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Alchemy

The Dance of Ego and Shadow

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The Dance of Ego and Shadow

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature and behavior of psychological Shadow. The word “shadow” has now entered mainstream consciousness – and is certainly a much-discussed topic in the New Age circles. Shadow, as we know, includes all aspects of our personality that we do not actively identify with, or own as “ours.”

When I read many of these New Age texts, though, I am often left with the feeling that a lot of the so-called “shadow-work” is really done from the perspective of, and in service to, the Ego. It is about “conquering,” “vanquishing,” “depotentiating” the Shadow. It is about becoming “pure” and “enlightened.”

While it is indeed possible to integrate aspects of our Shadow into our conscious personality, we need to tread carefully in this domain; lest our “shadow-work” become another ego-project in its relentless perusal of perfection! And as we will see later in the essay, the cost of such a project could be prohibitive for our soul!

Tree of Life and Death: from a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript

Tree of Life and Death with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale - Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 15708-15712; fifteenth century, Germany; Vellum (parchment), paint, gold leaf

Tree of Life and Death with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale - Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 15708-15712; fifteenth century, Germany; Vellum (parchment), paint, gold leaf

The relationship of Ego and Shadow is magnificently depicted in a medieval illuminated manuscript (see image caption). In this image, we see Adam reclining, as if exhausted, in the center of the field. From his navel rises the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. On the side of the “good,” we see Mary – wearing the blue robes of purity and virginity – offering the “fruits of salvation” to a long line of penitents. On the “evil” side, we see Eve – naked and sensual – offering the “fruits of damnation” to her line of… shall we call them celebrants (as opposed to penitents)? Mary, in her pious act, is watched over by an angel; Eve is assisted in hers by Death!

If we take a moment to connect with the image more deeply, we see that Mary serves as the conscious “right hand” of Adam. Thus, she represents his conscious stance – his Ego. Eve, represents his unconscious “left hand” Shadow.

What this manuscript illustration tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that as we are busy picking the socially acceptable, even laudable, fruits – of service, good work and piety with one hand, the other hand, unbeknownst to ourselves, is picking other fruits (of whatever we see as our personal Shadow, e.g., greed, lust, neediness…).

It cannot be any other way.

Birth of shadow

In the Jungian worldview, Shadow is seen as the most superficial, the most reachable part of our Personal Unconscious. Thus, many aspects of the shadow are, theoretically, possible to be brought into consciousness, and thus “integrated.” Integration of Shadow here does not mean that they are necessarily acted out, but that we are aware of, say our inner thief, or our inner jealous lover. In fact, the more we are aware of these parts – the less likely are we to act them out, and the more likely we will be not to judge harshly when we see another person acting them out! True empathy is born out of knowing our own Shadow.

It may not be wrong to assume that we are born shadowless. Shadow, in all likelihood, begins to form as we develop an Ego – which is very much colored by our family and culture – that tells us what is acceptable and what is not. The child soon learns that if he smiles and follows orders, he is loved and fed and played with. If she throws a tantrum, she gets a time-out, or is sent to bed without supper. The child thus learns, quite early on, that obedience is good, and anger is bad. The child needs its parents for its very survival. So, the murderous rage of the infant moves into the child’s unconscious, and a piece of the Shadow is born.

My Jungian analyst often likes to remind me, “every object casts a shadow!” True indeed. But only in the presence of light. As long as we are in complete darkness, like a fetus in the womb, we are in participation mystique with the Mother, who represents for us the whole of the Universe. In this mystical-magical sense of oneness of the fetus/newborn with the mother, there is no separation of Subject and Object. All is one. Thus, there is no Shadow. But as soon as there is a dawning of Consciousness, of identification of Objects – inner and outer – as “mine,” these Objects begin to cast their Shadow. It is simple physics, really. Whenever there is light, and there are objects on its path, there is also shadow.

As we grow older, we consolidate our identity (“this is me, and that is not-me”) and find our place in the world. The more we progress along this path of “Ego Consolidation”, the more our shadow deepens. One can almost say that for us to become conscious, we have to cast a shadow.

Jungian analyst and author, Robert Johnson, in his book “Owning your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche,” uses the metaphor of a seesaw, or a teeter-totter, to describe the relationship of Ego and Shadow. As we go through the first half of life, where we are consolidating our Ego, we begin to accumulate things on one end of the seesaw that are “me” (Ego aspects), and on the other end accumulate the “not me” (the Shadow aspects).

