Doing the Work

About a month after my husband died, I wrote a brief introduction to alchemy, which was a medieval art of transformation that captivated the imagination of Carl Jung because of its rich metaphorical language. As I wrote in February, “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. Sometimes alchemists used the term “transmutation” instead of “transformation,” but the terms are interchangeable. They refer to the process of bringing forth the essence of something, to calling forth its essential nature, so to speak. One looks into what a substance is in order to discover what its meaning and nature are.

Many people mistakenly believe that the goal of alchemy was to produce gold from base metals, but this wasn’t the case. To be sure, there were medieval lords and rulers who pressed alchemists into service and tried to force them to produce gold and thus wealth. However, the true alchemist was after another kind of wealth: the valuable essence of whatever substance he or she worked with.

Similarly, in the healing traditions, we seek to discover a person’s essence—his or her gold, so to speak. The essence of everything is called its gold, and every person and substance contains gold. Some forms and people lag behind others in the quality of their “goldness,” which can be easily observed whether one looks at people or objects. What is in you that is of the highest value is your gold; it is the qualitative essence of you-ness.

Some people are able to bring forth their essential gold, while others are not. We differ in the degree to which we’re able to bring forth our precious hearts and share them with the world. The alchemist, like the priest or shaman, psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor, seeks to help bring out the gold in others and, indeed, to help the world fulfill its essential “goldness,” so that everything will be what it was intended to be from the beginning. Some look at this process as regressive, in that it seeks a return to an original state of perfection and hence can be seen as an attempt to reclaim Eden. Others consider the process prospective, for when we seek to increase our consciousness of the meaning of our lives, we reach forward toward eternity. I believe that many times we reach back with one hand and forward with another, expressing the Janus nature.

During the process of transmuting base materials, one finds that every little bit of meaning brings out more gold. This is as true for the modern-day pilgrim as it was for the medieval alchemist. Many years ago, while suffering the effects of profound loss, I remember praying and asking God repeatedly, “Why?” Finally one month, as I was driving, Spirit whispered to me and suggested that, “‘Why?’ isn’t the right question in this situation.”

“What is the right question for my suffering, then?” I asked.

“The right question for you begins with ‘What?’” came the answer.

Since then, I’ve realized that ultimately in most of my sufferings, it’s futile to ask “Why?” We don’t know why. Sometimes the reason why is the same one our mothers gave us after denying our requests: “Because I said so,” or “Because that’s just the way it is,” or “Because life isn’t fair.”

Life isn’t fair and there is no observable grand scheme for rewarding good and punishing evil in the temporal world. Those who are good, generous, and even innocent can and do suffer beyond measure. Sometimes people die the most shocking deaths. If we ask “Why?” when confronted with such harsh reality, we’ll be defeated and unable to discover meaning, for meaning comes from doing the work that produces the gold.

13 responses

  1. You know what, this has everything to do with my comment on the other post (“It’s difficult being me”).

    Spiritual transformation is the way to go! This post is so inspirational. I like it.

  2. It had been a long time since I had a reflective period in my life. I was overdue one. Adoptee rights started the process but I couldn’t complete it. I had to go through a severe loss, a tearing of the flesh so to speak in order to grow and heal. I had to remember who I was in order to begin understanding who I am today. This time, I had to let a higher power guide me. I had to put faith in Him in a way that I had never done before. This time, I am grounded in profound ways. If I can endure this last year and half, I can endure whatever else life throws at me. I can say all of this now but I would not have listen to a single soul at the time of my loss. All I could do was rant, scream, and wail at my God. He took it. He communed with me.

  3. Eve,

    It happens, I’m sneaky that way. To provide an answer to your last question, I think it makes us realize that we are truly more than we think we are or would like to be, that nothing is superfluous, and everything/all of it is divine– we judge incorrectly and imperfectly and hobble ourselves (and the universe) in the process.

    Also, I’m curious if the (usually catastrophic) rise of the inferior function is dealt with at all in your alchemical studies? My understanding of “individuation” is that it cannot take place without this– and I was wondering how, or even if, it was approached in the alchemical traditions.

  4. I have understood the alchemist’s transmutation/transformation of base materials into gold as shifting the seat of identity from the mundane, and personal, ego-identity-complex to that of the transcendent Self (Jung’s word/idea, not mine). However, I recently come across what would appear to be a similar, but different method of transformation in one’s path of individuation/enlightenment in John Fudjack and Patricia Dinkelaker’s “Enneagram as Mandela” series (http://www.tap3x.net/EMBTI/emandala.html ) and Chögyam Trungpa’s “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism”. While the former goes into more detail about this than the latter, it was interesting to come across similar themes from two very different places; though both draw heavily on Buddhist psychology.

    The enneagram, to the extent that it’s similar to the MBTI, lays out nine personality types with attendant enlightened and regressive tendencies for each. As it is the regressive traits that cause the most problems it was this which was focused on with three ways of looking at it. In the first, the path of renunciation, the regressive tendencies are identified and work undertaken to eliminate them. In the second path, work is undertaken to not merely reject the regressive aspects but to work with them and transcend them. Neither of these is terribly interesting and are pretty much the same thing, differing only in negative and positive perspectives.

