PSYCHOLOGICAL ALCHEMY by Iona Miller
"When the light of the Sophia had mixed with the darkness, it caused the darkness to shine." --Sophia's Prayer of Repentance from The Apocryphon of John
"The precious goals of alchemy are neither physical achievements...nor metaphysical truths...We are not in the realm of metaphysics or physics." --James Hillman, "Concerning the Stone"
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our darkness, that frightens us." --Nelson Mandela
“Truth is a pathless land. Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophical knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection. Man has built in himself images as a fence of security -- religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these images dominates man's thinking, his relationships and his daily life. These images are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man." --J. Krishnamurti, The Core of the Teachings, 1980
Metaphoric, Rational & Philosophical Alchemy
Best PracticesWhen we want to understand reality we use models. That way we can experiment and predict. In some instances the models can be used to "run" reality. From the days of medieval alchemy to the early days of science, we had to model what was seen and touched. Testing of theories was limited to crude laboratories. The elemental model of fire, air, earth, and water was the best understanding of reality.
Nevertheless some tinkered with theories beyond the visible. Atoms were suggested as early as 600 BCE in India, but this philosophical idea was untestable at that time. Around 450 BCE, Democritus coined the Greek term átomos, meaning "uncuttable" or "the smallest indivisible particle of matter" that cannot be divided. Modern science claimed the name atoms for a physical not philosophical particle. By the mid 19th century, theories could be proven right or wrong, fast forwarding humanity toward the technosociety we take for granted today.A practical model requires two things: A way to represent real world objects and a way to model what happens between such objects. Matter became numerous molecules, which could be modelled by a smaller number of building blocks, the 117 elements known today. Now each atom can be deconstructed down to the sheer nothingness of zero point energy and even speculatively followed beyond the mystic veil of observability into the subquantal realm, including its antimatter twin.
Knowledge, Concepts, Tools & Skill
We practice alchemy, like one would practice medicine, healing or psychotherapy. So, we can apply the model of "best practices" in current thinking to alchemy. They help us target the relevant conceptual framework and knowledge. A best practice is a technique or methodology that, through experience and research, has been proven to reliably lead to a desired result. Concepts are developed into operational processes that are developed and optimized.
Best practice refines a process into a model of excellence, a higher dimension of quality. It is a superior method or innovative practice that contributes to the improved performance. They are used in the technology arena, and can likewise be applied to scientific and spiritual technologies, such as alchemy. Best practices uses improved techniques to promote and implement improved processes. New concepts broaden our framework.
Best practices are the most efficient, effective ways to achieve goals, distilled into adaptable, repeatable procedures. First is building a firm foundation. Core methods provide a framework for integration of subject matter expertise (SME).
A streamlined methodology helps us avoid technical errors and sort through the best solutions for any task. Those practices (strategies, activities or approaches) have produced outstanding results in another situation, but we can always tweak suggested practice to make it even better. Creativity and whole-brain thinking are core competencies in alchemy.
Best practice is the belief in a technique, method, process, activity, incentive or reward that is more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc. Following a path of least resistance it uses minimal effort to achieve optimal results. It is both efficient and effective. But one alchemist's best practice, specific practical guidelines, is not necessarily the same as another's. This is well illustrated in alchemical literature with its dense symbolism. First we need to know the technical language specific to our areas of interest.
Some common translatable domains of best practice may be applied to the art of alchemy, including the following: teaching/education (mentoring), good operating practice, strategic management, incremental and iterative development, quality assurance, risk management, change process, milestones, defect tracking, benchmarking, evidence-based medicine, sustainable development and project management. Yet, even when best practices fail, we learn something significant.
The Great Work
Alchemy is rightly called The Great Work, not the great play, because it means a lifelong effort of continuous learning. It aims to comprehend and even engineer aspects of the interaction of matter, soul and spirit. How can we understand the wisdom tradition of alchemy today without a state of the art comprehension of at least the broadstrokes of the nature of matter as science understands it (physics) as well as a fundamental psychological knowledge of the workings of the human personality, unconscious and psychophysical nature?
Don't we have to comprehend what we are before we can comprehend the process of transformation toward something greater, more integral or more universal, even spiritual? There are many different levels of interpretation of phenomenological reality. Something is seen, but we don't know precisely what it is.
