Class Notes – Session 9

Class nine of the Jung Platform’s course on James Hillman’s book Alchemical Psychology, presented by Robert Bosnak and Patricia Berry, technically ends this first season of classes, which took us through the first chapter, Rudiments. Class Ten, notes to follow soon, begins the next chapter, The Suffering of Salt.

Robbie likens the work of alchemy to a downward spiral, deepening the material by slowing down the work, and by the embodiment of the images. Having recently read Robbie’s book, Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel, I have much appreciation for his emphasis on embodiment, a work that grounds images and ideas into lived and felt subjective experiences.

The Alchemist, by Carl Spitzweg

Psychological Faith

Robbie and Pat start the session briefly discussing Hillman’s idea of psychological faith:

“The Pelican: vessel of psychological faith, a phrase used by a keen student of alchemy, Robert Grinnell, for an attitude or a devotion that calls for nothing less than giving in, giving over to the opus all personal demands one has upon it, for its sake, come what may.”

Using the example of his work at the Healing Sanctuary in Santa Barbara, Robbie argues that we do bring our expectations to the work, thereby challenging the notion that we “give over to the opus all personal demands.” I’d say, that in many ways, we do need to abandon an expectation of outcomes, or goals, or at least our ideas about how to get there and what the goals look like.

“General terms, simplistic diagnostics – abandonment, need, identity crisis, low self-esteem, depressive mood, dependency, masochistic helplessness – cannot adequately describe, let alone understand, the force of the void.

Because our collective Western natures abhor a vacuum, we reach out to fill the emptiness with anything, everything from junk food to junk self-help, from drink and shopping and the novelty of games and gadgets to the commiseration of soul-mates, or simply endless tears. Alchemy, however, suggests these feelings of emptiness are indications of a vessel forming (emphasis added). The void is building a shape, a particular shape. Perhaps several vessels. Modes of containing. Modes of measuring. Modes of differentiating. The reality of the psyche is forcing its way into life and reshaping one’s life by means of the feelings of emptiness.”

Pat reminds us too, that the void can be bigger than, and also exterior to us, specifically referring to the void in the earth described in Genesis. The void in this sense is necessary for creating, containing and birthing. Pat sees the void as a natural part of our experience, and our refusal of it leads to frenzied actions to fill the void. The emptiness often manifests as anxiety, and may not be recognized as a pregnant pause coming over us while something is being formed. Robbie quotes Hillman, who referred to it as, “lying fallow.”

The particularity and nature of the void, or emptiness, shapes what becomes manifest:

File:Antoine Berjon - Still-Life with a Basket of Flowers - WGA01953.jpg
Still-Life with a Basket of Flowers

“The master painters in Holland and in nineteenth-century France showed the poppies and irises and roses, the pears and apples and grapes emerging from the hollowness of their containers, the void as source of beauty. If you examine the vases holding the flowers, the baskets and plates on which the fruit lies, these vessels are each manifestations of particularized shapes, colors and textures, and they are inherent to what they display. “If God had not given us a vessel / His other gifts would have been of no avail.” “

Ovens and Stoves
The Jewish alchemists believe the origen of alchemy comes from the angel’s desire and passion for women:
“Angels were taken by passion for women. They descended to earth and taught them all operations of nature … They were the ones who composed chemical works … Their book is called Khema and it is from them that chemistry [kumia] received its name. ”
Desire, Hillman says, is akin to fiery heat, as if from the stars, but to be useful requires containment:
“The essence of fire is out of our control. It comes from the celestial region, from angels, from the gods and the earth’s burning bowels. Hence the shamanistic aspect of the smith as fire master, and the crime of Prometheus’s humanism.”
File:Alchemical Laboratory - Project Gutenberg eText 14218.jpg
Un laboratorio alquímico

The furnace then, is responsible for shaping and forming the material. The construct of a stove is intentional, a conceptual system designed for a specific function or operation.

“Furnus: a logic of strong, well-built, carefully joined, enduring system. Ground rules, bricks and mortar of the trade, iron-clad discipline of the church or school or society which keeps the living spirit in focus, concentrated, and able to withstand the blaze of inspiration, the flashes and sparks of passion that would ignite grass fires and scatter the intensity.”

Here is where we find purpose, intention and attention necessary for the work. Discipline and knowledge of the materials is needed for specific operations, or kinds of cooking. Hillman refers to the stove itself as the discipline of multiplicity. Cooking requires an ability to know the qualities of materials and processes. Different processes yield different results: evaporation for condensing, distillation for clarity, sublimation for raising the material out of the sediment, coagulation and cooling to solidify a substance into a definite shape.

