Solve et Coagula : the nigredo pt. 2
“We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.” ~ W.H. Auden.
Mysterious powers rule over our psyches, driving our will toward their own aims and according to their own means. Left to their own purposes, they drive us by fate to places we’d often rather not go. Though we have named them and built both religious and academic institutions to try to account for them, we are yet at their mercy.
Archetypes, the animus, the anima, ego, eros, Id, shadow, daimon, imago, the unconscious, the collective unconscious, individuation, the transcendent function and all their particular flavors, incarnations and subtypes, are just some of the words making up a panoply of ideas labeling those forces that have their way with us to one degree or another. The Sages and the alchemists, unlike most psychologists and philosophers, seem to suggest that while labeling these forces does much to alleviate our fear and settle our awe in the sight of their uncanny effects, it does very little to free us from their influences.
Even as we use them, lets notice then that they are merely ideas, a system of words and names. Perhaps they are partly true. Maybe they are helpful in someways and certainly they are fascinating – at least to me. But, they are also curated aseptic jars, packed and stacked up on shelves and alphabetized like some insectarium of psyche. And unlike the forensic laboratory that safely contains the once living specimens, these samples are still alive. These jars hold radioactive doppelgängers that, while spilling out on all sides of their prescribed categories, become something else the moment we touch them. Unlike the preserved corpses of the entomologist’s lab, these animated manqué know they are being inspected and see we look at them they are looking back at us.
How we are to think of things, – including ourselves – is pre-given, written and re-written on mental packaging with instructions for its proper use. Its no wonder that nouns and pronouns have become even more reified in this atmosphere of definition contraction and exaggerated self-concern. Not only do we need to know precisely who and what we are relative to others, which side of the fence we should be shackled to, introvert, extrovert, liberal or conservative and the like, but we are also deeply concerned that others use the right terms to describe us.
This is not creative ideation, but ideology and I would go so far as to say – idolatry. Idols are every where. Even Jungians erect archetype idols, psychologists erect pathos idols, economists erect metric idols, data scientists erect predictive modeling idols, politicians erect policy idols, social activists erect issue idols. Spiritual people erect spiritual persona idols. Every one of us – including me -, despite our best intentions can easily imagine that our conception of things is accurate enough as to warrant our belief and identification with them. This is not like Adam’s nonchalant and playful naming of animals in the garden, but definition contraction, reification and fixation – where the narrowness of our comprehension is thought to be more comprehensive than it is.
This is the fixed material that we must volatilize.
The idea has overtaken the image in the hierarchy of importance. More to the point, the idea has supplanted the image altogether. Pop-psychology has told us that we need a positive self-image, but when we dig into what is meant by that, its that we need to have a bunch ideas about ourselves that we like. We need to think highly of ourselves, to have esteem for ourselves, our particular uniqueness. Never-mind whether or not those ideas or true or bring about a richer life, or if anything like a soul is expressed in it. The self image, or rather the image-idea of the self, is perhaps the most cherished of all our idols. But nowhere are there any true selves being erected on altars of worship. Instead we see bodies and personas. Instagram and social media isn’t showing us the images people have of ourselves, we are showing the ideas we have of ourselves dressed up in the guise of an image.
If there is such a thing as a self, it seems to me to far more ineffable than would ever fit in a square frame, or even a thousand square frames. But there they are stacked up in rows of blocks like a digital temple, build for the worship of a false god.
To be fair, it seems we have sublimated our archaic habit of idolatry to suit our new egocentric, economic religion. This might be progressive from earlier times. Now, rather than worshiping dolls of grass and clay and little statues of gods or devils, we worship brands, labels, status symbols and the affluence they seem to afford our self image-idea. Rather than worshiping the winged Goddess of victory, we worship the swoosh on the side of her corporate cult’s sneakers. Now, we don’t worship and lament the siren Melisande for the unrequited love she has cursed us with and pray to not by dashed upon the rocks of ill fate, instead we coveted her cup of coffee.
More than merely worshiping ideas, turning Logos; λόγος in logos and labels, we worship ideation itself. The post-truth world can’t have it any other way. Its as if a thought were true simply because we thought it, or some prestigious figure with magical letters at the end of their name wrote it, or because everyone agrees. Whatever truth is, the truth about ourselves, others, the world, this global event, that political notion – big T or little t – most of us seem fairly certain that it will come in the form of a thought, or a block of words easily and objectively discerned out from the whole background of false-hoods and half-truths flooding our minds. And, if anyone will come to the right ideas, it’ll likely be ourselves.
