Syzygy

Next, in James Hillman’s book, Anima, the Anatomy of a Personified Notion, he considers whether or not ego, understood here as the most dominant part of our conscious experience and the agent of our identity, is a syzygy of anima and animus. Fascinating idea that can best be considered within the context of western cultural consciousness. While equally fascinating, there isn’t time here to fully consider the conscious experience of other cultures, or the possibility of an emerging global consciousness. Let’s begin with some quotes from the book (I can never do this book justice in these brief posts, and so do highly recommend Hillman’s book to anyone interested in the subject). First, from Jung, who remains the springboard for Hillman’s ideas:

Together they [anima and animus] form a divine pair … the divine syzygy … (CW   9.2: 41; cf. 25– 42)

… the syzygy motif … expresses the fact that a masculine element is always paired with a feminine one. (CW   9.1: 134)

Hillman uses these quotes to emphasize that pairings, often understood and expressed as opposites in our culture, are also a syzygy; tandem, interpenetrated couplings, which constellate together, often without our awareness of their interrelatedness. Within a syzygy of anima and animus Hillman notes the difficulty of seeing the pair together while one or the other always filters the lens of our perception:

For if anima has been the subject of investigation, animus has been the investigator. Or does it work the other way around – if animus has been the logos plan and the activity of making words serve critical discrimination, anima has been feathering those words and guiding their direction with her fantasies.

1024px-Pelecanus_conspicillatus_pair_swimming

Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus), Claremont, Tasmania, Australia.

Anima and animus, as do all archetypes, show up in an inseparable tandem. Even more accurate, archetypal influence always comes to us in personified, but less than pure forms. It is the particular nature of the animus, or egoic, seemingly objective perception, that seeks to separate archetypal influence into pure forms. We see these personified notions in mythological beings with their specificity expressed in story by the roles they play in relationships to other personified forms. We also see and live it in our day-to-day lives. Jung concurs:

From this fact we may reasonably conclude that man’s imagination is bound by this [syzygy] motif, so that he was largely compelled to project it again and again, at all times and in all places” (CW   9.1: 120).

Imagination, remember, is not that thing we are told to develop for creative endeavors, but, for better or worse, it is the means by which we perceive and function psychologically. Hillman reminds us that the word psychology itself is a syzygy, and that neither he, nor his essay (or mine for that matter), is free from archetypal influence, and yet, psychology, at its best is the awareness and acceptance of the bounds of archetypal syzygies:

This essay is a mythical activity of anima coming on as a critical activity of animus. Yet, just this is psychology, the interpenetration of psyche and logos, within the bounds of the syzygy who sets the limits to our psychological field so that we cannot imagine beyond it.

Our western culture in particular seems to struggle with the acceptance of any limits of objectivity, while curiously ever reminding ourselves and others of the subjectivity that colors all opinion. Syzygy in action? Hillman suggests that a way to deepen our reflections beyond oppositional thinking and pairing, would be to shift the emphasis in our perception from the standpoint of animus, or the objective mode, to that of anima, by reimagining pairs, not as opposites, but through a variety of forms of relationship:

To imagine in pairs and couples is to think mythologically. Mythical thinking connects pairs into tandems rather than separating them into opposites which is anyway a mode of philosophy. Opposites lend themselves to very few kinds of description: contradictories, contraries, complementaries, negations – formal and logical. Tandems, however, like brothers or enemies or traders or lovers show endless varieties of styles. Tandems favor intercourse – innumerable positions. Opposition is merely one of the many modes of being in a tandem.

I so love his thinking here. How often do I find myself ready to do battle, whether interiorly, or exteriorly, as ideas and relationships often present as opposites, and opposites in turn often present themselves as being in conflict. I continually need to remind myself that life, and the ten thousand moments that make up a day, are not battles to be won, opinions to own or disown, but call for more and deeper reflection of the many other possible ways of perceiving all that presents itself at each moment.

1024px-Habsburger_Pfau_1555

Habsburg Peacock“ with the coats of arms of the Habsburg lands, Augsburg 1555

Along the same lines of thinking, it’s helpful to see that pairings do have a purpose. Because of their contrasting characteristics, we readily see them. That which eludes our consciousness is often too smeary and unclear to apprehend. Ironically, the more multiple the personified mythological, archetypal forms present themselves to us, the more unified they may seem. This is similar to seeing the forest from a distance in which the tree is no longer distinct enough to see. Alchemically speaking, this unity/multiplicity mode is often imaged as the feathers of the peacock.

