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

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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 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.

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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.