In Mathew 24 : 2 The Nazarene said “Do you see all these things? Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
And in Luke 21:6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
Whatever might he mean by the words; see, stone and thrown down must be of great significance here. That edifice of thought and word, inherited cultural and familial knowledge, memory and belief is not always a living testimony of truth. Often it is a fortress of unexamined and ossified notions. Partial truths misapplied, and wholly false beliefs held tightly. Often, the temple is not a Holy Temple of living knowledge, but a tower of isolation, a tower of babel, an institution of dead ideas imitating knowledge and covering over the actual image.
Those ideas which grow out of an original fallacy can not become true, no matter how passionate we are in their defense. A false premise at the base of our processes of ideation can only lead to error as we carry them out. And, though we might think we are defending a thing of great worth and value, sooner or latter we come to realize that we are not the idea’s champion but its prisoner.
This is why Jung said, “people don’t have ideas, ideas have people.” We think we think, but we do not. Thoughts are produced in us like bile and come out of us like perspiration when we go to speak. Our activities, what we ingest, what we invest our attention in and what values and forces we serve in the deepest parts of our being, determine which thoughts, which feelings and which actions will naturally follow from them. Our conditioning, and all those thought-forms that have taken up residency in our homes and have built up resilient strongholds through old alliances must dissolve.
Herein lies the function of alchemy: To free the image from the lesser ruling powers that constellate the psyche, so that it can reflect the One light giving life to All that is.
“Dissolve the fixed and fix the volatile”, that central maxim of alchemy means this; dissolve the mental constructs erected as idols of a false self-image. And fix, meaning to congeal, coagulate or condense in to a solid and stable form, that ineffable luminous essence of the divine image – idea in its place.
In the process of calcination we became aware of our proclivity to the errors and delusions issuing forth from thought. We learned somewhat painfully that layer upon layer of errors had been built up in our towers of the separate self – sense. But we also learned that we don’t need to go line by line editing our errors, because all errors extend from one error – the belief in separation. When we dissolve the one false premise at the foundation of our tower of isolation, the whole edifice will collapse.
Later a great Temple of Living Truth will be rebuilt in its footprint so there is never any cause for fear or despair. Nothing valuable is ever lost, but we must be willing to sacrifice everything before we learn this.
Spiritual alchemy’s second step is dissolution. In dissolution we further reduce the obstructive ego thought system into its smallest constituents so that we can begin to sort out the vulgar salts – the dross of personality – from the precious metal we will keep for further refinement. During this phase, we employ water as the active agent, symbolizing the unconscious realm, housing the concealed aspects of ourselves that have been undiscovered until we undergo this radical self inquiry.
Just as water dissolves larger molecules into their smaller atoms and as gravity sorts out the heavier materials from the more buoyant, so to does the dissolution phase further breakdown the obstructive ego, releasing to the surface the effervescent heat, light and vapor it once held captive.
Here we immerse ourselves in the waters of the unconscious that it might reveal and release its treasures to the dawn. We take a backward or inward step, away from the surface appearances of the world, the notions of the mind made self and our attachments to its identity, in order to gain greater understanding of our true nature.
The hidden cause of our pains and hurts, our sense of lack and insufficiency, and the unrequited longing of the heart has made itself known with greater force. Yet its origin and real cause is concealed in the watery dark. Our suffering, it would seem, is owing to factors outside our own control, being the result of circumstances in the world, our past and other people. It seems our lack of fulfillment, our complaints and discontentment are the result of external conditions. What we have or don’t have, what we can do or can not do, what others do or don’t do, seem to dictate the quality of satisfaction in our life. But for the first time we have a sincere willingness to consider the possibility that external factors are not the cause.
The cause is in us. The cause is us.
Just as the still waters of a lake at night shows us the mirrored image of the moon and the stars, so to the waters of the unconscious show us the reflection of ourselves. What appears in our daily life conditions, whether we like them or not, are a mirror image of ourselves. A mirror image revealing that quality of the contents of our mind. We begin to see our problem’s real cause within, removing our focus of attention from the outward effects toward the area that we can control – our image making – the progenitors of our attitudes, beliefs, opinions and actions. We turn our attention to the true cause; the image.
