Becoming the Vessel

In reviewing last week’s session of the Jung Platform’s class on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, I want to reflect more on the place and nature of the vessel in the work. Hillman says:

“You are the laboratory; you are the vessel and the stuff going through the cooking.  So, too, the fire is an invisible heat, a psychic heat that clamors for fuel, breathing room, and regular loving consideration. How to build the heat that can dry up the soggy, soggy dew, melt the leaden oppressions, and distill a few precious drops of intoxicating clarity?”

The wrestle of Jacob - Gustave DoreSuffering can frequently be a catalyst to move us into the deeper uncharted waters in which we can, by necessity, dispose ourselves to the alchemical work. Drifting aimlessly, we’re sometimes not even sure if we are still afloat. Sometimes though we can transform our suffering, by making ourselves available to experience that dark night in which we can’t know yet where we’re going.

We must now, at least for a little while, feel the acute aloneness that comes when the world no longer makes any sense.

But until we can acknowledge the darkness around us, that the cold aloneness like an endless deep-sea has cut us off from others, with a growing fear that we may not make it back to shore, we may never need to confront the angel who waits for us to say yes to the invitation to enter into a unique cosmic wrestling match.

“In Greece, in the Asklepian temples where “patients” went to find healing by dreaming, they incubated for a period of time devoting themselves to focused brooding and right procedures in order to be blessed by a beneficent dream. In the Bible, Jonah, abandoned by his shipmates, had to remain for a time in the belly of a great whale sunk in the depths of the sea. In that darkness he generated heat, lost his hair. Solitary confinement; utter internality. This is the Nekyia, the night sea journey through the underworld made also by Odysseus, Aeneas, and Hercules, and by Eurydice, Inanna, Persephone, Psyche, by Orpheus, by Christ.”

Neither a journey for journey’s sake or to get to some place of our choosing, nor a way to fix ourselves or the world, it is perhaps a journey of necessity because reaching the edge of the sea with still no land in sight, tired, lonely and hungry, this is where you now find yourself.

“Whether this underworld is frigid and ghastly or burning with the hots of hell, it is a realm characterized by temperatures suitable only for demons, ghosts, heroes and heroines, goddesses and shades who are no longer altogether of the upper world.”

While it may be that “not all who wander are lost,” some of us will very much find ourselves leaving the upper world, without a map, a compass, or even a boat. Even our friends and family become strange to us, all is dark and everything we once thought we knew ceases to make any sense and no longer interests us. None of the old ways work anymore.

“Outsiders. Marginals. Alchemy is a profession of marginals; those at the edge. Those who live from their own fires, sweating it out, self-sustaining their own temperatures which may be at variance with the collective climate.”

In our modern world, the difficulty of the alchemical work, the profession of marginals, lies in our need and willingness to be alone, suffering until we can make our own compass, one which will chart a course of our own making. We moderns are soft, accustomed to traveling together, looking to experts to remind us to wear a seatbelt or a helmet, avoiding harm at all cost. There is much shame around getting hurt, we are to be held accountable. No longer optional, we must fill out the accident report, insurance claim, pay our liability insurance, all the while hoping to mitigate the harm done with “no-fault” policies.

Old Woman stretching out her hands to the fire - Pablo PicassoSo, how do we accept being in the margins, enough to let go of our need to be “on top of it” and in control. What will happen in accepting the invitation to wrestle the angel?

When you find yourself already at the edges, in the margins, and you know that you’ve already come too far and there is no turning back, that is when you might finally see that you have become the vessel and that you are also the substance.

In the vessel and substance that we have now become, we can prepare to do the great work. In alchemy there is first off the matter of the heat, and as the scintilla, or spark of our suffering has just lit the fire, we’ll need to turn our attention to its properties.

“If alchemy is the art of fire, and alchemists, “artists of fire,” as many texts repeat, then the alchemist must be able to “know” all the kinds of fire, degrees of fire, sources of fire, fuels of fire. And, the alchemist must be able to fight fire with fire, using his own fire to operate upon the fires with which he is operating. Working the fire by means of fire. Nature works on nature. Alchemy, an art of nature, a natural art that raises the temperatures of nature.”

