We cannot discuss the throat chakra without a comparison to the Greek god Hermes. His character personifies the traveling messenger between all deities, sending signals and expressions of harmony, disharmony, life, and death. Hermes is a trickster figure, often moving forwards and backwards with whimsical and snake charming personality. God of messages, Hermes has little to say for himself. Rather, he comes and goes with the transferences of soul between upper worlds and underworlds. Similarly, the throat irrigates the vital flow of oxygen, blood, and neurotransmission between the brain, head and body. We could say it is the mythological Hermes at work each time sensation, memory, compulsion, anger, and more come to consciousness. The Hermes mythos hosts all that is the exposed and vulnerable go-between just as the throat carries vital substance across the threshold between the mind and the body.
The Hermetic Traveler
Associated with the color deep blue, the throat chakra is the source of our deep truths. When this chakra is blocked, communication between what is truly taking place in the mind and in the body is repressed. This may lead to eruptions of mood, loss of identity, and a poor spiritual, emotional, and psychological disposition. As the vulnerability of the throat space begins to loosen, one may discover they have a tremendous amount to say without really knowing the source of the information. The “purge,” as I like to call it, is to access the Hermetic stream of consciousness. In other words, allowing the gods of the psyche to pour out in expression. It is the voice that bounces back which tells what we sound like. Furthermore, it is the voice of process – the Hermetic traveler – which carries the sacred messages of our deepest truths.
Balance and Vital Self-Expression
An open and balanced throat chakra frees up our channels of communication. When the throat is relaxed and energy flows freely, not only are we able to commune between mind and body in the inner world but also in the outer world with relationships and vital self-expression. A balanced throat chakra supports the communication of truths in ways that find harmony and understanding with others. Naturally, an overactive throat chakra may instead hurl information, or overcome oneself and others with maniacal intensities. When, for example, we do not transfer anger through the god Hermes, we risk the overtaking of Mars. Anger energy, as an example, can overtake the repressed or the overactive (and they are one and the same). Making one small creates the counterbalance, if only in the eyes of others.
The Great Bridge
This week I want us to be mindful of the formation of words and the purpose of the throat space. My encouragement is to breathe into this area. Allow energy to flow upwards and downwards, transferring the vital wisdom the psyche-soma connection affords. Since all aspects and relationships occur at the threshold between them, we can recognize the throat as the great bridge across which all vital truths and harmonies must cross. May we all be impeccable with our word this week as we observe and connect in the slippery and poetic flow of Hermes.
Well, we made it! Starting this week Barn Life programs are officially on campus! I thought it an interesting experiment as we connected through such physical distance. Our last theme, I believe, reflected our best efforts under the strain of social distancing. Alchemy is a heady and slippery world of ideas that support a mindful journey through our thoughts and emotions. However, it also addresses the significance of the body itself. Our return to campus offers us a great opportunity to explore the importance of physical and psychological connection. It is my hope that we will gain a better understanding of the psyche and soma (body) relationship and improve our attendance to the wisdom and messages of the body.
A Powerful Way of Healing Trauma
First, I want to elaborate on a few fundamental assumptions about working with the body. As studies continue to reveal, bodywork is an extremely potent and powerful way of addressing and healing trauma, freeing the mind from rumination. This includes cravings, depressive thoughts, anxiety, and more. In fact, no single cultural or mytho-religious background completely neglects working with the body. Psychology, with its broadening horizons and narrowing treatment methods, has to contend with the undisputed significance of the relationship between the body and the psyche.
The Unio Mentalis
By majority, most of us walk this earth with a severed head. In alchemy, this is referred to as the unio mentalis, a separation of the objective world from the thinking mind. On the one hand, this is an important step because we begin to observe the distance. On the other, however, we are often doomed in psychotherapy to the constant observational perspective. Psychologizing, as we might refer to it, is all about observing ourselves with language and category. We learn to be analysts, scientists, and researchers of our thinking, our moods, and our relationships. The problem here lies in the circular reasoning. Should we stay in reflection, we resemble Narcissus himself, oblivious to the love and beauty of the world. Should we remain severed from the wisdom of the body, we serve, in the end, to strengthen the mind’s perspectives alone.