Deep within the waters of the unconscious we come to encounter the image of the Self and the world we hold to be true. This image becomes the governing principle of our lives, narrating what things are and what will become. Yet this image has been painted by the ego’s thought system and depicts its belief in separation.
Whether we are free to walk in contentment with our lot, or suffer in bondage to unseen forces has little to do with external factors. Our freedom and peace rely only on the contents within, the manner in which the forces of psyche and Soul are constellated in the Self system. The image born of the ego’s belief in separation instructs the psyche to build a life and a world of experiences according to its maxims.
These maxims dictate the content, directing the creative power of the mind to the materialization of its assertion: “I am this body-form personality, isolated alone, frail, vulnerable and weak. To combat this existential travesty, I will forge alliances, under the guise of relationships, horde experiences insulating my-self with distracting sensations, memories and fantasies, and aim my life goals toward the accumulation of power objects, status symbols, and instruments of control. With these tools I become special and ward-off the dangers of a cruel and meaningless world. Then I will be somebody, then I will be safe”.
But this image-idea, its assertions and mis-creations can no longer go unquestioned, too many cracks in its veneer have exposed a higher light. One where peace has no need for a reason and no obstacles to its presence. Through the cracks in its failed illusions, a light is shining on to a field where the Self ventures freely through a glorious wilderness with no name, and no shame or fear is there to mark a thorny path. There, no mandates seek to force obedience to impossible goals, and useless strategies for protection against the unreal. There our weary heart finds its final rest, its true love and perfect innocence in communion with the only One whose words can banish our soul’s loneliness. Blessed be His name.
For this glimpse into the real and the true to be made complete in the expressions our lives, we must wash away the false image of the old dying self, removing entirely the investment of our consciousness energy in it. We must further dissolve the ashes from the incineration of the last session, breaking down any of the remaining coarse impurities, liberating from within it the life-power that made it seem real to us.
Water’s higher intuitive nature receives us to the cosmic ocean, inundating our consciousness with a newfound awareness that extends far beyond the narrow borders of our definitions. Dissolution stands as a pivotal stage in our transformation, enabling us to transcend the confines of the ego and awaken to a higher state of consciousness. We begin to detach from the dualistic self, reducing our identification with it, letting go of the many subtle ways in which we habitually argue for our limitations, project blame outside ourselves and defend our ego’s fragile claim of righteousness, allowing the waters of the psyche to spill out over every boundary, every reflex, and familiar landmark hedging us into the known and the knowable.
By taking a step back and observing our meaning making in an undefended way, we welcome back into our conscious awareness the stray and orphaned fragments of our Soul, entering more fully into the recognition of a higher dimension of existence. As the conditioned mind dissolves and relinquishes control, previously impinged facets of our being resurface.
The reservoir of emotions damned up within us, harboring hidden aspects we were hesitant to confront, breaks free from its boundaries and washes through the nervous system, clearing away the corpses of the past. This stage entails observing both the ego’s positive and negative qualities without associating our true self with them. When emotions arise, denying them, indulging them or investing identity in them, holds them in place – and so we stop.
We stop blaming external factors for our emotions, seeing that its ensnares us in resentment and puts us on the treadmill of attempting to solve our problems where they cant be solved, perpetuates negativity and impedes our transformation.
Consciously acknowledging and examining these emotions without resistance allows them to move, offering the potential for fresh growth. The dissolution stage encourages repressed feelings to resurface, regardless of their initial discomfort. This process can be perplexing, isolating, and bewildering, yet it possesses a profound beauty.
It marks the commencement of our journey of self-transcendence, through self-examination and self-acceptance. We learn to sit with our pain and suffering without attempting to conceal, diminish, rectify or justify it. We observe our responses to our thoughts and sensations and do nothing. We see that the solution lies not in fixing the seeming cause in the world but in stepping back into a deeper part of our consciousness where we are better able to recognize the nature of the deceived mind for what it is. We observe ourselves without justifying or denying the conditioned patterns of reactivity. Seeing these secondary reactions as the ego’s protection responses themselves, we resolve to relax in repose.
We simply watch as positive and negative qualities unfold without exaggerating them, conflating them, condemning them or connecting our identity to them. Judgment occurs naturally, sorting the false from the true, the worthy from the unworthy and the precious metal from the calx, but no ridicule or condemnation accompanies it – neither for ourselves or towards others. We trust in ever more complete a way that this judgment provides for our liberation and so we welcome it. It is the compassionate discrimination of our wholeness which is increasingly sensitive to both the pure and the polluted aspects constellating the Self.
