Alchemy Class Notes – Session Ten

The final class of the 2014 Winter semester of the Jung Platform’s course, hosted by Patricia Berry and Robert Bosnak, takes us into the third chapter of James Hillman’s book Alchemical Psychology, titled, The Suffering of Salt, and begins with the topic, “Toward a Substantial Psychology.” Salt, although understood by Hillman as metaphorical, to the alchemists was indeed a substance and a common one both sacred and desirable.

Glass salt cellar 1720 Public Domain Photo by Nick Michael – Private collection

To the ancients, salt was sacred perhaps because of its use as a preservative, or salve, back in a time when food storage and medicines were extremely important for survival.

Robbie and Pat open the session discussing the weightiness of metaphors and ideas that become substantial to us. Substance comes through interiority and for Hillman it is the common element of metaphorical salt that adds weight to our experiences. The weight that balances us for living “as above, so below,” where as microcosm, we reciprocally reflect the macrocosm.

“The microcosm/macrocosm model requires a micro/macro-awareness. It asks that we feel into the world of matter with sensitivity for qualitative differences. It asks that we find in our objective experiences analogies with and metaphors of physical processes and substances. The micro/macro model works in two directions.”

The awareness that we are not in nature, but are nature herself, cannot be attended to enough in our culture. How interesting that we humans do not necessarily feel that we are part of this world. Perhaps our lives have become too insulated, or experienced a glimpse of eternity through intuiting that consciousness is not only embedded within us, but may be the source of all being, or a deep unresolved suffering finds us longing for the beyond. Whatever the reason, we may be a bit resistant to being embodied. Many myths and religious practices indeed emphasize our spiritual essence seeing physical life as a test, a punishment (karma), or a contest in which the prize is eternal life (meaning either disembodied, or no longer a suffering body).

For some, a fear of being only a body, an evolutionary accident, may drive the spirit to feel disdain for this body of death, widening the sense of separation between mind and body. Through the saltiness of our lives, Hillman sees a way to belong in this embodied state. Troubling as it may be, embodied life offers each of us a uniquely condensed perspective through heightened sensitivity and positions us as refiners of the Anima Mundi, or world soul, through the personal touch of our lives, and the love and compassion we make through the saltiness of our experience.

“While endowing the world with soul, it (the microcosm/macrocosm model) also indicates that human nature goes through natural processes of an objectively mineral and metallic sort. Our inner life is part of the natural world order, and this perspective saves us from taking ourselves so personally and identifying what goes on in the soul with the subjective ego.”

To this Robbie and Pat remind us that unless we let go of the sense that we are special, a common sense may be difficult to access. It is the physical and sensed nature of our lives that we do share, and that sense is the root of what we know as common. Hillman associates the common psychological salt with:

“The word sal in alchemical texts, especially since Paracelsus, often indicates the stable basis of life, its earth, ground, body. However, the term also more particularly refers to alums, alkalis, crystallizations, bases, ashes, sal ammoniac, potash, as well as to the sense qualities equivalent to these materials: bitterness, astringency, pungency, mordancy, desiccation, and crustiness, dry stings and smarts, sharpness and pointedness.

Indeed, bitter and mordant qualities are not only as common and basic as salt, but they are as essential to the embodiment of our psychic nature as is salt in our physical bodies. Our stinging, astringent, dried-out moments are not contingent and accidental; they are of our substance and essence.”

Robbie points out that, especially in our modern world, bitterness can often be measured against sweetness, rather than seeing each quality for its own contribution to life and soul. When we cover life’s bitter moments with too much sweetness, Robbie says, “reality bites” us as a way to bring us back into the salty moment, as the salt of the earth. Or, maybe we need to add salt on the wound in order to heal.

To the alchemists, sulfur was sweetness and worked in tandem with salt. In our psychic work:

“When body is equated with sulfur what is meant is the excitable, palpable urgency, the body of generative passions and will. When body is called salt what is meant is the fixed, consistent, stable body that encloses any existent as its outer shell.”

Here we see how sulfur and salt appear together and in psychological work, it is not always apparent that their different moods are connected. Using the example of a woman who experienced mood swings, Hillman describes the work:

“An alchemical therapeutic approach would not temper one with the other, but would touch both with mercury, that is, free them from their alternating concretism by means of psychological insight. The first step is to see how impersonally autonomous the swings are and how they constellate each other, as do sulfur and salt.”

