I’ve been cheated / been mistreated / when will I be loved?
I’ve been put down / I’ve been pushed ‘round / when will I be loved?
When I find a new man / that I want for mine
He always breaks my heart in two / it happens every time
I’ve been made blue / I’ve been lied to / when will I be loved?
Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 hit, “When Will I Be Loved?” aptly illustrates separation, the third of the operations of transformation in alchemy, and a necessary aspect of psychological transformation. Someone dies. Someone leaves. Something is lost. You are bitterly disappointed in an outcome. You experience the brokenness of the separation that “breaks [the] heart in two.” Suffering reduces you to the smallest particle possible—to the essence of you.
Reduced to the Utmost
The separation process reduces one to his or her utmost, most essential aspect, much as matter can be reduced to the atomic level. It was quite appropriately philosophers, not scientists or physicians, who first proposed atomic theory. In the second century BCE, Hindu philosophers Vaisheshika and Kanada postulated that all objects in the physical universe were reducible to a finite number of atoms. Centuries later, alchemist Pseudo-Geber postulated the existence of corpuscles, a theory expounded upon later in 1661 by natural philosopher Robert Boyle, who proposed atomic theory.
Perhaps philosophers discovered atomic theory because philosophers studied suffering. One who suffers knows what it means to be reduced to the utmost. One “falls apart,” “comes unglued,” or is “unhinged.” We feel disconnected, we withdraw, we seek separations and divorces. The language we use indicates our experience of separatio.
The word “separation” is from the Latin separare, from se- ‘apart’ and parare, ‘prepare.’ We can be sure that when we’re set apart, or when something or someone is separated from us, our experience of loss is a preparation. No matter how brutal the process feels, it will transform us if we let it.
Before separation, we experienced a nigredo stage of chaos, a massa confusa in which soul and body were inextricably wed and unconscious elements related to everything instinctively. This was a sort of slavery in which the enslaved and his chains were one. During the dissolution phase of transformation, the fetters were dissolved. Unfortunately, the slave still perceived himself a slave. One who has long lived with a harsh master encounters this same harsh master time and again in his environment or in others.
In practical terms, one is enslaved as long as one is deluded by projections. The separation phase of transformation is therefore essential, for by it we come to see where we end, and the other begins. A most important stage of therapy consists in making conscious and dissolving the projections that falsify a person’s view of other people and the world, and obstruct his self-knowledge. Once projections are made conscious and dissolved, psychological and physical symptoms may be managed consciously. A person is then able to set up a rational, spiritual, and psychological reality to aid him when he experiences turbulent emotions or troublesome bodily symptoms and urges.
What You See is What You Get
Object relations theory proposes that we relate to people and circumstances in our adult lives according to habits established in our family of origin. For example, a woman with a self-absorbed, abandoning mother will expect similar behavior from those who unconsciously remind her of Mother. She will gravitate to those who remind her of Mother and are similarly abandoning as long as the Abandoning Mother is unconsciously internalized.
As a result of the separation process, however, she is somehow forced to see that the problem isn’t actually “out there.” The problem is “in here.” We go through life projecting our stuff onto others until we meet someone with enough self-knowledge and self-love to object to being objectified. “Stop that,” they insist, “Cut it out.”
Jesus, one of my favorite psychologists, illustrated the unhappy results of projection when he taught, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2, NIV). Put another way, “we accept the love we think we deserve,” (Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower).
When Will I Be Loved?
Without psychological cutting, sifting, and separation, we don’t know where we end and the other person begins, what belongs to us and what belongs to the other person, what is essential and what is unnecessary. Our projections veil the reality of things until we withdraw them and set ourselves and others free. Only then are we able to live rationally and perceive truth. Only then will we be loved.
Alchemy: The Great Work on Third Eve
“To suffer consciously means to live through the ‘death of ego,’ to voluntarily withdraw one’s projections from other people, to stop searching for the ‘divine world’ in another, and instead to find one’s own inner life as a psychological and religious act. It means to take responsibility for discovering one’s own totality, one’s own unconscious possibilities. It means to question one’s old patterns–to be willing to change. All of this involves conflict, self-questioning, uncovering duplicities one would rather not face. It is painful and difficult” (Robert A. Johnson, We).
William Butler Yeats
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Yeats wrote this poem about his mixed feelings over the Easter Uprising of 1916, in which the Irish clashed with their British oppressors. The Irish failed, and the Irish leaders were executed for treason. Though Yeats disagreed with the means of the uprising and many of the participants, he recognizes and lauds the courage with which the rebels fought. Ambivalence can be the most noble friend.
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, 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.