The historical dimension is another that informs our search as much as literature and art. Art has an alchemical effect on the imagination. Arts-based learning is a catalyst for developing creativity and innovation. It tells us where mankind has come from and frames the great enterprise of human civilization, including the illuminative arts.
We cannot accurately assess the actual historical phenomenon of alchemy, since even in the past each alchemist had his or her own peculiar interpretation of process, operations and results. This problem remains today, embodied in those who claim and insist they have found the Elixir or Stone of the Wise, spiritually, psychologically, scientifically, or practically. It slips from our grasp in the gap somewhere between 3D spatial and 4D hyperspatial hyperreality.
For example, carbon is the "chemist's dream." There are over 10 million carbon compounds, the most stable of which is Diamond. Carbon is reactive yet stable requiring little energy to initialize its transformative processes. But its ability to combine with oxygen in CO2 has created our climatic crisis. Instead of healing what ails us, it threatens to annihilate us along with much of the biosphere, utterly. But, naturally, it is not the carbon but our own lack of foresight, misconceived and misplaced actions that have led to this depletion of the planet.
The history of the Stone is concerned as much with failure to find or hold onto the Stone as much or more than realizing its promise as the process/goal. That is what drives and transforms ourselves in the inner quest. We are mortified, depressed and astonished again and again by our hubris and the opacity of our denial and self-delusion. Sanity and madness are part of the transformative process.
Sometimes we heartily believe we have found the Stone, again and again, only to lose it in an even deeper realization of our personal and collective vanity. The Stone doesn't belong to one philosopher but to us all collectively. The flip side of our narcissistic mistakes, even as a culture is that we also contain the potential for genius, and it might reverse our situation.
In alchemy, destruction is a precondition of transformation and renewal. We torture the prima materia into a quantum leap that reveals its immanent meaning. In this sense, matter depends on us and our self-work, and degree of awakening in our consciousness and actions.
Science still lacks the Holy Grail of a unified theory though so many stunning discoveries have been made. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says that in its current form, "the Standard Model [of quantum mechanics]...is supremely ugly... It's like gluing together an aardvark, whale, and platypus and declaring it to be nature's supreme evolutionary creation." He also says that, "consciousness is one of the great problems facing science," and states plainly that despite the mainstream view, "most scientists cannot even define it, let alone explain it." http://www.dailygrail.com/features/michio-kaku-impossible-science
We can and do presume the multi-leveled wisdom of alchemy sought an objective, universal truth with the prospect of immediate insight into the nature of creation, not as a primordial event in deep time but as the ever-present living truth. Which alchemy one practices depends on whether one is primarily a psychologist, a scientist, artist, metaphysician, spagyrist, or fusions thereof.
For the alchemist, the soror mystica (whether partner, soul guide, mentor or apprentice) is a trusted thinking partner, source of inspiration, feedback and resonance. The alchemical partner helps clarify, reflect, re-frame, challenge assumptions, discover new perspectives, insights, and formulate strategies toward specific goals.
The conscious visionary thought of the alchemists produced speculative images and ideas with a persistence of corresponding thematic material. Secret formulae are as numerous as hidden signatures. If two viable theories (or more) seem to contradict one another, they must conceal a deeper secret in their apparent contradiction. This is as true among post-Jungians as physicists and spiritual, practical or psychological alchemists. Practical alchemy deals with experiments to produce tinctures, tonics, oils, compounds and elixirs that embody healing energy.
The senses inform our phenomenal experience but so does the unconscious through the mind's speculative and poietic thought. Much to our surprise we often find we know more than we thought we know because of the vast reservoir behind the mind. Rather than antithetical to image, thought embodies the soul of the image itself.
There is light in the darkness and darkness in the light. This is particularly true of the dark luminescence of the image of the Philosophers Stone. Jung called the Stone, "the light of darkness itself," which illuminates its own darkness...[and] turns blackness into brightness."
