In session four of the Jung Platform’s class on James Hillman’s Alchemical Psychology, Pat and Robbie continue the conversation on the nature of the heat and fire in alchemy which can be broken down into four distinct stages. Each stage builds on the previous, increasing both the heat and the ability to withstand the depth and passion that the increase brings. The stages of heat may repeat while we come to understand the nature of both the fire and the substance of the work.
Robbie reminds us that “we are the fantasy by which we do the work.” How we imagine the work, or psychologically, how we pathologize ourselves, others and the world, is the matter of the work. Desire, so necessary for inspiring us to do alchemical work is not enough. We want the work to matter, to see something happen, to find value, but as we start the work, there is only the stone, or what is heavy, dark, cold and seemingly dead. We are both the stone and the fantasy of the stone.
Pat reminds us of the story of Mithras, a Persian god with many mythic parallels to Christianity, and in some versions, born from a rock. Mithraic mysteries themselves include some alchemical elements and were practiced as rites of initiation well into the Christian era, which included seven degrees of initiation as listed by St. Jerome, each corresponding to one of the seven planets.
In the first stage, as discussed in Session Three, the images are of brooding, slowness, restraint, rumination, all of which allow the material to ferment, deepening us into the work by isolating us into a place where we can accumulate the material. The containment of isolation warms the stone and heat begins to build.
“Evidently this fire is generated by brooding, digesting and holding within the lower body, its fermenting bowels and silent womb.”
As the heat builds the second stage is entered as ashes begin to form. Ashes, warm to the touch are what’s left from the initial gathering of heat. It’s not enough heat to change the stone, no birthing here, but as Hillman says, here begins the “roasting of our own base nature.” Ashes, cool enough to touch, allow us to sift through them, mixing memory and desire increasing the intensity; the heat of our passions rising as we recall a past we cannot change or a are stuck by habit and repetition through the inability to change.
“…the fierce heat of fine ashes, unstirred by the breezes of fantasy. Why fierce? Because ash is the ultimate reduction, the bare soul, the last truth, all else dissolved.”
Sifting through the ashes can also purposely reduce the heat when there is too much. Robbie spoke of using ashes as a way to get distance from a present heartache so as not to destroy the work because we’re too heated. In therapy he might move a patient away from a present intense feeling back to a time in the past in which something similar happened.
Again, alchemy is a practice and discipline of cooking the elements, the matter and stuff of our lives, bringing our cold, hard, stoney nature alive for the sake of psyche, soul-making and the Anima Mundi or world soul. Rather than trying to forsake the horror and tumult of all that has gone before we are using the substance of ourselves, mining for gold in our own pathology, and as Hillman says, by “cooking in our own blood.” I am reminded here of the nursery rhyme that says, “ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
The third stage is one in which the heat is now too hot for touching, “out of your hands,” Hillman says.
“If the first stage was held in the body and the second in memory, this is the heat of desperate determination, an isolating anger that drives the work ever more hotly.”
Pat and Robbie, whom both had close relationships to Hillman, talked a bit about his heated nature, which for some was too much. With both his natal sun, moon and mercury in Aries, Hillman was perhaps, more comfortable with Martian heat, anger and passion. Pat recalls him referring to it as “a tame beast” useful as a tool.
For some, turning up the heat is very uncomfortable and in the public square of work, school and play is very much feared and discouraged. I had a romantic relationship with a man years ago that was both painful and transformative. This man was an expert at arguing and we often engaged in heated discussions that helped me in freeing my own voice, tapping into the deep well of intuition, knowledge and life experience. I needed that fiery relationship even though there were many destructive elements that ultimately led to its demise.
In the fourth and hottest stage of the heat, we reach an intensity that carries with it a potential for destruction, or too much detachment, but also a drying of the excessive moisture of the soul. It is the moistness of the soul that keeps us too attached to our own wounds, too emotional; unable to gain the distance needed for objective insight. The wet soul is still innocent, “soaked in its own feeling and subjectivity,” where suffering is inauthentic, a foamy comfort in which we drown in emotion. The work is not a way to avoid emotions and suffering, but to let wounds and failures inform us, becoming a Master of Arts, authenticating us as elders of family and tribe.
“Besides the obvious association of iron and flame with the smith and the forge, there is a warrior-of-the-spirit implication in the third and fourth degrees. The desert saint, ascetics; “it is death to soul to become moist,” said Heraclitus, for whom Fire was the primal principle. All the soul’s stickiness is up in flames, vanished into thin air, and the smoky, oily, smelly worldliness of sulfuric desires have been purified.”
Calcination, a quality of high heat brings the “reduction of confusion to an essence…a fine powder…the essential realization.”
“Moments in memory or a weave of sensations (odors, tastes) debrided of personal associations, leaving but a calx, an objective correlative of the overdetermined issue. No long-winded account of circumstances, only the hot core. No causality. No context or conditions. The truth of what is because of only what is – unalloyed. Utter reduction through heat. “Your material can be cooked only in its own blood,” say the texts.”
In reduction down to essence, we can now see without emotion, not the why or how of the matter, but what. It may be that an inability to look deeply comes when we slip away from the “what” of the matter to probe causation.
It may be the time to recall that Hillman sees the potential in alchemical work for looking beyond psychological work that focuses strictly on ourselves, but rather, one that moves outward into a world sensed as alive, animated, ensouled, and where we might find our life’s work, however that gets defined. But the work aimed outward does in turn work on us, just as the cook, along with the ingredients, is transformed through the art of cooking.
All quotes from Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.