Hope for an Afterlife: A Depth Psychology Point of View

Perhaps the most prodigious of all hopes in life is our preoccupation with what comes after we have lived our life in full. We hope there is something more, something that transcends all the materialistic facts about our molecules and atoms and the ultimate death of our brains, something beautiful and meaningful that our conscious and unconscious minds have been touching upon throughout our days on Earth.

Simply speaking, we hope for life after death because we cannot see it; there is no overwhelming concrete proof that it exists. We pray for it, and by honoring our religion and spirituality, we attempt to prepare for it. A quote from Romans 8: 24-25, as noted in a Bible.org article on hope, is illustrative of hope as anticipating the unseen:

“For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” [i]

Most People Believe
According to an Ipsos for Reuters News poll of 18,829 citizens in 23 countries, 51 percent of people worldwide believe in a “divine entity,” while 18 percent do not believe, and 17 percent say they do not know. Regarding life after death, the same poll showed that 51 percent believe there is an afterlife; while 23 percent think we simply “cease to exist” and 23 percent say they don’t know about an afterlife. [ii]

So, we can safely say the majority of mankind believes in an afterlife, despite the credible scientific explanation that once our brains stop firing off neurons, we are kaput forever and don’t know it.

Depth Psychology
There is, however, one class of science, called Depth Psychology (some argue that it is not a science), that offers a unique approach to notions about what may exist beyond our everyday experiences, offering keen, hopeful impressions of transcendent realms concerning life, death, and the soul.

The extremely short definition of Depth Psychology is that it is concerned with the unconscious mind. PhD in Depth Psychology Bonnie Bright describes how Depth Psychology was first coined by Swiss Psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler in the late 1800s and was seriously taken up by another Swiss Psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who ultimately brought many of its tenets into psycho-therapeutic practice under the banner of archetypal psychology. [iii]

James Hillman is another well-known and influential depth psychologist and psychotherapist. Today, Thomas Moore, author of “Care of the Soul” and most recently “Ageless Soul,” can be considered a significant contemporary depth psychologist and psychotherapist. Jung, Hillman, and Moore consistently and movingly wrote in-depth about metaphysics. Hillman and Jung were often ambiguous with their thoughts about hope and life after death, vacillating between atheism and agnosticism, while Moore was definitely hopeful, as well as agnostic with a leaning toward the supernatural, about such hypothetical thinking.

Bright added that “the Depth Psychological view focuses on mystery and the creativity and potentiality that resides in the unknown. The mysteries of the unconscious manifest when they are ready.” She wrote that Hillman professed how man “is pulled toward a telos, a whole and complete finished product, each unique, like an acorn that turns into a massive oak tree. This is also the call of the Self to which Jung refers.” [iv]

According to the C.G. Jung Center, the Depth Psychology approach,

Focuses on the psyche, human development, personality formation, and individuation.  Individuation is a process of bringing our unconscious potential into a concrete living reality. This process helps to secure a bridge between an individual and the unconscious as well as the individual and his/her wider community. By incorporating both an inner and outer exploration, one discovers a more potent sense of meaning and purpose in life. [v]

Jung’s POV
In the chapter titled “On Life After Death,” in Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” he presented personal ideas concerning the possibility of immortality, pointing toward an examination of our unconsciousness and dreams. He wrote that unconsciousness and dreaming give man “hints” of what may be beyond logical consciousness, not solid insights, adding that man cannot deny that paranormal events and experiences do indeed happen. Jung elaborated as follows:

Critical rationalism has apparently eliminated, along with so many other mythic conceptions, the idea of life after death. This could only have happened because nowadays most people identify themselves almost exclusively with their consciousness and imagine that they are only what they know about themselves. Yet anyone with even a smattering of psychology can see how limited this knowledge is. Rationalism and doctrinairism are the disease of our time; they pretend to have all the answers. But a great deal will yet be discovered which our present limited view would have ruled out as impossible. [vi]

Jung also addressed how old age contributes to beliefs in the existence of an afterlife:

In old age one begins to let memories unroll before the mind’s eye and, musing, to recognize oneself in the inner and outer images of the past. This is like a preparation for an existence in the hereafter, just as, in Plato’s view, philosophy is a preparation for death. [vii]

Such Jungian thoughts on death promoted hope that an afterlife exists, although Jung also wrote that “it is not that I wish that we had a life after death. In fact, I would prefer not to foster such ideas.” [viii]

Despite his preference to not nurture thoughts about whether or not there is life after death, he also evoked what he called “mythic man” as “going beyond” what science says about life after death:

We cannot visualize another world ruled by quite other laws, the reason being that we live in a specific world which has helped to shape our minds and establish our basic psychic conditions. We are strictly limited by our innate structure and therefore bound by our whole being and thinking to this world of ours. Mythic man, to be sure, demands a ‘going beyond all that,’ but scientific man cannot permit this. To the intellect, all my mythologizing is futile speculation. To the emotions, however, it is a healing and valid activity; it gives existence a glamour which we would not like to do without. Nor is there any good reason why we should. [ix]