Unfortunately, culture is only comfortable with a narrow range of attributes, and what goes into Shadow is not just what is negative, but also the things that are great about us. This so-called “Golden Shadow” will be the subject of another essay soon.

In any case, around midlife, when the Ego has been sufficiently consolidated and functions well in the world, there comes a time when we tend to get bored with our narrowly-defined, culturally-sanctioned and often-bloodless life. This is typically a time when the seesaw can flip, bringing on the famous “midlife crisis.” Thus, the perfectly mellow gentleman begins to collect fancy guns and go on hunting parties with buddies, taking savage pleasure in butchering innocent animals; and the stay-at-home mother-of-four begins a secret affair. This sudden shadow explosion can also be easily somatized as physical or mental illness. But that again is a subject for another day.

Shadow always first appears as projection

It is very difficult, some Jungians will say impossible, for us to meet our Shadow unmediated. We first “encounter” our Shadow (both positive and negative Shadow) as a projection on an outer “Other” – which could be a person, an institution, or even an idea or a philosophy.

So, one of the best ways for us to identify our Shadows is to see who or what triggers us. Any time we feel angry, upset or judgmental toward someone, or are overly in awe of someone, there are probably Shadow elements at play!

An interesting phenomenon often noticed is that our Shadow is most often projected on someone or something that offers a “hook.” So, it is easy for us to hold on to our righteous indignation and put the blame on the Other. They are the one who is bigoted, nasty or greedy! And indeed, a large part of the blame may correctly reside in the Outer Other. But, most often, not all of it belongs to this Outer Other. Thus, if we can find enough space inside us to separate our feelings from the Outer Other, we find that these feelings are our best “mirrors,” in which we first glimpse our “Inner Other.”

How do we “integrate” a shadow element?

Now, the most important question in this investigation. Now that we are aware of a Shadow element, what do we do with it? What exactly do we mean by Integrating the Shadow?

In Jungian terms, Integration of Shadow means integrating Shadow elements into Consciousness. We are now conscious of possessing that Shadow aspect and accept it as our own.

Of course, integration is different from willy-nilly enactment. Culture cannot exist if we all enact all our Shadows.

How do we then “integrate” our inner thief or our inner murderer?

The power of ritual in making the shadow conscious within a safe container

Ritual is a time-honored way to “enact” aspects of our personality that cannot be safely enacted in daily life. Ancient cultures had rituals to “sanctify” lust, for example, through various Dionysian rituals and temple prostitution.

Robert Johnson, the Jungian author mentioned above, draws our attention to the gruesome shadow imagery of the contemporary Catholic Mass:

“The Catholic Mass is a masterpiece of balancing our cultural life. If one has the courage to see, the Mass is full of the darkest things: there is incest, betrayal, rejection, torture, death—and worse. All this leads to revelation but not until the dark side has been portrayed as vividly as possible. If one went to Mass in high consciousness one would tremble at the awfulness of it—and be redeemed by its balancing effect. The Mass lost much of its effectiveness when it was modernized and made to serve the cultural process. One ought to be pale with terror at the Mass.”

It is interesting how the use of the world “awful” itself has been profaned in modern times. Our contemporary words, awful and awesome, originally meant "worthy of respect or fear, striking with awe; causing dread." How different that is from this slice of pizza being awful, or awesome!

One of the great advantages of a ritual, participated in with full awareness, is that it allows a transpersonal container – a temenos – for the shadow aspects that will be too much for cultural cohesiveness, if enacted in daily life.

Our deep shadow elements have archetypal cores

There is an important fact that is often lost in the facile reading of what I have come to call “Jung lite.” Many of our deepest shadow identities – e.g., the Murderer, the Prostitute, the Dark Devouring Mother – are in fact archetypal images. Archetypes, if we remember, live in the Collective Unconscious, much deeper in our psyche than the Personal Unconscious. They belong not to us personally, but to the entire humankind.

Archetypes represent powerful, primordial instincts or “prototypes” of ways of being, that are then translated into archetypal images. It is important to remember that archetypes are not images - images stem from an underlying, eventually undefinable prototype of experience. An archetypal image may change with time and culture, but the underlying archetype stays rooted in the very depths of our psyche.

