Alchemy Stage 1 – Nigredo Part 2

2010-02-005Now to continue on from the last post . . . From Nigel Hamilton’s study, “The Alchemical Process of Transformation:

“From a psychological standpoint, this stage is experienced as entering a dark and chaotic unconscious inner world. St John of the Cross has referred to this as the first of two dark nights, the dark night of the mind, which is an encounter with the darker aspects of our self (that which Jung called “the shadow”). At first nothing appears to make sense, indeed all the therapist can do at this stage of the process is to be fully present and empathise with the client, who in the process of articulating their experience, facilitates it further. The therapeutic setting, i.e. the therapy room, becomes the hermetically sealed vessel and the inner chaos that the client enters into is symbolised by the reactions of opposing forces struggling against each other. That is to say the client’s own psyche reveals its submerged inner conflicts to the conscious mind.

This is what I referred to in the last post, the establishing of a place of sacred safety, of temenos. During this part of the work, the “client” tells his or her story as it is known and sensed by the ego, the clothed self, This telling is vital and it is enough for the therapist to listen and support without trying to fix anything at this point.

As the client begins to experience the inner world to be more real, the process intensifies (the fire increases) and often anger, fear, frustration, and a desire to “escape from it all” is experienced. To pass through this stage requires patience, humility and acceptance not only of the client, but also of the therapist, who through experiences knows that a process of purification is in progress and that one by one the inner conflicts will gradually become resolved until a completely new inner state of clarity and freedom is achieved. Then the client will be reconciled with his or her inner earth nature – in alchemical terms they will have united with their “earth nature.”

The therapist tracks the appearance of complexes, contradictions, images and fears through the process of working with dreams, journaling, sand play, and other active imagination strategies. For the client, it almost feels that everything is getting worse as old sores are laid open, exposed to the light. It must be stated that the process doesn’t wait for all the shadows to be exposed. The shifting to the second stage, albedo begins when the therapist and client begin to tackle what has been exposed. Only so much darkness can be held at one time.

Alchemy Stage 1 – Nigredo Part 1

2010-02-005The dark night of the soul, this is something that is intimately known by all who suffer depression. The dark night of the soul is what we meet when we enter into midlife crisis. Each of us senses a darkness, a place of shadows from which we want to flee. This depression is not “organic,” a depression that is chemically induced. This depression and darkness appears to be something “out there,” something to which we feel we are victims. Typically, we run like hell trying to escape, trying to hide from the darkness. Drugs, sex, money, work, new places, new hobbies, redecorating our homes, a new car, a new spouse: we try anything to banish that darkness. But, the darkness refuses to be banished. This is the dark night of the soul, or at least our introduction to that darkness.

If we are like many others, we head to a doctor’s office for some pharmaceutical relief; or to a psychotherapist’s chair for some answers, some other strategies to banish the darkness. We do this only as a last resort knowing that if we don’t do something we will descend into insanity or commit suicide. It isn’t a pretty picture, but it is real.

“Alchemy announced a source of knowledge . . . which yields a “bitter” water by no means acceptable to our human judgment. It is harsh and bitter or like vinegar, for it is a bitter thing to accept the darkness and blackness of the umbra solis and to pass through this valley of the shadow. It is bitter indeed to discover behind one’s lofty ideals narrow, fanatical convictions, all the more cherished for that, and behind one’s heroic pretensions nothing but crude egotism, infantile greed, and complacency. This painful corrective is an unavoidable stage in every psychotherapeutic process . . . it begins with the nigredo . . .” (Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, paragraph346)

So, the pain serves as an impetus to finally do something about the pain when all other avenues prove fruitless. So, one enters into psychotherapy. However, before the work can even begin, there is a need to create a place for the work; a safe, even sacred place. Like a surgeon preparing for an operation, there is the need to build a sense of safety in the relationship as well as place. The therapist needs to become aware of the boundary limits (or lack thereof) of the person and to build a sense of trust in that person as well as to have the person enter into a trust relationship with the therapist.

As time goes by, the two begin to test each other, test the boundaries of safety. And when there is a sense of safety, the belief that the container of their relationship has become sacred in its own way, then the work may begin:

“In the early period of analysis, the primary work is the establishment of the boundary, the analytical temenos, in which the analysis is to take place.” (Hall, The Jungian Experience, p. 78)

There is real vulnerability for both therapist and the person entering into this work of depth psychology. It is as through the establishment of temenos  that one becomes safe enough to strip of their psychic layers as if stripping off clothing in order to expose the wounds that have led to the therapists office.

The Naked Truth About Alchemical Psychology

Blue Buddha of Healing

The image has been given a blue hue as blue is a colour long associated with both the unconscious and with gods and goddesses.

