So why is alchemy important? Why does the word have such power and depth? And what use is it to us now? Pray, read, re-read and work — and you will find. May we all go there, get there, be there — in the heart place where we know we belong. ONE BEGINNING – In a sense the secret of alchemy is to imagine a world in which it is possible to transmute base metal to gold. The roots of alchemy are complex and deep. They reach and trail down into the earth, and back in time, spanning seas and continents. The history of alchemy is in the ground, in the earth
Pray, read, re-read and work — and you will find. May we all go there, get there, be there — in the heart place where we know we belong. ONE BEGINNING – In a sense the secret of alchemy is to imagine a world in which it is possible to transmute base metal to gold.
So why is alchemy important? Why does the word have such power and depth? And what use is it to us now? Alchemy is a process that involves the transmutation of base metal – or lead – into gold, through a number of different stages that together make up the ‘Work’, or ‘Great Work’. It is both a literal orstages that together make up the ‘Work’, or ‘Great Work’. It is both a literal or physical process and a metaphorical or inward one. It belongs to physical matter and to our feelings and imaginations. It belongs inside our bodies, and to experiences we can’t immediately understand, and we can see it happening outside in the world as well. It is happening as we speak.
Above all, alchemy is about wholeness – about the whole of who we are, and about living whole rather than partial and suppressed lives.
Alchemy argues that everything is a part of God, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. And since it exists, it is part of the Work. Wholeness here also means looking at what we haven’t lived: at what is in the shadow of who we think we are, or who we have so far been. And this is where the potency of alchemy lies, because in that recognition is a place where we can no longer escape ourselves, a place of confrontation where the Work, and the process it entails, begins. But the wholeness that alchemy challenges us to is also about expansion —expanding our minds and hearts, becoming more largely ourselves and more a part of Creation.
It is a process that invites us to stay the course of our lives and understand, in that, why we actually live as long as we do, however long that is for each of us. As one workshop participant remarked during a day introduction I ran at the College of Psychic Studies in London, ‘You know, I think this kind of thing has been happening to me all my life.’ Alchemy takes time, as love takes time and gold takes time. It isn’t a quick fix — as every alchemist knows, it requires forbearance and patience, and more patience, as we recognize that the timing is not simply our own.
Alchemy’s work of making Heaven on Earth turns us both inward and outwards at the same time: we live more deeply in our world as well as see more completely where we are as part of the larger cosmic picture. What alchemy —and Smith’s ‘our Philosophy’ — stands for here, then, is not only knowledge but also wisdom: knowledge learnt and suffered through experience.
Stanislaus Klossowski de Rola has described alchemy’ as ‘a hidden reality of the highest order’. I think that’s a very useful and precise phrase, and I’d draw your attention to the words ‘hidden’ and ‘highest’ here, placed side by side. There is a sense of height and depth simultaneously, which is in every way appropriate. As a philosophy – and as a cosmology, to do with sun, moon and stars — alchemy is a bridge between Earth and Heaven, matter and spirit, the solid and the fluid, the visible and the invisible, bringing the horizontal and the vertical together. As a process, as already mentioned, alchemy involves the transmutation of base metal into gold during which consciousness is radically altered – that is, the consciousness of the alchemist, or artifex as he or she was called. In this case, it is you and I. Alchemy is a physical process to do with self-knowledge, then; and again, we can’t have access to that knowledge without being in touch with the body and the ground: our earth.
As above, so below: As within, so without.
These two major phases of the Work, or opus, in turn have to do with two aspects, as alchemists all agree. The first involves a mastery over the prima materia, or ‘first matter’, as they call it, which means the raw stuff or chaos both in ourselves and in our lives. The second involves, correspondingly, and as a result of going through the process, what is called ‘the inward creation of a body of light’ that relates to consciousness, the gold and, in terms of the body, resurrection: literally, new life. Derek Jarman lists the stages:
The base material was the prima materia, a chaos like the dark waters of the
deep. Melanosis and nigredo.
The cleansing calcined albedo.
Another stage, xanthosis.
Iosis, the colour of kingship.
Pursuing the goal you crossed that Red Sea. Alchemy is a journey of dying and being born or reborn. In modern terms this translates into a journey from the ego-state or ‘me-state’ to the Self – the ‘I’ that I truly am, my true being and identity. The Red Sea that Derek Jarman alludes to points to the nature of the terrain that lies in between: a strange and miraculous country that is submerged in fire and water, like our bellies, where we can onlycountry that is submerged in fire and water, like our bellies, where we can only see by moonlight and the soles of our feet on the ground-
The Emerald Tablet is not an easy text, but it does prepare us for the difficulties we encounter in alchemical language, as well as being in itself a key to other writings that are far more obscure and impenetrable. To get a deeper grounding in it, we need to turn to some of the history of alchemy. This is also another way of introducing some of the more important ideas before we go into the process itself. So now, some essential history.