Robbie says the work of imagination requires the discipline to slow down any work on a dream image. Only then can it be embodied by the dreamer. Sticking to the image helps our waking self to subjectively experience dream images, so they can then speak to us, and through us, rather than be subjects of our interpreting or imposing a system on them.

As the saying goes though, “we’re playing with fire,” and we’re warned against letting the fire go unattended, therefore raging out of control. The furnace, Robbie reminds us, is focus (latin for hearth), intensifying the heat while containing it, by “holding the focus,” or “sticking to the image.” In alchemical psychology, the furnace is built through the work, by the practice in which we focus more and more intently on particular qualities of images and feeling. Psychologically this means moving away from generalizations of feelings, seeing precise images for the experience of our feelings. Here is where the rawness of the material is then cooked and consumed, allowing the digestion of events that previously could not be incorporated.

The Spirit of the Fire

Understanding and respecting fire’s spirit is essential to alchemical work. Hillman breaks this down to five ideas of fire:

Brian W. Schaller – Own work

“Any worker in fire can easily perceive fire’s primary characteristics. It rises. Its heat overpowers and changes materials. It gives off light. It cannot be touched directly. It cannot be satiated. Ascension, transmutation, enlightenment, intangibility, insatiability: these five ideas empirically witnessed in the laboratory affect the formulations of alchemical texts and later commentators on these texts. In brief, fire gives alchemy its spiritual readings.”

Ascension: fire and heat have a rising nature, from low to high. The images are that of perfecting, progressing, purification.

Transmutation: fire has the power to transform all that it touches, from soft liquids to the hardest metals, such as iron.

Enlightenment: fire lights up our world while darkening that which is not in its reach. The more light, the more darkness, a source of opposition.

Intangibility: fire is untouchable, intangible, grasped only indirectly through symbol, allegory, paradox and hints.

Insatiability: fire wants “only to grow and its appetite is insatiable,” but like a baby requires constant feeding and nursing.

And finally, with these qualities of fire, Hillman, as did the alchemists, warned against a runaway spirituality which knows no limits, ever-seeking more, devouring all for the sake of itself, rather than sticking to the work of the material at hand. The fire of alchemy better serves soul through images, which for Hillman are the rudiments of the work:

“Since soul recognizes itself in its images and since the making of images (poeisis) is soul’s primary natural activity,  “the definite principle” that governs the “increase of fire” are images. They are the essential rudiments of the entire work. They are what the alchemist sees and smells and touches with his hands – and what he imagines. Focus on them limits the infinite metaphysical speculation (“the increase of fire”) to just what is just now.

Alchemy: a study of presentations as these appearances portray, define, and affect the soul. Consequently, alchemy’s insatiable spiritual drive, its “fire,” requires psychological limitations, an alchemy of soul such as this rudimentary chapter and the book as a whole intend.”

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


21 thoughts on “Class Notes – Session 9

  1. Debra, I’ve been absorbing this slowly, so the fire doesn’t run rampant. 🙂

    I’m intrigued by the notion of “psychological faith”, and can see how utterly necessary this would be to such a process. It isn’t as though one is embarking on a road that has been mapped out… There are qualitative descriptions of the landscape I suppose, the over-arching elements of the process, but these mean nothing to one confronted by the vacuum and its attending feelings of emptiness. Those feelings are strong I think, and they can compel a leaping out of the oven, or a “runaway spirituality” if one does not muster the requisite faith to remain in the uncomfortable, but formative grip of the alchemical slow-cooker.

    I have no real background or exposure to alchemical psychology, but am finding here in your writings that it is something universal, or that I think it is something universal couched in a particular language and viewpoint. As such, I think I am able to link it to elements of my own life somewhat naturally.

    Then this notion of faith… Where is faith placed in this work? Faith was vital at one point in my own process of digging down to excavate the inner foundations from which solid ground is derived. I can see now that while I may have described it a bit differently at one point in time, this was ultimately a faith in what had once been placed inside of me, a faith that if I kept excavating I wouldn’t continue into an abyss forever before smacking the shovel against the clink of something solid.

    This faith… it’s kind of hard to pin it down. It seems to begin with tugging sensations from within ourselves, but I don’t see it as a faith in who we think we are at the start of the process. It is more like a faith in something mysterious we just barely sense is alive within us. A faith in something majestic. A faith in there being a vastness within us seeking to break through. As in any work, I think it is helpful to see those who have gone into and returned from the void, to nurture that faith, to offer that living example of where a path through the unknown inevitably leads…

    Thanks for another great post!


    1. Hi Michael,

      I enjoy your thoughts on the nature of faith and they mirror my own. I think faith is another one of those words that frequently suffers from assumed definitions, and means very different things to different people.

      For me, faith in alchemical work, or any work of learning or refining a skill, is an ability to accept that there is value in the work itself, even when it cannot be seen, felt or experienced. Etymologically, it is related to trust.

