Class Notes – Session Eight

Session Eight of the Jung Platform’s online class on James Hillman’s book, “Alchemical Psychology,” moves the work from forge to stove, in which the use of glass vessels for heating the material make alchemy both possible and psychological.

“Glass also separates observer from observed. It is the material of distancing, separating events from life by means of fragile transparency, enclosing them each in its own “house” as the glass vessels were sometimes called.” James Hillman

10173760_10201083286964761_5569906944981627530_nGlass, like psyche, Hillman notes, is the medium by which we see into or through. In the furnace, Robbie points out that we can only see outcomes. Through the use of alchemical stoves we can see through or into the process as it happens, “without obstruction as if the glass is not even there.”

Through its properties glass shapes, forms and colors the perception of the materials. Pat and Robbie liken language to glass, which I find very satisfying. When the medium of language loses its transparency, words can be mistaken for the thing they refer to. Glass allows us to be present to the material, “an inside view,” as Robbie calls it. But glass also contains – according to its own structure, presenting bite-sized, specific, particularizations of the material. Containing the material allows us to work on the particulars rather than generalizations.

Vulnerable to a build-up of sediment from the materials within, glass may lose its clarity, just as our habits, theories or preconceived ideas create a film through which we see the material. Part of the work, Robbie reminds us, is to keep the glass vessel clean, especially as we move from one aspect of the work to another.

I wonder if we are not distancing ourselves from the subtle qualities of things through mass production – from the food that we eat to the instruments used for everyday tasks; do we now risk losing the ability to notice the subtlety of substance – glossing over properties, only to increase our focus on defect of functionality? I’ll be the first to complain about poorer quality of tools and many mass-produced things we’ve come to rely on. Through their use we lose not only the skill in making them, but a familiarity and respect for the material world that can come only from working directly with the substances.

“Glass as subtle body requires a subtlety of noticing. The sophistication of the material needs sophistication of insight. The alchemical mind was occupied with noticing properties. Which qualities, which attributes, are the “virtues,” in Paracelsus’s terms, of a substance? Natural things could be grouped, even classified, by their adjectives: hard, cold, bitter, wintry, could bring together phenomena from all three kingdoms – animal, vegetable, mineral. Because the world is inherently intelligible we can discover where each phenomena belongs by means of the study of properties, care with adjectives.” James Hillman

Sophistication, Robbie notes, is refinement; returning again and again to the same material to see deeper into its properties. The difficulties that the material presents to us, which Robbie likens to any work that we do: dancing, painting, writing, speaking, or day-to-day problems, require going back over the material to refine and discipline the work. The refinement can also move literal meaning into poetic metaphor, lifting a more subtle sense of meaning out of the mundane.

The Bain Marie

Essentially a double boiler, the Bain Marie, a vessel thought to be of Egyptian origin, heats the materials with hot steamy air, warmed by water, heated on a stove. The Bain Marie allows fire and water, two notorious enemies, to cooperate. Slow and gradual heating allows for the material never to over heat as long as an ample supply of water is provided.

“The warmth permeating the glass vessel from the bath is another way of imaging sympathetic attention, gentle encouragement, all-embracing tolerance. Knots, boundaries, strictures give way.” James Hillman

File:Mary's Bath 1528 detail AQ9 (1).tif
The Bain Marie

A slow, gradual increase of temperature changes solids to liquids, breaking down the materials, and in adding to them, re-thickens, as in the making of sauces. Blending, rearranging the materials can put substances into new relationships with each other thereby creating something new.

“Perform no operation until all has become water: rational analysis must wait for emotion to flow, reveries to float, collect in pools, stir, sink, find outlets. Discriminations blur. This and that melt into each other; right and wrong and their guilts grow soft and mushy; they hardly matter, no hard facts, no sturdy sureties to cling to. All yields to the warming water. We become gentler with ourselves. We lose intention for arrival, no hurry. A bath is not a shower. We are the substance, our body and our mind enter the vessel of the soul, Mary’s bath. We are the cook and the cooked, unable to feel the difference.” James Hillman

The Pelican

The pelican, a glass vessel tightly enclosing the material, recirculates from bottom to top, performing an alchemical operation called iteration or repetition.