Perhaps too, the tendency towards perceiving pairings and oppositional thinking arises psychologically so readily because it does so physically through the human experience of gender.

Nonetheless, essential to thinking in syzygies is thinking in genders. Unfortunately, the next step in analytical psychology has been identifying these genders with actual men and women, coupling kinds of syzygies between man-and-anima, woman-and-animus, man-and-woman, and fourth, anima-and-animus, even with diagrams, for example, the lengthy discussion of the Gnostic symbol of the Self.

Hillman reminds us, as do the alchemists, among others, who said, “as above, so below,” that whatever is going on externally has an internal correlation.

Projections occur between parts of the psyche, not only outside into the world. They occur between internal persons and not only onto external people.

A Hebe wants a Hercules and Hercules does it for Hebe – and not just on the college campus between cheerleader and linebacker but “in here.” My hebephrenic soul, young and silly and tied by social conventions, the bride and her shower, produces an ego that comes home like a hero showing off and bearing trophies. Or, within the smiling, innocent girl is ruthless ambition in a lion’s skin, forever wrestling Old Age and able to harrow Hell itself.

As in alchemy, images of the goal are often hermaphroditic, which curiously seem to be much more externally present in our western culture. Perhaps these images, literalized or not, express a cultural pregnancy awaiting a birth of a more psychological nature. I’d like to think so, even while remaining cautiously optimistic, and without an expectation or an understanding of what, or to where, that birthing might take us. A good quote to end with:

The objective spirit, that goal of our Western intellectual endeavor, is an attempt of the soul to free itself by means of the animus from the valley of its attachments. And the figure in dreams who judges is the one who both frees us from anima imprisonments and sentences us with his opinions. To consider every position in terms of the syzygy reflects a “hermaphroditic” consciousness in which the One and the Other are co-present, a priori, at all times, a hermetic duplicity and Aphroditic coupling going on in every event.

All quotes, except as noted, Hillman, James; Jung, C.G. (2015-08-14). Anima: Anatomy of a Personified Notion. Spring Publications. Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Class Notes – Session Twelve

“Enter alchemy – thing-words, image-words, craft-words. The five supposed sources of alchemy are each a technology. Each is a handwork physically grappling with sensate materials: (1) Metallurgy and Jewelry: mining, heating, smelting, forging, annealing; (2) Cloth and Fiber Dyeing: dipping, coloring, drying; (3) Embalming the Dead: dismembering, evacuating, infusing, preserving; (4) Perfumery and Cosmetics: grinding, mixing, distilling, diluting, evaporating; (5) Pharmacy: distinguishing, tincturing, measuring, dissolving, desiccating, pulverizing.”

Although admittedly going off on a tangent here, this post was inspired by Session Twelve of the Jung Platform’s course on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology. What I’ve recently come to appreciate is that the study of alchemy is as inexhaustible as is its application to my life.

Alchemy is styled and practiced in a number of traditions dating back at least to the 3rd and 4th century BCE. With that in mind, my focus here is to review the general structure of Western alchemy, while staying with Hillman’s emphasis to work one’s perspective by giving substance to soul and soul to substance.

Alchemy is a practice; a work in which a transformation of some kind is initiated through the desire and aim of a goal. In everyday life, it can be applied to cooking, writing, relationships to any person, place or thing, or the learning of a craft, trade or art. You may think of other applications.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923) Title: Soul in Bondage

Prior to the 18th century, before science divorced herself from the arts, it may have been more readily understood that the work on the materials would simultaneously “work” the practitioner. Alchemy then was a quest for knowledge about the nature of particular substances and processes in the world.

The modern sense of our individuality reflects science’s need to distinguish between subject and object, self and other. These changes bring much freedom to the individual, while also coinciding with a loss of soul, or soul’s substantiality. Not only a sense of one’s personal soul, but the felt sense that the world herself is ensouled, enlivened by all creatures and substances and their varying degrees of autonomy and obeisance.

One might say that the more one feels the divide and separation between themselves and others, the more we might miss, or dismiss the autonomy of other beings and things, leaving no room for acknowledging the invisible, autonomous forces, except where science quantifies them (gravity, electromagnetism, etc.).

Modern ideas of alchemy deeply reflect these changes of self-perception and our place in the cosmos. To speak of a literal alchemy in which base materials are turned into precious metals has lost credibility with all but a few practitioners. As well, the work, if undertaken at all, seems narrowed by an emphasis on personal transformation. But, if alchemy itself is a reflection of an evolving consciousness of universal import, we might see this modern emphasis on self as a necessary stage before the gap between material and non-material existence can dissolve.