      “I think it is helpful to see those who have gone into and returned from the void, to nurture that faith, to offer that living example of where a path through the unknown inevitably leads…”

      So true! When I have experienced the worse times in my life, it seems that the inability to see my experience or circumstance as part of the human, or cosmological whole contaminates and filters every moment. So much changes for me when I deeply sense the connection and commonality of my experience to everything and everyone in the world. Who can be lonely among the billions of stars?

      Your recent post on unity has been brewing deeply for me too. I didn’t want to comment before letting your thoughts and ideas ferment a bit. I’ve been busy at work as well, but look forward to more writing time – today at least!

      Thanks so much for taking the time for working through these thoughts here with wonderful conversation.



  2. “we do need to abandon an expectation of outcomes, or goals, or at least our ideas about how to get there and what the goals look like.”
    The shadow can’t allow us to do this on our own. Our shame says that we must know the plan and how to put it into action, the minute we think of it. I have a friend who says,”If i dont things right the first time, I have failed.”
    We dont allow our selves to live the mystery instead of trying to “get it right.”
    Silly little creatures we are!


    1. Hi Jim,
      Yes, tricky business for sure. I so agree that there’s lots of pressure to act as if we know what we’re doing and we’re fully under control, lol!

      Silly indeed!


  3. So much here, Debra! How many layers can be in each lesson? I am enjoying playing with the idea of the space around things that you bring out in the quote and with the exquisite painting – the dark void in that painting is so ripe. My mind wants to play with ideas of pure potentiality, where out of a field of all possibilities, any solid thing can come. It seems the most powerful point is just before the manifestation when anything can solidify but hasn’t yet. I am also reminded of a stray painting class I took, in which we used the negative space around the painted object as the focus, not the “thing.” This shift in perspective helps one to paint or draw from the emptiness. Staying away from the fire topic till I’m ready 🙂 Thank you for sharing such pregnant ideas! 🙂 xo m


    1. Hi Marga,

      So glad you enjoyed the post and feel the same richness in thinking/seeing the nature of the void and empty space. I have been giving this a lot of attention lately. It reminds me to see differently; to see the motion of the world and not only separate objects.

      “Shift in perspective,” yes, I am guessing that is vital in all we do and see. I am practicing!



  4. It is interesting to me when the experience of “void” is tried on as being completely full up in potentials.

    I was looking at a thought set the other day that said it is the solid objects of earth life are actually more empty than the “empty” space full of air around them. It was talking about that the air around things actually is what gives rise to the illusion of solidity in form an opportunity to be experienced.

    Very interesting ideas to try on and project out into the living of life flow from for a time.



    1. Hi M,

      “I was looking at a thought set the other day that said it is the solid objects of earth life are actually more empty than the “empty” space full of air around them. It was talking about that the air around things actually is what gives rise to the illusion of solidity in form an opportunity to be experienced.”

      Something to ponder. It’s like we want to attend to what is solid, and see stuff as solid. It is fascinating that solid things sustain their solidity from the physical and environmental conditions in which we experience them.

      Thank you reading and sharing here!


  5. Incredible – you know I must purchase Robbie’s book now. Wishing only to say enough so you know how appreciative I am…language seems to fail me these days! Embodiment of dream images is the only form of dream work that I feel has really “affected” me on a visceral level…quiet…slowness…silence – lets the image speak – lets the Self speak.

    Recently been experiencing great fear/despair at approaching the void, at the feelings of dissolution and nothingness – your posts can feel like consolation from the guides…a warm hug from the Angels. Wonderful, formidable writing Debra, thank you.


    1. Hi Amanda,
      I think I’d put Robbie’s book on my top ten in the dream category. The emphasis on seeing that what is dreamt is in and of the body as much as it is a bridge to someplace else, is valuable. Don’t you just love how layered our existence is?

      Fear and despair can be powerful. I often suspect they want something from us, but it can be challenging to feel comfortable enough to invite them in and hear them speak.
      Much love,


    1. Thank you so much Monika!

      Sharing with you here, knowing that these lengthy discussions are meaningful to you, makes it worthwhile. There’s a lot of minutia to the class, so yes, it has been hard to condense it all down.

      I am grateful for your presence here and in my life through our mutual love of writing and reading.


  6. I enjoyed reading that thanks…. I never thought about the ’empty vessels’ that fruit and flowers stood in… interesting…. Lately I have been looking at the word embodiment… so funny that I was brought to your post this morning… Embodiment… Spirit in physical form… Take care, Barbara x


    1. Hi Barbara,

      I am glad you enjoyed this post. The class has been really good.

      I too, had not heard the word embodiment and have been pondering it’s meaning now, especially in relation to dream images.

      Thanks for visiting and for your note.


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