Individuation means separation, differentiation, the recognition of what’s yours and what is not. The rest has to be left alone. Libido and energy should not be wasted on things which do not belong. Therefore it can be said that there is just as much separation as integration [. . .] (von Franz, 257).
Alchemists were medieval chemists doing science without a scientific method. Like modern-day scientists, they were looking for a deeper understanding of the nature of matter. Although alchemists couldn’t agree on the number, nature, and order of the stages of their work, they agreed that theirs was an obscure art applying esoteric techniques, with goals similar to that of other esoteric traditions, namely the transformation of the soul.
A common misconception is that alchemists were charlatans seeking to transform base matter into gold. Through their work, though, but substance and scientist were to be transformed. Their pursuit of transformation brought unexpected results that are still useful to us today. For example, alchemists discovered five elements during their scientific inquiries: zinc, antimony, arsenic, and phosphorus.
Another significant contribution of alchemy was corpuscular theory, proposed in the 13th century by an alchemist called Geber. He postulated that particles that could not be further divided existed as the building-blocks of all matter. Today, we call these particles atoms.
Psychology & Alchemy
If we were to look at our lives as matter, and worked with ourselves the way alchemists worked with matter, what might we learn? What might happen? These are questions Carl Jung seemed to ask during the latter part of his life, when he noticed the similarities between the work of medieval alchemists and modern psychiatrists. Jung first recognized parallels between alchemy and psyche in his analytical work with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics. Many of Pauli’s dreams produced the selfsame symbols used by medieval alchemists, yet Pauli knew nothing about alchemy. From this, Jung drew an analogy between the Magnum Opus, or Great Work, of the alchemists and the process of psychological growth epitomized by the cycle of death and rebirth, or the reintegration and individuation of the human psyche. Jung published his work in 1944 in Psychology and Alchemy, the 12th volume of his Collected Works.
Supposing we looked at these processes the way the alchemists saw them? What would the separation phase look like? It would be a time that came after the great, fiery, roasting reduction of the calcination phase. After this, some part of the self was reduced to a smoldering, charred lump through an intense conflagration. In the next part of the work, dissolution, this dark, heavy, smoldering lump was taken up and gently washed and simmered in the Bain Marie, the double-boiler—as if one cooking isn’t enough. The first phase was one of trauma, sudden death, quantum leaps into the unknown. We experienced profound changes that threw us out of orbit. It doesn’t matter whether the trauma was a happy one, such as the birth of a baby and advent of parenthood, or a devastation such as the loss of life or limb: it’s a roasting conflagration that reduces us in some way to ashes. Its element is fire, and it burns away all that the ego thought it held together. Every new parent knows this feeling in the middle of the sleepless night, as he or she paces the floor with a howling baby and understands with finality that a 12-pound infant can defeat the most erudite parent.
So we are lumps. I am a lump. You are a lump. There we sit, and sit in our lumpishness. We think we will never come out of this reduction. If we sit in our lumpishness long enough–and we usually do–we become comfortable with it and think to ourselves, “Ah, so this is it, then. I’m reduced. This is me.” We are gently lulled to sleep in a dissipated sort of way. We think we’re “done,” but there’s an unfinished, dissatisfying sense of things when we are lumps.
Just when we think we’ve become used to the gentle dissolution being brought on by the Bain Marie, things change. We’re suddenly removed from the gentle bath, and begin a separation by fission and cutting. The separation stinks of rotten eggs. It cuts with biting blades of iron and steel. It is not an easy process.
Whenever in our lives we are being separated, we find ourselves leaving much behind—habits, things, places, people. Whatever can’t weather our transformation falls by the wayside. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s part of the growth process. As Saint Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Sometimes we have to move on, because what is no longer necessary or supportive of growth must be let go. This separation is about us as much as it is about the Other. Something within us has changed, and no longer wants or needs the outward prop of an inner reality that is disappearing. What remains is more refined than what was at the beginning, before the great conflagration.
von Franz, Marie-Louise. (1980). Alchemy. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.