People like to know where they’re going before they go somewhere. We use our cell phones, the GPS in the car, or an online mapping program for even the simplest excursions. There’s something comforting about knowing where you’re going, isn’t there?
We expend much time and effort planning for so many life events—holidays, celebrations, milestones; weddings, baby showers, birthday parties, vacations. People spend months, even years, planning their weddings and baby nurseries and dream homes, but much less time planning a household budget or planning for retirement. People are likely to spend more time and effort seeking a new key employee than they will finding good friends, or even a good spouse. It’s the unusual person who actively seeks the ways and means of personal development. We’ll work out four times a week for an hour or more at the gym before we’ll spend a few hours a week considering what we’re doing and where we’re going as mortal creatures. We have every sort of map for going on vacation or celebrating life’s milestones, but we regularly seem to resist planning for the most profound eventualities. Aren’t we odd ducks?
Alchemy as a Map
In The Slime of the Small World I wrote about alchemy as a psychological road map. Depth psychologists are particularly fond of alchemy because of its metaphorical value. The late psychoanalyst James Hillman believed that the language of alchemy is itself therapeutic. For this reason, alchemical symbolism is part of the required subject matter in all Jungian training programs.
Alchemy provides just one of numerous possible allegories for telling the tale of how people grow. In the alchemical tale, the seven most-cited processes and correspondences in other disciplines can be seen in the Chart of Correspondences.
Charts and diagrams are types of maps, aren’t they? I like them for that reason. By drawing upon dream images and colors, how I am feeling, what symbols keep coming up, and so on, I can say, “Ah, I’m feeling so rotten (sulfur, rotten eggs), and things seem so difficult, as if everything is hard (iron),” and hypothesize a separation stage in an area of my life. I’m comforted knowing that there are times in life when I must be sifted, when parts of my life must be cut away. There are right times for separation from houses, jobs, thought patterns, habits, or people.
At other times, I feel very quick and smart. Things click. Everything is going my way, I’m on top of the world! Some hard-earned wisdom has been distilled through experience. Patience, diligence, and suffering have paid off. This is the time of Mercurius, of promotions and celebration, of rainbow colors and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s a time of white freshness, accompanied by the joy one has upon awakening to the first big snow of the season. It is a time for magic and perfection.
Where are You?
We seem to have a compulsion to acknowledge where we are and where we have been, and to leave something for those who will come after us. Since prehistoric times, people have erected cairns, man-made markers of stacked stones, to show the way through a wilderness. In many parts of the world, these markers have anthropomorphic names, such as steinmann (German), steenman (Dutch), ometto (Italian), or inunguak (Inuit), meaning stone man, small man, imitation of a person. The time-worn faces of these stone men speak to us across the miles and centuries, saying, “I was here, and I know these stones will out-live me,” and “You are here today, walking and breathing; remember your brothers and sisters who came before you.”
Wherever I am in life, there’s a marker for it. There is a stone man, mutely speaking to our shared human experience. A fellow traveler has left his mark there, carved into a tree trunk, gouged into a nearby boulder. She has placed a rock onto the ancient pile and paused, catching her breath, squinting into the distance.
Where are you? What is your place in this world? What house have you left behind, and what place do you seek? If you wander, where do you seek rest? Who and where are your people? What is your compass, what map do you keep folded in your pocket? And, when you pause to catch your breath and squint into the distance, what do you see?
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