Another essential feature of an archetype is that it is always bipolar. If the smothering, devouring Mother is one pole, then the all-nurturing, all-absorbing Mother is the other. And if we really work deeply with any archetype, we eventually experience both its polarities. And therein lies its potential to balance (and thus “heal”) the psyche.

But this brings us to an important fact - one that we can ignore only at our peril. I will reiterate here. Archetypes are extremely powerful, potent, archaic instincts that we can never “integrate,” or assimilate into our conscious self-identity. These “instincts” of the psyche are so potent, that if we try to “integrate” or “embody” them in our day-to-day life, we risk what has been called “inflation.” In other words, our conscious Ego personality is then so completely overwhelmed by these powerful, “awful” images, that we dissociate and fragment. We go mad! Robert Johnson describes this situation as trying to run 10,000 Volts on circuits designed to carry 110 Volts!

To encounter these deep archetypal images, then, we need a “transpersonal container.” This is what makes rituals so powerful. A ritual provides an outer (physical) as well as an inner (psychological) space that is clearly demarcated from our daily life. Within this container, this temenos, we can “encounter,” and even briefly embody, the archetypal affects and images.

For a ritual to effectively allow us to become conscious of our Shadow without being overwhelmed by it, it is absolutely necessary for the participant to have a felt access to the transpersonal realm.

In olden days, this transpersonal realm belonged to God, or the gods.

The ancient Hebrew ritual of the scapegoat

We often talk about “scapegoating” someone, or someone being the family’s scapegoat, but few of us know that the word comes from an ancient ritual of the Hebraic people.

The original ritual of the scapegoat happened once a year on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Two goats were selected for the ritual. One was sacrificed (“made sacred”) to Yahweh. Its blood was then used to ritually purify certain powerful ceremonial objects. The other goat (the one “not chosen”) was then ritually designated as the carrier of the community’s sins for the entire year. After being laden with the community’s sins, it was cast out – scapegoated – into the desert (outside the communal boundaries). By carrying the sins of the community outside its boundaries, this goat ritually cleansed the community of its sins... until the next year.

It was understood that the goat would perish shortly afterwards – either due to exposure to the elements, lack of water in the desert, or to predators lurking outside the communal boundaries.

What was interesting, though, was that the realm outside the communal boundaries was also seen and experienced as a transpersonal realm – the realm of Azazel. According to the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text, Azazel was a fallen angel — one of the leaders of the rebellious Watchers in the time preceding the Flood. He taught men the art of warfare, of making swords, knives, shields, and coats of mail; and taught women the art of ornamenting their bodies, dyeing hair, and painting their faces and their eyebrows. He is also said to have revealed to the people the secrets of witchcraft.

Thus, the scapegoat carried the sins of the people – the Cultural Shadow – into a transpersonal realm – the realm of the deity Azazel. Etymologically, the name Azazel is composed of azaz (meaning “rugged”) and el (meaning “of God”). In other words, Azazel was the keeper or the manifestation of the Shadow of Yahweh, and thus, the appropriate recipient of the excluded “Other” – the Scapegoat.

How, then, do we sanctify our scapegoat – our shadow – in our time and place?

Unfortunately, most of us are not lucky enough to viscerally believe in an Azazel who will receive our offering of the scapegoat. How then do we relate to our Shadow elements that are just too potent to integrate in our all-so-human personality?

In the absence of communal gods with whom we have a viscerally felt connection, we now have the task to define, for ourselves, a sense of the Sacred that lives beyond our conscious personality (out in the desert, beyond our conscious boundaries). We do not need to be religious, but we do need a container, an image – for that which is bigger than our individual selves. Once again, this sense of the Sacred cannot be just theoretical, but it has to be felt - in our guts! In other words, it has to have numinosity. Numinous is a word derived from Latin “numen,” meaning an image or a symbol that has the power, presence, and/or realization of the divine. For an image to be numinous, it has to provoke a “mysterium tremendum” (a sense of mystery that has the power to cause fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (the ability to attract, fascinate and compel).

What is this numinous transpersonal image for us – the “modern” human?

For some, it is still God. For others, it could be the psychological Self – the center and the totality of our psyche that encompasses a much larger range of experience that just our Ego identity. For others, it could be the Earth or the Cosmos. It could also be a particular piece of music, art or philosophy. It could be a “therapeutic temenos” held by a therapist, a mentor, or a counselor. It could be a modern image - such as Yoda or Galadriel, or Professor Dumbledore. As the psychologist Matt Licata says in a recent blog post, it could even be “a reindeer who has come from the moon!”

