Class Notes – Session Seven

In the seventh session of the Jung Platform’s class on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, the discussion moves to the nature of the material, the vessel used for containment and the necessity of the “separatio,” of essence from the material. In psychological work this distinction is at the heart of the work, whether in a therapeutic setting or in one’s everyday life. Distinguishing between what can and can’t be changed is a life-long practice.

Our hosts, Pat Berry and Robert Bosnak began with a discussion on the nature of the material and resistance to the work.

“Resistance of any thing is given with its essential nature…Resistance in the work and to the work is not personal but ontological. Being does not move, said Parmenides, to which Heraclitus replied, all things move. Two differing ontologies. Ontological ambivalence.” James Hillman

As Robbie says, the material seeks its essence although resists separation, but at the same time wants to be changed from its present habitual state to its essence.

“The natural body of the metal may become a liquid, a powder, a vapor; it can combine, shift colors, submit to the effects of other substances. The subtle body, however, persists in its own self-same unalterability.” James Hillman

Is it habit then that corrupts essence hidden by habits used for adapting to our situation? Wanting to change therefore carries with it an ambivalence to actually changing. Habit can encrust the material keeping essence hidden.

Accidents, illness, both physical and mental can be the catalyst for change, the thing that causes a fracture in routine, therefore forcing us out of our habit.

“Nature desires to come out and first comes out as a symptom,” says Robbie.

Pat reminds us that the symptoms guide the process. If one is perhaps too soft, too gentle, a cruelty may be necessary to move resistance, that force of habit which perpetuates vulnerability. Each person and situation presents unique material with its own illness or symptom offering the opportunity to break a habit which hides a valuable essence.

“Yet the innate urge toward perfectibility welcomes the fire. Hence, they rejoice also in their submission, allowing themselves to be smelted, hammered, and extracted from their home ground.” James Hillman

Robbie and Pat discussed the need too for a masochism that submits to the “work” in therapy and also how unpopular the language of masochism and sadism has become. Submission breaks down resistance:

“It takes heat to subdue the innate resistance of a substance, a heat gentle enough to melt the stubborn and fierce enough to prevent regression to the original state (emphasis added). Only when the regression to the original “found” condition – the substance in its symptomatic presentation – is no longer possible, only when it has been thoroughly cooked and has truly separated itself from its historical and habitual mode of being can an alteration be said to have been accomplished. Then the substance, which psychology might call a complex, becomes less autonomous and more malleable and fusible, having lost its independence as an intractable object that objects and resists.” James Hillman

Submission is that state of malleability in which change can occur; submission is itself the change and the agent of change.

The material desires sophistication through separation, differentiation and disidentification. Not distinguishing between what is essence and what is encrusted habit filters our perceptions, keeping us stuck – seeing and defining ourselves, others and all we encounter, because we’re not able to look, listen, hear and see each instance anew. Through the force of habit we are restricted by past perceptions without being aware of them, for we do not often think about our thinking.

This rings true for me as I am sure it does for many others. If we’ve ever seen the world anew, the experience and taste of renewal introduces to us the possibility that there is a way out of our encrusted stuckness. But before we leave behind the force of habit we are likely to encounter resistance. It can be hard to distinguish between essence and habit. The fear of losing one’s own essence might become the resistance to letting go of habit.

I often wonder in my own moments of stubbornness, can I let go of the wound? I think the cultural climate too, has left an era where woundedness, not often acknowledged, has led to one in which our wounds are bought and sold as commodities. To stay wounded, seeking revenge on the perpetrators of crimes committed against us benefits politicians and pharmaceutical companies but does not promote the idea that healing is possible.

Robbie uses the example of the fear of dogs that might originate from a bad childhood experience tainting all future experiences with dogs. The subtle body, or essence of dogness is lost then, through the habit of fear.

