Class Notes – Session Three

In the opening of session three of the Jung Platform’s course on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, Pat Berry and Robert Bosnak offered some thoughts on the class as they envision it. Robert spoke for the need of slowness in entering into the material. Pat said that not seeing the audience was difficult for her and as a participant in my first online class, I too, feel this absence. How much will the lack of visual and tactile otherness affect the creation of an alchemical vessel out of the group remains to be seen.

Reading from chapter two, Rudiments, Robert reminds us that alchemy is a work of the hands – that which touches, including the work of handling words as poesis, or actions. Alchemy is a doing but also, as Pat added, a making – which inspired me to consider the ways that alchemical work involves both touching and being touched, doing and making.

In working with the substances of soul, we give weight to what is carried within, as well as to what and who touches us in our daily lives. Perhaps this is what makes up the “prima materia.” Attending to touch, both the material stuff of our daily grind and to the matters of heart and soul, creates a place in our lives where thoughts, ideas, dreams and feelings matter and have weight. Putting into words what touches us, through practice, we come to see how word choices, especially how we put our experience and feelings into words, creates our reality, becoming a poesis.

The talk moved on to Hillman’s idea that desire by itself is not enough, but that tending to desire by staying in the longing becomes a way to keep the fire, the passion going and in so doing, teaches us the art of tending the fire so necessary for the work of making something out of our desires. To Hillman desire was something to work with, to make Holy, through attention and discipline, rather than to be rid of. Desire though needs refinement away from innocence and ignorance of its potential to harm in order to serve the work. Hillman speaks of tending the fire as an art itself:

“For desire to be consummated, for the opus to come to fruition – in art, in love, in practice of any sort – learn all you can about its fire: its radiance, its flickering instability, its warmth, and its rage.

The art of the fire and the key to alchemy means learning how to warm, excite, enthuse, ignite, inspire the material at hand, which is also the state of one’s nature so as to activate it further into a different state.”

The “material at hand” again, is us and what we bring into the work, what we are currently carrying. This can mean both physical and psychic burdens, anything that matters to us. My take on alchemical psychology is that in setting out to do this work, we either embark on it because of some need – a wound that will not heal, an anxiety or perhaps sleeplessness, an inability to relate to others, or even unknowingly falling into the work intrigued by interest, without the awareness that our better angel knows we need to do this work. We are duped and before we know it, have fallen into an unexpected place of darkness and confusion, and the work no longer just a curiosity, begins in earnest.

In a gathering such as this online class, each of us must find his own way, tending our own fire and immersing ourselves in the work, if we wish to understand what alchemical psychology offers us. Can the gathering of the group guide an alchemical process? I would like to think that it can, but am not sure yet what we, as a group, are doing. But, that does not mean nothing is happening. Hillman speaks of the first stage of the work as that of a slow, brooding, in which the heat, the passions are yet to be felt or perceived. As the work proceeds, the heat increases from this slowness.

File:The Brooding Woman, 1891, by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) - IMG 7191.JPG” ‘The first grade is very slow, and it is like an inactive lukewarmness; it is called the heat of a tepid bath, of excrement, of digestion, of circulation … likened to the warmth generated by a fowl when hatching its young.’ Evidently this fire is generated by brooding, digesting and holding within the lower body, its fermenting bowels and silent womb. Attitudes are lukewarm, diffident. Slowness and the restraint of activity all by themselves are able to develop heat.”

Brooding  relates to that which supplies heat for creation:

brood (n.) Look up brood at Dictionary.comOld English brod “brood, fetus, hatchling,” from Proto-Germanic *brod (cf. Middle Dutch broet, Old High German bruot, German Brut “brood”), literally “that which is hatched by heat,” from *bro- “to warm, heat,” from PIE *bhre- “burn, heat, incubate,” from root *bhreue- “to boil, bubble, effervesce, burn” (see brew (v.)).

But also can relate to weather that is stirring or a mood in which we are fixed in:

brooding (n.) Look up brooding at“action of incubating,” c.1400, verbal noun from brood (v.). Figuratively (of weather, etc.) from 1805; of mental fixations by 1873. Related: Broodingly.

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

16 thoughts on “Class Notes – Session Three

  1. Pingback: Class Notes – Session Four | The Ptero Card

  2. Sometimes I see the spiritual path as the stripping of all I am – and I love to be reminded in such a beautiful way of the tending of desire that can lead away from ignorance to allow me to be of service to the work as it unfurls – and then the purpose of the desire seems a blossoming of selfness not selfless. Thank you, Debra for sharing your work. I will be interested to see how the virtual nature of the classroom develops – as I teach on line and struggle to create a real connecting in that space. xo! marga


    1. Hi Marga,

      Stripping away, that’s similar to the separating and coagulating of alchemy perhaps.

      Teaching online? Yes, I would love to hear more of your take on that experience. As a student, it is certainly an adjustment from school as I remember it, back in the dark ages of course 🙂



  3. I found this statement interesting: “To Hillman desire was something to work with, to make Holy, through attention and discipline, rather than to be rid of.” It rang true for me, this idea that desire is what propels us along, kind of like an all roads lead to Rome kind of thing. We need this desire almost like a propellant in any spiritual or transformational practice, to move us along. But you also note that Hillman cautions about desire in the hands of one who is ignorant to its potential to harm. How does one hone their desire into it’s holiest form? And once one does so, in the ultimate, does that very act of honing almost give way to a state that is beyond desire? And is that the alchemy discussed?