The roots of alchemy are complex and deep. They reach and trail down into the earth, and back in time, spanning seas and continents. The history of alchemy is in the ground, in the earth where it came from and where it still is now. It is like a Tree of Life reaching down, the way roots reach trailing for nutrients. Alchemy has always been referred to as the ‘Divine Art’ or ‘Sacred Art’, and until the fifth century AD that is what it was known as.
Again we can see here the connection between the earth and the stars that is being forged in a very physically real way, that is at the same time subtle and invisible, or ‘hidden’. It is in this understanding of matter and energy that we can begin to appreciate what alchemists mean by the earth.
‘As above, so below.’ So there was progress on both fronts. And the more that Heaven is explored, the more Earth can reveal itself – if we have an eye for it. Alchemists do, and did.
So matter here is both body and spirit — and the two blend into each other. And the Stone? These alchemists saw it as material light, or ’embodied light’, for which Christ was the prototype. Christ was the perfect man; the Stone, perfect matter, matter realized through consciousness, through which we have purification, awakening and redemption … But if all this seems too abstract, here is a poem by George Herbert, written at this time, that speaks of this purity as a prayer and a realization:
Teach me, my God and King, In all things thee to see, And what I do in anything To do it as for thee. A man that looks on glass, On it may stay his eye; Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, And then the heaven espy. All may of thee partake; Nothing shall so be mean, Which with this tincture ‘for thy sake’ Will not grow bright and clean. A servant with this clause Makes drudgery divine; Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws, Makes that and the action fine. This is the famous stone That turneth all to gold; For that which God doth touch and own Cannot for less be told.
It is as pure a statement of alchemy as we could still find — at a time when the seeds of decline had already been sown.
V.I.T.R.I.O.L.: Visita interiora terrae; rectificando invenies occultem lapidem (Visit the interior of the earth; through purification you will find the hidden stone). All inner work begins with work upon the shadow. It is the foundation of any psychological or spiritual path.
A flask in the shadow, inside the inner contours of your skin. Preparation for the process itself is about earth and fire. It concerns two aspects; the ‘first matter’ (or prima materia,) that relates to earth and the ‘first agent’ that is another name for the fire. It both cases, preparation takes us deeper into ourselves — into a depth of earth that is also the body as a container or vessel and `into the fire’, as we say, that is also the concentration of our inward self.
THE JOURNEY TO THE MINE
Preparation begins with a quest for the prima materia, literally the material which is to be transformed, and alchemists have pictured this as a journey to a mine — a place that is under the surface and is dark. This is where the first matter is to be found. What can we say about it? Prima materia lies very deep.
It is the most physical and mysterious thing there is. In itself it is deeper than concepts, words or ideas. It has been given many names (among which are ‘sea’, ‘seed of things’ and ‘basic moistness’)’ and we cannot precisely define it — but it dearly exists on two levels. At the deepest and purest level it is the original ground, the original state — a state deeper than chaos, that has been referred to as ‘the Mother of all created things’. It is in the handful of black earth that Adam was said to have brought out of Paradise.
So it is the first of all things, its substance (for alchemists) is Divine, and it is extremely fertile. Eximindus describes it as ‘a certain primary everlasting and infinite nature which cooks and rules everything’3 It has also been called radix ipsius (root of itself), dependent on nothing and no one. Like deep space, it is mirrored below, under the ground and it has also been related to silver, or the feminine, and pictured as a pure spring that is the origin of Mercurius and the mercurial energy that is vital to the process at every stage.
Yet again it is called ‘the hidden stone’ — the stone that through the process becomes the Philosopher’s Stone, transmuted and transforming.
Closer to our own frame of reference, we can call prima materia ‘the ground of the soul’. It is out of this that our individual experience of it can come at a level that is closer to the surface and to us. Prima materia in itself is passive, not active. Like a mirror, it is pure receptivity. In us, however, it is not so pure, and this is what is referred to in the journey to the mine, the journey ‘to take possession of the raw subject ‘.
