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.

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