I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.

And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.

I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self

and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time,

only time can help

and patience,

and a certain difficult repentance . . .

— D. H. Lawrence, “Healing.” The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence.

I Have No Idea Where I Am Going

I will not fear.

I will not fear…

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.

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.


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 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.


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.

In Case of Emergency

A thousand or million things go through your mind when you’re facing catastrophe. If the catastrophe is as imminent as a tornado bearing down on you, you have to leap into a ditch or run to the cellar, seek cover until the threat of death has passed. When you stand up and wipe the mud and rain out of your eyes and stand there shivering in the rain and see that your house is gone and your car is upside down in the field across the way, you realize that you have escaped with your life and that your life didn’t consist of all the stuff you had in your house–but it felt like it did. Then, like the woman I met who had this exact experience, you spend months and months trying to recover. It isn’t the stuff you’re trying to recover, either–it’s your sense of self and safety.

In 1994 my husband and I were visiting California and were awakened around 4:30 a.m. by an earthquake which later came to be called the Northridge earthquake. As we stood in the doorway of our hotel room on galloping floors, I remember how shock and terror gave way to disbelief and then a stubborn determination to survive. “We can’t die in this earthquake,” I exclaimed, “we have too many kids!” I knew that wasn’t our day to die.

Having been raised by a father in law enforcement, I had a survival mentality even during that emergency. We dressed quickly, threw all our stuff in suitcases, and carefully made our way down shifting hallways to the car we had rented. “Always rent a car,” my dad would advise, “because a vehicle can be a shelter, a weapon, and a means of escape.” Good old dad, always there when you need him.

Unlike the other survivors who stood partially clothed in the parking lot, we had our wits about us and a means of escape. We ascertained quickly that there would be no water or food available any time soon, since all the power was out and the restaurants had only frozen food. We escaped in our rented car along fizzured highways and bridges that we later learned were officially closed. There was no one along the way to stop us. We drove south along the Pacific coast highway to stay with my old college roommate, the only person we knew in the state at the time. From her we learned that people who live in California keep water, blankets, and a flashlight in the trunk of their cars in case of earthquake, very much like people in tornado alley maintain a similar state of preparedness. We do this so that, in case of emergency, we will survive long enough to get our bearings.

Maslow 1113

Anyone who has had a psychology course has heard of Abraham Maslow’s  hierarchy of human needs theory. Maslow studied psychologically healthy people and researched the lives of exceptional people to identify traits common to those he called “self-actualized”–those who manifest and fulfill “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Some theorists, such as evolutionary psychologist David Kendrick, have proposed improvements to Maslow’s hierarchy; others dismiss Maslow’s idea of a hierarchy, arguing that psychological growth is not linear or even always lasting. Even the most self-actualized human being, they say, can regress when his life, loved ones, or property are threatened.

Maslow knew that self-actualized people continue to need food, their health, and safety once they’ve become moral, creative, spontaneous, problem-solving realists. His point was, I think, that people need to have their physiological and safety needs met before they can address their needs for love, belonging, and esteem. We know that this is generally true. While cowering in the ditch with the tornado roaring overhead, I am not likely to be writing a poem, painting the scene, or solving any problem other than how to survive the storm. After I’ve survived and made sure my loved ones did, too, I will consider my long-term safety needs and begin to assess the property damage.

maslow's hierarchy of needs by you.

In Case of Emergency

When an emergency occurs or we are given terrible news, or something in our world shifts to threaten our survival, we find ourselves plummeting from zenith to nadir in short order. In my household when this happens, we often say “keep breathing,” a Buddhist reminder to be aware of and with our own breathing so that we will remain in the present rather than sacrificing the present moment for some imagined and feared future that may never come. During a crisis and for some time afterward, we treat ourselves as one should treat a sick person, for any event that has threatened our survival also makes us sick at heart. The Bible says that “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life,” (Proverbs 13:12). We have to take care of ourselves until we recover enough to eat fruit again.

When threatened, we take all the time we need to grieve what is threatened or has been lost or will be lost. Whether we grieve loss of life or limb or merely the loss of youth with each new wrinkle or gray hair, the loss is real. Accident, sickness, disease, aging, and catastrophe all remind us that we’re not actually in control of our lives or bodies, that things can go wrong that threaten our survival, and that even if we do survive we may not be healthy or secure or have enough resources. We may lose friends and family during the course of a crisis. We may never write another poem or paint another painting. I may not ever feel like playing the banjo again.

All Thy Breakers and Billows

When disaster is upon me, I feel overwhelmed, as if I could drown in it. Poets and mystics have expressed similar feelings during catastrophe, writing, “For You had cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me” (Jonah 2:3; Psalm 42:7).  All your breakers and billows passed over me. Isn’t that how you feel when calamity comes? Like the gusts of a hurricane or the roiling of an earthquake, the threat makes us reel and tears us from our moorings.

Surviving past disasters has given me tools, chief among them that I know how to pay attention to my breath and to be in the present moment and be at peace. As silly as it may sound to have breathing as a skill or tool or art, once you’ve tried simply paying attention to your breath and being with your own breath, you know that it is, in fact, an art to simply breathe. Biological necessity? Of course; but it is also an art that can take a person very deep, like a tap root into the universe.

In an emergency, we need to remember to eat well and to stay hydrated. We need to take care of all the physiological needs Maslow identified as foundational, and if we suffer in any area, we can and must take steps to try to relieve the suffering. If disease, illness, or disability rob us of our ability to eat, drink, sleep, or eliminate, then we work at recovering, or we figure out how to die with dignity.

In an emergency, we’re unbalanced and unhinged and we need to find a resting place. We want things to return to normal–homeostasis, a place of rest. We can try to return to the old normal, or we build a new normal. When my daughter was dying and after she died, I found that having other children who needed to be fed and dressed, bathed and cared for in everyday, routine ways an anchor. No matter how turbulent my emotions were, the routine was the same. Conventions such as saying “good morning” to one another, fixing the pot of tea, clearing away the dinner dishes, and even paying the bills became small blessings. A person has to be very ill before they must stop doing those sorts of things.

One of the needs that Maslow didn’t identify in his early pyramid is spiritual needs. Later in life, Maslow talked and wrote more about our spiritual needs, but by that time his theory had become popular and the highest human need, that of spirituality, wasn’t added to his hierarchy. Nevertheless, we need hope, beauty, joy, and love in our lives, too; as spiritual beings we become sick at heart if these needs aren’t met. If every day is a prison without hope, beauty, joy, or love, then we’re not fully alive or fully human. People who live in the most abject poverty or with great suffering regularly transcend these through faith and the cultivation of spiritual characteristics.

When I was younger and less developed as a human being, when the breakers and billows overwhelmed me, all I could see was breakers and billows. It took spiritual growth and discipline to be able to see the blue sky through the waves, to taste the salt and say that it was good, and even to anticipate the possibility that death was imminent and feel calm and serene in the face of it.

No Coward Soul is Mine

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.
O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life–that in me has rest,
As I–undying Life–have Power in Thee!
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.
Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.
There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou–Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

~ Emily Brontë

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