The raw subject is the raw material in us, and it is this — our own hidden stone — that is the matter we need to take hold of, the ‘matter in hand’. We can think of it as the unconscious that our conscious minds need to descend to, in order to feel and experience rather than think and control. Its impurities are our ‘stuff’, as we say, the trace elements of the psyche — knots, complexes, resistances, blockages — all a result of what we have lived and suffered.
And it begins to weigh, to get heavy, we can see it is our lead, our heavy metal. As a result, it often feels depressing, both emotionally and physically. And yet we need it. And we need to find it — or perhaps let it find us. Try the following exercise. Sitting quietly again for a moment or two, just see if you can reflect on what drew you or guided you to this book Where were you at the time? What was happening to you and around you? What was your feeling in relationship to it?
See if you can reconnect to it, and follow it from your mind towards your body, closing your eyes. Follow the feeling down and see where it wants to go. See if you can trust it. Where is it taking you? Or, if you’re stuck, where does it want to take you? Remember, you can ask it. Where are you finding yourself? Look at the ground under your feet. See if you can see – or feel – where you are. What is there in front of you? Take a moment to see what it is and then see if you can take it; or some of it, into your hands.
THE PURIFCATION OF THE SUBJECT
Initiations of any kind are usually preceded by some kind of purification or cleansing and here ‘the subject’ is us: you and I. The aim is that the subject is `rid of its tattle … ‘ or dross — or, as we might say, our shit. This is not so much the stuff we work with as the stuff that gets in the way, that works against us and prevents real change. It is related to ego and to the mask we wear as well as, more practically, to a lack of strength or will and an inability to sustain concentration, so that we stay distracted on the surface of things. The entire process is demanding at any moment and it requires our strength. There is no avoiding this, as every alchemist knows. However, the more we give to it, the more it gives to us.
And, as many alchemists have stated, the process can only be accomplished with CM’s hplp and completed with Cod: in nthpr words, rhrnngh what is highpr than ourselves. So we need to offer up a prayer. As the Mappae Clavicula, a twelfth-century English text, has it:
Prayer you are to recite during the operation or the fusion that follows, in order that the gold may be formed.
This doesn’t have to be a standard prayer: it can be our own. It is the state of mind that prayer brings that is important here, as a gesture of opening — and not only in our minds but in our hearts as well.
Pause for a moment and reflect on your experience of prayer. Can you see what your prayer might be here? Can you feel where that would connect you? Where this would bring you to in yourself? Take a few minutes with this. You may also like to write down what comes to you here, whether or not your experience comes in the form of words.
The power of prayer lies in its ability to soften and attune us, so it is again related to receptivity. The second aspect of purification follows on from this and is a more active expression. It is simply commitment — commitment that follows a choice to actually do something. Obviously, here it’s not just a casual choice, like going for a drink or a walk; it is something more. It is a choice we have to make for ourselves. There is one consolation, though. The size of the choice we make always relates to the size of the purpose involved and choosing always releases energy. We choose, then the thing begins to move, quicken and flow. So commitment here is about the energy in the experience of saying YES, the energy when a path, like an avenue opens.
Alchemy reveals what is shrouded in mystery. It mirrors deep life processes, providing a symbolic language of perception for some and a vehicle through which to engage with mystery for others.
The birth of ego is at the same moment a death of being at-one with all life, the alchemical mortificatio, bringing completion to a solve et coagula alchemical process.
Life in itself is nature, and nature has no conscious history. It is con-sciousness that creates time and thereby creates history . . . the processes of nature are in an endless circle. It is only the conscious ego which makes it possible to step outside this circle and by contemplating it from outside, so to speak, recreate it anew. Such is the enormous achievement of human consciousness (Adler, 1966, p. 130).
A holistic vision of alchemy
When viewed from the deeper perspective of the archetypal layers of psyche, the apparent conflict between developmental and archetypal psychology may be perceived more holistically through the mirror of alchemy. For exampk. matura-tional processes of self-transformation, such as puberty, are archetypal unfoldings of human development initiated in us by the unconscious. They are threshold crossings evoking the ‘tremendum’ of life’s mysteries: the elemental, beautiful. terrifying. illuminating archetypal forces of the numinous. We experience them as happening to us as if we are being carried along by a strong current not under conscious control, will or desire. These threshold crossings can be conceived of alchemically as a conk:natio of Sol and Luna bringing death to an old order and binh to a new.
