Three days after my husband’s sudden death last month, a thought wafted into my bludgeoned consciousness: “Now you will see what your faith and your psychology are made of. Now you’ll find out what’s really true, because whatever a person believes or thinks are true are really only as true as the largest crisis or heartache.”
This thought came to me, and I knew it was true. I have, in fact, discovered the substance of my faith. I’ve also seen of what use analytical psychology is during the worst crisis of my life. I have found out what’s true for me. Sometimes what I’ve seen has been surprising.
In our Jungian Studies seminars, we’ve been studying alchemy for two months. I’ll be sharing some of what we’ve learned for the metaphorical and psychological value, because what I’ve learned has given me light during a dark time.
Wikipedia’s definition of alchemy emphasizes the popular misconception that alchemy was a medieval science that sought to transform base metals into gold. It was, in the popular way of thinking, mere money-grubbing through archaic science. This is not true.
Alchemy was, indeed, a medieval science, but also a philosophy. The word comes from roots meaning “the work.” For Jung, James Hillman, and other analytical psychologists, alchemy provides a sort of anatomy of individuation, along with a methodology for approaching the psyche and how one experiences the world.
The goal of alchemy was to transform base matter by liberating the meaning in it. Put in psychological terms, alchemy is a process by which you change your mind, and everything connected with your mind.
The psyche speaks in images, while the mind speaks in concepts. Alchemical language is not a conceptual language, it is one of images; it will therefore appeal to the visual learner, the artist, the poet, and the philosopher as well as the psychologist, the student of life, the person given to asking questions.
Alchemy is a judgment-free discipline. Alchemists merely undertook the work with a “wait-and-see” mindset. This is the mindset of the true skeptic, who suspends judgment and simply tries to look into a matter and see what it is, how it reacts to another substance, what happens when different degrees of heat are applied, and so on.
For the alchemist, everything was secret and everything was the most important thing. Two alchemists in two different laboratories could use the same substances in the same way but achieve different results, because the alchemical process was directly affected by the psychological and spiritual state of the alchemists themselves.
When alchemists failed at their projects, it was because they let their fire go out. The light, heat, and warmth went out of their work because they grew too weary to tend the flame. The writer of Hebrews admonished Christians to “run with endurance the race marked out for us,” for it is human nature to falter and lose heart when we’re faced with suffering, shame, and opposition (Hebrews 12:1-13). Under prolonged suffering, anyone can “grow weary and lose heart.” Thus, the medieval alchemist, cooking his substances at low heat all day and all night, might fall asleep, become distracted, or otherwise fail to persevere at the work. The most common cause of failure was the failure to tend the flame.
Let’s remember to tend the flame.