For July and August, I am taking a break from writing a blog. I am…
The Magic of Alchemy for 2019
At Esalen Institute, I presented alchemy as an inspiring theme for a few of our intensive 5-day transformational retreats. The alchemy paradigm fits for 2019 — the year that requires evocative transfiguration within both our individual — and collective psyche. Carl Jung, Edward Edinger and Marie-Louise von Franz serve as our brilliant guides as we venture forth in this discussion. I plan to present more on this topic in a series of blogs in the coming months. Let me know if you find this a topic of interest.
What does the science of alchemy reference? Alchemy was an ancient tradition, practiced in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that threaded chemistry, philosophy, spirituality, and the betterment of the human condition into one endeavor with cosmic implications. The literal focus was the transmutation of baser substances such as metals into more refined substances such as gold or silver, but the activities also functioned as a metaphor for the arduous challenges of personal development.
Alchemy engenders a parallel process of purification of the human soul. That link captured Carl Jung. Alchemy was a mix of religion, magic and natural sciences not yet quarantined into separate realms. In a worldview where magic is integrated into science and philosophy, the psyche is freed to roam and embrace altered perspectives that envision the interconnectedness of all beings. Our instincts come alive and our intuitions become expansive; our visions can be illuminated, and we naturally see with vivid clarity the deeper vein of connections that reach beyond our brittle, rationalized, polarized, compartmentalized perspectives. We see with numinous eyes.
As alchemists engaged with the scientific process they were also participating in a simultaneously magical higher order process, as they sought the final transformative element symbolized by gold — the magnum opus – meaning the great work of alchemy. The final product was represented in the form of the philosopher’s stone embodying the transformed human being. Alchemists also labeled this cumulative goal, Coniunctio: the union of purified opposites able to rectify all our one-sidedness.
Jung understood the parallels between the transformative intention in analytic psychology and the alchemical magnum opus of finding the elixir of life through potentiated drops, using the metaphor of tinctures and powders that become increasingly potent in their refinement. Jung viewed analytic psychology as a similar process; the therapist discovers, through the relationship with the patient, the most potent psychological interventions to help synergistically stimulate the transformational process. Jung appreciated alchemy as an analogue to a higher order transformative process he labeled as individuation.
What these concepts define for us now is the arduous but fulfilling process of building, sometimes from the ground floor, our authentic Self, what Jung called the individuated self, and Reich referenced as the genital character that lives from her core self. The key word is wholeness – whole self. That means we are no longer captured — held hostage by our split parts — but experience our self as complete within; the Self remains free within a steady inner experience.
We can utilize our study of alchemy to bring this collection of archetypal symbols to the surface of our individual and collective consciousness, so as to access them readily as a prototype for our growth process. I offer, as Jung did, this perspective to enable us to plumb these depths of our own souls and unleash each of our unique developmental processes.
One critical element of alchemy for our time is its stance of questioning the collective psyche rather than perpetuating the stance of the follower. Rather alchemy supports each individual to become responsible, a unique “carrier of consciousness”. What does that mean? In the world of psychotherapy, it means learning to decipher the defensive blocks in our vision that cloud reality. Often we project our inner conflicts onto reality and become alienated rather than see our own inner estranged sensibility.
We must become fully responsible for all aspects of our inner life. We begin by facing our internal opposites. We must face into our good and bad parts that plague us and cause pain. Psychotherapy is the vehicle for this clarification.
If one is connected with the Self inwardly, then one can penetrate all life situations. Inasmuch as one is not caught in them, one walks through them; that means there is an innermost nucleus of the personality which remains detached, so that even if the most horrible things happen to one, the first reaction is not a thought or a physical reaction, but rather an interest in the meaning. (p 237, Alchemy, Von Franz)
The therapeutic process of developing a whole Self begins with a methodical dismemberment of our limiting defensive structures (If therapy is doing its job!) In other words, it is a process that turns our unhealthy defensive structures to dust. As we dismantle archaic defenses we become functional — more flexible, more contactful in the present moment, more resourced – in other words: capable of consciousness.
A relevant alchemical process (Coagulatio – process of turning something into earth) defines the breakdown to The Prima Materia. For a given substance to be transformed, it must first be reduced or returned to its original, undifferentiated state of chaos. Through the process of therapy we may at first feel reduced, left without our “normal” boundaries, limits or constructs — the chaos prior to logos. One may feel a terror of dissolution, a feeling of falling apart.
Psychologically, the problem of finding the prima material corresponds to the problem of what to work on in psychotherapy. The prima material is everywhere, in all our daily occurrences, personal reactions, moods – all are grist for the mill. Our fixed, static, rigid defenses – reactive, unconscious aspects of our personality — our character patterns — are pointed out and overtime can be modified. The concept of the prima material is in the breakdown process, necessary in psychotherapy, as it enables new and different styles to unfold; but first one has to fall, as it were, into that undifferentiated basic state where broken character patterns are slowly dissolved. Prima material can be found in the shadow; the part of the personality we might deem most despicable, painful and humiliating.
Our dream life becomes an important guide. As we seek out our dream symbols, we deepen into our experience of alchemical-symbolic imagery. Our psyche rewards us with active dreams that give us direction if we let them guide us in therapy. We may dream of dirt, slime, filth, mud and slough, swamps and feces—the prima material. We fall from our inflated ego heights down to earth as we move beneath the defense of inflation.
Here is a dream from Edinger’s book that portrays a middle age man in a major life reorientation:
“It is dawn, the light of the rising sun just emerging. I am up to my waist in a substance that is a mixture of black mud, slime, and shit. There is no one else around and this black expanse stretches to the horizon. It is like the beginning of the world, the first day of creation. I start to thrash my legs, to churn in the black mud with great and persistent effort. I continue doing this for hours and slowly the primeval ooze begins to harden and become firm. I notice the sun is rising into the sky and its heat is drying up the water and providing solid earth. I anticipate being able to stand on firm ground.” (p. 85, Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche)
Let us embrace coming down to earth, returning to our original prima material, our undifferentiated chaotic state where we begin our process of transformation. The therapeutic process takes courage, but if we are to transform our world it begins now with each and every one of us. We transform one by one and our individually heightened consciousness will radically alter the greater collective vision.
Edward Edinger, The Mystery of the Coniunctio: Alchemical Image of Individuation, 1994
Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy, 1985
Marie-Louise von Franz: Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology, 1980
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Thanks for this lovely summary. It seems we have lived similar journeys via different paths. Esalen is one point of crossing.
A few years ago (about 12 actually) I found Iain McGilchrist and his work, which in case you haven’t found it yet, adds a brilliant context. His newest came out at the start of the year.
If you find his work useful, I’d love to hear.
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