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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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Burning with Rumi

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Burning with Rumi

An Illustrated Mathnawi from Konya, Turkey, where Rumi lived most of his life and eventually died.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masnavi#/media/File:Turkey.Konya049.jpg

An Illustrated Mathnawi from Konya, Turkey, where Rumi lived most of his life and eventually died. 
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masnavi#/media/File:Turkey.Konya049.jpg

The Reed Flute Song

Listen to the story told by the reed,                                          
of being separated.

"Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.

At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it's not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty."

Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment

melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn

and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy

and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender

and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.

A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect

because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes

is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying

that they do. Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.

Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,

who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!

No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.

But if someone doesn't want to hear
the song of the reed flute,

it's best to cut conversation
short, say good-bye, and leave.

~ Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi
(Translation: Coleman Barks)

Ney, the Persian reed flute

The lines above open the Mathnawi (or Masnavi), a massive work of mystical poetry, consisting of 50,000 lines of rhyming couplets composed by Rumi. Many Sufis treasure the Mathnawi as much as the Qur'an itself! 

In this section titled "The Reed Flute's Song" by translator Coleman Barks, the reed flute ("ney" in Persian) speaks, in plaintive language, of the pain of separation of the Lover from the Beloved - that of the aspirant from his/her divine source. What I find so attractive about Rumi is that he speaks so eloquently about this human longing for the divine, without making it dense with the language of theology and creed. 

The original poem, "Beshno az ney " in Persian (Farsi), has been translated by many translators, and each translation brings out a different nuance. Persian is a lyrical language, and Rumi's poetry are meant to be spoken out loud - and sung. Thus, no translation can do full justice to the poem. At the end of this piece, I have provided a link to a video of the this poem sung in Farsi, and also a transliteration of the original poem.

The experience of being a reed flute

The words that, for me, are the soul of this poem, and the ones that set Rumi aside as the "king of mystics," are the following:

"...The reed flute
is fire, not wind
."

And

"Be that empty."

What does it mean - that a reed flute is fire, not wind?

And what is this emphatic invitation to be empty?

I received a beautiful explanation to this question from a fellow student at an elective course on Rumi at my seminary. She told us a story from her Sheikh (her teacher). According to this story, when a reed stem is cut from the reed bed with the intention of making a flute, it is still green and wet. To serve as a container for the vibrating column of air which will make the magical song, it first needs to be dried out completely, then hollowed, and finally have holes drilled into it.

The part about the reed flute being fire, not wind, comes from an ancient process of hollowing out the reed. A reed stem, in its natural state, has segments, separated by fleshy pith. According to my friend's teacher, in the olden days, after the reed was adequately dried, it was filled with molten metal, in order to melt away all the pith. Once the metal could flow through the reed without interruption, it was considered empty enough to become a flute. A reed stem is born to make music, but it cannot do so until the loving hands of the flute-maker fills it with scalding molten metal! My friend's Sheikh told her that this was exactly the job of a spiritual teacher - to pour molten metal into his/her students, until they became empty enough to make the music they were born to create!

Rumi uses this metaphor of passing through fire, of melting - again and again - as an essential part of the mystic path. This fire, this melting - is understood as the pain of separation from the divine Beloved - and of this desperate longing for reunification. He speaks of the young chickpea drinking water in the gardens, only so that it can later be cooked by the teacher, to make food "for the Friend." He speaks of the wine-maker trampling the grapes - even though the grapes cry out and bleed - in order to make wine. Again and again, the imagery reminds the student that this path is not just wine and savory delectables - not just ecstasy, but that one does not arrive at these culminations without going through extreme mortification and pain. 

Indeed, the Mevlavi Sufi order that Rumi founded, is one of the most ascetic and rigorous of all Sufi orders! Thus, Rumi's Sufiism is by no means "Islam Lite." On the contrary, through his poetic language, he is able to enter the heart of devotion, and illuminate the essence of both suffering and ecstasy for all of mankind.

In the utter emptiness of the reed flute lies its music. It is this stripping away - that feels ruthless at the time - which births a reed flute - a "friend to all who want the fabric torn and drawn away!" 

Thus, Rumi's invitation to us is to not shy away from darkness - from deep process - from what Christian mystics have called via negativa - in order to one day be able to make music like the reed flute.

Transliteration of the Reed Flute's Song in Persian (Farsi)

Aatasheh ishq ast kandar ney fetaad
Jooshesheh ishq ast kandar mey fetaad

Ney, harifeh har keh az yaari borid
Pardeh hayash pardeh hayeh ma darid

Hamcho ney zahri o taryaqi keh did?
Hamchon ney damsaaz o moshtaqi ke did?

Ney hadiseh raheh por khoon mikonad
Qesseh hayeh eshq e majnoon mikonad

Mahrameh in hoosh joz bihoosh nist
Mar zaban ra moshtari joz goosh nist

Dar ghameh ma rooz ha bigaah shod
Rouz ha ba souz ha hamraah shod

Rouz ha gar raft gu ro baak nist
To bemaan , ey aankeh chin to paak nist

Har keh joz maahi zeh aabash dir shod
Har keh bi roozist, roozash dir shod

Dar nayaabad haaleh pokhteh hich khaam
Pas sokhan kootaah baayad, vassalaam

Beshno az ney chon hekaayat mikonad
Az jodaayee ha shekaayat mi-konad

Kaz neyestaan ta maraa bebrideh and
Dar nafiram mardo zan naalideh and

Sineh khaaham sharheh sharheh az faraagh
Ta begooyam sharheh dardeh eshtiyaagh

Har kasi ku door maand az asleh khish
Az jooyad roozegareh vasleh khish

Man be har jamiyati naalaan shodam
Jofteh bad haalaano khosh haalaan shodam

Har kasi az zanneh khod shod yaareh man
Az darooneh man najost asraareh man

Serreh man az naaleyeh man door nist
Lik chashmo goosh ra aan noor nist

Tan zeh jaano jaan zeh tan mastour nist
Lik kas ra dideh jaan dastour nist

Aatash ast in baangeh naayo nist baad
Har keh in aatash nadaarad nist baad

Beshno as Ney in Persian by Ayeda Husain Naqvi

The Reed Flute's Song recited by the translator, Coleman Barks

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