Lecture 4: ALCHEMY AND SOUL-DEVELOPMENT(This is the 4th in a 6-lecture series given on October 20 to the Fall 2008 session of the Senior University Georgetown.) (Revised slightly and re-posted on website October 27)
Adam Blatner, M.D.
. See Lecture 1 (9/29/08) ; Lecture 2 (10/6/08) ; Lecture 3 (10/13/08) ; - - ; Lecture 5 ; Lecture 6 (not yet posted).
(Further paper about other aspects of alchemy, references, more pictures, may be found on another webpage.)
In the last two lectures I used the esoteric system of the tarot cards as a group of symbols that suggested principles of deep maturity, so today I will use a different esoteric system, alchemy, again as a source of symbols that illustrate slightly different principles. Alchemical processes can be viewed as reflecting deeper psychological transformations. (Here's a picture of an alchemist, perhaps working somewhere in Europe in the 16th century:)
Alchemy is a pre-scientific kind of chemistry, and it was an early attempt to do what science also tries to do—knowledge is power, perhaps we can control our destinies more effectively. One way to control our lives is to add to our wealth, such as transforming lead or some other base substance into gold; another way is to purify ourselves so that we are more likely to get into heaven.
It might be of interest to note that a person taken to be the epitome of the scientific revolution, Isaac Newton (who figured out not only the major laws of gravity that brought more rationality into astronomy and basic physics, but also principles of optics and the mathematics of calculus---though Liebniz also invented calculus at the same time only separately). Indeed, Newton considered himself primarily an alchemist and wrote over a million words on the subject, as well as spending a great percentage of his working life in this endeavor. The point is that what we now consider to be semi-magical or occult was then not neatly differentiated from the best science of that time (for Newton, the late 17th and early 18th centuries)!
This presentation will be a presentation of how some of the elements of alchemy and the world-view associated with it can be seen as having analogies to psychological transformations of deep maturity. Alchemy also was an activity, like science, that explored the mysteries of nature, and especially the way powders, rocks, various kinds of other material substances changed when subjected to such processes as burning, slow heating, dissolving, distilling, filtering, combining, and so forth. Such processes may also be seen as metaphors for ways we can think about how we move into deep maturity!
This picture to the left shows what some of those processes may have looked like, with a special furnace in the middle, designed to slowly cook and boil off certain vapors which were then re-cooled and captured as drops---i.e., the process of distillation. You can see several of those operations going on, along with a boy apprentice using a large mortar and pestle to grind materials into a finer powder.
The psychiatrist and depth psychologist Carl Jung and other esoteric thinkers recognized that such processes represented spiritual and psychological transformations as much as description of physical changes in matter when subjected to various operations. Although Freudian psychology was dominant in the mid-20th century, since the 1960s Jungian approaches have become more popular, because Jung’s approach was the only one that dealt with certain phenomena, such as psychedelic experience, as well as cross-cultural psychology, spirituality, symbolism, and so forth.
Another reason I like to read about alchemy is that it reminds me of a time in history that people didn’t know about what science today too easily takes for granted. Modern chemistry has explained so much of what alchemy was wondering about, but if you don’t know that, you can re-connect with a sense of curiosity and wonder about what is fire, or why does salt disappear in water, or what goes on when water boils, and so forth. We need to remember also that folks back then were as intelligent as today, only they hadn’t had the benefits of 500 years of scientific discovery. The point to make is that this spirit of wonder and curiosity is a special flavor for continuing to live into deeper maturity.
The alchemist in the first figure above might have found out about this work from participating also in metallurgy, refining metals from ore, or purifying metals. That’s how a lot of them got started. And they found books, which were then of great interest, the way a new computer program or system is today. Remember, the printing press had been invented in their own lifetime or that of their parents, and as a result, there was as much intellectual and social ferment generated in the subsequent years of the Renaissance as the computer and internet has done for us in our own time. (The word Renaissance referred to the era in Southern and Western Europe around the 15th through the 18th century period. The word re-naissance literally means re-birth, and was applied by later historians to describe the cultural ferment following the end of the dark ages.)
A key point is that people were excited because so many different aspects of nature were being discovered, or so it seemed. In the figure to the right you get the feel of the grandiose vision of the project. At the top, the or four letters of the Hebrew word (known in Latin as the tetragrammaton, which means four-letter word, translated in English as Jehova---though they didn’t have the sound dzh in Hebrew---, and which symbolizes God the Father. Below Him are the ranks of angels, and below that in the center are the astrological constellations. A major principle here is that there was a profound belief that everything was connected. (Actually, many contemporary theories still work with that idea.)