This insight leads to a discussion on the mining of psychological salt.

Hexagonal Shaped Salt Crust at Badwater, Death Valley National Park

“In fact, because salt is “the natural balsam of the living body” (Paracelsus, 1: 259) we descend into the experiential component of this body – its blood, sweat, tears, and urine – to find our salt. Jung (CW 14: 330) considers alchemical salt to refer to feelings and to Eros; I would specify his notion further by saying that salt is the mineral, impersonal, objective ground of personal experience making experience possible.”

Here, Hillman emphasizes the need to experience subjectively first before the work of alchemy can carry soul between micro and macrocosm. Salt is the ground of deeply lived subjectivity.

“The fact that we return to these deep hurts, in remorse and regret, in resentment and revenge, indicates a psychic need beyond a mere mechanical repetition compulsion. Instead, the soul has a drive to remember; it is like an animal that returns to its salt licks; the soul licks at its own wounds to derive sustenance therefrom. We make salt in our suffering and, by keeping faith with our sufferings, we gain salt, healing the soul of its salt-deficiency.”

Salt then is ironic, as it pains an existing wound out of necessity, when our feeling sense has not been incorporated into our lives. WIthout incorporation we may fixate on our wounds and run the risk, as did Lot’s wife, of solidifying our identity to the woundedness, from too much salt that comes from an accumulative numbness.

“The danger here is always fixation, whether in recollection, earlier trauma, or in a literalized and personalized notion of experience itself: “I am what I have experienced.” “

So, to reconcile the seeming contradiction between full acceptance of subjective pain and woundedness, with the necessity of gaining insight and context that keeps the work moving, we look to the particularities of the salting, and not the person, for solutions to arise.

“Alchemical psychology corrects this sort of literalizing by presenting the personal factor that so dominates in psychologies of salt to be impersonal and commonly general. Then, when we work at our self-correction, betterment, purification, we realize that it is not the self that is the focus of our good work; it is the salt. We are simply working on the salt. In this way, the salt in alchemical psychology helps keep the work from flaming up in the egoistic inflation of personal guilt. I am alone responsible; it’s all my fault.”

Alchemical psychology is truly an art of shifting perspectives, of differentiating between substances and knowing how to work with them by discerning their specific qualities. Therefore, any work on ourselves shifts our focus into the matter and materials of embodied, everyday life, where we can see, touch and respond with the senses, salting our lives to our own taste.

“The very same salt that is honest wisdom, sincere truth, common sense, ironic wit and subjective feeling is also salt the destroyer. Dosage  is the art of the salt; a touch of the virgin, not too much. This dosage only our individual taste and common sense can prescribe. Only our salt can taste its own requirements.”

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


31 thoughts on “Alchemy Class Notes – Session Ten

  1. theburningheart

    I am glad you are done with moving, I hate that, I have done it too many times to my liking.
    I still read a lot, but I am eclectic about my reading, not only related to esoteric, or Spiritual kind of books.
    Other than that, I live pretty much as a hermit, away from people, and far from downtown, I see my son once a week, and friends over the week, mainly for coffee, and we chat about books, or whatever.
    Take care Debra.🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. theburningheart

    At one time in my youth, that now seems on another life read Fulcanelli’s The mystery of the Gothic Cathedrals, I could understand little at the time, but got some insights into it, and later serve me well when I read Jung, somewhere I had some of his books on Alchemy, I read him somewhere on the late 80’s, could not afford to buy his famous Red Book at the time it was published later, maybe there are know more affordable editions. But my interest on those subjects are now a thing of the past, busy as I am now reading many other things.
    For a time during the late 90’s I attended Joseph Heller lectures at the Philosophical Research Society, and frequented his Gnostic Church, basically because I was just a few blocks, from where I used to live in LA. But really do not thing to much of it, being an old ex Catholic, Gnosticism looked like a parody from it, they celebrated a mass on Sunday, and did not offer me anything new, or appeal to me. Mainly went there, because at the time I was infatuated with a woman there, that today I cannot even remember her name, just remember she was from the sign of Leo. Fortunately she did not return my affections. And stop going there, because the church burnt, and they moved to Atwater, too far from my area.

