James Hillman’s Shift to Soul-Making (“From Anima-Mess to Anima-Vessel”)

Psychologist James Hillman is best known as the founder of archetypal psychology – a branch of depth psychology that developed out of and has found its place alongside Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and C.G. Jung’s analytical psychology. And if there is one word that is most associated with Hillman’s archetypal psychology it is probably that of soul-making. Originating out of the poetic mind of John Keats, the term soul-making as applied by Hillman refers to a practice through which individuals: slow down and deepen their connectedness to themselves, others, and the world; emphasize being over doing and the present moment over future aspirations; embrace and prioritize one’s woundedness, humanity, and limitations over a quest for perfection, transcendence, and transformation. In other words, soul-making occurs every time we look more closely, more feelingly at the individuals peopling our lives and the ideas, afflictions, and ever-present prospect of death which together give substance and meaning to our hours and days.

One example of how we might go about the activity of soul-making was hinted at in a recent Mythfire post on actor Charlie Sheen. Hillman was quoted in that post on how the figure of the puer aeternus or eternal youth is all too often “afflicted by openness.” Unwilling to admit defect and/or take the time to try and understand why one does what one does, the eternal youth – elsewhere called a “foolish uninitiated being” – acts or speaks without thinking, lacks the reflection needed to avoid repeating past mistakes, has unrealistic expectations about his or her own capabilities, and has difficulty in establishing or sustaining deep and lasting relationships. Instead of turning inward and going deeper into one’s own emotional soul-life, the puer aeternus spontaneously and continually turns outward, looking for praise and meaning from others in the outside world.[1]

The idea of turning inward is an important part of the psychological notion of containment. Whether referring to the “container” created by a psychologist and his or her patient in the therapy room or referring more generally to an individual’s psyche as a “container,” personal growth and development require the holding of energies and emotions by concerned parties until these same psychodynamic forces can be experienced consciously, i.e. acknowledged, understood, and owned as important in some way to one’s wholeness and well-being. Hillman notes that this process of containing or soul-making can only occur when we emotionally open ourselves to our own wounds and afflictions:

“Building the psychic vessel of containment, which is another way of speaking of soul-making, seems to require bleeding and leaking as its precondition. Why else go through that work unless we are driven by the despair of our unstoppered condition? The shift from anima-mess to anima-vessel shows in various ways: as a shift from weakness and suffering to humility and sensitivity; from bitterness and complaint to a taste for salt and blood; from focus upon the emotional pain of a wound – its causes, parameters, cures – to its imaginal depths; from displacement of the womb onto women and ‘femininity’ to its locus in one’s own bodily rhythm.” [2]

The “shift from anima-mess to anima-vessel” mentioned by Hillman in this quote concerns a psychological concept, namely the anima, which essentially is equivalent to the soul. The anima is that energy which inspires or motivates one to reflect upon, to deepen, contain, and connect with the soul within oneself as well as others and one’s surroundings. The anima also animates a person to move, to act, and emote — a combination that transforms otherwise mundane events into experiences of soul and beauty.

To further unpack Hillman’s above quote, perhaps it would be best to look at one of the oldest, sorriest, most beautiful experiences known to humankind, i.e. “the love problem.” To fall head over heels in love, to become a blubbering fool in front of the object of one’s affections, to get lost in obsessive thoughts of him or her – who has not wished at times such as these for some sort of “stopper” with which to plug the leaking vessel of our despairing lovesick soul? (Nobel Prize-winning poet and essayist Octavio Paz has it right: “Love is a wound, an injury…Yes, love is a flower of blood.”).[3]

Whether requited or not, when love turns our world upside down, it is a safe bet that we are caught up in anima fantasies and projections directed toward another person. We see in her or him the promise of soul-deepening and connection which we are presently missing and for which we secretly long. As indicated above, Hillman shows that the solution to this “problem” of lovesickness requires a general shift from openness to containment, “from anima-mess to anima-vessel” – a move which itself depends on the four more precisely defined “shifts” he goes on to name:

  • From weakness and suffering to humility and sensitivity
  • From bitterness and complaint to a taste for salt and blood
  • From focus upon the emotional pain of a wound – its causes, parameters, cures – to its imaginal depths
  • From displacement of the womb onto women and ‘femininity’ to its locus in one’s own bodily rhythm

Reflection upon each of these “from-to” shifts yields deep profound insights. The first shift reminds Mythfire of something a female co-worker said the week this post was prepared: there is nothing more unattractive than an “insecure” man. (Hopefully, she didn’t have me in mind when she said this!) Really, all four of these shifts offer clues as to how we might make the desired move from insecurity to a much more secure sense of self. For instance, in addition to moving from weakness and suffering to humility and sensitivity, the supplanting of self-centered bitterness and complaint by “a taste for salt and blood” is also instructive. For instance, on the field of sports when we notice that there is blood on our lips, sweat on our brow and, (after a defeat or setback), tears in our eyes we know that we are engaged in something worthwhile, something worth fighting for. Something that matters deep down in our soul. Is this “soul matter” any less powerful when the field of engagement is one of love instead of sports?