In the end, the specifics of the container does not matter. What matters is that it be able to serve as an alchemical vessel, a vas, during our encounter with the Shadow. It needs to be strong enough – in a felt sense - such that it will not shatter when the 10,000 Volts of archetypal energy flows through it!

Finally, a word of caution

As we discussed above, it is imperative that before we do any serious shadow-work, we must first find, and build a trusting relationship with, this ritual container – this “divine container” – in whatever way we understand (“feel”) the Divine to be.

In alchemy, there is a saying, “festina lente,” which means "hasten slowly." This is sage advice for anyone seeking to do deep shadow-work. One needs to ensure that one has a safe container to do the work, and then to proceed slowly, increasing the temperature in the vas only a bit at a time - so we can “cook” our soul instead of burning it to a crisp! In fact, this work is best done within a relational field - where another soul can watch over ours, while we are being fragmented and put back together.

So, here is the message once again. In any serious inner work, our first order of business is to be gentle with our soul. We cannot beat it over the head to “integrate” its shadow in a weekend workshop! The psyche has its own timeline, and it is wise to respect that. In fact, any attempt by the Ego to fast-forward Soul Time is a hubris that could literally kill us - at least psychologically and spiritually, if not physically.

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Salty dream: the psychological alchemy of salt

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Salty dream: the psychological alchemy of salt

Last week, I had a complicated multi-part dream. I will not get into the entire storyline, but there was a specific part that intrigued me enough for me to dig deeper. This blog post is an effort to understand and share some of the symbolism that spoke to me. Hopefully, it will also be a good example of how we can work with dream symbols in a meaningful way.

The dream vignette

I am in a very crowded train in India. I am standing among a bunch of other people, with barely any room to move. In my hands are two large (gallon-size) ziplock bags, each filled with salt. The salts in the two bags look somewhat different. They are not pure, white commercial salt made of uniform, fine particles. They have particles of different sizes, some clumps, and some of the crystals have pink hues. Even though the train is so crowded that I can barely stand, I am pouring salt from each of these bags into two other small, snack-size ziplock bags. It seems like an urgent and important operation. It can’t wait. I manage to fill one of the small bags, and drop it into the crook of the arm of an older lady standing next to me. Not only does the lady not complain; she in fact adjusts her position to make sure the packet does not fall to the ground.

Then, I get off the train and am sitting on a bench in an otherwise deserted, what looks like a rural, platform. There is a younger woman sitting with me, and I am giving her the two small snack-sized ziplock bags containing the two types of salts. This offering seems important, even sacred.

Some of the most significant dream images

Trying to understand a dream is a rather personal affair – our associations are our own. The feelings the dream images evoke are personal; so are the memories jogged and the directions of subsequent explorations. What might be important to one dreamer may not be so to another.

With this caveat in mind, these are the main elements that stand out for me from this vignette:

  1. The central importance of salt in this dream
  2. Traveling in a crowded train, possibly from an urban to a rural place
  3. Presence of the triple Goddess motif – maiden-mother-crone

In order to keep this post within a manageable size, I will explore in some detail the symbol of the salt, and only offer a brief amplification of the other two motifs.

Traveling in a crowded train, possibly from an urban to a rural place

A train, unlike a car or a bicycle, is a symbol of the collective. When I am on a train, I have to follow its schedule, get off at designated stops, and share the space with strangers. Thus, the setting of this dream suggests that it has to do with my social engagement, rather than a purely personal problem. The train is crowded – I am engaging with a lot of people. I find a supportive older woman co-passenger – a mentor? This interpretation certainly agrees with my real lived experience soon after this dream. Did the dream anticipate a future encounter with a mentor who would be willing to “hold my salt?” The fact that I get off at a relatively deserted rural station with just one other (younger) woman suggests that I am to engage more deeply, and more personally, with one younger woman. Again, something my lived life is bearing out. The rural setting suggests moving into the more unconscious realms (closer to nature, including my own nature), and there is an offering of something akin to medicine.

The fact that the setting of the dream is in India connotes an ancestral layer in this dream – something about the medicine, “the salt,” of my heritage.

