The alchemists, like the ancient Chinese sages who created The I Ching, studied nature to discover the fundamental process at the heart of transformation. They focused on the hen and the egg. Within the egg lies a composition of primordial liquid. Encapsulating this liquid is a tough boundary, a shell. Sitting upon the egg and providing the heat for transformation rests the hen. Thus, the combination of these three elements —prima materia, a sealed container, and heat— yields a transformation of life from liquid prima materia to a solid living chick.
Modeled upon these principles, the alchemists set up their personal laboratories in an attempt to transform prima materia into gold. Jung discovered that the procedures and findings of the alchemists mirrored his own discoveries of the inner workings of the human psyche in its quest for wholeness.
In his own research, through psychotherapy, Jung discovered that the boundaries of the human psyche far exceed that which our conscious personality is aware of. In fact, he discovered that most of what we truly are is largely unknown or unconscious to us. What we know inside ourselves as I, is but one fragment, albeit important (!), of a much greater whole. For Jung, the major purpose in human life is to seek and unify our fragments, to become whole in a complete sense; joining known and unknown parts in a process he termed individuation. Individuation is the alchemical equivalent of creating the gold and, like alchemy, has the psychic equivalence of prima materia in the form of fragments, a sealed container in the form of a clearly defined psyche with boundaries, and heat, which is generated through the containment and amalgamation of one’s fragments into a unified whole. The heat is the intense emotional pressure generated through containing the oppositions inherent in our fragments. Individuation is the outcome of this transformative process where these fragments peacefully coalesce into a unified whole in full consciousness.
The first step in the process is to know our parts. What are they?! Where are they?! The part we know the best is our ego self. It consists of consciousness, attitudes, beliefs, skills, and psychic functions that come most naturally to us, and that we find most acceptable to the world. Then there are those parts of us, those tricksterish parts —feelings, thoughts— so unacceptable to our egos and the outside world that we repress them into the shadow, the darkness within. Then there is our deeply instinctual self —sexual and aggressive energies— that, in our highly refined, civilized self may remain deeply inaccessible to our conscious life. Beyond this, we house the burdens of our families and ancestors and the traits of our genetic line, as well as the archetypal patterns common to the entire human race, at its core. All these parts, many of which we are completely unaware of, exist and influence our moods, thoughts, actions, and reactions in daily life.
Then, of course, there is the multitude of projected aspects of our self, lodged in people, places, and things in the outside world to which we are fully unaware. The first challenge of individuation is to sift through the prima materia, to collect and own the elements of the self, both within and without. We must distinguish the I from the Not I if we are ever to arrive at the boundary of the self, which is our psychic container, our egg, our hermetic vessel.
As we develop the moral courage and psychic stamina to take ownership of our parts, however shameful, frightening, fragile, or unacceptable they may be, we contain them within and clearly define the circle around the self. This is the process of sifting through the prima materia as we withdraw our projections and shed light upon our shadow, holding firmly to what is truly ours. In the process, we may discover “alien parts” that have found their way into our psychic structures, clearly not I. These may be the archetypes, which have so much energy that they can burst through our boundaries and take possession of our egos. These represent forces that we can and must interact with, be schooled and nourished by. However, we must clearly not allow them to take up residence within the boundaries of the self, as they are liable to create distorted ideas of who we are, or create compulsions that we cannot understand, or terrify us with frightening thoughts and images.
In honor of the Lenten season, I refer here to the process Christ underwent in the desert, drawing his line or circle in the sand, casting out the devils, the Not I, from the boundaries of his Self. The shamans teach a magical pass called the lifesaving pass where you stand with feet shoulder width apart, arms extended straight down at a forty-five degree angle away from the body, and swinging from side to side, with hips remaining facing front, allow the upper torso and arms to swing back and forth in a circular motion, using the downward pointed hands to carve a complete circle around the self, which seals in one’s energy. One can also create a circle by sitting calmly on the floor or the ground and make a circle around the body with whatever seems resonant. Within that circle bring objects that symbolize all the known parts of the self, including the most contentious. Representations of compulsions, emotions, beliefs about the self that do not belong within the self should be cast outside of the circle. One might include as well a candle within the circle, representing both the heat and the light of consciousness, which sits like mother hen upon her egg. The psyche itself presents images of circles in dreaming to indicate prima materia that should be included within the boundaries of the self for our contemplation. Watch for those discarded pennies in the streets of your dreams!
The containment function of our hermetic vessel is completed with a seal, a hermetic seal. We seal our psyche by holding onto our parts in full awareness, despite, at times, our excruciating discomfort with the emotions they might generate, such as deep sadness, shame, rage, hate, and, yes, even love. Love often escapes our hermetic seal in a projection of weekend blissful love, spent upon our newly discovered god/goddess, only to have us wake up Monday morning, once again disappointed and deeply disillusioned. We might have been better served containing this energy, which seeks unification within the psyche, in our internal alchemical process of transformation, resulting in deeper self-love.
The containment of the powerful emotions of our opposing parts seek to burst apart the container through the outlets of projection, distraction, acting out, and general self-delusionment. The ability to hold the truths, with all their energies within, is the key here. Let us appreciate the patience of the hen sitting calmly upon her egg.
Finally, the heat. The heat is generated by our ability to keep the container sealed, following the guidance of mother hen. To accept and retain the unacceptable in the self, perhaps choosing not to open another kind of bottle to soothe the tension within, or perhaps to decide not to gossip with a friend about an “unacceptable other,” is to remain calm and patient, presiding over and containing within the facts and energies of the self. This process of bearing the tensions of those inner oppositions results, and here is the magic, in the transformation of our inner fragments into psychic gold.
And what might that gold look and feel like?: True self acceptance, calmness, compassion, removal of another veil as the crutch of another illusion is dismissed, a deeper alignment with and knowing of the true self, and the readiness to enter a relationship from a position of wholeness. This hermetic transformation is the birth of the chick, the inner child of innocence, freed of the tensions of the old oppositions, ready to enter new life.
If you wish to correspond, please feel free to post a comment below.
Until we meet again,