    Hope everything its alright with you Debra.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed! …how our interests change over time. I read some of Jung’s books in the late 80’s, and into the 90’s. Never read his stuff on alchemy though.
      Can’t say I have any particular favorite authors now, but am more drawn to particular subjects.
      I did buy a copy of Jung’s Redbook when the more affordable edition was published. It’s interesting, and even trippy! Lots of his art accompany the writings, mostly dialogues of his “active imagination” experiences.
      I’m doing well, Brígido. Just settling in after another move. Hope you’re doing well! Thanks for the note.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Class Notes – Session Eleven | The Ptero Card

  4. The fact that we return to these deep hurts, in remorse and regret, in resentment and revenge, indicates a psychic need beyond a mere mechanical repetition compulsion. Instead, the soul has a drive to remember; it is like an animal that returns to its salt licks; the soul licks at its own wounds to derive sustenance therefrom. We make salt in our suffering and, by keeping faith with our sufferings, we gain salt, healing the soul of its salt-deficiency.”

    This is so well said – the idea that our wounding contains the healing salt for the soul’s journey, and that there is an inner drive to self-awareness. Wonderful blog Debra. Thank you!


    1. Hi Margaret,

      Thanks so much for your kind words. Hillman, Jung and others like them, are so refreshing to me. I am happy when others too, enjoy their wisdom.



  5. Debra that is deep and insightful. As I was reading I kept flashing to my alchemical studies in Gnosis, my Biology studies on salt. This bit you wrote caught my attention and made me stop to consider:

    “…..or deep unresolved suffering finds us longing for the beyond. Whatever the reason, we may be a bit resistant to being embodied.”

    I spend a lot of time not “Grounded” persay, so it made me ponder self.

    I also like this quote from Hillman, ““The danger here is always fixation, whether in recollection, earlier trauma, or in a literalized and personalized notion of experience itself: “I am what I have experienced.” “

    Rather or not I am relating it in the context it was intentioned, I don’t know? However I have been working daily not to stay “fixed” but to be mutable. Being ever the observer, vigilant, and sovereign, I work to watch my self, feelings, thoughts, words, and actions, and own them, discern their origins, and motivations. (sorry for the run on, run on sentence.)

    I found this piece considerate. Peeling back the origin to get to the nitty gritty…salt, as it were.

    Thank you dear one for being so wise and learned and sharing.

    ❀✫ ღ✿ƸӜƷ ✿ღ ✫❀
    . *✿ღ✿ღ.¸¸♥


    1. Oh Sindy!

      Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you got something out of the post.

      “I spend a lot of time not “Grounded” persay, so it made me ponder self.”

      Me too, which is why I feel drawn to writers who can speak to the issue in a way that makes sense to me.

      coocoocachoo, yes!

      Much love,


  6. I don’t use as much salt anymore, but I do like it on eggs, soft pretzels, and potatoes. This article in brimming with rich ideas, exquisite quotes, and endless questions. Until I can reread and absorb more, may I just say ” Take everything ( and no-thing) with a grain of salt!!

    A masterpiece dear Debra 🙂

    xx Linda


  7. Another terrific post, Debra, brimming with insights. Amanda’s reply picked up on a few things that had jumped out at me as well and helped clarify them a bit. I liked very much the element of this discussion related to minimizing the “specialness” or weightiness of the self, and viewing the salt of one’s difficult experiences, circumstances, past, etc. as a material to be worked with, not to be blamed for. I think that tied in with the early portion of the post about the micro/macro perspective, and how if we as beings can see in our own lives the echo, or perhaps even the fulfillment of wholly natural processes– processes that include the woundedness, the drawing of attention to the places where our pain exists– then we can find in our darkness a meaning within the context of a greater context. We can see it not as a huge personal story to overcome, but as a natural step in the process of living and becoming, one we see all around us. I think that is beautiful wisdom.

    I think some of the spiritual and religious paths that emphasize the spiritual nature to the point of seemingly de-valuing the embodied present can make it difficult to access the wisdom lurking in present pain and difficulty. It is ironic, because I think it is through the embodied experience that we are able to purify and transcend the very obstacles that limit our access to peace and harmony. The body becomes the scapegoat for obstacles carried in the mind, barricaded around the heart. I think in their core, faiths such as Buddhism and Christianity have an embracing of the present experience as their highest form of practice. The culmination of Christianity seems to me to be the marriage of spirit with form, the inhabiting of the body and the world with living Truth, but as with any human endeavor that is taken up by millions of people, there are as many millions of perspectives on what it is… 🙂

    And I loved, as Amanda mentioned, the connecting of the personal growth with the world as a whole. So sweet…


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michael,
      Thank you for your kind words and as always, for sharing your insights.