Presence of the triple Goddess motif – maiden-mother-crone

I am struck by the fact that even though the setting is a crowded train, three characters stand out. The older co-passenger who facilitates my “dosing of the salt.” She is the crone. I am the mother – my self-identity, as well as the “carrier of the salt” in this dream. The recipient of the “salt medicine” is the younger woman – the maiden. The maiden-mother-crone is a very powerful motif in mythology, and deserves its own post – even several posts. So, I will hold this idea for another time. Meanwhile, if you are curious, look up the story of Demeter, Persephone and Heckete. Also, remember the admonition that in a dream, all the dream images can be seen as aspects of oneself. The one we identify as “me” is merely most directly aligned with our ego-identity. In fact, this character is often referred to as the “dream ego” in dream analysis circles.

And now, the salt

This vignette from the dream is really all about salt. It is about carrying salt, apportioning salt, and offering salt to another as medicine.

So, what is salt?

The common salt

First, very simply, when we talk about salt, we think about table salt – our “common salt.” It is curious that there is no other food ingredient that we label as “common.”

If we look at the etymology of “common,” we find that it comes from two Latin source words:

  • communis "in common, public, shared by all or many; general, not specific; familiar, not pretentious." 
  • munia "duties, public duties, functions." 

It is only much later, circa late fourteenth century, that the word “common” began to be used to refer to the “ordinary, not distinguished, not excellent.”

So, what is really so common about salt?

When we look at it more closely, we find that not much about it is really “common.”

Margaret Visser, the author of a wonderful 1986 treatise on the mythology of foods, has this to say about salt:

“lt is the only rock directly consumed by man. It corrodes but preserves, desiccates but is wrested from the water. It has fascinated man for thousands of years not only as a substance he prized and was willing to labour to obtain, but also as a generator of poetic and of mythic meaning. The contradictions it embodies only intensify its power and its links with experience of the sacred.”

Salt adds taste to food. Without salt, food tastes bland. And it preserves. Salt has been used since ancient times for pickling and preserving flesh and vegetables, as well as for mummification of human bodies. "Sharing salt" is about communal solidarity. You cannot betray someone whose salt you have eaten! In fact, our current word "salary" comes from Latin salārium, meaning ‘salt money’). This is a reference to the Roman practice of paying soldiers in pieces of compressed salt. Hence the phrase: "to be worth one’s salt."

Salt is also very stable. It does not burn or spoil easily (except by absorbing water).

Chemically speaking, a salt is produced from a "neutralization reaction" between an acid and a base. The two have a natural affinity for each other, one seeking to gain an electron (the acid), the other seeking to lose one (the base). When this occurs, the product is a salt.

Since a salt is electrically neutral - it represents a perfect equipoise between the electron-grabbing nature of an acid, and the electron-rejecting nature of a base!

Alchemical Salt: the fulcrum between sulfur and mercury

Cinnabar crystals

Cinnabar crystals

Alchemically, salt is seen as the embodied, “fixed,” result of the primordial tension between opposing polarities. An example (and a symbol) of alchemical salt is cinnabar, mercuric sulfide (HgS) – a stabilization of the opposing tendencies of sulfur and mercury.

In the alchemy of Paracelsus and his followers, there is the idea of the tria prima, the three primary principles: namely sulfur, mercury and salt. Although one can write a treatise on these three elements alone, here I will limit myself to their symbolism for psychology.

Sulfur, in the psychological alchemical sense, refers to the part of us that is fiery, and flammable. It is our desires and passions, the parts of us "ready to catch on fire." Sulfur is often referred to in this literature as soul (although some have claimed it to represent spirit or even body). Some recent  psychologically oriented writers have equated sulfur with superego.

Mercury on the other hand, is volatile and flowing. It slips around, and is hard to pin down in one place. It is the realm of thoughts. It is effervescent. Some have associated mercury with spirit; others with ego.

Salt, in one way of understanding, would be the "fixation" of these opposing tendencies of fiery sulfur, and flowing mercury.

Indeed, according to Pythagoras:

Salt arises from the purest sources, the sun and the sea.”

As is clear, one cannot live in the here and now either in a purely sulfuric state (which will literally cause a "burn out"), nor in a purely mercurial state (which will lead to disembodied "flightiness,"  "floatiness" or "indecision").

When they combine, though, the salt is created - which is stable and embodied. In this state, both the fire of sulfur and the flow of mercury can be preserved.

Paracelsus's writings often refer to salt as "balsam." Balsam, in German, is something that heals and preserves, and indeed salt is the first and the most used preservative for both animal and vegetal material. Indeed, from salt comes salve (derived from Latin sal for salt). Not surprisingly, salt was a major ingredient in the material used for mummification in ancient Egypt.