The Unification of Mind and Body
The body becomes, then, a receptacle for all the contents we cannot or will not recognize. As we move through thought, reflection, and strategy, though, we may end up with a physical illness, a numbing to the sensory experience, and, ultimately, a great distance from the soul. How can we break free of the division between the mind and the body? Depth psychology is but one tradition that helps us to access the work of integration. Not only of aspects of our inner life but also the unification of mind and body.
Dr. Jeanne Schul and the Subtle Body
In Dance the Body Electric, Dr. Jeanne Schul suggests that the body is a powerful conductor of psychological and emotional life. The “subtle body” is the space between mind and physical body where a sensory relationship can be experienced. Through, for example, a sensory exploration of movement, we discover the truth about ourselves. Movement is honest. It does not explain itself or rationalize. Movement confesses. It reveals, without words, expressions of the substance of our nature. Movement may reveal frozen emotions or ignite fires of intense expressions. Movement works on our reservations and our need for control.
The Confessions of the Body
This week, I want us to remain mindful of the bodily sensations and the impulses to move. Honesty, in the most spiritual sense, is always an expression of love and not strategy. Should we open up to the confessions of the body, we may find ourselves thoroughly present, sincerely engaged, and wildly human once more. For the next several weeks, we will be engaging with the body from a few different modalities in groups. We will explore the 7 primary chakras and support a connectivity between these real and living centers of consciousness. I encourage you all to remain firstly in the body and, as we come together in a real physical environment, to strive to honor those vessels of substance that differentiate you from me. May we all remain at home beneath the skin and near the heart of wisdom that transcends the mind.
Well, in our series of transformation, we have come to week 4, the rubedo. We have spent time exploring stages and experiences of suffering and healing with an alchemical eye. Growth is difficult. To shift the patterns of our relationships, our moods, and our deepest destructive tendencies takes more than ideas. I’d bet any one of you can sit yourself down and prescribe a world of “shoulds”. However, a lovely 12-step sentiment says that to get out of ones own head and into their feet, to follow the path that others have taken will produce the results you seek. Before we take this week’s subject of the accomplishment of the alchemical opus, I want to encourage each of you to ask yourselves, am I willing to walk a path that others have walked?
Your Knights of the Round Table
When those around us have the things we want, through action we learn to get them ourselves. Rather than the parts of ourselves that like to have things figured out, what if we look instead to the curious and the willing parts drawn to the wisdom hard-earned by others? How are your knights of the round table shaping up? Do you have people you respect who sit on your council? If not, it’s a good time to start looking. How can you take better action? Move in their direction.
The Creative and Personal Relationship
It is true that following a well-worn path helps us begin to change. However, there is a second aspect to this work that requires special attention. Alchemy helps us to realize the combination of operations with instructions (following the path). However, it also highlights the creative and personal relationship with the process. On the one hand, we can follow along. This will accordingly move us out of the old and toward better practices. On the other, it is important to understand that we require a mindful intimacy with ourselves in the present moment.
The Soul Cannot Be Put Away
Have you ever wondered why, when doing everything right, we experience these surges of extreme emotions? Why doesn’t the formula automatically equal success? Should we look up from the tunnel vision of better actions? Should the diligent good soldier forget their own inner life? One may prevent death and destruction, even experience moments of joy or hopefulness. But without the heart where is the soul? Are we truly alive? Many learn to split themselves between passion, expression, feeling, and operation. The danger? The soul cannot be put away. If we repress our own instincts, ignore feelings, good and bad, we create a pressurized and cooking vessel beneath our efforts.
Turning to the Rubedo
The reason for this? If we try and live the lunar white world – of hopeful and dreamy consciousness – we are straining to resist the coming pressures of a real moment. While the albedo (whiteness) is important to bringing us out of the blackness of our darkest suffering, it only lasts so long before the daylight comes back. Many will cling to the white-washed experiences – attempting to float in the ideals, live the perfect image, even act the part. In our final week on the alchemical stages of change we turn to the goal of the work: the rubedo, meaning “red.”