      Yes, I think the deeper dives into nearly any sacred path can bring one into a similar space where, what Jung called, the underlying archetypal elements are seen as hiding, or taking up residence in people, cultural stories and forms.

      One of the fascinating aspects of Satan, as a light-bearing Angel, kicked out of Heaven for rejecting the created world, is that Christianity, at root, has the understanding that creation is redemptive because it is Divine.

      One way I can reconcile the seeming opposition of matter and spirit is with the Christian understanding that the distinction we make between them is inadequate, if not altogether false. One aspect of the marriage then, is our coming to understand and live the truth of the situation we find ourselves in.

      Amanda’s insight is very intriguing to me! The idea that all life forms are participating in a consciousness that at some level is unified, fascinates me. There is much fertile ground to be worked here, I think, but, as with most things, these may be baby steps for humanity, because the distractions, and deliberate attempts to blindfold by some, are difficult to counter.

      Anyway, for us here, there is joy in sharing and refining our understanding. My heart swells with an abundance of beauty and love sometimes, but cannot seem to rest with the knowledge of so much suffering in the world.



  8. nicciattfield

    I love this. We are the salt of the earth people. I think our culture does emphasize the ‘need to rise above’ or physical bodies, as though we should be ashamed of being embodied, and yet if we let them, our emotions can guide us very deeply into awareness of who we really are. They are the lights in the dark house of modernity.

    I love the idea of return to embodiment and return to bodies as a part of nature, rather than the idea of ‘inscribed bodies’ which post-modernism teaches. We are real, alive and feeling people, and when we explore the tension between alienation, individuality and embodiment, I think we can grow.

    I so appreciate your explanations of James Hillman. I find him fascinating and the insights you give help me to explore more deeply. Thank you.


    1. Dear Nicci,
      Thank you so much for sharing your insights here! I am happy that you enjoy reading them.

      “our emotions can guide us very deeply into awareness of who we really are. They are the lights in the dark house of modernity.”

      Very wise! As Hillman often said, “Our wounds open us up.”

      I’m so happy to share our mutual love of Hillman’s work with you. I, too, find him fascinating.


  9. Just last night a house guest was admiring an olive wood swivel top salt cellar that I keep on my kitchen counter. It is full of “Real Salt”…the unprocessed salt that is also full of minerals and earthy bits. We ended up having a whole huge conversation about salt, and as we live at the sea, noting the little crusted rings that end up on anything that visits the beach and gets wet. I LOVE IT when I now find this waiting here.

    Your shares from your class have been so appreciated. Going to let the words help cure me…soaking in the salty brine that will help me last until the next nuggets arrive from such an ample pantry as yours. 🙂


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear M,

      This is wonderfully synchronous! We too like to collect salts from around the world, when we can find them. The sea salts are so much more tastier than processed table salt.

      Having grown up in the very beachy environs of Long Island, NY, I am very accustomed to there being a moist salty air all around me. It’s no doubt corrosive, and after a good storm, Long Island, especially the south shore where I lived, would suffer salt damage, to the trees, electric wires especially.

      Thank you for your kind words about the series. I am happy that you are enjoying reading them as much as I enjoy writing them.


  10. So many things to take from this post, thank you! How true that we are becoming increasingly disconnected from the Earth as a species… We are insulated from nature to a degree because of technology and bigger and better textiles to protect us from the elements. When was the last time people took their shoes off and made bare contact with the earth or grass? When did we last relish the cold sting of rain on our bodies? Easy to see why we feel we are not nature but in nature. It’s no wonder humanity suffers from feelings of isolation and disconnection.

    Was also struck by how we think we are special. And yet, all our bodily elements return to the earth when we die.


    1. Hi Jay,Thank you for your kind words and insightful comment.

      I love your points about exposure to the elements. Such a dilemma for us moderns, those of us who are fortunate enough to live in places where we can afford to insulate ourselves. It’s hard not to turn on the airconditioner in 90 degree weather, and yet for so many people, their daily struggle is for food and clean water. It nags at the heart, for sure.

      I love to be outside and do so as often as I can. I like the window shades up in my house and doors opened, when the weather permits. Having grown up on Long Island in NY, about 1/4 mile from the Great South bay, I love the water, and especially large bodies of it.