What might the third shift – from obsessing over the causes, parameters, and fantasy cures of the love wound to focusing on its “imaginal depths” – look like for the foolish and uninitiated would-be lover? Ultimately, each person must answer this question for him or herself. However, this shift is essentially from a destructive use (or waste) of energies to a constructive one. We choose to creatively add to the soul as something of substance rather than subtract from it with “empty imaginings” and hours frittered away in fantasyland. We set out to build a psychic vessel or body that no longer leaks and bleeds but instead acts as a container and sustainer of soul. What this looks like concretely will probably depend on the individual’s personality, talents, interests and life circumstances.[4]

And finally, what is meant by the fourth and final shift “from displacement of the womb onto women and ‘femininity’ to its locus in one’s own bodily rhythm”? In the section under discussion, Hillman effectively links the centuries’ old belief that hysteria was somehow rooted in a woman’s womb with his present day argument that the womb and femininity should instead be understood psychologically and something which men have as well as women. The leaky hysterics of the love-struck soul are not to be displaced or denied as “something only women have” but instead owned as the source from which one’s own feelings and connectedness to the deep roots of things can grow. Hillman writes that “Without a proper feminine vessel, we can gestate nothing, nourish nothing, bring nothing to complete birth.” He then reiterates that the womb is the psychic container within which we reflect upon our own woundedness. As suggested above, through the process of reflection, both wounds and womb become “the very ground and carrier of fecundity.”[5]

In other words, whether our wounds concern “problems” of love or the “mess” of other strongly felt emotions, if honored and held as within a womb, they may become in time the very ground, carrier, and even maker of soul.


Note: James Hillman passed away October 27, 2011. His most successful book is the New York Times Bestseller The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. However, a better place to begin exploring his ideas is probably A Blue Fire: Selected Writings by James Hillman which is introduced and edited by Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul. Previously published articles, lectures, interviews and essays by Hillman (as well as one or two books) are currently being re-released as individual installments within his ten-volume Uniform Edition. The volume titles and contents may be found here: http://www.springpublications.com/uniformedition.html. Finally, Hillman’s most critically acclaimed book is the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Re-Visioning Psychology.


Next Monday: The Move from Three to Four…

[1] Hillman, James. Senex & Puer. Ed. and Intro. by Glen Slater. Putnam, Conn.: Spring Pub., Inc., 2005: 228. According to Hillman, the phrase “foolish uninitiated being” is from Plato’s Gorgias.

[2] Ibid., 232.

[3] From Paz’s The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism, page 197 in my (1995?) edition.

[4] For anyone interested in the I Ching, Mythfire finds that Hillman’s section from 228-232 of Senex & Puer correlates most profoundly with Hexagram 4 (“Enveloping”) as described in Stephen Karcher’s Total I Ching. Additionally, the opposite to Hillman’s imaginal depths may just be “empty imaginings” as found in changing line 4 from Hexagram 4 in the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching: “For youthful folly it is the most hopeless thing to entangle itself in empty imaginings. The more obstinately it clings to such unreal fantasies, the more certainly will humiliation overtake it.” Hillman’s soul-making arguably requires a shift from empty imaginings to full-bodied, expressive, meaningful, and constructive imaginal depths.

[5] Senex & Puer, 229-230.


This entry was posted in Archetypal Psychology, Depth Psychology, Puer Aeternus, Tributes. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to James Hillman’s Shift to Soul-Making (“From Anima-Mess to Anima-Vessel”)

  1. Alastair says:

    Chris Hi, Appreciated your thoughts & connections in this blog. I’m writing 5 books and I’d like to send you just a few pages of the first, to offer your thoughts & feelings on – if you wish. Cheers. Alastair

  2. Chris says:

    Hi Alastair: see the email I’ve sent you separately. Thanks again for reading my blog. — Chris

  3. I was googling for new material on James Hillman, one of my favorite thinkers, and found this exceptional essay. It helped me to deepen my notion of soul-making. Thank you. Please feel free to check out my web site and blogs, and if you are willing, perhaps we can post one another’s links on our own sites.

    Michael Bogar

  4. Darrell says:

    Well, here I am having just re-read a quote from Neitzschke’s ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra,’ “The world is deep; deeper than day can comprehend”.. ie. from a talk given by Richard Tarnas on “The Value of Astrology in a Civilisation in Crisis”.. And all this with my having yesterday also posted a link to this blog on Hillman & Soul-making at another blog I have been following titled “No Place For Sheep”.. posting a comment using some notes from this blog on “Soul-making” to a blog “On the Unforgivabilty of Child Sex Abuse,” at

    And meanwhile here is a link to another blog post I was reading earlier today on Hillmans ideas on the union of Eros & Psyche.. at http://www.academia.edu/5808955/Creative_Eros_Connecting_with_Awakening_Psyche

    The essence of psyche is myth, yet Hillmanrejects the ongoing relevance of theFreudian Oedipal myth and the Jungianhero myth as keys to psychology’s paternity. To find the true father, he seeks “the spe-cific nature of the creative principle withinthe field of psychology” (ibid., p. 18). Afterexploring typical notions of creativity and their archetypal backgrounds, Hillmanfinally proposes and deepens into Psycheand Eros as the central myth for a cre-ative psychology today. For it is an inhumanfactor, the mighty daimonEros, thatengenders soul. Eros is the God of psychicreality, the true lord of the psyche and thepatron of the field of psychology (ibid., p.73). In analysis, the ritual that gives rise tothis new mythical interpretation is thetransference. Psychological creativity is theunion of eros and psyche, and for this,human relationships are indispensible. Trueto the erotic and chaotic spirit of the timesin which it was birthed, The Myth of Analysis (1972) is an opus in service tothe emancipation of Psyche and herreunion with Eros. Love not only finds a way, it alsoleads the way as psychopompos andis, inherently, the “way” itself. Seek-ing psychological connections by means of eros is the way of therapy assoul-making. Today this is a way, avia regia , to the unconscious psycheas royal as the way through the dream or through the complex.

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