Salt preserves by desiccation. It preserves by removing water, and thus preventing putrefaction. This action in alchemy was referred to as calcinatio (calcination); and calcination processes required very high heat. Thus, alchemically, salt is understood to hold the inner fire of sulfur. Its ready solubility in water may also be seen as suggestive of its inner mercurial essence.

Salt is thus the fulcrum, the bridge, the "key" - that holds in the present moment, our sulfuric and mercurial natures in dynamic equilibrium.

Too much salt

Once again, in alchemical psychology (as in life) too much of anything is detrimental, especially when it is present to the exclusion of other elements.

It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where there is too much salt. Everything is dry, desiccated. There is no joy, no celebration. There is no passion and no flights of fancy. There is just drudgery and rules. Too much salt is fanaticism. It is puritanism, and punishment for transgressions.

Returning now to the dream

Now, in closing, I would like to return to the dream vignette, and contrast it with another vignette from an Active Imagination experience from about a year ago. During this latter experience, I encountered a place in my solar plexus, which felt dry and white. When I stayed with the image, I saw an endless expanse of salt flats, where lay the bleached bones of my ancestors.

Without getting into personal story - it was a place devoid of emotion. The salt had all precipitated. It was a ghost of an ancient ocean that was no longer flowing; all the water having been evaporated long ago by the heat of the blazing sun. Psychologically, this was a "barren" place - devoid of tears, sweat or blood - devoid of Life! There was intellect without feeling. I experienced the place as "desolate."

How different is the salt that is in the current dream! It is now contained (in ziplock bags), and the dream ego has learnt the skill of "dosing." (Another subject that will have to wait for another occasion are the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome, who were the "keepers of the salt," and were tasked to ceremonially prepare sacrificial animals by sprinkling them with salt.)

In the dream, the dream ego is not offering a huge amount of salt, but a "snack-size" portion - something that can be safely worked with - to the relatively inexperienced apprentice!

Interestingly too, the salt in neither bag is "pure." There are different particle sizes, colors and lumps. Lumps suggest that they are not totally devoid of water. What is being offered to the maiden is not just dry wisdom, but an empathic attunement.

It is also no wonder that it is the maiden who is the recipient of the salt. James Hillman wrote about the puer aeternus (eternal youth) as "unsalted." Same applies to our puella (female youth). She is young - still in the grips of sulfuric passion and mercurial moods. Life and experience have not yet made her "crusty" with salt. But it may be time for this maiden to begin to embody that which lights her passion and makes her spirit soar.

Indeed, alchemy speaks of sal sapientia - the wisdom of salt (or salt of wisdom)!

So, what is the message of this dream?

As I said at the beginning of the post, the "message" of a dream is finally what resonates, "rings true," feels deeply authentic, to the dreamer. Also, symbols are multivalent. They have layers of meaning. And even after all the interpretations, the roots of a true symbol (such as the symbol of alchemical salt) are always planted deep in the unconscious - from where new meanings arise continually.

What feels authentic to me in this dream is the message that I should pay close attention to salt at this time. I need to be salty - grounded and embodied - but with a little humidity and impurity in the salt - to keep it real! I hear this dream vignette telling me that I am being asked to carry and offer the medicine of salt at this time. It is the medicine of balance, of moderation and equipoise.

Who might be the recipient of this medicine? Who is the maiden of the dream? Immature parts of myself? Parts long forgotten, or left by the wayside? Or people I work with? Or is it my own child? Indeed, it may be one of these, some of these, or all of these. 

Another message I hear from this vignette is that there is support. There is a older, wiser presence supporting me to carry the salt. Is this presence intrapsychic or manifest? Again, it could be either or both. I personally feel it is both.

What I take away from this vignette is the call to hold and offer sal sapientia - in carefully dosed amounts - both to parts of myself that might be feeling too sulfuric or mercurial, and to those who may seek my counsel in one form or another. The dream, to me, is a communication from my deep psyche that the moment right now is not for excess, but for moderation, for careful dosing - both in my personal life, and in my interpersonal dealings. 