Limbourg brothers, Title:Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry English: Anatomical Man.

If alchemy lives on anywhere, as a practice of noting influence and correspondences between the microcosm of one’s human experience and the macrocosm of the hidden nature of the greater cosmos, we have astrologers to thank. For astrologers have never abandoned the idea that human nature and experience is a reflection of the nature, motion and resemblance shared throughout the cosmos, enhanced all the more by our apprehension of it.

With that in mind, we can break alchemy down into three dimensions of the practice: the materials, the operations and the stages of the work.

Materials

In alchemy, as in astrology, the elements are the givens, each of which have mythological, planetary or astrological correspondence. The idea of turning base medals into gold, literally or psychologically, requires coming to know the nature of each material substance. Alchemical psychology and Western astrology, borrowing much from their mythological heritage, see in each planet a corresponding metallic nature.

When alchemists link the planet Saturn to lead, it sees leaden characteristics, knowable by working directly with the substance lead. Alchemy, like astrology, does not stop here, but sees lead’s slow, heavy nature as an influential psychic force corresponding to our nature as well. For example, Saturn’s influence is said to be felt as weighty, depressive, slowing us down in some way in both mind, body and circumstance. As Saturn is associated with the Greek god Kronos, where we get our word for time (chronology), there may also be a need for time or attention to some aspect of our lives.

Hillman says of the alchemists work with metals:

“The metals were imagined to be made of coagulated moist vapors, like a condensed gas whose spirit could be released by the proper operations. Because the metals were inherently moist, that is, embodying phlegm, they had a phlegmatic tendency to be passive or inert, requiring fire. Resistance to change is given with the seeds of our nature and only intense heat can move human nature from its innate inertia.”

When we moderns deprive ourselves of seeing any correspondence between ourselves and the nature and motion of the cosmos, we risk increasing the feeling we may already have of alienation, with both ourselves, others and the world we are literally pieces and parts of.

Saturn = Lead

Jupiter = Tin

Mars = Iron

Sun = Gold

Mercury = Quicksilver (Mercury)

Venus = Copper

Moon = Silver

Operations

The operations used in alchemy for initiating action and reaction upon the materials are primarily salt, sulfur and mercury. Salt as agent for thickening, loosening and resistance to heat, sulphur for heating and combustion, and mercury or quicksilver for fluidity. Hillman warns that there is no purity in substance, operation or stages of alchemical work but a blending and merging of one into the other.

Making Waffles – Alexander Hugo Bakker Korff (1824–1882)

“Whatever is said about salt is always contaminated, and must be so contaminated by the materials, vessels, and operations with which it is in interaction. Psychic materials are always in diffuse interpenetration, with other materials and do not remain singly self-consistent, and so require multiple interpretation. In fact, this very contamination is part of their definition: let us say that alchemy is soft-edged. Lines between its elements cannot be drawn hard and fast because these elements are also elementary living natures.”

Stages

The work both progresses and regresses in stages associated with coloration, usually three or more of the following: Black, Blue, White, Yellow, Red. The colors themselves have astrological and mythological associations. Alchemy in contrast to modern science, is the practice of knowing the nature of anything by the qualities it presents to us. Where modern science reduces things down to size and mathematical relationships, alchemy seeks essence through the quality and nature of relationships within and between things.

Hillman emphasizes the alchemist’s ability to see psychologically through any practice that involves working with the worlds substantive qualities. From this work a truer understanding of ourselves and the nature of the world emerges into the unique expression each of us then presents daily to the world. In coming to know the substances, images, environments and actions/reactions which influence us, we are continually ensouled through our sensual, everyday experience that sees our nature reflected back to us through the nature of the cosmos.

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

Class Notes – Session Eleven

“The Suffering of Salt, Toward a Substantial Psychology,” is the title of chapter three of James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, and the starting point for the first class of year two of the Jung Platform’s online course. Hosts Patricia Berry and Robert Bosnak focus the discussion on the notions of salt, commonality and substance.

I am beginning to see an increased importance in the ideas presented in this chapter to much of Hillman’s work, as I understand it anyway. The alchemical marriage itself may be at the heart of Hillman’s proclivity to substantiate ideas, and also to see interiority within substance, even granting to substance a subjectivity. Beyond human subjectivity, he asks us to look within each substance for inherent qualitative aspects. The stones will cry out!

Might there be a subjective truth that invites us to look to the interiority of otherness for its own subjective qualities? That seeking will tell us something about our interiority, but with practice expand the qualitative distinctions we glean from others, enlivening us, and the world as ensouled; an Anima Mundi.