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

The Vessel

“Do not act out; do not hold in. A paradox. And a double negative that suggests a via negativa, a de-literalizing cancellation of both commandments. A mercurial escape from the exhausting oscillation between them. Instead of holding in or acting out, act in.” James Hillman

What we act in then is the vessel. Vessels both contain and separate. The vessel is both what holds us and the material forming and shaping, storing and styling events and experiences:

“Vessels: methods of containment. Can you take the heat? Are you opaque and dense, slow to warm so no one can tell what is going on inside? Sometimes it is less an issue what is in the vessel, the nature of the stuff being contained, and more one of shape: leaky, fragile, brittle, solid, full to overflowing, empty, cracked … “I’m doing fine, in great shape.” James Hillman

The vessel then tells a lot about the material:

“Vessels present the style of a culture. One image tells a story: a chipped, dirty toothbrush glass for whiskey in a cheap bed-sitter by Graham Green; pop-up beer cans, Styrofoam cups, jokey ungainly coffee mugs, motel wastebaskets with plastic liners. The bruhaha over wine-glass shapes, stems, thinness … By their vessels ye shall know them.” James Hillman

Shaping and forming what it contains – so by “not acting out,” is to value containment. To “not hold in” uses the vessel to release what is contained.

Robbie and Pat then discussed the difference between “acting out” vs. to “acting in.” I found their distinctions useful. To act out is perhaps what comes from habit, a defense against a more fresh, spontaneously creative way to respond. To act in then is to bring to each moment an awareness of both the act, the actors and the story in which we are a part of. Not so much to separate ourselves from our actions, as if we could act objectively, but to see our actions as taking part in the play or myth of each situation. I suppose the difference lies in a flexibility to imagine more fully what it is that is going on.

Hillman cautions us on too much identification with the vessel or locating it within us as all things have their interiority. Contained things are separated things, necessary for differentiating one thing from another, you from the not-you. It is the separation which allows us to discern whether our fear of the dog is based on historical and personal habit, or on our animal sense of the particular nature of the dog coming toward us at this moment.

“You are not the vessel, nor is it necessary to believe that “within” is within you – your personal relationships, your psychic processes, your dreams. Interiority is within all things – the garden bed that is in preparation, the poem that is the focus of attentive emotions. Keep a close watch on these interiorities; by watching we are vesseling, for it is the glass vessel that allows the watching, and watching provides the very separation and containment expressed concretely by the glass vessel.” James Hillman

Glass

Glass was a preferred material for containment to the alchemists as well as to future chemists. It’s parallels to the psyche are obvious. Session Eight deals more with the nature of glass vessels so I will stop here with one last quote from Hillman.

“Glass: like air, like water, made of earth, made in fire. Blown glass melts, liquefies, glows, expands, takes on all sorts of shape, size, thickness, brilliance, and color. It can take the heat. Glass lets us see what is going on within it, behind it. Glass, the vessel of inside revelation, capturing and transmuting the glimpse or glance into studied observation.

Glass, like psyche, is the medium by which we see into, see through. Glass: the physical embodiment of insight. The illusion of glass makes content and container seem to be the same, and because we see the content before we recognize that it is held by glass, we do not at first see its shape, its density, its flaws since our focus is fixed on the contents.” James Hillman

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

 

 

 

 

Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver

White and silver share a lot of the same qualities but Hillman breaks up the next chapter into two parts starting with silver; all things lunar and reflective. Silver allows reflection and is the means by which we mediate between psyche and the physical. The risk here is one of identifying with depersonalized images, becoming cold and detached from human life rather than using images as a bridge beween the psychic and physical worlds.

“The cool, silver psyche, though seemingly “unrelated,” can establish relations between the most burning issues and hold them together, yet without fusing them into a false compromise (amalgam). It mediates, attaching molten factions by means of its own detachment.”

042Hillman begins the chapter with a very startling idea that may be difficult for many moderns to hear. Particularly those who prefer to stave off pathological states by avoiding the black and blue stages whenever and however possible, but without which the alchemical journey has nothing to work with. For alchemy is often referred to as the Great Work and starts with the disintegration of the black and blue stages.

“Allow me to set forth as clearly and rationally as I can what I shall be about in this strange chapter. It starts from two large ideas. The first comes from Hegel who said that in insanity the soul strives to restore itself to perfect inner harmony. For Hegel, insanity is an essential stage in the development of the soul, and a stage upon which the soul purposefully performs.  Insanity belongs to soul-making. The second large idea comes from alchemy. In alchemical soul-making, gold is necessarily preceded by silver. This means that gold comes out of silver, red comes from white, sun from moon, brighter awareness from lunacy.”