This figure also shows below the astrological signs symbols of alchemical transformation---the crow, the long-necked goose, the phoenix---a mythical bird that rises from its own ashes---, and so forth. To the right and left of the inner circle or mandala—we’ll talk more of mandalas in the next lecture—are the contrasting elements that are meant to be brought together—especially the dark of the female moon on the right and the light of the male sun on the left. As with the Tarot cards, there is a recognition of the lunar mode of knowing, the high-priestess, moon-like type of right-brain, intuitive and imaginal knowing, and a recognition that this somehow needed to be integrated with the conventional language- and creed- based wisdom of authorized truth.
The theme of male and female also is used widely in alchemy, as it is in Tantric Yoga in India, or Jewish mysticism (known as Kabbalah). Reproduction, the actual how-it-works, remained a great mystery in that era, and was regarded as having a cosmic meaning. There were no “just biology” attitudes—again, that more recent trend in which science made all mysteries just problems to be solved, with an implication that these had no sacred resonances.
In this figure (oratory laboratory), alchemists are encouraged to balance their spiritual development with their alchemical practice. Together, they called it “the great work.” We should note that in late Enlightenment (late 17th to early 19th centuries) science became split off from theology. In part this was associated with the French Revolution and other efforts to free inquiry from the then-totalitarian (meaning applying to everything in life) domination of culture by the Mother Church. This split, then followed by further specialization and compartmentalization, then was carried into modern life, and in our own era the pendulum swing is being reversed, with efforts again at inter-disciplinary studies and integration. The point is that back then, spirituality, magic, and being effective in alchemy were not separated.
In the figure to the right, the five operations also suggest the world-view back then: Correspondences seemed to be meaningful, rather than just coincidence. For example, there were seven known metals that occurred naturally; and there were also seven known heavenly bodies that seemed to move—the planets. So naturally, the two sevens must correspond, and this was no mere coincidence—at least not to them. Also, these correspondences referred to major psychological categories, qualities or attitudes that the Graeco-Roman culture had deified:
(Note that in that pre-telescope era, the world was the center of the cosmos and the sun moved around it, as did the moon. The word planet meant traveler, a heavenly body that moves among the fixed starry background. The further planets discovered in the 18th - 20th century were not known.
Heavy, phlegmatic, dense
Generous, sanguine, easygoing
Irritable, choleric, quarrelsome
Amorous, beautiful, seductive
This was an era (and mid-European culture) that believed that our existence was the purpose of the universe. Giordano Bruno got burned at the stake for suggesting that there were uncountable other worlds with doubtless uncountable other sentient beings on them. There are definite theological problems posed for orthodoxy by such doctrines. So it was believed that we are the center, and we are discovering all manner of things. There are new tools that hadn’t been used before, for new worlds through exploration, printing, canal-building, and so forth, and nearing the end of the Renaissance, new ways of thinking were emerging, ways we now call “scientific.” Thus, it made sense to those with this pre-scientific, more integrated world-view that the Great Work would only work for those who were pure of heart, who purified their heart through sincere prayer and inner transformation—and that’s where there’s a link to deep maturity. So high-status alchemists—not mere puffers—that epithet being used for the use of the bellows that heated the furnaces—were supposedly not only scholars, but above all, devout. The secrets would not be revealed to those not blessed by Divine inspiration. You needed to pray and purify yourself, so a good alchemist would use the offeratory as much as the laboratory.
Purification and PurgationThe theme of purification, purity, was prevalent, because human nature was impure, sullied by original sin. The major magical operation of the Cosmos was Christ’s transformation, through blood and his body, of the mundane (a word associated with the lowly earth and base matter) transformed into pure spirit. This was a major mystery and sacrament, the mystery of transubstantiation in communion.
One way to purify people is to partake of the mystery in the ritual, to drink the wine and eat the wafer. Another way then quite popular in medicine—and having been around for over a thousand years and thus verified by tradition, or so it seemed—was to purge the body of its toxins, its poisons. In medicine, that involved taking drugs that made one vomit or have diarrhea, sweat or salivate. All these excretions and secretions were seen as beneficial. Even bleeding was seen as a kind of purging of excess. There was no differentiation of body and mind, so these were used in the treatment of mental illness well into the 19th and it could be argued 20th centuries! (By the way, I’ll be talking about some of this and other topics in next February’s series of talks which will be about heroes and follies in the history of medicine.)
