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.

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.