On James Hillman
James Hillman had an unbelievable intellect. He was an extraordinarily complex man with multiple-meaning, difficult-to-fully-comprehend, extraordinarily dense views concerning archetypal psychology; the psyche; ancient history, philosophy, and religion; modern psychotherapy; and much more. In his Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, “Re-visioning Psychology” (first published in 1976), he presented wide-ranging thoughts about what became the dominant theme of his career: soul-making. Although soul was “intangible and indefinable,” he wrote that it also carried the “highest importance in hierarchies of human values, frequently being identified with the principle of life and even of divinity.” [x]

He defined Depth Psychology as having roots tied to the pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher Heraclitus, quoting him as saying “You could not discover the limit of the soul (psyche) even if you traveled every road to do so; such is the depth (bathum) of its meaning (logos).” [xi]

This depth was further brought out in the last chapter of “Re-visioning Psychology,” where Hillman wrote about soulfulness, humanness, and individuality:

If we conceive each human being to be defined individually and differently by the soul, and we admit that the soul exists independently of human beings, then our essentially differing human individuality is really not human at all, but more the gift of an inhuman daimon who demands human service. It is not my individuation, but the daimon’s; not my fate that matters to the Gods, but how I care for the psychic persons entrusted to my stewardship during my life. It is not my life that matters, but soul and how life is used to care for the soul. [xii]

Despite the soulfulness that so eloquently reverberated throughout Hillman’s writing, he was not a fan of the idea of hope, at least as it applied to psychotherapy. Tayria Ward, Depth Psychology PhD, summed up Hillman’s opinion about hope, in a blog post, from when she attended one of his lectures:

I remember a classroom lecture during my doctoral studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute when archetypal psychologist James Hillman spoke of what he called the naivete of hope. Hope was, after all, he said, the one evil left in Pandora’s box when she snapped the lid back shut. His point as I understood it, was that hope is a reliance upon an unknown future that distracts us from the present, from dealing with what is here, right now.[xiii]

There was, however, a softer, not so anti-hope side of Hillman, as evidenced in a 1993 book he co-authored with journalist Michael Ventura, titled “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy–and the World’s Getting Worse.”:

We do not die alone. We join ancestors and all the little people, the multiple souls who inhabit our night world of dreams, the complexes we speak with, the invisible guests who pass through our lives, bringing us gifts of urges and terrors, tender sighs, sudden ideas. They are with us all along, those angels, those demons. [xiv]

Thomas Moore on Hope & the Afterlife
Modern-day Depth Psychologist Moore, who was a close friend and apprentice of Hillman’s, addressed hope and the afterlife in a chapter of his book “Ageless Soul,” titled “Living with Dying.” He called death a “transition,” but he did not imply that life after death is an absolute. Instead, he said: “I don’t know if there is anything there, but I do know that I can live in hope of eternal life. Hope is an odd thing.” [xv]

Moore also wrote, in “Ageless Soul,” about Hillman’s views on death and the afterlife, explaining how he had visited with him shortly before he died “lying in a hospital bed in the living room of his country house, a morphine drip draped over him, and yet he was working on a project right up to the end.” Moore noted that previously, during what he called a “tender moment,” Hillman had “pronounced” that he was a “materialist,” who said “there is nothing” after death.

I was surprised that this intelligent man who had written so much about eternal things— soul, spirit, religion— with a strong suggestion that we should always penetrate beyond the literal, would suddenly become a materialist, which is a kind of literalist. . . This is one of the few areas where I disagree with him. [xvi]

Moore then further presented his personal assessment regarding life after death:

I’m not a naive believer— I don’t want to be in the camp that has too much hope or creates illusions, so we don’t have to face the reality of what it means to be a human being. . . We can acknowledge our ignorance about death and afterlife, keeping an absolutely open mind, and at the same time find comfort and guidance in traditional teachings like reincarnation and heaven.  [xvii]

In conclusion, Depth Psychology illustrates a unique intellectual point of view that strongly suggests there exists an exceptional soul within every human being that transcends conscious thinking and dwells in the archetypal realms of the unconscious, displayed to us through dreams. It offers this “odd thing” we call hope that cannot be discounted.

End Notes:

[i] J. Hampton Keathly III. “Hope.” Bible.org. April 22, 2005. https://bible.org/article/hope.

[ii] Market Research. “Ispos@advisory: Supreme Being(s), the Afterlife, and Evolution.” Ispos. April 24, 2011. https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/ipsos-global-dvisory-supreme-beings-afterlife-and-evolution.

[iii] Bonnie Bright. “On Depth Psychology: It’s Meaning and Magic.” Depth Psychology List. 2010. https://www.depthpsychologylist.com/Depth-Psychology-Its-Meaning-and-Magic .

[iv] Ibid.

[v] The C.G. Jung Center. “What is Depth Psychology?” http://www.cgjungcenter.org/clinical-services/what-is-depth-psychology/

[vi] C.G. Jung. “Memories, Dreams, Reflections.” Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. 1961.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] James Hillman. “Re-visioning Psychology.” Harper Perennial. 1976.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Tayria Ward. “Hope: The last evil?” Doctortayria’s blog. April 6, 2011.   https://doctortayria.com/2011/04/06/hope-the-last-evil/

[xiv] James Hillman and Michael Ventura. “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy–and the World’s Getting Worse.” Harper One. 1993.

[xv] Thomas Moore. “Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy.” St. Martin’s Press. 2017.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

 

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