In alchemy, the parallel process was that of repeatedly cooking, boiling, distilling, getting the spiritual essence separated from the gross. It was a kind of purging of the gross, the impure, so that the pure could emerge.
Yes, this also relates to the theory of purgatory, an intermediate state for many if not most people, in which some purification—alas, it might involve what seemed like punishment—would purge the sin and free the soul for readiness to enter heaven. Well, it was better than a sentence of eternal damnation. Much of European culture was about this myth: The breaking off of the Protestant churches from the Mother Catholic Church was triggered by the selling of indulgences, which were a kind of if-not a get-out-of-jail-free card, delivered a similar reduction of time spent in purgatory. Highly valued!
So the process of purgation and purification was a profound mystery. Alchemists believed they saw something like this going on in fire, in cooking, boiling, as I said. It was a process that rose through many stages, like a complicated recipe in cooking. (See 8 operations)
With this introduction, let’s consider the alchemical equivalences to the more obscure mystery of how to purify the soul—and what that might mean for thinking about deep maturity.
In alchemy, many people came up with different maps, sequences of operations. (12 operations). The following offers us a chance to reflect on some of these in the same way we reflected on the symbolism of the Tarot cards.
CalcinationThe first step is you get a bunch of stuff and you begin to cook it. The idea was to start with whatever symbolized impurity. For the alchemical fairy tale of Rumplestilskin, that wicked elfasked the poor princess to spin straw into gold. The alchemist might also start with straw, or animal or human feces, or old rags— mainly it started with something to symbolize the impure state. Urine was also often added. And you cooked it. It went through stages as hinted at in the above right diagram:
In the picture to the left, a Jungian-oriented philosopher, Edinger, noted the network of concepts associated with this first step, called Calcination—“calcinatio” in Latin. The point of this picture is to note that these stages are whole networks of ideas, and thus symbols of complex transformations. It could fill a book—and for Edinger it did—trying to explicate all these elements. For now, let’s just consider what burning means.
In alchemy, calcination is the general term for transforming a substance into ash, by fire or slow cooking. In psychology, the equivalent of burning? It’s living life deeply, and allowing yourself to recognize, register, feel, really feel your life. Normal maturity doesn’t account for this. For ordinary people, suffering is to be avoided at all costs. You get drunk, you run away, you distract yourself in news or sports, you avoid really thinking. More than anything, this is what differentiates mere ordinary maturity from the heroic path of deep maturity. If you think, you may learn something new, and from that, grow wiser.
Calcination is about that old saying, “pain makes man think; thinking makes man wise; and wisdom makes life endurable.” That quote was also in the 1950s Broadway play and later movie with Marlon Brando, The Teahouse of the August Moon, (act I, scene 1). So when you feel burned with embarrassment, humiliation, feel like such a fool, do you have the courage to face your weaknesses instead of just trying to pretend they’re not there? Many have recognized that their challenges, failures, even, have often impelled them towards more creative moves in their lives. Another quote: A kick in the pants often moves you further along the path more effectively than a pat on the back.
Two other songs occur to me: One is when Elvis sings about being a hunk a hunk of burnin’ love. Sometimes you burn something so thoroughly it turns white, related to cremation, bones, calcium— calcination. But mainly the first step just cooks to a black mush. Nigredo. Another song is Try to Remember, from again a 1950s Broadway musical, the Fantastics. There are two lines: One is: “Without a hurt the heart is hollow.” And in another line, the opposite quality is similar: “When you were a young and callow fellow.” Callow is sort of shallow, not deep. You might be sincere as all get out in feeling that you were in love, but you didn’t really realize what was involved in a grown-up relationship, namely, the trials of reproduction and,—a thousand times more complicated after that—the responsibilities and trials of parenting.
Another way to say this is that it is wiser, it is part of deep maturity, to learn from school of hard knocks rather than avoid the learning. It’s also important to, as Freud suggested, differentiate neurotic suffering, suffering that really accomplishes nothing, from normal human misery. Neurotic suffering adds layers of "I should’ve, I could’ve, and why didn’t I," worry, blame of others, and other internal patterns of magical thinking that are also a kind of avoidance of true learning. Yet a certain amount of misery, grief, is inevitable, and dealt with wisely, can be constructive.
