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.

Leaving the Temple

“Most, if not all of modern scientific data—and the interpretation thereof—is provisional in nature, only revealing a small part of the bigger picture.  In this respect, the interpretation of this research is, regrettably, false.   Here, I mean false in as bold and far-reaching as possible: not according to truth or fact; erroneous; incorrect; designed to deceive; illusory.” Erik Andrulis

In a recent post entitled Why Most Published Research is False, Erik Andrulis, scientist and theoretician by profession, challenges the notion that the field of science is capable of providing and condensing whole truths through data and research. My own sense is that science, because constrained as much as all human endeavor is by the nature of our senses, has a limited ability to translate and interpret research and data wholly and accurately into language and practice.

I see that the persistent but often ignored inability to separate the Knower from Knowing impedes our ability to tell the whole story. I love and respect that as a Scientist, Erik not only accepts, but can articulate for a lay audience the limitations of Science, which has become one of the most influential voices in the culture.

Now days, it’s risky for anyone, but especially a professional in the science community, to be critical of Science because acceptance or rejection of accepted dogmas is often used to identify individuals as either believers or heretics, much like Christianity was used in ages past. Okay, so heretics are not likely to suffer the physical torture as in ages past, but cultural shunning is still alive and well and has created an atmosphere in which there is very little tolerance for questioning the conclusions of science and related fields, and especially those that use or cite scientific evidence to support a conclusion or the promotion of an idea or a product.

File:God the Geometer.jpgMay I suggest that science itself has fallen into the grip of a myth, and one of the most persistent and unexamined myths of the western mind; that of the Hero, the same myth that underlies Christianity.

Both address the problem of evil and of human suffering and offer a form of salvation as the solution, even though the problem gets restated by science as having material roots rather than spiritual, with the philanthropic goal of peace through prosperity by creating and using technology for the elimination of pain and suffering, and where paradise on earth means elimination of hardships of the past to feed, clothe and protect ourselves from the elements.

Worthy goals, but without reflection and clarity, the myth of the hero, with his emphasis on action and acting (salvation and saving) risks losing sight of the goal caught up in the thrill of the conquest and battle, either seeking power over demons or power over the elements inside the laboratory.

A Science that is gripped by the power of the hero myth and its fantasy of salvation has faith in a goal that lacks clarity and vision and trusts in its ability to understand the human condition, and to be on the side of goodness which empowers its position in the culture, reaching levels of intoxication similar to those of the Christian zealots it once claimed to be freeing us from. The hero’s good intentions replace the necessity for reflection and justify its every deed, from splitting the atom to modifying genes, because the ends are trusted to justify the means.

Here we find that science and religion do share a likeness in their mythological perspective of playing the part of a powerful hero which requires a weaker victim in need of saving. I see a cultural shift from the salvation of personal sin through spiritual means from the grace of God and King to the salvation of science and technology through material grace and the promise of an end to suffering.

Mythologically speaking, we have traded in our gods of religion for the gods of science and technology.

Science is supported with facts and figures, and offers us the security of the concreteness of stuff that works – all else is deemed anecdotal, meaning unreliable, not to be trusted and often used to discount all claims of a metaphysical nature such as Near Death Experiences, the power of prayer, dreams or any other spiritual practices.

There’s cultural history here in which We, being swept away by the myth of the Hero, under the guise of finally leaving religion behind and getting it right through science, are seduced by the acceptance and power that comes from the fight against the former powers of the old King, the Christian God, and even Superstition, all of which in moderns times have been placed into the shadowy darkness whose defeat as a cultural paradigm is viewed as essential for Progress.

With this criticism I am not promoting a return to the past , but that by looking at the demands of the Hero archetype through its images we might locate ourselves within the myth, and see how it drives and influences the culture through political, religious and scientific beliefs. If we want to save something, what is it and what are we saving it from, and more importantly, what are we saving it for?

“If I told you what it takes to reach the highest high,
you’d laugh and say nothing’s that simple.
But you’ve been told many times before,
Messiah’s pointed to the door.
No one had the guts to leave the Temple.” Pete Townshend