All quotes from Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

22 thoughts on “Becoming the Vessel

  1. Hi Debra, This is a wonderful post – have just been getting caught up on all your posts on Alchemical Psychology which are all very good! I have been absent from the blogging world for a while, but thank you for visiting my blog. We do indeed seem to be on parallel paths. In fact, one of the reasons for my absence is that I have been immersed in the study of Alchemical Psychology – I think it is one of the most important contributions to soul work out there. When I can figure out the techno part of creating links, I will link to your site! (I am still a relative newly to all this!)


  2. Hey my friend, it’s great to be back at wordpress and reading your blog, excellent post!! I do think Alchemy has an esoteric level of understanding that is completely fascinating but misunderstood.


    1. Hi Hipmonkey!

      Yes, I stumbled onto your blog and am very happy to see you back here.

      I have been reading/writing a lot about alchemy lately, as you might have noticed 🙂

      I am taking an online class on Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, so it’s occupying a lot of mental space.

      Love your new blog and am looking forward to reading your posts again.


  3. Dr. Jung concludes the “Liber Secundus” portion of The Red Book with the following words:

    “An opus is needed, that one can squander decades on, and do it out of necessity I must catch up with a piece of the Middle Ages-within myself We have only finished the Middle Ages of-others. I must begin early, in that period when the hermits died out. Asceticism, inquisition, torture are close at hand and impose themselves. The barbarian requires barbaric means of education. My I, you are a barbarian. I want to live with you, therefore I will carry you through an utterly medieval Hell, until
    you are capable of making living with you bearable. You should be the vessel and womb of life, therefore I shall purify you.

    The touchstone is being alone with oneself.


    1. Hi Lewis,

      Thank you very much for the Jung quote.

      “My I, you are a barbarian. I want to live with you, therefore I will carry you through an utterly medieval Hell, until you are capable of making living with you bearable.”

      I so love the Red Book for the direct experience that he wrote about. Language that comes directly from the experiences he had engaging the characters he met in his aloneness.

      Yes, this can only happen when we are able to give ourselves to being deeply alone, or as Corbin says, Alone with the Alone.



  4. Pingback: Becoming the Vessel | The Ptero Card | Reason & Existenz

  5. Your summaries are indeed wonderful. I’m learning… Is the psychic heat you describe the same or different than the heat that was driving Jack Nicholson absolutely @#$%ing crazy in a Few Good Men? 🙂

    Don’t answer that.

    This line resonated tonight: “There is much shame around getting hurt, we are to be held accountable.” It is so hard, I think, in our modern world to let ourselves reach the point of no return. To give up the myth, if you will, of being able to make our own way. That’s failure- inability to make one’s own way. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the “self-sustaining marginals” appear to the world to be anything but… There are so many more rational and upstanding things one could have done along the way, instead of, you know… breaking down and getting lost in the type of transformative self-intimacy that eats souls whole.

    I mean… we could have tried playing cards or something, at least…



    1. “I mean… we could have tried playing cards or something, at least…”

      Lol, the lament of many of my non-marginal friends.

      I suppose like many of us here, many of my friends don’t really see the side of me that shows up here. 🙂



  6. Yes, alchemy the profession of marginals – a beautiful expression for this process.

    “… the difficulty of the alchemical work, the profession of marginals, lies in our need and willingness to be alone, suffering until we can make our own compass, one which will chart a course of our own making”.—

    what a compass-setting remark! Thank you, Debra. The secret fire takes many forms – creative work, visualising, the breath, life itself – Alchemy is the western raja-yoga. And the old alchemists say the secret fire should be warm, like a hen’s breast to her egg.


    1. Thank you so much for your kind words Monika! I am so happy to know that you enjoy these posts. Sometimes I fear I am repeating myself…:)

      Retrograde Mercury, is that perhaps one of those initiators of trouble (but potentially the right kind of trouble) perhaps?

      I defer to your expertise on the astrological weather.



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