The Redness of Life
Dr. Jung understood this idea when he suggested that living the dream state is not enough. Jung writes, “In the state of ‘whiteness’ one does not live in the true sense of the word. It is a sort of abstract, ideal state. In order to make it come alive it must have ‘blood’, it must have what the alchemists called the rubedo, the ‘redness’ of life. Only the experience of being can transform this ideal state into a fully human mode of existence. Blood alone can reanimate a glorious state of consciousness in which the last traces of blackness is dissolved, in which the devil no longer has an autonomous existence, but rejoins the profound unity of the psyche. Then the opus magnum is finished: the human soul is completely integrated.”
Here and Now
The rubedo refers to the sensory experience in the here and now, paired with the mind of an evolving and aspiring ego. The mind and body, instincts, and ideals have all undergone operations, cooked, separated, evaporated, remixed, and reproduced. In short, we are fully present and able to navigate the good, the bad, and the ugly with presence and acceptance. This is difficult to grasp without some well-developed skills. Here at Barn Life, we emphasize mindfulness – the skill of noticing, learning to become aware, both psychologically and physically. While challenging and provocative to all the things we repress and struggle to overcome, learning to work with the raw material means also learning to detach, endure, and alchemize.
Have you learned to meditate?
We begin our 3rd week on inner transformation- a look into alchemy- with a short poem describing this stage known as the Albedo.
The ash is washed away
To reveal our original purity
To every black, there must be a white.
A heaven to every hell.
Behind the mask of our temporary identities, there is an eternal soul.
When we remove the mask
The Prema Materia and the Nigredo
To this point, our writing, group discussion, and meditations have been revolving around the importance of inner work. Alchemy deals in large part with building an inner chem lab in which we participate in the arriving experiences both familiar and new. Alchemy helps us, as we have discussed in prior weeks, to identify where we are and where we are going in the transformation of our psychological worlds. From the starting material (prema materia) discussed 2 weeks ago, we moved then to nigredo, or blackening of our psychological eye. This refers to a dissolving of hope wherein we surrender to the abyss – the darkening of our perspectives. Remember that we come to new life only through the death experience. If you are suffering, embrace that process with your support. Let the energy pull you down and stay engaged, something powerful is happening!
Finding the Positive
Here is the second phase of the work. On the one hand, the coming whitening is filled with potential, hopefulness, refreshment and nourishment. On the other, it generates a large degree of stretching – insight, effort, and refinement. Albedo refers to the whitening of the experience, where, through our darkness, we begin to see light. Can you recall these kinds of moments in your life? How many clichés do we have for this shift? “It’s always darkest before the dawn” or “we need darkness to see the light?” We have all had mysterious happenings come out of difficult circumstances. Finding the positive proves quite difficult until something new comes out of it. This is one way of understanding a gift in our suffering. Think of those that work in treatment. Chances are good they too have suffered and to a large degree find meaning and wisdom. They now point the way.
The Light From Darkness
In the simplest terms, albedo refers to the light that comes from darkness. It refers to the light that may itself be darkness. New hope, the whitening, a bright light that we could not see until we waited in the abyss. It is not the light that we might expect, however. Suffering the nigredo does not automatically give us a new life. Rather than a solar light where warmth and growth come to us with clear and practical direction, we instead experience the white light of the moon.
The King and the Alchemical Work
Alchemical texts across the world use sun (solar) and moon (lunar) to describe the two poles of the psychological experience. On the one hand, sunlight refers to what we know. We associate it with kingship, the ruling conscious self that sits on the throne in your mind. The one that chooses and rules over actions. It is ultimately this king that goes through the alchemical work as consciousness must be broken down. Here the lunar (moon) must be experienced. Firstly we go from daylight to darkness (nigredo), then we begin to see that very same world we have known in the solar world with new hues and perspectives. Those same trees that once looked green and vibrant, now, in the pale moonlight, look muted, ominous, and full of the critters of the night.
The Odd New Perspectives
Lunar consciousness – the whiteness of the moon – is a metaphorical way of referring to the odd new perspectives that come with the alchemical process. We transform old selves through the blackness then begin to see with eyes that are quite different. From lunar we get the word lunacy. This is to say that new beginnings must come from an inner perspective that at first is quite backwards. Does it surprise you to learn that going “crazy” is in fact necessary in order to change? Of course to what degree and how we do this can very tremendously. Have you ever felt like you have “lost it” and that actually became the medicine for your life?