“The Pelican, too, is a tail-eater: the lower end is consumed by the upper end, the head, but the process does not stop there with mental reflection. The head sends its product down again into the body, repeatedly. A continuing circulation ensues. What arises to the head does not escape. As the substance melts, steams, sending vapors upward, cloudy ideas form, pressures increase, lighter, uplifting feelings swirl. But these inspirations and hot ideas are re-processed down as too unripe, too soft-boiled, too unreal. Rather, they are fed back into the vessel as further nourishment. It is the opus that must be fed, continued at all costs.” James Hillman

The PelicanThe work inside the pelican is vital to alchemical psychology. Here is where both body and head are fed by shared images through containment and repetition. Feeding the body what is going on in psyche makes ideas matter. Feeding the head what the body feels psychologizes the body into metaphor.

Robbie suggests that the pelican, its shape and form, is itself refined much as our body is by the work happening within the pelican. The temptation here might be to release the refined insights from the top, or head, to enjoy a brief exhilaration at the expense of the iteration necessary for the work.

Hillman refers to the material worked in the pelican as sacrificial, much like the bird:

“Hence the term “Pelican,” since that bird, according to lore, drove its bill into its own breast to draw the blood that fed its young. Christ was this pelican, nurturing his faithful with his own life-blood. The pelican is thus a wounding, a repetitive ritual, a sacrifice, and a humiliation all at once. And, a necessary instrument for feeding the opus from within itself.

What arises during the work belongs to the work, not to the world. Before the vessel may be opened, its contents must be thoroughly psychologized, refined, sophisticated; its concretizations vaporized.” James Hillman

Here we see the importance of containment and repetition in the work, a need for privacy, to stew in our own juices before a creative work can be brought to fruition – something that can only be done when we admit to ourselves the necessity of the work, letting go of any desire for approval or progress. As Pat says, the realization that we are in a system, in process, is what makes the work alchemical.

The work is for its own sake, whether it be the work in therapy, art, dance, music, writing, or cooking, the focus within the work is the work. It does not aim at any static state, remove desires or bring peace, although we may experience a range of states in or from the work. Alchemical practice requires “the sacrifice of non-arrival.”

Thank you for enduring the extra length in these class notes. I’ll stop here with one last quote on the pelican:

“The Pelican offers an image for the wounding that the work causes. We feel the cost in blood. “Things must be cooked in their own blood,” is an oft-repeated admonition. We feel the draining in the body for what might come later but is now entirely unknown, the Pelican’s offspring, children of the imagination, for “Imagination bodies forth / The form of things unknown.”  The Pelican: vessel of psychological faith, a phrase used by a keen student of alchemy, Robert Grinnell,  for an attitude or a devotion that calls for nothing less than giving in, giving over to the opus all personal demands one has upon it, for its sake, come what may.” james Hillman

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

Class Notes – Session Six*

In Class Six of the Jung Platform’s online series, Alchemical Psychology, presenters Robbie (Robert Bosnak) and Pat (Patricia Berry) begin with a discussion on deriving meaning from matter, or the materials. This is a continuation of the discussion on fueling the fire in alchemy which needs heat to purify and transform the metals, or materials. Knowing the nature of the fire also involves an understanding of the nature of the fuel used to sustain the desired temperatures in the work.

Robbie reminds us of Hillman’s urging not to be in a hurry to derive meaning from the materials but to stay with the image. The image, whether in a dream, a memory, or a substance – is that which already has its own qualities, layers and depths. The more we can stay with the image the more we begin to discern its nature. Pat uses the analogy of being a servant to the material; ‘…”a waiting on” that is invisible and had no desires of its own.’ She sees serving as something lost to our culture because of its modern, and mostly negative, connotations. Serving can be seen though, as a respected art, an art of leaving one’s personality behind, becoming invisible to give oneself over much as an actor or a writer does.

The idea of absence, or a lack of presence being seen as a desirable trait in alchemical work is very appealing to me and I really enjoyed Pat’s speaking to an idea that doesn’t get voiced very often today.

As Pat noted in Japanese Kabuki dance-drama, the karoko are entirely dressed in black and are the most valued members of the performance as they are responsible for changing props and scenery without being noticed. From Wiki:

“Scenery changes are sometimes made mid-scene, while the actors remain on stage and the curtain stays open. This is sometimes accomplished by using a Hiki Dōgu, or small wagon stage. This technique originated at the beginning of the 18th century, where scenery or actors move on or off stage on a wheeled platform. Also common are stagehands rushing onto the stage adding and removing props, backdrops and other scenery; these kuroko (黒子) are always dressed entirely in black and are traditionally considered invisible.”

The nature of invisibility returns the discussion back to charcoal, a porous substance already purified by fire, and so desirable as fuel. As Hillman says of charcoal:

“It has been through the fire, a twice-born fuel, first as natural wood, then as the essence of that wood. Charcoal: an opus contra naturam. Also, charcoal signals in its lifetime the colors of the alchemical opus: black lumps, white ash, yellow flame, red coals. Most mysterious: even the origin of the English word is unknown.”

