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.

 

Let There Be Dark

As more and more of us, in an increasingly sleep-deprived world lose touch with our dreams, I continue to wonder what it is we are losing. Dr. Rubin Naiman sees our difficulties with sleep and dreaming, driven by “unrelenting motion”:

“We live in a world of unrelenting motion, a world that discourages slowing and stopping, a world that has lost its sense of rhythm and regard for rest. All life is by nature animated or in motion. But in the natural world, all motion is rhythmic, that is, it is tempered by rest. Things come and they go, they expand and contract, they are active and then they rest.” Rubin Naiman, Huffington Post.

But what is it that is lost from a lack of sleep and attention to dreams? In Naiman’s book, Healing Night: The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming, and Awakening, he reminds us:

“Night is the shadow of the Earth. It is as nature intended, dark. And unsettling. Since darkness deprives us of vision, our primary means of orienting to and managing the outer world, it dissolves essential aspects of our social, extraverted selves. Most of us are probably less afraid of the dark per se, but more frightened of what darkness might reveal.”

What might the darkness reveal, what do dark, empty spaces provide for us, why should we attend to them, let alone welcome them?

The endless drive towards daylight keeps us active long after the days’ work is over. Even if you do live in a very remote place, it’s no stretch to see that our drive toward activity has huge implications for all life forms, the physical states of our bodies, souls and the planet itself. Our red-hot activity is a global warming.

The dark might not only reveal to us the restlessness of our minds and pains of our bodies, it may also make room for that which we don’t know, but very much need to. Through a willingness to greet the dark though sleep and dreams, we may gain a new perspective from the encounter with images in dreamstates. The lack of our dayworld orientation and control in dream states is what may further our openness to all experiences of otherness. From Robert Bosnak’s book, Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel:

“What we perceive while dreaming is that we are in a place which is not of our making. We didn’t invent it. It is a spontaneous presentation, an independently alive manifestation. Apparently physical worlds come to life in a flash and disappear without a trace. We stand at the dawn of creation.”

In dreams there is a clear sense that those we meet are not us. It’s an odd circumstance of encountering an objective reflection of our subjective interior. But more than that, dream images, the specific ways in which they appear, engage us in a night world state much differently than our waking selves might.

To gain a better sense of embodied images, Robbie, along with some fellow soul spelunkers, spent time together on retreat in a primitive cave, where over the course of a week or so, they engage the images, their dreams and each other:

Cave of Altamira, near Santander, Spain.

“Along the wall I see, shimmying on his belly along the cave barely two feet high, our ancestor on his way to be initiated into the world of the great spirits, the massive mammoth. He crawls on to the great hall, half a meter high, where, lying on his back, he draws the great spirits among whom he lives, the alien beings, greater, swifter and stronger than he on the ceiling in order to capture and venerate their spirit and become initiate to their powers. Unable to take distance he draws the ceiling animals life size, in perfect proportion, as if by entering their body he can feel along their contours as he draws. Lit by a tiny grease lamp, spooking the cave around him, I see him in a face-off with dark fears, and his awe of the Great Ones. Encounter, meeting, face-off, opposing directions, the Great Ones show the way.”

Can we imagine seeking out such places for their darkness, in which we open ourselves to the power and wisdom from creatures who, although we must fear, must also cooperate with for survival? Does not our technology, with its ability to destroy the night, insulate us from feeling, instinct, intuition and what Robbie calls, embodiment?

Without advocating an impossible return to the past, there is yet something the darkness offers us, especially the more insulated and artificial our environments have become.

In embodied dreamwork, Robbie uses waking imaginative states to move the dreamer’s subjective identity into the figures of the dream. By embodying the images, they come to life, moving in a way that embodies us in their felt experience. Perhaps it is the movement itself that we fear. If so, how can we hope to move that which needs moving in us?

“It is as though through a medium of Paleolithic wall painters the animals have charged into the wall, waiting in static polychrome for a next observer to embody, who again will feel their energetic charge, and change them back from stasis to ec-stasis (out-of-stasis).”

1024px-GuaTewet_tree_of_life-LHFageAlthough Westerners, and perhaps others, are not accustomed to giving weight to images, Robbie, in the tradition of Henry Corbin and others, sees images as having their own substance. Substantive images weigh on us and live through us, even when we ignore their reality.

“This book is a passionate attempt to contribute to the restoration of an awareness of alien intelligences perceived by creative imagination—embodied images with a mind of their own—while comparing it to our current, what I consider to be impoverished, perspective which views intelligence as singular. If I succeed in sensitizing you to the existence of an inbetween reality—neither physical body nor mental allegory—of alien embodied intelligences, without expecting you to believe in flying saucers, you will catch a glimpse, as did I in my conversations with Corbin, of a place outside the body-mind conundrum.”

He has succeeded in sensitizing me, especially towards seeing embodied imagination as one more way to practice living the unity that exists between body, mind, soul, spirit – angels and ancestors, and to recognize the unity between all living beings, especially those encountered in non-ordinary states.

All quotes as noted from, Bosnak, Robert (2007-09-12). Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel (p. 11). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

All quotes as noted from, Rubin R. Naiman. Healing Night: The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming, and Awakening (p. 21). Kindle Edition.