    The last path though, was very interesting. Here, the supposition was that the negative trait/aspect is the regressive manifestation of the Self; one’s gold or genius, and that if one is capable of seeing beyond the split of duality (good/bad, either/or) one’s true Self can be realized. By way of quick example, from a 2-D perspective, a 2-D circle will cast the same shadow as a 3-D sphere, cone, or cylinder. From the 2-D perspective, the higher order element (height) in the latter three is indiscernible and appears identical to the 2-D circle.

    The idea that one’s Self/gold/genius is contained within, or identical to, what is seen as the least desirable aspects of one’s self (the shit) is breathtaking to me, and one of the most radical ideas I have ever come across. Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth indeed.

    • Librarian, I’m not sure why I missed your post, but I did. This is fascinating. I’m familiar with the Enneagram but haven’t looked at my materials on this in a long time. However, I’m familiar with the idea that “there’s gold in them thar hills.” You’re correct in pointing out this Buddhist idea–the lotus growing out of the mud–which is also Christian (“We have this treasure in earthen vessels” comes to mind). Indeed, anything True will be manifested everywhere. At least, this is what I believe. “All creation tells of the glory of God” comes to mind, along with a proverb that says that wisdom shouts from the street corners to the naive. We’re all naive, but we can still perceive wisdom’s shouts… if only we will.

      One’s gold being in the shit is quite breathtaking, as you say, but… why? What does the idea demand of us? How does it change you or me? I grapple with this.

  5. Futilely to ask “why?” to all the suffering we are heir to, and what is the meaning of life, is, as you imply, to demonstrate the limits of the self-conscious intellect, which can never provide the answer.

    However, I have spoken to people who have had mystical experiences, which might be called brief states of “cosmic consciousness”. While in this elevated state of consciousness these experiencers saw that everything is harmony, and that death is an illusion (or delusion).

    Perhaps the “cosmic consciousness” experience results from a brief fusion of the conscious and unconscious mind? Does “cosmic consciousness” represent the “gold” that is wrought from base metals – the base metals which represent the self-conscious mind?

    • Philippe, yes, I think perhaps this type of elevated consciousness is wrought from the base metals. What a very good thought. I like this.

  6. I like your questions, What grows from this? What is the result of this? Good ones to keep in mind whenever life threatens to overwhelm me once again. I still ask why though. Not why is this happening but why do I think the way I do? Why do I feel like this?

    And thank you for your wise counsel.

    • I suspect it’s human nature to ask “why?” I know I do it incessantly these days and have to make myself stop, even though I know better.

  7. Some people have such depth, Eve – you. Beautiful images you’ve used to render the nuances in your heart. Did you paint some of them?

    Some people do not have depth and their names we carry in our pain.

    On the question of why. An old nun – whom I respected immensely – came to our home when our precious Katie was dieing. She was not typical in any way and even liked some of my outrageous dream paintings. She said to me, “Mary Jane, don’t try to figure this out because you never will.”

    Now, 12 years later, I realize that she was right all along but did I listen? No. I’m still trying to find the meaning in the losses of life, especially the great losses but I will quote my daughter who, in the midst of her stem cell replacement said, “Mom, some people have it worse.”

    Peace Sister Eve during this most painful first summer….

    • Mary Jane, these images are drawings by medieval alchemists that have been hand-tinted by a modern-day artist. There are thousands of these images, and the web site is here: http://www.alchemywebsite.com/index.html . Looking at the similarities among alchemical diagrams across cultures is interesting.

      As to seeking meaning from life’s events, I think there’s merit in it. I like to think of asking “why?” as a way of seeking reason when there may be no reason; seeking meaning is to ask “what grows from this?” or “what is the result of this?” It is a question that embodies the spiritual law of reaping and sowing; or, as Buddhist thought suggests, the life cycle, whereby one form of spirit or energy evolves into another.

      Your wise daughter was right, wasn’t she? There are plenty who have it worse. Still, for us, this is the worst loss. I don’t feel I’ll ever recover, but I’ve felt that way before and I was mistaken. I did recover in the sense that I lived a new kind of life, finally. Yet I didn’t recover because I can still feel the loss when I go to that part of my heart. I’m sure you know what I mean.

  8. Excellent and interesting post! I like the Janus metaphor, but I think the pivotal point is the present. Asking “why” is futile in part because whatever the reason, it is what it is. One can’t change the past. Fixating on “why” drains energy from being able to act “now.” Anger, self-pity, regret, etc., all necessary and useful emotions in terms of self-discovery, can backfire if they prevent true engagement with the present. That’s the point where we have power to act. Alchemy is a perfect concept here as a method of being able to know what to do in the present to create good, regardless of what has happened. That requires self-reflection, recognition of any pain, anger or sense of loss alongside acceptance that there are paths that lead in positive directions. The alchemist is able to have the wisdom and strength to choose such a path. At least, that’s where my mind went reading your post!

    • Scott, what you wrote here is so very well said. I especially liked what you wrote about the need for self-reflection, etc., “alongside acceptance that there are paths that lead in positive directions.” In hard times it’s hard to recognize the fact that there are as many paths that can lead upward and forward as there are those that can lead to decline and despair. Your perception of the character needed by the alchemist is also true. As we studied them, I had the idea that they were like medieval priestly scientists–something we don’t have today.

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