The Lunar and the Feminine
We have seen that whitening refers to the lunar instead of the solar. However, this can also mean the feminine instead of the masculine or silver instead of the gold. Here, having broken down and lost our way, we revisit the world we have known but with new eyes. Everything then takes time to observe and experience from a new perspective. This is a tricky thing to describe here and I hope you are getting some tastes of what this might feel like. But let’s take it a bit further and see what may grab you. Let’s talk about silver for a minute.
A Silver Mining Experience
Silver is a difficult substance to mine. In order to dig up silver, it takes a tremendous amount of hard work for little yield. So to get perspective you have to do a lot of digging. Your eyes must be facing down and into the dark earth of your psyche and through this comes the harvested silver of the albedo. Once you have descended to the earth you have to then extract the silver. Silver needs polish and work on but then provides a strong mirror. There in the face of our silver-selves can we see clearly what we are. Albedo is a silver mining experience. Albedo is a silver revealing, emotion clarifying and vision providing experience.
A Willingness to Go Loopy
Through moonlit insight, we trip on what was otherwise overlooked in our “rightness” of daylight. The reflective lunar mind is the mind of the patient. It is a willingness to go loopy, to feel the lunacy of your stories and to share, share, share. There in the moonlight do you find your monsters and your allies. Recognize that this work of alchemy is a series of separations of parts and merging of parts. We leave the world we have known, look at the parts we have called ourselves, and returned to them with new eyes. Some parts shrink, others dissolve, some become ideas instead of realities, others realities instead of ideas. Taking the time to cook, dissolve, and free flow through these stages is essential to the soul’s liberation.
Albedo and the Purification
Losing your mind becomes about the aesthetic value, the sensory experience, the here and now in the dark unknown. What firstly can be known? Your senses. the feeling, the feminine, the pale light of being in the body first and the mind second. As the whiteness clarifies what we want, we feel ever closer to what we are and where we are. We not simply our minds nor our bodies, but attending to these parts makes us something entirely more. The soul is the one in the experience and in albedo we must notice the purification taking place. It too can be suffering, although the images that come through tell us more about why.
The Lunacy of the Imagining Mind
We suffer for this clarity, we suffer for reflection, we suffer for the beautiful pure image that we want to achieve that comes out of the black. Have you entered the lunacy of the imagining mind? If so you are no doubt beginning to dream, thinking in wondering and curious possibilities and, most importantly willing to enter your self-exploration with an unknowing attitude.
This morning, while writing on the Nigredo, I ordered a bagel and coffee from a local favorite., As I checked the front porch I saw only coffee. Where was bagel? The writing continued as I sipped on my coffee and my gurgling stomach remarked of the injustice. I noticed the loud squawk of several crows outside my window. How ironic, I thought to myself, that as I write on the nigredo, the black crow, a common symbol for death, darkness, and the warning of the presence of the unconscious, would sing so wildly. Finally, I stepped outside to see what the ruckus was all about. Down the street, I noticed flying bagel bits as 2 crows duked it out over what was intended to be my breakfast. What a synchronistic event this is!
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here! – Dante, Inferno, Canto 3
We know it by many names, this experience in despair. When the unknown greets us with the icy chills of distant winds and the fires char our features til we can not recognize ourselves any longer, there, in the specialness of our suffering and the pummeling of our privilege are we, at last ready for the substance of God.
The Beginning of a Mysterious Light
Today we look at the difficult and always painful alchemical work of the nigredo. Latin for ‘blackness,’ nigredo refers to the darkness that consumes all concept of hope. And in this despair, says our many contributors, a mysterious light begins to form. A light not typical, not solar, and excluding of the darkness. Rather, a light that is itself the darkness. Maybe you know something about this phenomenon? It shows up in many forms often over many years and the common denominator in the experience is the loss of hope. But why? Is suffering really why we live? Why do we fall into the abyss with no hope of return? And how can alchemy help us to understand what is taking place from a perspective of the soul? Is it possible that our suffering holds a secret meaning?