The ‘alchemist’ as a force of nature lies in the unconscious as the conscionsness-promoting instinct which gives birth to and supports the development of the ego. Adaptation to the external is the main task of the first half of life. The laboratory is the world stage; the alchemical operations arc catalysed by unconscious projective mechanisms and the gold aimed at is the mature, integrated ego. This is the tcrritory of developmental and humanistic psychology. The second half of life confronts us with the need to limit outer activity in favour of inner activity to discover meaning in life a most difficult challenge in our extraverted Western world. For most people, instinct as ‘alchemist’ continues its influence from the archetypal depths of the unconscious. For some, the crisis of midlife initiates a ‘second birth’ in the subtle realm of the inner world. Conscious endeavour, the logos, takes on the wolic of spiritual alchemy. It was in the context of this con-scious endeavour that alchemy had meaning for Jung and his depth psychology.
Part of the common crisis at mid-life is a discovery that ego development no longer leads to creative living. Pursuing more of the same creates an imbalance in the psyche and begins to hollow-out earlier achievements. Ego psychology is of limited value to people who have a well-established ego. If this is not understood, therapist and patient risk cultivating regressive attitudes which look back to the outer-oriented solutions of youth. This default approach unwittingly inverts the natural unfolding of psychic growth beyond the ego towards the subtle, inner mystery.
Conscious endeavour as alchemist
At mid-life, Jung took a step which didn’t make rational sense; he stopped collaborating with Freud, moved away from the dominant ‘scientific materialist’ cultural attitude and from many of his professional involvements to turn inward and engage directly with the unconscious. He was confronted with the need to subject the heroic attitude of his ego to the alchemical mortificazio process without also destroying his ego. The separations he had effected outwardly also had to be undertaken inwardly. In his Red Book, Jung records and reflects on the ‘active imagination’ encounters between his ego and personified figures of the uncon-scious from this period of his life (Jung, 2009). His pioneering act opened the way into a psychic territory beyond the ego with its linear conditions, cause/effect principles and time/space boundaries (see Chapter 9). Sometime after mid-life, the ego is called upon to sacrifice its power and position as sole authority and accept relative authority in the psyche. This turning of the tide threatens the ego with death, catalysing significant conflict between conscious and unconscious. The struggle frequently manifests in the body through illness or injury and/or in shame-generating life events. Experiences of vulnerability, limitation and defeat arise engendering humiliation or humility depending on the degree of willingness to acknowledge the greater force of the unconscious — the mystery.
Introversion, introspection, meditation and careful investigation of desires and their motives … a turning away from sensuous reality, a withdrawal of the fantasy-projections that give “the ten thousand things” their attractive and deceptive glamour … the soul “stands between good and evil”,
The self-knowledge in the albedo phase is not a knowledge of the ego in ‘the spirit of this time’, but knowledge of the self, which Jung understood as an inner image of God hidden within the body, ‘in the spirit of the depths’ (Jung, 2009, p. 229). This is the self-knowledge of the full heights and depths of our own character. Sulphuric, solar heat from the battle of opposites first forges, later refines, the place of ego within the greater psyche. The hotter the fire and the greater the pressure, the stronger the metal of consciousness and objectivity forged. Humility awakens a creative interplay between the transpersonal, objective psyche and a personal, receptive ego. With this ego refinement, life unfolds increasingly through synchronicity, a factor existing outside the ego’s realm.
Jung opens his magnum opus, ‘ Mysterium Coniunctionis’ with the words, ‘The factors which come together in the coniunctio are conceived as opposites, either confronting one another in enmity or attracting one another in love’ (CW 14, para. 1).
The truth of this statement becomes manifestly visible in the events of the News of the World’s demise and the Royal Wedding referred to earlier. This mag-nification of archetypal, psychological dynamics in world events helps us to glimpse more clearly invisible dimensions of these same psychic processes as they unfold on the subtle planes of our own inner world. The ego is forged from the primal sea by the ‘alchemist’ as a consciousness-creating instinct in the uncon-scious.
When the time is ripe, the psyche activates an opportunity to embark on a journey of re-uniting through conscious endeavour, logos, those factors previously separated. The self-serving ego is subjected, again and again, to a process of being re-forged in fire, washed by tears and divine grace, and dried in airy self-reflection until it serves something greater than itself. The albedo process, or lesser coniunctio, re-unites soul and spirit.
The rubedo process of the greater coniunctio integrates mystical dimensions of soul and spirit with the body and its physical life in the world. Dedication, self-discipline and humility many head and heart, generating wisdom and deeply human relatedness towards all life. Alchemical symbols and processes weave together the threads of developmental and archetypal psychologies — just as the fabric of life is woven — through Mystery.