Hillman frequently suggests that it is within our pathology we often find its cure – reminding us of an important understanding of the idea of homeopathy in which like cures like. Sometimes we must delve into our own craziness to find out what it is asking of us. For example, fighting off sadness will rarely make one happy but trying to be as sad as you possibly can might do the trick.

There is in this chapter a long discussion on the physical properties of the metals as understood by their elemental nature. The baser more corruptible metals were understood as moist and in need of heat and fire for transforming them. He reminds us that the root of the word metal, meaning search, “induces the activity of searching deeply into nature for the deus absconditus.”

Silver, the lunar mind is the means of reflection in which we see through images and allows the material to be hammered into specific shapes to become useful. Silver also has the quality of mirroring.

“If silver mirrors because it is both receptive (moist) and solid, then solid receptivity is the kind of consciousness that serves to mirror. Notice how necessary it is for mirroring to have incorporated or digested one’s own moisture and to be limited by one’s own boundary. One cannot mirror if one too easily flows; and one cannot mirror everything, but only what one can receive and to which one is solidly present within the limits of one’s own borders. Mirroring is not blank receptivity; it requires focusing.”

Next comes the warning that silver may cost us carrying with it the potential for debasement into lead which can then weigh us down.

“Though we may extract a silver moment from our leaden body, these extractions leave behind an even heavier and denser condition. Depression is the price of silver. Melancholy has, ever since Aristotle’s Problemata, been the disease of thinkers. The more white reflection the more burdened lead; as we produce silver, we increase the lead. This is surely familiar: an insight may be shining in itself, but it makes no dent on the gray mood from which it came.”

Silver remains vulnerable to other elements such as air.

“Silver requires polishing, attention, a bit of rubbing and fussing; it calls for worry. Since exposure makes it lose its shine, it is best hidden, protected. It is covered with blackness, by silence and dullness, and by hiding itself invisibly in lead.”

It’s a long chapter, too much to bring in here. Through the careful mining of silver we begin to notice the subtle body, and become comfortable giving metaphor equal footing in our sensing and knowing of the world.

“Metaphors are psychological language – and all alchemy is metaphorical, the luna metaphorica that Benedictus Figulus spoke of – making subtle everything we ever may have assumed to be only empirical fact, whether events in the world, our own flesh, even the elemental minerals in the earth. Alchemy transmutes the world to the dream, which it does in the laboratory of its language. ”

It’s easy to miss that it is through psyche, the soul, that we experience the world. We moderns prefer the language of brain chemistry, genetics, computer models – forgetting that those metaphors come straight out of psyche as does all of our reflections. Taking care of the silvering for reflection helps us create a bridge between what we sense and understand of the physical world remembering that all we experience comes to us primarily in images.

“Silver is hidden because it is buried all through the alchemical work itself, within every word, as the metaphorical resonance that transfers everything said and done to a psychic level. Silver is necessary from the beginning, else we cannot rightly hear the instructions. “Throw away the books,” say the alchemists, meaning “discard the literal,” so as to hear the spirit in the letter.”

Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Location 3128). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thank you to Yes for the song, I’ve Seen All Good People.

“Don’t surround yourself with yourself
Move on back two squares
Send an instant karma to me
Initial it with loving care”

Links to all posts in the series:

Colour My World , Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black http://wp.me/pZ0y1-T7

Alchemical Psychology, Part II – Blue http://wp.me/pZ0y1-TA

Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver http://wp.me/pZ0y1-Um

Alchemical Psychology, Part IV – White http://wp.me/pZ0y1-UT

Alchemical Psychology, Part V – Yellow http://wp.me/pZ0y1-WV

Alchemical Psychology, Part VI – Red http://wp.me/pZ0y1-XT

Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air http://wp.me/pZ0y1-11b

Alchemical Psychology, Part VIII – Caelum http://wp.me/Z0y1