A Psychology of Alchemy
We begin with some additional explanations of just what the nigredo is in the alchemical opus. James Hillman, a favorite of mine, takes an exploratory leap into the color black. In A Psychology of Alchemy, Hillman offers us some sense of the experience:
For any alchemical substance to enter the nigredo phase and blacken, the operations must be dark and are called, in alchemical language, mortificatio, putrefactio, calcinatio, and iteratio. That is, the modus operandi is slow repetitive, difficult, desiccating, severe, astringent, effortful, coagulating, and or pulverizing. All the while the worker enters a nigredo state: depressed, confused, constricted, anguished, and subject to pessimistic, even paranoid, thoughts of sickness, failure, and death (p. 86).
He goes on to write, “as a non-color, black extinguishes the perceptual colored world… Black dissolves meaning and the hope for meaning” (p. 87). And, finally, “By absenting color, black prevents phenomena from presenting their virtues. Black’s deconstruction of any positivity—experienced as doubt, negative thinking, suspicion, undoing, valuelessness—explains why the nigredo is necessary to every paradigm shift” (Hillman, p. 88). Blackening from a psychological view refers to a loss of how things were. How and what we believe, who and what we are about, even where, when and why we take action. In short, the nigredo is about getting lost.
The Darkness Comes for Us All
On the one hand, we strive to regain control, to conquer these situations in life. What is mental health treatment after all if not a “treatment” for nigredo experiences? We prescribe reflection in our therapeutic work. Often, when a sense of identity is threatened, instead of being grown by the experience, the ego resists change by doubling down on perspectives. For example, maybe you’ve relapsed enough times that when stressors come along, it’s a natural response to think that relapsing is the best option. As if some hidden experience were there to sustain us and hold us. My point is that in the end there is no running from the nigredo. Our regressive returns to what “worked” in the past only lengthen the nigredo experience. The darkness comes for us all. Understanding the alchemical perspective helps us to recognize what it is for and why it is happening.
The Work of the Soul
Firstly, darkness is not evil, though it may look like it. Understand that what we see and how we see it is undergoing a break down in order to receive and return itself to the soul. That is, the soul is trapped in the dark, behind those false identities that we carry into life with stubborn allegiance. The nigredo darkens our perspectives and draws us, sometimes quite painfully out of the old. We drop down, break down, fall down, burn to ash or stare into empty spaces where the unknown is all that’s left. In the alchemical view, we consider depression and loss of identity to be a great accomplishment. Here the work of the soul is beginning.
Looking Beyond Ourselves
Much like the idea of a rock-bottom, it isn’t until the ego finally crashes, that is, we undergo enough suffering to look beyond ourselves for answers. That room is made for the unconscious to pour in with new and vital forces to work on, reform, and reveal to us a better way. We say soul-work is taking place because it is the soul that remains. What cooks away is the weighted lead of old thinking, the image of self that cannot be sustained any longer, the heavy king’s crown that keeps you from experiencing the true and liberating love of the universe. These false-self-survival-mechanisms ultimately veil the true light. And while the stripping away of these false-selves is going on, we suffer that process and experience it as great loss.
Some Myths About Suffering
I want to debunk a few myths about suffering order to help support our journeys through nigredo.
- The Nigredo is not about how good or bad you have been. When the unconscious is penetrating your conscious view and life is descending to hopelessness it is a losing of your control but not your soul
2. The nigredo is not a n evil force coming to kill you, though it may manifest in a bodily illness, a death of a loved one, a global crisis.
3. The nigredo is about abandoning hope precisely because our old programming doesn’t know what to appropriately hope for. The hope is what keeps us from the experience. We have to accept that what we are going through is beyond our understanding otherwise we would not be able to go through changes. If we had it figured out we would control it and not the other way around. This darkness is about surrender to what we cannot know. And that will always feel like death in some respect.
Turning to the Unknown
Lastly, this turn to the unknown can only come from an awareness that there is yet no other path. In Sol Niger, depth psychologist and alchemical expert Dr. Marlan writes, “Some people cannot let go and who deny the loss create a situation of impossible mourning… a fundamental sadness to which they become attached… becomes the depressed person’s Sol object of attachment” (pg. 44). For this week, what I encourage is a vested interest in the nigredo experience in your life. Do we attach to hope? And, in turn, damning and prolonging our psyches? Or to the other extreme, are we identified with suffering as a normal? Do we expect and therefore invite an endless traumatic life?