The alchemical work of psychology is precisely then the work of coming to know qualities; to learn of their essence as we learn of ours. Understood this way, we see much of the work as a practice of discernment; separating and specifying the nature of psychic substance, such as ideas and sensation, giving weight to them as we more readily do with physical substance. Here we will find the commonality of experience, as is the alchemical “sal” and salt in nature. At the same time, we educate our perception, looking more directly at the nature of both our, and the world’s suffering.

“Not only is the macrocosmic world personified and alive with subjective qualities that we nowadays allow only to human beings, but the microcosm of the human being, because it is a microcosm of nature, is also a mineral, physical object, consisting of substances such as salt.”

Our modern sensibilities may resist the notion that all substances and beings have a discernible nature accessible to others. Aren’t we locked up inside our skin, limited to knowing only through our own subjectivity? A deeper study of anything, or anyone, will admit that the limitations on what we can know, do not entirely keep us ignorant of the subjectivity of others. We better know that fire can burn, people can harm us, and as well, that we need warmth and love to live. We are not alone. Ours is a between state, one that we continually negotiate. The desire to settle into, or concretize any pattern as permanent, is death or at least ignorance of the inherent motion of all things.

“…we shall be activating the image of salt (1) as a psychological substance, which appears in alchemy as the word sal; (2) as an operation, which yields a residue; (3) as any of many physical substances generically called “salts”; and (4) as a property of other substances.”

In alchemy, psychic quality belongs as part of physical substance:

“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.” Emphasis added.

So why the “suffering of salt?”

Robbie and Pat talked a lot about salt as both common and necessary. We suffer the salt through the commonality of our human experience. To find our own essence, we must first see our commonality, how impersonal our fate and suffering may be. Then, instead of the focus of suffering aimed at what was done to me, we turn to the qualitative experience of our suffering. Failing to see the commonality of what we suffer, seeing only what was done to me, we are more apt to crystallize experience into encrusted memories whose force of repetition itself is a rewounding that remains open until we see into, or interiorize the nature of the wound rather than the wounder.

To be clear, it’s not so much how suffering occurs, but how we experience it.

Zubdat-al Tawarikh in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul

Although not discussed, it occurred to me during the class that Hillman begins the book with the suffering of salt because the practice of alchemical psychology, whether in the context of therapy, or within an individual’s life, is indeed a work of deepening experience through the stages of what the material presents to us, transforming not only our relationship to physical substance, but also giving substance to our ideas and coming to see how they work on us. Hillman suggests that we all embody both the ideas and the substances; that they make us. We encapsulate in miniature the nature of the cosmos, physically, and therefore, psychically. That is also the basis for astrological correspondence. We are each of us, a microcosm, salt of the earth.

“Not only is the macrocosmic world personified and alive with subjective qualities that we nowadays allow only to human beings, but the microcosm of the human being, because it is a microcosm of nature, is also a mineral, physical object, consisting of substances such as salt.”

Our work then is to know our common suffering, working the salt as a salve. Through deeper discernment of the nature of ourselves, our wounding, our commonality helps us to belong, embracing it as what unites us. Embracing our wounds and working the salt moves us out of crystallizing, or feeling stuck, towards curiosity, where love, compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others, including the non-living, are granted through our recognition of their own substantial nature, apart from, but always in relation to us. Awareness of the suffering of our commonality, and the commonality of our suffering, frees us to express a life more fully lived.

“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. While endowing the world with soul, it 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.”

Previous Class Notes here, or here.

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

Crystal Blue Persuasion

In the latter part of my recent post, Primordial NecessityI offered some reflections on Ananke and the idea of Necessity as a compelling force, which are based on James Hillman’s Eranos Conference speech titled, Athene, Ananke, and the Necessity of Abnormal Psychology. Here, I would like to continue on with Hillman’s insights into the significant role the goddess Athena plays in relation to necessity and compulsion.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – The Remorse of Orestes (1862)

In the story of Eumenides, who is associated with Ananke, we read of the trials of Orestes, who is caught between the demands of the Furies, whose presence tortures Orestes, after, at the command of Apollo, murders his own mother. The play has political parallels to Athenian culture that reflect a major shift in the pantheon in which the law of Zeus replaces the necessity for revenging sin with more blood shed. Through persuasive speech, specifically through the rhetoric of Zeus’ daughter Athene,* the goddess of wisdom, Orestes life is then spared.