The key here is to notice that one of the causes of suffering is the mind’s tendency to identify with the situation. This bad is happening, either I’m bad—which spins off neurosis in one way; or they’re to blame, which spins it off in a more paranoid fashion—equally pervasive; plus it’s not fair, which brings God into it for some; but few choose the insight of Siddartha Guatama— also known as the Buddha or enlightened one. What does this have to do with me? If you think about it with pure awareness rather than worry—an interesting skill to develop! This is the point! – misfortune is not always about you. Well, then, sometimes it is. And that’s a good thing, too. There are people who won’t admit they may have made a mistake—seemingly mature people, who have obviously made a big mistake. This is very common! And very foolish. One of my favorite quotes is Oliver Cromwell’s plea to the parliament, Gentleman, (and here he gives a small oath, by ... whatever), I beg you to consider that you might be mistaken.
Calcination is in part the burning of vanity, of false pride, of ignorance, those must go. And they don’t go easily. Part of suffering is humiliation. It’s not necessary that as you get wise that you must suffer continued humiliation. If you become truly humble, empty, it’s just information, with no emotional wave: Oh, that didn’t work. Well, let’s try something else. You’re pure ash rather than purely an ass.
So, deep maturity recognizes that as someone else has noted, humanity on planet Earth is purgatory, is an opportunity to purify. (I think it may require more deep evolution, though, perhaps, as the song, Amazing Grace, suggests, in the verse: When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun. It may take that long. Who knows? All we can do is learn our life lessons here and now. (More about life lessons in the next lecture.)
DissolutionOnce the alchemist has burned stuff into ash, he might then dissolve it. (I shouldn’t say he, because some of the more famous alchemists have been women—one being a citizen of Alexandria who invented the “bain marie” or water-bath-cooker, a way of controlling the increase in temperature more gradually than any furnace could).
The psychological equivalent to the process of dissolving is to allow your clear mind to relax and fall part way back into reverie, meditation, semi-sleep. Or you can become more interested in your dreams. The more you make a point of remembering your dreams and writing them down, the more you will remember them, though there’s a latency period of several weeks before this kicks in. It’s a matter of habit building. (Dental flossing also has a period of a couple of weeks before you notice the difference; the challenge is to keep going while things seem to be getting a little worse and holding out until they start getting better again. I’ll talk about dental flossing perhaps in the summer.)
The point of dissolution is to allow the other chemicals of the mind to mix in a way they can’t in the dry state. It involves the wise use of the subconscious mind, instead of letting the subconscious use you. Have you ever noticed how sometimes your best insights, your best revelations, come when your mind is in neutral? You’re just floating along in there, allowing the right brain to work, allowing inspiration, which means the spirit coming in and through. You’re learning how to get out of the way.
You want to weave in certain activities in your life so that you aren’t always having to name, identify, classify, and figure out stuff. You begin to learn that things don’t fall apart if you’re not in control all the time. This is very difficult for some folks. But we’re all taught to be control freaks more than we realize. Remember that we get conditioned in school not to daydream, and here is the authority figure saying that daydreaming needs to be woven in there just like you need a certain amount of vitamin C, or you won’t thrive and grow optimally.
Think about the cognates of solution. That the word sounds like dis-illusion is a coincidence, and then again, not. What is there for you to dissolve in the mind? How about the ordinary ego—the part that wants to know what’s going on, wants clear explanations, wants a sense of control—and what if that part were to just let go into the quasi-meditative state of the unconscious mind. To drift and watch dreams, sense into feelings? This is part of what art allows you to do, or making up fairy tales, playing with toys, and many warming-up activities to creative expression.
This brings up a major principle in deep maturity: What if what you personally need to know, what’s relevant for you, is partly known through a sensitizing, a learning to read, that subtle feeling of "this is right and this is wrong for me." We get taught to override our intuition. Have you ever hired someone or allowed yourself to date or get intimate with someone who appealed to your appetites even when a still, small voice what whispering, “Uh, uh, don’t go this way” ? Have you noticed that when you follow this voice, doors open, and when you push the other way because you think you should, or you get greedy, or your values are mixed, or you’re the one in control, the difficulties escalate rapidly if not your becoming embroiled in a mess? So unlearning the ultimate decision-ing in certain ways of the ego-controlling self and learning to surrender to intuition—this is part of deep maturity. Even then, continuing discrimination is needed.