In summary, then, this exploration of a salty dream is just that - a snapshot at a point in time of something that is continually morphing. I hope this exploration has helped bring alive a subject matter that may otherwise feel dry and academic.

~~~

Sources:

  1. James Hillman, "Alchemical Psychology" - a collection of his papers on alchemical imagination from 1980 onwards.
  2. Aaron Cheak, "The Hermetic Problem of Salt”

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Meditations on a mandala: holding the tension between Being and Doing

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Meditations on a mandala: holding the tension between Being and Doing

Mandala - viriditas

I colored this mandala a few days ago when my mind and heart were in turmoil. I needed to find ground under my feet. So, I colored this mandala intuitively, without really thinking. I let my heart choose; not my head.

Mandala as a tool for finding wholeness

Mandalas are circular drawings that are used in many cultures across the world as tools for meditation. Typically, a mandala has a center, and then radially expanding elements that move toward the periphery. They have been thought to represent, in two dimensions, the cross-section of a temple, with the inner sanctum at the center. Carl Jung brought the use of mandalas to Western psychology, and used them himself and with his patients as a way of finding a symbol for wholeness.

I am deeply drawn to Jung’s idea of wholeness, which is somewhat different from the new age idea of “healing.” Often, though not always, this “healing” is one-sided – choosing love and light and joy, and bulldozing over the unwanted opposites. Consequently, these rejected parts of ourselves lodge themselves in our unconscious, and dictate our behavior from there, without leaving us any choice in when and how they express themselves. Jung called them “autonomous complexes.” Jung’s idea of wholeness, which he called “individuation” (really meaning in-dividuation, or removing divisions), is about accepting ALL OF OURSELVES, warts and all! And working with a mandala, among other things, can be a tool to do that work.

Later, over the next few days, I have sat with it, and as things have revealed themselves, I have done more reading and thinking, and then gone back and looked at the mandala again. This approach, of elaboration and then returning to the symbol repeatedly, is what Carl Jung called “amplification,” or “circumambulation” of a symbol. This process reveals the many layers of meaning often hidden in a symbol, and this same process is utilized in the Jungian analysis of dreams and other imagistic material.

For me, this process of being with this mandala over the past few days has been the act outlined in the title – that of holding the paradox between Being and Doing – between focus and relaxation, between intuition and thinking. And it has felt like the gentle rhythm of the ocean – waves coming in, crashing, and then receding – in endless succession. There is something immensely soothing about it.

Of course, we never fully understand a symbol. Part of its very nature – of being a symbol – is that its archetypal core lives in the unconscious, and is thus mysterious and unintelligible to our conscious, rational selves. In fact, if and when we fully (consciously) understand a symbol, it no longer has its numinous quality (i.e., it is no longer a mystery, with both terrifying and fascinating qualities). At that point, it no longer remains a symbol; it just becomes a sign!

Here are, then, a few insights the symbol of this mandala has brought for me (as of now).

Viriditas: The medicine of the green container

The overall feel of this mandala is one of greenness – different shades of green. Green is a powerful color. The color green is invoked most poetically by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She used the term viriditas for the “greening power” of nature, which to her was synonymous with the greening power of the divine. For Hildegard, viriditas meant green, greenness, and growth, as well as vigor, verdure, freshness and vitality. The presence of green was synonymous with finding divine blessing and sanctuary.

Indeed, the image of spring, spreading her green fingers over a frozen and denuded landscape, is nothing short of a miracle! In the Northern climes, where deep winter lasted a very long time, and the arrival of spring was seen as a return of life itself, images of the Green Man were revered and celebrated. In Egypt, the God Osiris, who is killed by his brother, and then is brought back to life by his sister-lover-Queen, Isis, is often shown to have green skin. He represents the cycle of life, including that of vegetation – of death and rebirth.

Indeed, the word “Green” itself comes from Middle English grene, from Old English grēne, from Proto-Germanic grōniz, which all mean “to grow.”

Many Islamic countries use the color green on their flags, and the interiors of many mosques have green adornments. The dome and the interior of Muhammad’s tomb are green. The Christian crucifix, representing the dying and resurrecting Christ, is also often pictured as green.  

Green is also the color of love. Aphrodite and Venus have been assigned the color green. So is the color assigned to the heart chakra, Anahata, in Hindu/Buddhist system.

The shadow side of green

