on repeated experienced ‘deposited’ in the collective unconscious” (Le Grice, 2016, pg. 27).
Lee Adams is a Ph.D. candidate in Jungian Psychology and Archetypal Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute and host of Cosmic Echo, a lucid dreaming podcast, and creator of taileaters.com, an online community of lucid dreamers and psychonauts. Lee has been actively researching, practicing, and teaching lucid dreaming for over twenty years.
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