ReiterationAnother thing that happens in alchemy is that you reiterate procedures. You might burn, dissolve, filter, distill, mix in another substance, and do it over. Cook it, maybe add something, try cooking it again, faster, slower, hotter, cooler, see what happens to what you cook. This happens not infrequently in chemical operations today, or the making of good steel, heating, molding, banging with a hammer, heating again, that sort of thing. Too often we have been led into thinking that you can and should do it right the first time, or that there’s an answer. This leads to misleading expectations of self and others. Many operations, especially regarding child-rearing or habit building, require practice, and the alchemists would repeat an operation many times.
SeparationYou do other stuff, too: You filter it, skim off the gunk, drain off other gunk, crystallize it if you cook it down, and the point here is that many of these operations, well, they can be imagined to suggest what you need to do with your mind in order to be come more mature. The alchemical operation of separation represents a swing back to using your critical thinking. Too often people overdo the whatever response, the surrender. Uh-uh. Even when you do this, you should keep a small amount of discriminating, judging ego. But now it’s not trying to be boss, or to serve vanity or status. Rather, it’s asking better questions, like “what’s this all about?” It’s reasonable but not locked into superficial reason or superficial materialism as the only criterion. And it knows that a significant amount of subjectivity, feeling, and even intuition is neurotic. So it interrogates and addresses this process, too. More about these operations may be read about in the linked supplemental webpage about alchemy.
ConjunctionThis alchemical operation involves bringing together opposites. We talked about that with the tarot major arcana card of the Lovers. You also hear about “conjunction” in astrology, the coming together of a moon and a planet, or something like that. In alchemy there are many diagrams in which the sun and the moon are brought together. The coming together. You mix hydrogen and oxygen and fire and bang, water, and don’t forget the bang. Harness the bang and something else. Actually, that’s what we do when we be alive, bring oxygen together with a hydrogen supplier—sugar----and harvest the energy released. It’s called metabolism, a very slow cooking.
In psychology you get this when you bring two seemingly opposite things together. One of the main bringing-togethers is the masculine and feminine. During the reproductive years, in general it’s better for young adult animals to be vigorously dimorphic, morph meaning form, di meaning two, men and women being different, masculine and feminine being different. Now here’s the point. Starting in midlife, you don’t need to do that so much. It doesn’t really matter that I do the dishes and my wife does the taxes and banking. I can be Tarzan and she can be Jane in some roles and in other roles, we can reverse it, and in many if not most roles we’re just two people and gender is irrelevant. Indeed, I find that as I more deeply mature I allow myself to feel more, intuit more, I cry with sentimentality with less inhibition, certain things touch my heart more easily. And so forth.
The bringing together of male and female is important, because there are many qualities in what has culturally been assigned to the opposite sex—what used to be called masculine or feminine that might work or did more for younger adults and in the past, but elders need to get past all that.
For example, one kind of wisdom that women traditionally do better is what I call bringing others forth. This approach deals with what is needed in the present moment. It cannot be codified. Men tend to write up rules. But so often in raising kids, rules don’t apply. Little junior now needs firmness, later, well, needs understanding, not harshness. You learn this give and take—it’s not being un-principled, but actively exercising wiser more subtle levels of discrimination. Even more this applies in marriages, and for elders, we begin to see the need for flexibility without flabbiness—a fine line or dance—that is a hallmark of wisdom, justice, balance.
Some psychotherapists—men—in the 1920s through the 1950s—exercised this quality of responding according to the needs of te client. That doesn’t mean giving in; sometimes it means recognizing when not to give in! Sometimes just doing nothing, waiting, and then the client says something like, “Wait, that’s a bad idea. Never mind.”
So back to alchemy: There are many opposites that you need to bring together in your life. Rabbi Hillel, who was to Jesus what, say, Handel was to Beethoven, or some hero you had as a kid who was a mature if not elderly man. Anyway, Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Those first two—balancing selfishness and unselfishness. Balancing realistic planning and faith, neither extreme of polyanna blind hope mixed with denial or pessimism mixed with cynicism. How to bring seeming opposites together? People sensed this and projected the principle into the world. And indeed, there are a number of chemical operations, hot and cold, dry and moist, opposites that are brought into what seems like balance.
The picture to the left illustrates the kinds of symbolism used in the texts. There are lots of kings, dragons, hermaphrodites, dead people, resurrection, sex (not actual intercourse, usually, but embracings—you can see it in the background). These symbols are extensive and distracting, so I won’t bother going into it for our purposes today. Let’s get on with thinking about how what goes on in nature also has some resonance with what goes on in your mind and soul as you mature deeply.