Philosophy, art and science are not opposed, but illuminate one another in a deeply meaningful way by embodying our liveliest thoughts. If this is projection, it is projection of the loftiest sort, as a means of moving toward the as-yet-unknown. It is not clear which is more fundamental when we consider 'image' in a radical way. Both are grist for the mill. Our challenge is to extract the imagery from our thoughts and clear thinking from imagery, including that which relates to the nature of matter and ourselves through self-work.
This is the domain of Psychological Alchemy, as outlined by Jung and developed in the alchemical writings of the post-Jungians. Rather than negating meta-theories, it opens their imaginal content which amplifies their meaning, potentially leading to practical new discoveries. We can still take physics philosophically as if it were still natural science.
Alchemy uses the methods of many wisdom cultures to intuitively grasp the possibilities, to plumb the secrets of matter and energy. True imagination, distinct from fantasy, allows us to create and evoke images, which have a life and logic of their own, true to their nature. Such are the symbolic correspondences of alchemy, a repertoire of such ingredients for active, purposive creation. The body is harnessed to get what the soul really wants.
Consciousness is a primordial force of nature, which like imagination is a form of Mercurius. We have to open ourselves to the call of the Stone. New insight, even unexpected or unwanted, can come from any discipline through the marriage of subject and object, spirit and matter, through synchronicity or the unus mundus. Our challenge is to avoid the one-sidedness of abstract language or the narrow point of view of isolated disciplines. Ours is a multi- or transdisciplinary approach.
Symbol can give rise to thought just as thought can give rise to symbol. Which is given priority is a matter of personal and philosophical orientation. Image and metaphor cannot be reduced, and thought, including theories, can be approached imaginally. The battle between spirit and soul, thought and image is an old one, and influences our notions of best practice in alchemy, depending on our psychological type. We may be most interested in practical experimentation (sensation), clear insight (thinking), felt-sense subtle bodies (feeling), intuitive revelations and creative speculative thought (intuition).
Combinations thereof will color our approach, depending on which we resonant with and which are our forte. Naturally, our best efforts remain full of darkness, often due to the vagaries of language itself and limitations of even mathematical theories. This darkness that shines is more than metaphorical itself -- it is primordial awareness.
In science, substance speaks for itself given the chance. We abstract matter from our image of creation. Psyche's need to substantiate is contained within the entire panoply of scientific endeavor, but substantiating psyche is not its aim, which is to discover the true nature of reality and its immutable laws. But many disciplines have revealed the need of substance to speak, and such is the case in the philosophical/experimental discipline of alchemy.
Primordial awareness combines the direct felt-sense of the natural mindbody, the ground zero of thought, the creative root of intuition, and the biophotonic reality of our sensate embodiment. Throughout all the eras mankind has sought the Stone, our biophotonic nature was locked within us, waiting to be discovered as an objective reality. Nevertheless, the stone that is not a stone remains an enigma, which does not yield to understanding and cannot be held in a few simple meanings, including eidetic moments of shining truth, or the 'isness' of things, a created self or purified consciousness.
The Stone is linked to the lumen naturae, the luminous vehicle and central mystery of alchemy. Sometimes Mercurius is an image and sometimes it is a philosophical thought, perhaps embodied as a scientific theory. Just because biophotons are substantive doesn't make them less of a 'psychic reality.' In meditation, lack of light in inner vision during practice is called "licking the dry stone."
But the shining is always there in the core or heart of darkness. Our field bodies are physically and psychically part of the unity of the unus mundus. Intense experiential involvement with the subtle body can be a source of revelation, true imagination and psychophysical embodiment. Psychological alchemy contends reality comes in the reunion of psyche and matter.
Spiritual alchemy links it to living light, including the foreknowledge, gnosis and synchronicity that appears in nonordinary experience of the broader cosmic field. This subtle body, resurrection body, immortal body or diamond body is made by the alchemist through intentionality and practice inhabiting the psychic body as a vehicle that takes one beyond mere earthly form. Thus, we "die to live" in our true deep form.
This mixed nature of our phenomenal experience doesn't mean we have to take it only as literal and concrete, even though it appears to be real. Nor does taking it alchemically mean we take it religiously, even as a redemption from redemption, stuffing it full of salvific redemption. It simply IS (isness), the prima and ultima materia -- there all along as the goal of our search. The unconscious remains as mysterious as the nature of reality.