The Affliction of the Soul

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve been studying alchemy for the past few months and found it interesting and useful. Alchemy, meaning “the work,” provides an anatomy of individuation, along with a methodology for approaching the psyche and the mysteries of life.

Just as alchemists transformed matter, so too do we transform our minds through learning, analysis, suffering, and through spiritual growth. As St. Paul said, “Do not be conformed, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

Jung saw alchemy as a redemptive work with distinct stages which were identified by medieval alchemists in their esoteric writings (CW 12, para. 414-415). These stages in the alchemical process of transformation were: melanosis (blackening, the nigredo), leukosis (whitening, the albedo), xanthosis (yellowing, the citrinitas), and iosis (reddening, the rubedo) (CW 12, para. 333). Around the 15th or 16th century, these steps were reduced to three because the citrinitas (yellowing) fell into disuse, a topic that we may look into later.

Blackening

The first alchemical stage is nigredo, blackening. The prima materia is chaos, produced by the separation of the elements. Sometimes a separated condition is assumed at the start, and sometimes not. However, if a separated condition is assumed, then a union of opposites called the coniunctio or matrimonium is performed. Jungian analyst Maria Louise von Franz wrote that this occurs during the new moon, “in the darkest night where not even the moon shines,” (p. 162). “When you are completely out and consciousness is gone,” she explained, “then something is born or generated; in the deepest depression, in the deepest desolation, the new personality is born. When you are at the end of your tether, that is the moment when the coniunctio, the coincidence of opposites, takes place” (von Franz, pp. 162-163).

The coniunctio is followed by the death of the union’s offspring and a corresponding blackening (CW 12, para. 334). Von Franz said that this blackening is

“the destructive aspect of the unconscious. [. . .] Enlightenment can come from that dark place; that is, if we direct the ray of consciousness upon it, if we warm it up by our conscious attention, then something white comes out and that would be the moon, the enlightenment which comes from the unconscious” (p. 147).

Beginnings

Difficulties, suffering, and grief are encountered at the beginning of the work—a dark night of the soul, so to speak. Medieval alchemist Morienus called this stage the “affliction of the soul” (CW 12, para. 389). The stage required “extraordinary devotion to the work, [. . .] unusual concentration, indeed [. . .] religious fervor” (ibid.). Anyone who has started a new work can identify the difficulties inherent with this stage of creation. As Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard says, “It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away” (p. 5).

Whether one is a writer or artist, newlywed or new parent, just graduating high school or retiring, the beginning of anything new portends eventual difficulty for the pilgrim. We often begin with hope but often lose it along the way, for what begins with romance often ends with reality; this is true whether one refers to writing books, getting married, having a baby, or retiring.

Even if we do not begin some new undertaking or stage of life with hope, new beginnings can be difficult. As a new widow, I find these beginning months following my husband’s death excruciating. My loneliness, longing, anxieties, fears, and abiding sorrow are overwhelming. I miss my best friend and companion, my lover and true knower of my soul, father of my children. Thirty years of an overwhelmingly happy and content relationship with forward movement do not fade away into oblivion easily. My heart aches and this loss is one my soul bears every waking moment of every day.

Friends have a son who was terribly wounded in Iraq by a land mine. His recovery afterward was more like a journey through hell than a movement toward new life. He fell into addiction to the pain medications he was given, and then had to recover from that. His grief and pain and sense of abandonment caused a great and overwhelming confusion. Had his mother not gone to be with him in the hospital, he might have become lost to himself entirely. His journey into life after traumatic injury wasn’t romantic and held no promise of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In a situation like this, you either grow or you don’t. Some people succumb to their suffering.

In The Conference of the Birds, Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar wrote this about suffering:

If crazy dervishes behave like this
It’s not for you to take their words amiss;
If they seem drunk to you, control your scorn–
Their lives are painful, savage, and forlorn;
They must endure a lifetime’s hopelessness
And every moment brings some new distress–
Don’t meddle with their conduct, don’t reprove
Those given up to madness and to love.
You would excuse them–nothing is more sure–
If you could share the darkness they endure.

Those of us who work at spiritual and psychological growth will encounter great darkness along the way. It is no coincidence that one of the first archetypes one meets in the individuation process is the Shadow Archetype. All that we’ve hidden from ourselves, all that we shove down and away, all that we project on others and hate in them–that’s what we find in the darkness. It can be overwhelming. A person in the nigredo phase of personal work can become overwhelmed and lose heart, just as a person encountering grief, sorrow, stress, and other dark experiences can lose heart without hope or encouragement.

Hope is knowing that the moon will return, and even its most feeble light will illuminate the world.

References

Dillard, A. (1989). The writing life. New York: Harper Perennial.

Jung, C. G. (1967). Psychology and alchemy. In H. Read, M. Fordham, & G.  Adler (Eds.). (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 12, pp. 227-316). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Von Franz, M. L. (1980). Alchemy. Toronto: Inner City Books.