 

 

Break on Through

“I found an island in your arms 
Country in your eyes 
Arms that chain 
Eyes that lie 
Break on through to the other side” Jim Morrison

Oftentimes it is said that ideas are less important and that action is better; what counts then is what is done or made manifest. The favored status of action, an idea itself, has always struck me as a half-truth, which of course it is. An idea is as much an action as the mind is the body. I say this not to blur the lines or resolve that ideas and actions are somehow the same, but more to reveal a hidden relationship and unity between seeming opposites that reflect in many ways our condition. A condition which is itself unified in ways that we perhaps might not be accustomed to seeing or sensing. Separation then, is both a blessing and a curse. “Idea” from idein” is akin to archetype, model or seeing and is very much related to bodily sense. All seeing comes from the body.

The constructs of our mind are also constructs of our bodies; psyche and soma, and in this world anyway happen together. That we are capable of mentally splitting off body from mind and mind from body is an amazing human quality, but it points to a deficiency of perception. A blind spot in our senses. We can think in ways that carve the world up into fragments that don’t exist apart from our mental constructs. Mental constructs can be useful, and even necessary, but when division and separation are not seen as constructs for the sake of convenience, the pain of separation and the threat of loss and death become spectral enemies that haunt us, tempting us to destroy them, either through literal murder, or mentally by splitting them off from awareness. Here the past seems more real than the present, others become “not us,” foreigners, enemies and nature is moved to some place “out there.”

If it is in the realm of ideas that the splitting occurs, that will also be the place where reunification happens. We cannot and do not live without ideas, without thought, without mind or psyche. Broadening our ideas dissolves the hardened sense and boundary of self and other. The place of wounding (splitting) is then the place of healing (unifying). In alchemy there is first the separation of the substances, then a reuniting. But if wholeness is the background, or underlying nature of reality, seeing and sensing it may not come from ignoring the illusions of separation and parts but more from multiplying them, or seeing the many in the one. That is what metaphor, fairy tale, mythology or a good poem does for us. Instead of a literal account of reality, a metaphor intentionally takes us beyond the literal, singleness of meaning, opening up and expanding meaning by “a carrying over.”

Love's Body.jpgEach chapter of Norman O. Brown’s book, Love’s Body, uses the rich history of ideas, mythology, Freud’s psychology, religion and mystical insights to define and resolve the splitting off of pieces of the world into what is mine,  not mine, real, unreal, us, them, history, mythology, life, death. Do we suffer duality because language divides the world into things and we identify with the separateness of our bodies? Did primitive man experience a “participation mystique?” Do animals experience a more unified world? …and what does love got to do with it? Everything of course – because we love what is ours, we incorporate others and all that is “out there” into ourselves when we love. Love is communion, death and hate are then an excommunication, a disowning in which we separate out all that we don’t commune with. A tough pill to swallow.

File:Herz aus Muschelschalen.JPGPerhaps our sense of being a separate self, along with the nature of time – our one-at-a-time perception, powerfully convinces us that the nature of the world is really not unified, but separate pieces and parts. Even language is structured sequentially, one word following another in which we grasp meaning by putting the words together. Many of us sense both the split and the underlying unity of the world to some degree or another. But what is it that moves a sense of unity into the heart, to permeate our daily experience and slowly dissolve the need to take the boundaries literally? And, what does a sense and awareness of unity do for us? Does our sense of “I” as the unique owner and operator of “me” disappear, merging forever into the oneness? That, I believe is a false perception perhaps held by those whose mental constructs, mistaken for “reality,” are still too near and too dear to part with. Or, as Brown suggests, that is the “Fall” into division. He reminds us that “the erection of a boundary does not alter the fact that there is, in reality, no boundary.”

Borrowing largely from Christianity, Brown uses the analogies of rebirth, resurrection, and apocalypse to get at the problem of separation and reunification. Not following any creed or practice – every thinker, poet, mystic or philosopher is included in the conversation, and rightly so, as wisdom can never be “owned,” the exclusive property of any one of us because wisdom’s nature is to free us from our literlisms, possessions, boundaries, framings, and identities used to divide what is by nature whole.

” “The real apocalypse comes, not with the vision of a city or kingdom, which would still be external, but with the identification of the city and kingdom with one’s own body.” Political kingdoms are only shadows – my kingdom is not of this world – because kingdoms of this world are non-bodily. Political freedom is only a prefiguration of true freedom: “The Bastille is really a symbol, that is, an image or form, of the two larger prisons of man’s body and the physical world.” Political and fleshly emancipation are finally one and the same; the god is Dionysus.”

The apocalypse, or unveiling, is Dionysian, a madness in which the god is torn apart, broken, in pieces, no boundaries, moving beyond ordinary meanings into the multiplicity of symbolism, but instead of a breakdown, as in schizophrenia, a breakthrough. “Break on through to the other side,” as Jim Morrison put it. There is a danger here, for sure, but as Brown notes:

“The soul that we can call our own is not a real one. The solution to the problem of identity is, get lost.”

With the unveiling, symbolic consciousness accepts the mystery and empty space creates room for the not-known, the new. No longer do we have to figure it out, but live through our animal sense, in the present where love can find us without a purpose beyond itself.

“Symbolic consciousness is between seeing and not seeing. It does not see self-evident truths of natural reason; or visible saints. It does not distinguish the wheat from the tares; and therefore must, as Roger Williams saw, practice toleration; or forgiveness, for we never know what we do. The basis of freedom is recognition of the unconscious; the invisible dimension;  the not yet realized; leaving a space for the new.”