I am using a naked image in order to have it symbolize the need for naked truth in addressing the shadows that assail the psyche and the ego.  When one is intent on getting unstuck, one has to peel away the layers that disguise the real issues. One has to approach this work or opus with honesty and not hide behind excuses like one hides behind clothing. Honesty is critical.

Before I begin to talk about the first alchemical stage (the next post), I want to  quote Carl Jung’s words on the the use of alchemy as a process for psychotherapy:

“Since my aim was to demonstrate the full extent to which my psychology corresponded to alchemy – or vice versa – I wanted to discover, side by side with the religious questions, what special problems of psychotherapy were treated in the work of alchemists. The main problem of medical psychotherapy is the transference. In this matter Freud and I were in complete agreement. I was able to demonstrate that alchemy, too, had something that corresponded to the transference – namely, the concept of coniunctio . . . (Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 212)

Jung published his findings in his book, Psychology and Alchemy, the 12th volume of his Collected Works. Further studies resulted in the 13th volume, Alchemical Studies; and probably (in my opinion) the most important of his work regarding alchemy, volume 14, Mysterium Coniunctionis.

“There I was concerned with the interplay between conscious and unconscious, and with the impact of the greater personality, the inner man, upon the life of every individual.

This investigation was rounded out by the Mysterium Coniunctionis, in which I once again took up the problem of the transference, but primarily followed by my original intention of representing the whole range of alchemy as a kind of psychology of alchemy, or as an alchemical basis for depth psychology. In Mysterium Coniunctionis my psychology was at last given its place in reality . . . (Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 221)

Now, with this foundation, I will attempt to bring Jung’s words and ideas to you through my lens and filters.

Stages of Alchemy

When I meditate, I am working at becoming more aware. The work is powerful, time-consuming and life-changing. All effort produces change. Each day I sit in meditation, I go through the transformation process. It’s a never-ending work as I see it and know it. But the impact of even small changes on a daily basis is significant.

The same kind of transformational work goes on each time a person engages in therapeutic processes such as undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis. Alchemy is the transformational model that Carl Jung used to frame his own practice.

I am doing a bit more pre-investigation before jumping into the use of alchemy for personal transformation as a therapeutic model. A not so quick search of the literature and websites has yielded more information than I can actually use. Below are a listing of some links you might find useful.

My focus will concentrate on the Magnum Opus, or the four stage process, rather than the seven stage process that is discussed in most studies of alchemy. The four stages of the Magnum Opus are easier for me to discus in psychological terms with the focus on effecting change in consciousness, bringing a deeper awareness of self. As I understand it, this process is best likened to a spiral with each journey through the stages taking a person deeper and deeper into the personal unconscious in order to bring that which is hidden into the light of ego consciousness. Using Buddhist terms, one could say that this is the path to enlightenment.

The four stages are:

  1. nigredo – blackening – The Shadow
  2. albedo – whitening – Anima / Animus
  3. citrinitas – yellowing – Wise Old Man
  4. rubedo – reddening – Archetypal Self (wholeness)

In future posts, I will visit each of these stages, hopefully giving you a better understanding of the stages in terms of finding a way out of darkness, the Dark Night of the Soul that you may be suffering.

The Right To Be Bare

In a world that is structured around community, there are no real individual rights. Relationships are about negotiation. I will give you this freedom, if you give up that freedom. We don’t have the right to anything, even life. Once one realises that one isn’t owed anything, one can begin to navigate the world with more safety and sanity.

Though I was born naked, I don’t have the expectation that I will be able to live naked in a community that is shared by others. Of course one could say that this isn’t true if one decides to live in a nudist community. But, one would be mistaken. Again, living in a nudist community is a negotiated agreement. One can’t simply move in and leave it at that, especially if one is a single male. In quite a number of nudist communities [and here one must include “landed clubs”] only single women and couples to have the “right” to join. Single men must wait until gender numbers allow for another single male to enter into the community. No one is “owed” the right to membership in a nudist community. Membership in the community is at the pleasure of the community.

We seem to be blind to this fact and join in all kinds of protests to force community to honour our rights to live, work and play without the requirement of wearing clothing. We somehow feel society owes us this. One must pay the price in order to belong in a community in order to have the services and privileges of that community. Yet even when one is within the community, rights and privileges are not really coded as black and white. There are fine lines of compromise that are constantly shifting. What is a privilege today may be banned behaviour should the community will it.