As Robbie says, charcoal is a fuel that, because of its nature, does not interfere. As Hillman puts it:

“Neither reagent nor catalyst, charcoal is the fuel that does not interfere, a giver of energy asking nothing for itself in return. This is the quality of energy that fuels the opus.”

Air, a necessary fuel for the work is also invisible, and as Robbie notes “it is the inspiration not of the material but of the fire.” In alchemy there was often pictured a servant, called the Puffer, who worked a bellow to control the airflow into the fire to maintain the desired temperature for heating the elements. Air has always been known to us as a primary animating element, necessary for creation and for light. Air is the vital essence of soul or spirit, the very breath itself, called prana, ruach, chi or pneuma which still survives in words like pneumatic and pneumonia. It is also one of the four foundational astrological elements that make up the cosmos; air, fire, earth and water. And as spirit is air, it inspires or expires, as the breathing in and out a life force we are continually nourished by.

File:Old bellow.jpgFor the fire, air both increases the heat and cools it down depending on the application, and for us both gives and deprives us of life. From Hillman:

“Fire actually burns air, the flicker of the flame is the same oxygen that we combust. As we live, we are burning, consuming the wind, thereby generating the calor inclusus that sustains our days. Our death is expiration, the windbag emptied, the fire out. The act of breathing is our first participation in the cosmos, circulating in our intimate interiority.”

And because this passage is Hillman at his best…

“Fire lives on mind, and the sustaining heat of our warm-bloodedness depends on inspiration, on fantastic invention, breezy wit and windy rhetoric, on brain-storming, rarefied theories and cool ideas. The mind, a blast-furnace…The alchemist with his puffer and bellows sucks into his project inspiration from the nous of the world, the archetypal mind that moves like the wind around the whole earth.”

Here Hillman makes reference to those whose work has come before ours – texts, works and art that we inhale to inspire us, as one book opens another.

Also inherent in air is the quality of detachment, coolness and space. The fire, and our work, both need some breathing room, the right amount of detachment or cooling to keep it from getting too hot to work with or from going out.

We move next to the nature of the metals, which contain within them a correspondence as in astrology to the seven planets. They are then in Hillman’s words, “in touch with the gods; they bear mythical messages.” Each metal then carries within a spirit, a guiding principle that “teaches the artisan.” This spirit or subtle body becomes the focus of alchemy and is referred to as “the sophistication of the metals.” The idea is to realize a desired quality in the metal that will be desired in the goal, or the stone.

Each metal imposes its own discipline on us and has an astrological correspondence, iron/Mars: rage or passion, copper/Venus: beauty, surfaces, shine, lead/Saturn: weightiness, time, structure. The alchemist is then seen to be hastening nature, aiding the elements toward a desired perfection, an Opus Contra Naturum that still follows and is guided by nature, but not without resistance.

“Nature does enjoy its natural state and resists change, yet it also struggles against its predeliction for stasis, subduing itself and making change possible. Nature sophisticates itself, dividing its ambivalence into two aspects – the unchanging and the changing.

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.”

In conclusion Hillman insightfully gives us a more psychological way of seeing alchemy:

“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. 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.”

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

*Because I missed class 5, I’m going to skip to 6 for now. If time allows, I may listen to the audio of the session and write something in the future.

Class Notes – Session Four

In session four of the Jung Platform’s class on James Hillman’s Alchemical Psychology, Pat and Robbie continue the conversation on the nature of the heat and fire in alchemy which can be broken down into four distinct stages. Each stage builds on the previous, increasing both the heat and the ability to withstand the depth and passion that the increase brings. The stages of heat may repeat while we come to understand the nature of both the fire and the substance of the work.

Robbie reminds us that “we are the fantasy by which we do the work.” How we imagine the work, or psychologically, how we pathologize ourselves, others and the world, is the matter of the work. Desire, so necessary for inspiring us to do alchemical work is not enough. We want the work to matter, to see something happen, to find value, but as we start the work, there is only the stone, or what is heavy, dark, cold and seemingly dead. We are both the stone and the fantasy of the stone.

File:Mithras petra genetrix Terme.jpgPat reminds us of the story of Mithras, a Persian god with many mythic parallels to Christianity, and in some versions, born from a rock. Mithraic mysteries themselves include some alchemical elements and were practiced as rites of initiation well into the Christian era, which included seven degrees of initiation as listed by St. Jerome, each corresponding to one of the seven planets.

