In the seventh session of the Jung Platform’s class on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, the discussion moves to the nature of the material, the vessel used for containment and the necessity of the “separatio,” of essence from the material. In psychological work this distinction is at the heart of the work, whether in a therapeutic setting or in one’s everyday life. Distinguishing between what can and can’t be changed is a life-long practice.
Our hosts, Pat Berry and Robert Bosnak began with a discussion on the nature of the material and resistance to the work.
“Resistance of any thing is given with its essential nature…Resistance in the work and to the work is not personal but ontological. Being does not move, said Parmenides, to which Heraclitus replied, all things move. Two differing ontologies. Ontological ambivalence.” James Hillman
As Robbie says, the material seeks its essence although resists separation, but at the same time wants to be changed from its present habitual state to its essence.
“The natural body of the metal may become a liquid, a powder, a vapor; it can combine, shift colors, submit to the effects of other substances. The subtle body, however, persists in its own self-same unalterability.” James Hillman
Is it habit then that corrupts essence hidden by habits used for adapting to our situation? Wanting to change therefore carries with it an ambivalence to actually changing. Habit can encrust the material keeping essence hidden.
Accidents, illness, both physical and mental can be the catalyst for change, the thing that causes a fracture in routine, therefore forcing us out of our habit.
“Nature desires to come out and first comes out as a symptom,” says Robbie.
Pat reminds us that the symptoms guide the process. If one is perhaps too soft, too gentle, a cruelty may be necessary to move resistance, that force of habit which perpetuates vulnerability. Each person and situation presents unique material with its own illness or symptom offering the opportunity to break a habit which hides a valuable essence.
“Yet the innate urge toward perfectibility welcomes the fire. Hence, they rejoice also in their submission, allowing themselves to be smelted, hammered, and extracted from their home ground.” James Hillman
Robbie and Pat discussed the need too for a masochism that submits to the “work” in therapy and also how unpopular the language of masochism and sadism has become. Submission breaks down resistance:
“It takes heat to subdue the innate resistance of a substance, a heat gentle enough to melt the stubborn and fierce enough to prevent regression to the original state (emphasis added). Only when the regression to the original “found” condition – the substance in its symptomatic presentation – is no longer possible, only when it has been thoroughly cooked and has truly separated itself from its historical and habitual mode of being can an alteration be said to have been accomplished. Then the substance, which psychology might call a complex, becomes less autonomous and more malleable and fusible, having lost its independence as an intractable object that objects and resists.” James Hillman
Submission is that state of malleability in which change can occur; submission is itself the change and the agent of change.
The material desires sophistication through separation, differentiation and disidentification. Not distinguishing between what is essence and what is encrusted habit filters our perceptions, keeping us stuck – seeing and defining ourselves, others and all we encounter, because we’re not able to look, listen, hear and see each instance anew. Through the force of habit we are restricted by past perceptions without being aware of them, for we do not often think about our thinking.
This rings true for me as I am sure it does for many others. If we’ve ever seen the world anew, the experience and taste of renewal introduces to us the possibility that there is a way out of our encrusted stuckness. But before we leave behind the force of habit we are likely to encounter resistance. It can be hard to distinguish between essence and habit. The fear of losing one’s own essence might become the resistance to letting go of habit.
I often wonder in my own moments of stubbornness, can I let go of the wound? I think the cultural climate too, has left an era where woundedness, not often acknowledged, has led to one in which our wounds are bought and sold as commodities. To stay wounded, seeking revenge on the perpetrators of crimes committed against us benefits politicians and pharmaceutical companies but does not promote the idea that healing is possible.
Robbie uses the example of the fear of dogs that might originate from a bad childhood experience tainting all future experiences with dogs. The subtle body, or essence of dogness is lost then, through the habit of fear.
“Do not act out; do not hold in. A paradox. And a double negative that suggests a via negativa, a de-literalizing cancellation of both commandments. A mercurial escape from the exhausting oscillation between them. Instead of holding in or acting out, act in.” James Hillman
What we act in then is the vessel. Vessels both contain and separate. The vessel is both what holds us and the material forming and shaping, storing and styling events and experiences:
“Vessels: methods of containment. Can you take the heat? Are you opaque and dense, slow to warm so no one can tell what is going on inside? Sometimes it is less an issue what is in the vessel, the nature of the stuff being contained, and more one of shape: leaky, fragile, brittle, solid, full to overflowing, empty, cracked … “I’m doing fine, in great shape.” James Hillman
The vessel then tells a lot about the material:
“Vessels present the style of a culture. One image tells a story: a chipped, dirty toothbrush glass for whiskey in a cheap bed-sitter by Graham Green; pop-up beer cans, Styrofoam cups, jokey ungainly coffee mugs, motel wastebaskets with plastic liners. The bruhaha over wine-glass shapes, stems, thinness … By their vessels ye shall know them.” James Hillman
Shaping and forming what it contains – so by “not acting out,” is to value containment. To “not hold in” uses the vessel to release what is contained.
Robbie and Pat then discussed the difference between “acting out” vs. to “acting in.” I found their distinctions useful. To act out is perhaps what comes from habit, a defense against a more fresh, spontaneously creative way to respond. To act in then is to bring to each moment an awareness of both the act, the actors and the story in which we are a part of. Not so much to separate ourselves from our actions, as if we could act objectively, but to see our actions as taking part in the play or myth of each situation. I suppose the difference lies in a flexibility to imagine more fully what it is that is going on.
Hillman cautions us on too much identification with the vessel or locating it within us as all things have their interiority. Contained things are separated things, necessary for differentiating one thing from another, you from the not-you. It is the separation which allows us to discern whether our fear of the dog is based on historical and personal habit, or on our animal sense of the particular nature of the dog coming toward us at this moment.
“You are not the vessel, nor is it necessary to believe that “within” is within you – your personal relationships, your psychic processes, your dreams. Interiority is within all things – the garden bed that is in preparation, the poem that is the focus of attentive emotions. Keep a close watch on these interiorities; by watching we are vesseling, for it is the glass vessel that allows the watching, and watching provides the very separation and containment expressed concretely by the glass vessel.” James Hillman
Glass was a preferred material for containment to the alchemists as well as to future chemists. It’s parallels to the psyche are obvious. Session Eight deals more with the nature of glass vessels so I will stop here with one last quote from Hillman.
“Glass: like air, like water, made of earth, made in fire. Blown glass melts, liquefies, glows, expands, takes on all sorts of shape, size, thickness, brilliance, and color. It can take the heat. Glass lets us see what is going on within it, behind it. Glass, the vessel of inside revelation, capturing and transmuting the glimpse or glance into studied observation.
Glass, like psyche, is the medium by which we see into, see through. Glass: the physical embodiment of insight. The illusion of glass makes content and container seem to be the same, and because we see the content before we recognize that it is held by glass, we do not at first see its shape, its density, its flaws since our focus is fixed on the contents.” James Hillman
Quotes taken from: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.