By allowing everything to unfurl and flow naturally, we come to realize that the mind is a tool we employ, not our core identity. We understand that suffering emerges from identifying with our thoughts. We cease to identify with the limited self and begin to acknowledge a broader dimension of existence. By relinquishing this false self, we release the structures and systems that have previously defined our perception of ourselves.
During the dissolution stage, the remnants of our old patterns ascend to the surface for cleansing. Core wounds become activated, emerging into our awareness for release. Although we all crave certainty, grasping for it becomes counterproductive during dissolution. The water teaches us that surrendering to the unknown paves the way for a smoother transition. In this stage, we discover we have more energy, as the pent-up energy previously used to cling to upsets and resistance patterns is now liberated and can flow freely.
Liberation begins when awareness detaches from identification with the limited mind, permitting us to perceive a higher dimension of being. Finding rest and equilibrium amongst the uncertainty of our dissolving identity and the many paradoxes unfolding before us, we resolve to anchor ourselves to essential practices that will carry us through what can feel like a spiritual purgatory. This realization marks the initiation of a greater spiritual awakening and fosters a sense of maturity, humility and devotion to the continued work of self-transformation.
We have gained a more complete picture of just how pervasive our illusions are, becoming conscious of the greater spiritual journey ahead of us. Having revealed the subtle and far reaching snares of thought and the web of maya that it draws across our view of ourselves and the world, we withdraw our confidence in words, thoughts and perspectives which now seem so partial and flawed as to be unworthy of defense and repetition. Yet a need for clarity and certainty in us still persists. If I am not this ego personality than who am I? If the world is not what it appears to be than what is it? And how will it disclose itself to me? If my understanding of its nature is erroneous, won’t it also be the case that the purposes I serve also express this error?
These questions and more haunt this stage of the process, yet no adequate answers are given, since our reliance on our own voice is no longer warranted. Our pop-culture self help wisdom advises us to “trust yourself”, “trust your inner wisdom”, “trust your intuition”, but now we see perhaps for the first time, that the mind is a generator of illusions. We see the profound capacity we have for self-deception, delusion and confusion. With as incomplete and fragmentary a view of ourselves and the world as we have, trusting ourselves, whatever that has meant to us, is tantamount to trusting a thief, who having broke into our house in the middle of the night to rob us blind, counsels us to go back to sleep, because “everything is just fine, its just a dream”.
Here we learn the value of rest and repose, and yearn for the dignity of silence. In the silent waters of the great sea, our questions, our ongoing inner dialogue, its confused presuppositions and their fated conclusions are swallowed into the mute dark substance of the unknown.
Who asks this question? What purpose would its answer serve? And how would its accuracy or validity be measured? The vitality locked up in this chatter must be freed. The deceived mind’s habitual reflex of serving up partial answers, pat explanations and glib retorts from its pantry of dead ideas, full of fallacies, and clichés, rehearsed and repeated, now unwinds into the raw currents of spiritual Will. That Will that seeks not for the comfort of words or objects of thought, and their shallow boons of vanity, but for the sanctification of soul.
Nothing else will do.
There is no ground, no center, no past, no future, and no self. Not in the prescribed, the measured, the structured, the labeled, the verified, validated and accounted for by some so called reasoned and reasoning authority. These are all corpses the mind clings to for safety – even these words. The little eddies of order it tries to occupy like a raft to remain dry and warm, all the while the stormy sea rages on.
There is no life in corpses. There is no soul in the known, the conditioned, the believed, the remembered. What came before, whatever that was, is a persona image, a dead body held up by strings and made to look like a living thing. But now the hands of the puppet master who holds its strings are no longer hidden, and the parody it acts out on the stage has no appeal. Its charm has faded to torpor.
Now, the real yearns for nothing but the simple victory of that which can not lie or boast, that which makes no demands, hides no agenda and seeks no results apart from the immediacy of its own experience. That activity which is not a doing, but an undoing. That silence which can not be feigned, or forced, nor built by methods taught or learned, is not earned by the presence of virtues nor deterred by their absence, not made greater or lesser with time or practice, but comes at once in its fullness without cause or need for explanation.
Now we kneel to listen to that silence which is not silence but the great noise of emptiness breaking free of the known. And for the first time we are quiet enough to hear the soundless sound of decay as it repossess for the Earth and for Heaven, the dust and ash of our mind’s corpses.