During the trial of Orestes, it is Athene who defends Orestes against the fate of the noose:

“The balloting over Orestes’s fate is equal. Then Athene intervenes. There is a climactic argument back and forth between her and the Eumenides. But finally Athene persuades them and wins Orestes his life. The key word in her victory is persuasion, peitho, the word translated in our language as rhetoric. Rhetoric persuades necessity.”

Hillman suggests that Athene herself is sympathetic to the compulsion of necessity with its narrowing and constricting force:

“Athene has also invented instruments of limitation and containment, bringing the arts of pottery, of weaving, of measuring, of the bridle, yoke, and harness. In her is combined the very contradictions she must reconcile: the Nous of her father and the binding force of Ananke with whose collaboration her father rules.”

The unprecedented action of persuasive speech is for Hillman of utmost importance, a game changer. For something that was once blind force has now been given a place among the gods. By personifying them, the power of the gods is no longer blind or abstract. Their influence can now be told in story, both among the gods and with interactions with humans.

“The content of Athene’s words is that she offers the Erinys – the torturing furious forces of necessity who oppress Orestes – a place within the divine order. She offers a sanctuary, a cave, an altar (“new chambers,” 1005) where these powers may reside and be honored and yet remain alien: or “resident aliens” as they are called. The unimaged nameless ones shall be imaged and named. Sacrifice is possible. Reconciliation occurs.”

For Hillman the importance of mythology for us, who may find their stories irrelevant, unnecessary, difficult or incomprehensible, lies in the psychological insight they offer into our afflictions, what he calls pathologizing.

“Although the problem from which Orestes suffers involves his father and his mother, their sins and their murders, it is neither Orestes the person, nor the archetypal protagonist of the human ego that is finally the problem. It is a cosmic, universal agony in which he is caught. By returning to Greek myths we can see our personal agonies in this impersonal light.”

Impersonal because of the archetypal nature of our pathologizing and suffering that we all have a share in. Although still very much subjective and necessary, pathologizing can be seen through the lens of mythology, not only of the Greeks, but of all polytheistic cultures. Their stories show us our problems, displaying ideas as divine powers, universal and generational, because of our unbelief in them. For as Jung rightly observed, “the gods have become diseases.”

Hillman sees our modern afflictions as an undercurrent; as compulsive necessity that drives our behaviors. Necessity though, is not something to be overcome by reason or understanding alone, but wants something from us besides abandoning or curing the pathology that has us in its grip. Pathology is perhaps, the arrow of desire aimed at soul-making.

Orestes at Delphi flanked by Athena and Pylades among the Erinyes and priestesses of the oracle

“An analysis repeats the struggles in the soul of Orestes between reason and compulsion, and it repeats the speech of Athene, who persuades to reconciliation by finding place and giving image to the driving necessities. In the mouth of Athene speech becomes a curative hymn,  a word which etymologically means “spun” or “woven” words. The relation between word and force is also reflected in society, suggesting that the rule of coercive violence increases when our art of convincing words declines. Peitho takes on an overwhelming importance both in the healing of the soul and the healing of society.”

Just as Orestes’ ordeal gains the Furies recognition by giving them a place among the gods, Peitho, or persuasive speech, gains the darker aspects of our compulsions and pathologies a place of recognition in our lives by letting them speak to us. Peitho brings speech to life as a force itself that shapes and forms us. Speech here is not merely functional, directive and practical but art, devotion or sacred breath. For speech is of the body as much as of the mind and through errancy brings the darkened depths out of the body. In speech our afflictions can be sifted and reworked for soul-making, a perspective freeing us from the purely literal and personal, to one that allows us to place our afflictions within the bigger picture of human experience.

“Speech arises from the same inmost depths where necessity holds the soul in bondage, creating our pathologizings.

…But we can give her modes of expression, ways to image herself in words, persuading her from her implacable silence  – an archetypal therapy, a therapy of the archetype itself.”

For another essay on Hillman, Jung, the Greeks and Anxiety see David Russell’s essay.

All quotes, except as noted, from Hillman, James (2012-11-24). Mythic Figures (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

“Better get ready
Gonna see the light
Love, love is the answer, 
And that’s all right
So don’t you give up now, 
It’s so easy to find
Just look to your soul 
And open your mind” 

Writer(s): Tommy James, Mike Vale, Eddie Morley Gray
Copyright: EMI Longitude Music

*Hillman prefers Athene over the more common Athena.

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 a glimpse of eternity through intuiting that consciousness is not only embedded within us, but may be the source of all being, or 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.

 

Class Notes – Session Seven

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.

File:Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae - Alchemist's Laboratory.jpg

The Vessel

“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

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.

 

 

 

 

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 Dictionary.com“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.