One lesson we keep learning in life, and one that was emphasized by Carl Jung, is that ALL OBJECTS CAST SHADOW! Nothing is purely and absolutely good! Indeed, the color green’s very relationship to life and growth also makes it a necessary feature of death and putrefaction. Slime, mold, poison, pus, and vomit are all green. So are the threatening faces of witches, the bodies of extraterrestrial enemies, dinosaurs, and monsters. In the psyche, too, there is the green-eyed monster of jealousy, and being “green with envy.” “Being green” is also about immaturity, inexperience, awkwardness, unripeness.

Finally, green growth alone, without a compensating red core of passion and its eventual self-destruction, will give rise to cancer, where out-of-control growth chokes out life!

Red: Green’s fiery complement

It is interesting that my intuitively created green mandala has a core where the dominant color is red.

Indeed, in color theory, red is the complementary color of green. Green is moist and cool; whereas red is hot and dry. The two colors need each other to make life possible and to keep things dynamic. Red is activity, focus, passion; green is relaxation, rest, rejuvenation.

In alchemy, “reddening” or rubedo is the final step of the Work (after blackening and whitening), and in psychological alchemy, it is often understood as the psyche – after going through its night journey of darkness, interiority and depression (blackening, or melanosis or nigredo), and then reflecting on and mentally understanding what it went through (whitening, or leucosis or albedo) – finally returns back into the lived world. This is the stage of reddening, or iosis, or rubedo. Once at this stage, the psyche becomes “sanguine,” i.e., it has life-blood coursing through it once again, and now it can fully participate in the mundane world, but from a transformed place.

The instinctive human psyche has always known this truth. In a Tibetan Buddhist thanka (see image), the serene Green Tara appears beneath a small red Buddha and above a fierce red dakini. To the Greeks, fruitful green Aphrodite was the lover of fierce red Ares. Using the symbolism of psychological alchemy, it is the green vessel that holds the red substance of the highest value – the Green Dragon’s red blood. Similarly, the emerald chalice of the grail contains the holy blood of Christ.

Indeed, this dance of green and red was appreciated by Hildegard von Bingen, who wrote:
“O most honored Greening Force,
You who roots in the Sun;
You who lights up, in shining serenity, within a wheel
that earthly excellence fails to comprehend.
You are enfolded
in the weaving of divine mysteries.
You redden like the dawn
and you burn: flame of the Sun.”
–  Hildegard von Bingen, Causae et Curae

Blue: the threshold guardian

In the mandala above, it appears as if the dance of the green and the red is mediated and “officiated” by the blue. Indeed, this is the psychological function of blue in alchemy.

Psychological alchemy is a vast subject, and I will continue to speak about elements of it (as I continue to learn more), because I believe that it is one of the most nuanced symbol systems to understand the evolution of human psyche. Briefly, psychological alchemy begins with the raw material (the prima materia), which corresponds to the psychic stage of chaotic thought and confusion (massa confusa). The Great Work (opus magnum) of psychological alchemy begins with the blackening of this prima materia. This stage is variously called nigredo, or melanosis. It is the stage of turning inward, going into the depths, the depression, the withdrawal from the lived world – in order to encounter what is brewing within. It is the legendary Dark Night of the Soul, or entering the belly of the beast! This stage is eventually followed by the next stage of whitening – the albedo. This is a stage of mental understanding of the inner suffering – a clearing, a lightening, a becoming like a silver mirror. Here we “understand,” what happened to us – a stage sometimes referred to as unio mentalis (mental union). Interrestingly, though, this stage was seen by most alchemists as not the goal of the Work, but only a waystation. However, this stage did represent a much-needed respite from the deep, dark depths. There are other stages that follow, but they are not the subject of today’s discussion.

What is important for today’s discussion, is the fact that this transition from black to white often happened through shades of blue.

To quote James Hillman:
“…the blues of bruises, sobriety, puritan self-examination; the blues of slow jazz. Silver’s color was not only white but also blue… The blue transit between black and white is like that – sadness which emerges from despair as it proceeds towards reflection. Reflection here comes from or takes one into a blue distance, less a concentrated act that we do than something insinuating itself upon us as a cold, isolating inhibition. This vertical withdrawal is also like an emptying out, the creation of a negative capability, or a profound listening — already an intimation of silver.”

Or, as Goethe said in his Color Theory:
“…blue still brings a principle of darkness with it... As a hue it is powerful, but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. . . a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.”

Thus, the blue in this mandala gives us that shade, that middle ground – that threshold – between the red core of passion and focus and excitement, and the green container of repose, relaxation. Indeed the blue threshold allows the dance between Doing and Being to flow and merge – to approach and move away – to live in dynamic contradiction that is life itself.

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