      Thanks so much for reading and leaving a note Jay!


  11. So much wisdom – I’ll never look at Salt the same way again.

    The idea that we add something to the world by truly embracing and embodying our painful experiences, transforming them into something satisfying, something tasteful, something that flavors the experience of all, taking us beyond ourselves, yet still a worthy participant in the collective seasoning, seems to be a message of real empowerment for all! This empowering message of personal creativity is really what drew me to alchemy I think. Alchemy has always said to me – you matter – but don’t matter too much!! If that makes any sense. 🙂

    One other thing I did want to note is that I would not equate karma with punishment. In Sanskrit, karma would equate to “action”. I would say you see action in everything you do, so much like your wounds in alchemy can be transformed to salt one’s experience, and the experience of the greater whole, so too can karma. In that sense, the alchemical reaction to the “Karma” or action is the key. I hope I didn’t misunderstand you here.

    I also loved what you said about us being nature, not outside of her! What a wonderful line! 🙂

    One could hardly respond or do justice to all your wonderful writing Debra but there is one other thing I wanted to note: the idea that overidentifying with our suffering is detrimental can’t be stressed enough (with sensitivity and compassion of course) in my opinion. Reliving trauma seems dangerous and self-fulfilling – like it can trap you or something. I have also heard it said in eastern mysticism that overidentifying with one’s suffering is just another form of vanity, which sort of touches on Robbie’s idea that we have to “get over being so special” to see objectively and maintain a sense of wonder larger than ourselves. Still working on that one…

    Great post!

    Love and Thanks!

    Oh and PS. I realized I have two of Robbie’s books on my shelf at work! His “A Little Course in Dreams” and “Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming” – have you read Tracks??

    PS Jr …hope the comment isn’t too long!!


    1. Dear Amanda,
      If my 1400+ post isn’t too long than neither is your wonderfully insightful comment 🙂

      I love the conversations we have here and am thrilled that others would take the time to read and share their own thoughts, so never mind about the length of what you share here.

      “Alchemy has always said to me – you matter – but don’t matter too much!! If that makes any sense.”

      That is to me too, why I love alchemical thinking. It really does bring everything together, heart, soul, mind, body, self, other, and every facet and place of being.

      Thanks for adding the corrective about Karma. I think the word punishment is too harsh, and I should edit that out. Maybe you can help correct a misunderstanding I may have though. My sense of karma is that the idea is to move up the heirarchy through rebirth with the ultimate aim of not being reborn. Is that the idea?

      Having spent a good chunk of my life miserably unreconciled to my past and deep woundedness, yes, I agree that the habits we develop in identifying with what happened become very crusty and destructive. One can their entire life full of resentment and misunderstanding the nature of life and suffering. It’s tricky, because we have to be in the trauma enough to digest it, then the gifts will come, as you may know from your own experience.

      Oh cool that you have Robbie’s books! I do have Track’s in the Wilderness, it’s on the list to read. I’d love to hear your thoughts on his writing someday.

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing your insights here!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Debra,
        I’ve been pondering how best to answer your question about Karma and I came up with a perfect solution – I will challenge myself to write about Karma!! What a wonderfully difficult task to dedicate myself to and how exciting it will be to return to the Vedas this summer. Much Love, Amanda


      2. Love it Amanda! I look forward to reading your insights. I admit, I am mostly familiar with the idea of Karma from common usage.


  12. You are the salt of the blogosphere, Devra. 😉There are so many georgeous details you included, Debra. I feel you have totally exhausted the subject. I researched the symbolism of salt a bit. I love the idea of salt being substitute for blood (because it came from the sea womb and tasted like blood). Church bells used to be anointed with salt.
    Near where I was born there is a magnificent salt mine in Wieliczka with beautiful salt sculptures.
    Thank you for great writing


    1. Hi Monika,
      It is a weighty chapter. I am grateful that these long posts are read at all!
      Love the salt/sea/blood correlation. Hillman does bring that up, along with other bodily excretions, especially urine.

      I had no idea how often salt was used in a sacred context like the church bell example you mention. When I say “we moderns,” I am mostly referring to myself, for taking for granted the abundance we live in. I would guess you also have as much fun researching your topics as I do! It’s really a great motivation for writing, yes?

      I’d love to see the salts sculptures of Wieliczka! How wonderful to have had them so near your home.

      Thank you Monika for sharing my love of the minutia and especially in this alchemy series!


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