FermentationHere’s another great mystery. They didn’t know about micro-organisms, or how yeast worked, or real chemistry. They knew stuff rotted but didn’t know what that meant. They may not have been onto how cheese is formed, or milk sours, how beer or wine is formed, what we now call fermentation actually is.
But in psychology, you have had things incubate. Ideas, feelings, and then they come to a more lively form. Sometimes its anger, sometimes it’s self assertion. That movie a few decades ago when that guy yelled out the window, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!!” Fermentation. It happens. When you know you’re fermenting all the time you begin to build in to your mind a bit of a distillery, something to cook off the best insights and preserve them, to allow the dark mean thoughts to go into the grist for the mill.
Fermentation also goes another level deeper. For some it is what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” Hitting bottom. Despair. The key here is that lots of folks flee from this process, numb themselves with any kind of addiction, not just booze, but shopping, news, politics, fanatical religion. Don’t just stand there, do something. Someone must be punished even if they didn’t do anything, or at least not the main bad thing. What is being avoided is the need at times in life to find out what the soul needs amidst the suffering. Don’t be so guarded or avoidant. Let yourself cook. At the highest level of interpretation—remember, literal, allegory, psychological, mystical?— fermentation is the infusion of whatever magical yeast from Holy Spirit that quickens your soul into deeper spiritual connection.
DistillationThis is based on the principle that certain chemicals are lighter and boil off at a lower temperature than others. Alcohol comes off before water boils. Distillation in chemistry and chemical engineering involves a rhythm of heating and cooling, multiple procedures, as mentioned. In alchemy and especially in the distillation of alcohol, spirits are heated, and since alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, it steams off just before the water boils, so you heat it to below water boiling temperature—that’s the secret! Then collect the steam, cool it, it condenses, drips into the beaker, voila, moonshine!
So even when you have fermented, you need again to separate the wild and wooly dream images and hallucinations from deeper spiritual insights. A little critical thinking—but you can’t be too analytical or logical here—, a little good judgment, and you grow well, you mature more deeply. With psychological transformations, the problem is more complex than in distilling some liquid, whether it be alcoholic or petroleum, because you have different issues to mature about, such as competence, sexuality, belongingness, caring for family , community, and so forth. Soul work involves many facets.
In the olden days when I was graduating college there was getting a degree, finding a high status job—the variety of what was success or achievement was far more narrow. As you differentiate, you become aware of there being many many different kinds of relative success. You also find out that being okay, successful, is still not the end of the road. We’ll talk about good enough, and when to back off a bit, but at another level, deeper spiritual development doesn’t stop with one course of esoteric purification or psychotherapy, or even being saved. There’s a lifetime of work that needs to back up a high point and keep it worthwhile, and many people find that their becoming a success earlier in life in some ways, later, hindered them!
Coagulation (Conjunction)In alchemy, this was the crystallization of a new substance that came out of the mixing of different substances. It hints at —well, the best word is wisdom, but it may not have much to do with formal education or scholarship. There’s a kind of knowing and mellowing, an empowerment that isn’t arrogant. This where stuff starts to come together. You begin to see the patterns of your life re-playing in new perspectives. You begin to recognize certain talents, temperamental inclinations, personal preferences, they begin to emerge from the sheer eventfulness of life into perspective, they begin to make a story.
Perhaps here you can begin to fill in some of the gaps as you write your memoirs or autobiography. What was that all about, and how in the long run did it turn out to be something you can use? What about that fault, that failing, that being fired or flunking or losing the race? Perhaps it led you to re-thinking a weakness, or to testing your persistence, or to not letting one occasion determine your life. Begin, then, to integrate the different, sometimes seemingly incompatible elements. How could you be so this way—or so your friends think—but really you have a healthy component of the opposite quality? Maybe now you can figure out some ways of celebrating both sides, or finding some other friends with whom you can share that other interest.
SummaryThe ancient activity of alchemy, experimenting with substances and trying to refine them, reflected the intuition that the soul was similarly contaminated and could be purified. While traditional religion sought to do this through simple faith, the alchemists hoped to achieve their own inner purity by contemplating the transformations of matter. This endeavor might serve as a worthy metaphor or analogue of what fairly mature mid-life people could do to advance their own maturity further. It’s not a matter of just making more money, parenting more children or giving presents to grandchildren, or playing a better game of golf; there’s a sense of truly engaging in the opening and expansion of consciousness as a more meaningful goal of life. Perhaps alchemy can help by offering simple metaphors as the foundation for ongoing psychological and spiritual forms of contemplation and discussion.
For more notes: See supplementary webpage.