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.
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).
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 begin with hope but often lose it along the way, for what begins with romance inevitably 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.
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.