Of course, most nudists and naturists are aware of this fact of life within community as they take their desire for freedom from clothing behind their own closed doors. There, if one is truly alone and the draperies are kept closed, one has full freedom. However, should another person live in the dwelling, again it comes down to negotiation. Negotiation leads to accommodation for the present but has no guarantees for the future. Because each one of us changes over time, we can never predict the nature of that change and how that change will effect our relationships and our rights in those relationships. In truth, we cannot even predict the survival of the relationships.

The right to be bare only exists at the moment of birth; from that point onwards, unless we are in total isolation, we are subject to our communities and our relationships which require that we learn how to negotiate to get some small part of our unique, individual needs.

Psychological Alchemy: Part 3

In Jungian psychology, the journey towards wholeness is called individuation. In alchemical terms, this wholeness is represented by the masculine and the feminine symbolism which takes the form of a holy wedding between the king and the queen. Knowing that the images are symbolic is vital for understanding of the psychological process. Within the psyche, the anima, or soul, is the feminine aspect; consciousness is the masculine aspect.

As to be expected, there are other symbols that are used to illustrate the idea of completion, of wholeness. One that finds it way into contemporary society is that of the sun and the moon contained together. As I walk down the street of my tiny town, I can see numerous examples of this image including several that are on my house. In Jungian terms, the sun is symbolic of consciousness, of the masculine principle; the moon is symbolic of the unconscious, or feminine principle. It is vital to differentiate the masculine and the feminine principles from biological males and females.

In social terms, the union of a man and a woman with the resulting creation of a child produces a wholeness that all societies embrace as familyThis union of male and female has its roots in instinct, in the will to survive as a species. The union also has the impulse for completeness, for two to become one for a moment, a moment in which allows a transcendence of the painfully prosaic lives we live as individuals, even if we are in relationship with others.

With the act of union completed, it doesn’t take long for each to retreat within themselves and begin a grieving process for the loss of the other, for the loss of a sense of being at one with oneself. One returns to suffering.

“In talking about sex, we are getting into a very big topic. We are getting into the fact that every life situation has meaning behind it, or a process of communication in it. Communication can’y be established unless there are two parties, one of whom is the activator and the other the receiver. On that basis, any communication can be said to be sexual, although I’m not being Freudian here. The passionate quality of sex, doesn’t have to be involved necessarily. In order to communicate anything, however, you do have to have the true element of union. From the tantric point of view, everything is interpreted that way – in terms of union. There is the union of samsara ad nirvana, the union of phenomena and consciousness. We interpret it all in terms of the feminine and masculine principles. Everything is seen that way. (Trungpa, Work, Sex, Money, p. 106)

The union of masculine and feminine, the union of all dualities, polarities – the union of opposites and the achievement of wholeness, of one-ness.

Psychological Alchemy: Part 2

We, as humans, like to keep things separated and in their respective boxes. It makes for bringing order into what otherwise appears to be a world in chaos. We have developed codes for ourselves to ensure that order is kept, to keep things black and white. When things don’t stay in their places, we have a tendency to react negatively.

Alchemy, as a science, looked to bringing different elements together, having them interact and then noting how that interaction changed the two as they became one. The mixing of copper and tin is a prime example which resulted in the creation of bronze.

In psychological alchemy, the work or opus is focused on bringing together the conscious and the unconscious aspects of an individual in order to arrive at a wholeness for the human psyche. Carl Gustav Jung was among those who studied the ancient arts of alchemy with the view of trying to heal the human psyche, attempting to bring the fractured pieces together. One of his major works expanding on this task is called Mysterium Coniunctionis.

Jung not only drew from alchemy, he also drew from Hinduism and Buddhism in order to try to more fully understand the nature of the human psyche and approaches to healing the psyche, a task that today we call psychology and psychiatry.

As I travelled through Indian I was amazed at the presence of the overt representation of the masculine (linga) and the feminine (yoni) in every temple that I came across, a representation that had the two as one. There was little left to imagination. The union of the masculine and the feminine created a wholeness. Of course, the representation was symbolic of creation.

The idea of the union of male and female was graphically on display in various temples as well, such as the temples of Khajuraharo. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, there is a respect given to the sexual nature of being human, a respect that goes beyond merely the physical. Sexual union has a holy aspect, one that curiously points the way beyond the limits of body.

The practice of Tantric sex that has its roots in Hinduism and becomes embraced at some of the highest levels of Buddhism, specifically, Vajrayana Buddhism. The primary purpose is directed to achieving a state of wholeness and awareness.

Wholeness. The impulse to become one, to re-enter into the womb of creation and be at one with the initial impulse of creation. In Jungian psychology, the same symbolism occurs with the same intent, that of healing the human psyche, rejoining the shattered parts, the divorced masculine and feminine aspects of an individual. There is much to talk about yet, so I will leave the rest for part three.