In the first stage, as discussed in Session Three, the images are of brooding, slowness, restraint, rumination, all of which allow the material to ferment, deepening us into the work by isolating us into a place where we can accumulate the material. The containment of isolation warms the stone and heat begins to build.

“Evidently this fire is generated by brooding, digesting and holding within the lower body, its fermenting bowels and silent womb.”

As the heat builds the second stage is entered as ashes begin to form. Ashes, warm to the touch are what’s left from the initial gathering of heat. It’s not enough heat to change the stone, no birthing here, but as Hillman says, here begins the “roasting of our own base nature.” Ashes, cool enough to touch, allow us to sift through them, mixing memory and desire increasing the intensity; the heat of our passions rising as we recall a past we cannot change or a are stuck by habit and repetition through the inability to change.

“…the fierce heat of fine ashes, unstirred by the breezes of fantasy. Why fierce? Because ash is the ultimate reduction, the bare soul, the last truth, all else dissolved.”

Sifting through the ashes can also purposely reduce the heat when there is too much. Robbie spoke of using ashes as a way to get distance from a present heartache so as not to destroy the work because we’re too heated. In therapy he might move a patient away from a present intense feeling back to a time in the past in which something similar happened.

Again, alchemy is a practice and discipline of cooking the elements, the matter and stuff of our lives, bringing our cold, hard, stoney nature alive for the sake of psyche, soul-making and the Anima Mundi or world soul. Rather than trying to forsake the horror and tumult of all that has gone before we are using the substance of ourselves, mining for gold in our own pathology, and as Hillman says, by “cooking in our own blood.” I am reminded here of the nursery rhyme that says, “ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

The third stage is one in which the heat is now too hot for touching, “out of your hands,” Hillman says.

“If the first stage was held in the body and the second in memory, this is the heat of desperate determination, an isolating anger that drives the work ever more hotly.”

Pat and Robbie, whom both had close relationships to Hillman, talked a bit about his heated nature, which for some was too much. With both his natal sun, moon and mercury in Aries, Hillman was perhaps, more comfortable with Martian heat, anger and passion. Pat recalls him referring to it as “a tame beast” useful as a tool.

For some, turning up the heat is very uncomfortable and in the public square of work, school and play is very much feared and discouraged. I had a romantic relationship with a man years ago that was both painful and transformative. This man was an expert at arguing and we often engaged in heated discussions that helped me in freeing my own voice, tapping into the deep well of intuition, knowledge and life experience. I needed that fiery relationship even though there were many destructive elements that ultimately led to its demise.

In the fourth and hottest stage of the heat, we reach an intensity that carries with it a potential for destruction, or too much detachment, but also a drying of the excessive moisture of the soul. It is the moistness of the soul that keeps us too attached to our own wounds, too emotional; unable to gain the distance needed for objective insight. The wet soul is still innocent, “soaked in its own feeling and subjectivity,” where suffering is inauthentic, a foamy comfort in which we drown in emotion. The work is not a way to avoid emotions and suffering, but to let wounds and failures inform us, becoming a Master of Arts, authenticating us as elders of family and tribe.

“Besides the obvious association of iron and flame with the smith and the forge, there is a warrior-of-the-spirit implication in the third and fourth degrees. The desert saint, ascetics; “it is death to soul to become moist,” said Heraclitus, for whom Fire was the primal principle. All the soul’s stickiness is up in flames, vanished into thin air, and the smoky, oily, smelly worldliness of sulfuric desires have been purified.”

Calcination, a quality of high heat brings the “reduction of confusion to an essence…a fine powder…the essential realization.”

“Moments in memory or a weave of sensations (odors, tastes) debrided of personal associations, leaving but a calx, an objective correlative of the overdetermined issue. No long-winded account of circumstances, only the hot core. No causality. No context or conditions. The truth of what is because of only what is – unalloyed. Utter reduction through heat. “Your material can be cooked only in its own blood,” say the texts.”

In reduction down to essence, we can now see without emotion, not the why or how of the matter, but what. It may be that an inability to look deeply comes when we slip away from the “what” of the matter to probe causation.

It may be the time to recall that Hillman sees the potential in alchemical work for looking beyond psychological work that focuses strictly on ourselves, but rather, one that moves outward into a world sensed as alive, animated, ensouled, and where we might find our life’s work, however that gets defined. But the work aimed outward does in turn work on us, just as the cook, along with the ingredients, is transformed through the art of cooking.

All quotes 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“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.