10 responses

  1. In “Iron John” Robert Bly lays out three alchemical orders of progression: the one you’ve covered here, and a feminine and masculine one. I forget the feminine order of progression, which I couldn’t speak to anyway, but the masculine one, which manifests in the order horses are brought to the protagonist and represent the developmental process of the masculine psyche, is: red, white, and black, or; the red knight, the white knight, and the black knight.

    I think it is interesting that for the male, the highest attainment is the black; after having progressed through the burning red (the only man Parzival killed was the knight in red armor, which he took for his own), and the knightly/savior white, with which our culture is so familiar and enamored with. Bly’s example of a man having attained the black was Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War.

    I am not in a place to disagree with that but I recently saw the “Dark Knight” again, which has finally made it to cable. The edited the piss out of it and the movie is hardly recognizable anymore—don’t waste your time. However, one thing stood out to me this time that I didn’t see the first time—the end.

    Bruce Wayne /Batman accepts what he is or what he has become (unearthed?)—the Dark Knight. He no longer needs to be the hero or the white knight (pristine) but is fully able to accept, fulfill, and carry out the role that has come to him. It is a willingness to play the game, remain in it, and to be what he is (or what is required) without remorse, complaining, or even needing to be something different. He accepts, unconditionally, that part of him without trying to change it, explain it, justify it, whatever—it is what it is and it is accepted (integrated?) as such. If some people need to see it/him as the villain, that’s okay as he no longer lives at the (ego) level of their (mass/collective) simple black and white morality, but from a place beyond that. This acceptance, or marriage(?) was brought about by his dance/interaction with the Joker (the bringer of light) which took him through and past the death of his separate/split identities.

    This only scratches the surface of some of the many themes in the movie but I think it gives probably the best example in a long time of a male’s appropriate undertaking/development of his blackness.

  2. Eve,
    A person sent me a dream that featured a beautiful dark bear, and so I went looking in Jung’s book “Dreams” to find out what he believed black bears symbolized. He makes reference to black bears representing the “nigredo” of the “prima materia”. I googled those two terms, and found your lovely blog post, which I will forward to the dreamer, who has been grieving a significant loss as well.
    I cannot imagine the depth of your grief, to lose such an abiding and true partnership. My thoughts are with you.

  3. I love the image of the moon illuminating the darkness of the unconscious.

    I had a revelation the other day. I realized that the ego is a child. It’s designed by a child and operates as a child. Except I’m almost fifty! An eight year old child has been running my life, no wonder it’s such a mess:) Although I do appreciate that she kept things running as best she could. Time to give the poor bugger a break and learn how to be an adult.

    I shall think of you next time I look at the moon. Take care woman.

    • Yes, that moon image is beautiful, isn’t it?

      Ego. Yes… funny. We often hear this repeated in our seminars by Jim Hollis: the ego only wants two things–control, and to avoid suffering. That’s all it wants. If you think about that, it is very much like an 8yo child, or maybe even a 5yo! Good call.

      You take care of you, too. Now we are both single women, and getting older. Maybe you should come and see me and we can howl at the moon together.

      • Perhaps I shall visit you. My ego has definitely been in charge my whole life because I’ve wanted control and to avoid suffering forever. I was just talking to my analyst this morning. My parents controlled everything in my life but they couldn’t make me eat. My husband controlled everything in my life by he couldn’t make me have sex with him. My boundaries have been trampled my whole life and I’m slowly learning how to set boundaries. I did it why my daughter about a month ago. She was beyond rude to me and I told her she couldn’t talk to me like that, apologize or move. She moved out last week but we’re fine. I think she respects me more now and I certainly love her more easily from a distance:)

  4. I thought of this as I read your post, Eve:
    At the beginning, the great whiteness of a new canvas before the artist. It holds every possible potential of the best thing you’ve ever created. Behold the masterpiece! Then as every wash, every stroke, every daub is made, so slowly the greatest sense of everything that you imagined with your mind and body gradually diminishes as the physical reality appears before you. Each layer of paint closes down more possibilities until finally, there it is.

    When I can leave the painting open enough to contain more than the visually real, well, then that’s where the magic is for me, and the joy begins. And yet, there is always something more, something not quite there yet… That’s why the best work is always the next one!

    I’m so grateful that we always have the chance to start again, to wake up every morning, and say: Today!
    x

    • Irene, what you’ve written is quite beautiful. Your white canvas does just what the white page does, doesn’t it? I love what you wrote. It made me smile with delight–it made me feel happy inside, and I can count in minutes the happiness I have felt in the last six weeks… I have just felt so leaden! But every now and then, something like a streak of joy springs upon me, or maybe hope, or a few seconds of delight. That’s what happened when I read your first paragraph. So thank you.

        • Mm. Don’t think I was so thoughtful when I wrote that bit, was I? I was thinking of creative process, rather than the realities of one’s life – your life – to wake up and remember everything all over again. Apologies, Eve. Ugh indeed. All my love to you.

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