    Just thinking out loud… It strikes me that the thing about so much of this is that we can’t see what lies ahead before we start. We have to step into the forest, into the darkness, into the unknown, without really understanding where the trail will lead, and this desire you describe is what keeps our feet moving, keeps us walking, until one day we reach the beautiful clearing. Something is illumined, or transformed, or made whole, or revealed. Then… has the purpose of desire been served?



    1. Hi Michael,

      Your alchemical instincts are excellent, way better than mine!

      Desire is likened to the fire that is used to cook the elements. So, tending the fire requires learning the skill of paying attention, lest we get too much heat, or not enough and the fire goes out.

      The fire is our passion, so necessary for living the unique life that we are all given.

      What’s for dinner? We are. We’re cooking to turn lead into gold, to transform a base metal into something lasting and beautiful.

      Honing desire is hard work, not just because of the discipline required, but because only we can find what is unique in us that is meaningful enough for us to be willing to endure whatever it takes to stay the course.

      It could be a skill, such as music, art, writing, but it’s whatever we discover when we’re taking that long walk in the dark woods. That is the Nigredo, the first stage when, willingly or not, we find ourselves pulled out of the normal course of our lives. There are so many different ways this can be applied, and it will be unique to each of us.

      The darkness, the aloneness, is necessary so we can learn to see in the dark and see anew. Alchemy is a way to renew oneself to live a truer, more authentic life.

      Each stage builds on the previous stage and many of us are alchemists without ever knowing it. But using the alchemical stages as a metaphor gives us a map of the terrain many of us are already on, especially those of us who know that there is meaning and purpose in life for all of us.

      Hillman writes of alchemy’s usefulness for us moderns because it is so foreign to us. We’re not familiar with alchemy which forces us to not take the terms literally.

      For Hillman, the ability to expand and amplify meanings from singleness to multiple layers requires that we see through language and in so doing revision how we see the world and our lives.

      To see through language frees us from the curse of literalism, breaking the spell that life has over us, especially the spells of the culture, which for Hillman were: myths of the family and bonds to the past; the ideas we have of ourselves that say we are the way we are either because of what happened in our past, or because of genetics.

      Those ideas reduce us to a limited view of ourselves and others and keep us stuck fighting the ghosts that haunt us.

      I would say that the purpose of desire is to understand its nature firsthand and for it to be directed, ultimately in service to the world and others. I read Hillman to be saying that if we honor what he refers to as the daimon, or what used to be called one’s genuis, our angelic twin, our desire will then lead us to discover our true calling, which will, when we are able to respond more truly to the call, lead us out of ourselves and into the world.



      1. Thanks, Debra, for a thorough, and thoroughly enjoyable, reply. It strikes me that desire might start out looking like one thing, and then lead to something altogether different. Desire would still feel like desire, but the object of desire may evolve. Is this part of it, too? It seems that as one thing leads to another, as the alchemical process continues and the idols we seek transform one into the next, we ultimately approach this true calling, this thing we desired all along but perhaps didn’t even know it.

        I really like the line near the end of your note about this process leading us out of ourselves and into the world. Instead of our being withdrawn and absent from the world, we are engaged and authentically present. In the process somehow, it seems like the world becomes something different, too, no? Like, in the beginning we have views of self and world that are both somehow living in cages, and when we step authentically into the world we find it was not the world we were “hiding” from at all…

        I love finding all these different modalities that lead to the same inner knowing-feeling-living space.



      2. “It seems that as one thing leads to another, as the alchemical process continues and the idols we seek transform one into the next, we ultimately approach this true calling, this thing we desired all along but perhaps didn’t even know it.”

        Yes Michael. Nicely said and reminds us that desire, even nameless and formless desire precedes the love and joy that is found through the discipline and formation of desire into a practice that ultimately bears fruit and on multiple levels that include in varying degrees a gift of ourselves to others.

        Yes, out of cages and into the world, or literally, out of the womb and into the world in which we, as if twice born, are birthed again and become vehicles of creation.

        I agree, there are so many paths, languages and ways to understand and express our shared, yet authentically our own, experience.



  4. I enjoyed this post Debra through an astrological lens. I see myself and other Scorpio types as full time brooders, While examining the definitions you provide, I wonder how the fiery nature of heat affects my interpretation. Perhaps it is about Mars, the classic fiery Ruler of Scorpio. I always associated brooding with the water element.

    thank you for giving me something new to ” chew on”

    Perhaps one day you will be the teacher 🙂

    xx Linda


  5. I love this juxtaposition of “doing” and “making”. I guess I am more into doing and seeing what I make. I feel you are “brooding” a bit over this class, not sure you can profit from it. Perhaps you are such an excellent reader of Hillman yourself that you do not need any instruction.


    1. Yes, brooding a bit about the class.

      I do agree that I am a good reader of Hillman, but I also know that there is always more alchemy going on. I want to stay open to what is being said because I don’t want to be closed to that possibility.

      Perhaps I may profit by coming to understand what some others in the class are getting from it. There is a forum where participants can discuss the class, but so far, there has only been a few posts 😦

      That is why I am trying to see the brooding as an important part of participating 🙂

      I am trying to approach the class as a participant and am practicing listening more deeply to Pat and Robert. We receive a recording of the session which has helped me to reconsider the presentation.

      It’s great that Hillman’s ideas are being presented, but it will be interesting to see where the class takes us!

      Thanks for your thoughts Monika, as always I value your insights.


    2. Debra,
      Thanks for the writing. I am thinking Monika is onto something about you understanding it better than others.
      I am also grateful for learning more and more of the “brooding,” aspect of this process.
      Thanks as always. As you know not much excites me today. Seeing your post did!


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