The Mystery of the Here and Now
There is plenty more we can say on this subject and I look forward to our time together for further discussion. Today I’ll leave you this week with Von Franz writing on the nigredo. I think it may help us to understand why these experiences take place in the psyche. Franz writes, “if consciousness works according to nature, the blackness is not so black or so destructive, but if the sun stands still, it is stiffened, and burns life to death”. Sometimes the crows eat the bagels to shake us out of our expectations. They invite us deeper into the poetic and spiritual unfolding mystery of the here and now.
This week we begin our series on inner alchemy. I’d like to start with a brief explanation of the history of alchemy and why it is an important practice for mental health. We will be exploring certain stages of change from an alchemical perspective and offering insights that provoke conscious understanding and movement. After our introduction, I want to begin with what is referred to as the prema materia or ‘primary material’ which is a term for the starting places in alchemical work.
The Process of Accelerating Natural Transformation
As the ‘alchemist,’ our roles are to work with the material of our psychological life in ways that make changes. In short, alchemy can be understood as the process of accelerating natural transformation. Concerned with the transformation of lead into gold, alchemy draws our attention to the parallels between the inner and outer world. With origins in ancient Egypt and texts found across the world, alchemy addresses the relationship between materials in nature and the practices that accelerate their transformations. Why is this important for our own growth? Understand that the physical material of the external world is our primary source of projection. How substances evolve, change, react, and intermingle mirror the same processes within the psyche. We are not separate from our environment and alchemical wisdom is one of the most powerful tools in understanding and working with the psyche.
The Structures of Alchemical Processes
Freud and especially Jung took these texts deep into consideration when producing a working understanding of psychological change. Not all alchemical texts are linear nor do they all suggest the same operations when changing substances. What they do have in common, however, is the range and power of these metaphors for our own inner alchemy. Yes, the concepts may seem abstract, even removed from our need to pay a bill or battle traffic, yet the structures of alchemical processes help us to check in with where we are psychologically. That is to say, what places and what materials are present in the chem lab of our lives. How can we begin to work with them?
Seeing a Fuller Direction
We are each in many phases of psychological change at once. While we get wrapped up in the details of one behavior or mood or detail, taking a metaphorical look at primary material – the starting places – can help us to see our life and inner alchemy in context. What and where am I now? This operation supports and grounds the soul in image. When we identify where we are it helps us to imagine where we are going. Rather than a single goal, we observe the material and begin to see a fuller direction.
The Hidden Inner Fire
This week I want us to look at the primary material known as the “hidden inner fire.” In each of us, there is a longing from the inside. The hidden inner fire refers to the burning or ache in the solar plexus. The hidden aspect refers to the fact that it is unmet by our present life. I’d like to remind clients and staff that this often unmet fire is the catalyst to using behavior, anxiety, fear, and more. Rather than treat the symptom i.e. medicating anxiety, when we look to the angst as an important psychological starting place, we can imagine these eruptions of discomfort, restlessness, and longing as a yet undiscovered place of fulfillment. In other words, the angst is for something the soul is calling out to. We may replace that with drugs and alcohol, intensity in a relationship, or even a bouncing leg during a group.
Accessing Our Longings
Rather than trying to fix this angst, what if we took this to be a indication that something wants to be fulfilled? That hidden inner fire must be felt and what we may imagine it reaches out for realized. This week I want us to start by considering this inner fire. What can I imagine that it truly wants? To put it another way: if I sit and breathe into my solar plexus, what does that feel like? When I access my longing, not simply what I think I long for, what can I imagine of a self resolved and content?
5 Minute Exercise
Take a blank sheet of paper and a pen or pencil. Clear a space and breathe into your solar plexus. Access that longing for fulfillment. I want you to imagine yourself standing upright in 1 year from today. Don’t think about the practical pieces, how you will get there, or what obstacles may come along. Focus on the figure, the face, and the feelings. Draw an ideal image of yourself with no external details – no houses, money, or partners. Just draw you as you imagine a fulfilled and matured individual. Don’t be humble or realistic. Instead, embellish the image. Who is this person? It can be helpful to write words around the drawing that describe what the feelings are. Don’t worry about how good it looks and how skilled you are as an artist. Take the time to feel the hidden inner fire and let it come out onto paper.