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.
Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love… Life always says Yes and No simultaneously. Death (I implore you to believe) is the true Yea-sayer. It stands before eternity and says only: Yes. ― Rainer Maria Rilke
What a profoundly poetic way to say, “YOLO!” – Kevin
Rilke muses on the invaluable recognition that life and death are one and the same. Our nearness to death creates the very ground for new life. As we look to the sensitive subject of suicide this week, I want us to be mindful that this can occur at precisely the time when new beginnings can emerge. As longing pulls us to despair we may consider how ending things might provide relief. Only, as we process these hard instincts, we come to find that the misery cannot be sustained. Something must indeed die.
Morbid and Necessary
The subject of suicide is aptly morbid. It is full of the weight-bearing narratives that produce a fantasy of life’s last attempts to take charge. However, the phenomenon is not altogether easy to conceptualize. Talk of suicidality reminds some of us of proper protocols and they are surely drilled into us as clinicians. Or perhaps you recognize, even empathize personally with suicidal thinking. Either way, this week we want to make room for the psychological experience. As it exists itself in the psyche, an instinct made conscious needs the necessary center-stage and expression. Otherwise, it continues to haunt us in the background of life. In other words, our suicidal thoughts belong.
From Longing to Despair
The underlying crisis of meaning that can lead to dire thoughts present a unique opportunity to seek understanding and meaning. It can be helpful to recognize that our story of suicide begins and ends with exactly this: the story. As Victor Frankl once said, “The saddest despair is despair without meaning.” Further, James Hillman reminds us that literal death and symbolic death are two different things entirely. What needs to die is an inhuman story that cannot be lived. I ask clients to share their stories, what is the narrative of the one who longs for death? Where did the longing for something turn to despair? Without exception, these early longings have turned to inflated ideas of a partner, a superhuman capacity for greatness, or an impossible eternal bliss.
A Word of Consideration
In short, when something beautiful can be realized in the experience of grief, loss, and failure, the soul has a place to live. That invokes a relationship with the life of the problem. For this week and next, we will use our group time and therapy to unpack and express our longings and the despair that consumes and overwhelms. Should we encounter the story with space and room, with validation and exploration, we may just uncover the lost meaning.
I close this week with a word of consideration:
If you can’t get what you want you may have to settle for something better
I wish I knew the beauty
Of leaves Falling
To whom are we beautiful
As we go?
There once lives a king, long before our histories. He sat at the center of a thriving united kingdom. His subjects were joyful. His lands were ripe, green and beautiful. One day the king was walking in the gardens to the west when, like a fish hook, his gaze was reeled to the sight of a single, brown spot on the leaf of a rose bush. He pondered at the deadening spot for day and night as if possessed. The king could not help but stare with all earnest as he watched the gradual decay spread from leaf to stem to branch to roots. Flowers began to die by the thousands. The rains did not seem to come, and, in time the entire kingdom was in grave despair.
Marriage to the Self
In, week 2 of the Three Marriages we take a look at the marriage to the self. Who is the self? And what does it mean to invest our time, energy and effort into it. We may, on the surface be thinking the self is simply how we feel or making ourselves into who we want to be. We may stand up for and defend a sense that we have the right to be happy or treated fairly, loved unconditionally, supported, saved, received, and ok with things. Should we consider the self In terms of our expectations will surely come to some horrible let down. Our realizations that no one will live our lives for us, no one will offer the perfect medicine or promise the world, leaves will indeed die and the bliss of innocent perfectionism will painfully disappoint.
Talk of the self in such broad strokes can leave us wondering and wandering. The reality is that the self, that inner me and inner you, belongs not to our best or our worst, but instead to the world. It is not the self that creates our lives, nor is it our lives that create the self. By definition to be connected with the self is simply that. A connection.
Confronting Great Mystery and Adversity
To look within is not for the faint of heart. In our inner being, we confront great mystery, great adversity, fear, doubt, even badness. The self is not purified, not always kind, not even realized completely. From the self we experience all the instincts to love and take chances, to hope and dream, to step through the window and risk for our greatest longings. But also, the self may completely destroy what we think we are, at least on the surface. The ego and the self are not always the best of friends. Our versions of the story we like best, the hard-knock truths we demand to live by and expect of others are of no consequence to the self. Our truest being is always there, beneath the layers of how we think things should be.
A Reminder From David Whyte
David Whyte tells us a few things to remember when braving the inner world and searching out the experience of being one with what is within us. Firstly, Whyte wants us to know that life is where we leap. When we think about our passions, there requires a renewed innocent hope in order for our efforts to really come from the soul. In whatever experiences present themselves to you and me today, it is important to attend to the innocent hopes. Some of us may feel worn, beaten and even betrayed by life, and yet, the willingness to dream carries the soul onward. In part, this week I want to emphasize the role of hope.
Making Room for the Stirring of the Soul
If we are to commit to a marriage with the self we have to make room in the mundane, broken and hopeless for the stirring of the soul. Rather than forcing our energy into what we cannot change, what if we could come to an awareness of where the energy imagines itself toward? Can we help ourselves and our clients by making room for these surfacing hopes? Of course, our perfect images do not come to pass, in fact, they may not come at all, but the drive is inextricably linked to our hope. For the first glimpse of the self, everything must be possible. We have to step toward that light of possibility that expands the reaches of the self into a deeper and more profound experience.
An Unavoidable Truth
Secondly, Whyte offers that the pursuit of the self begins when we accept that human anxiety is endless and constant. There will always be waves of existential anxiety that knock over the surface self. The true self is that which remains. In each death and rebirth, every loss or inconceivable hijinks, the remainder is what always was and ever will be. A presence, an experience that we do not control nor manage, a truth that cannot be claimed only experienced. This is difficult to imagine primarily because we fixate ourselves in the throes of winning and losing.
An Active Relationship
Whyte says, “In the pursuit of the self we cannot get there from here. We get there to begin with by stopping” (p. 185). Stopping is not a passive surrender, but an active relationship. In all true connections, stopping allows us to look at the world as if we have seen it for the first time. Stopping reminds us that everything we strive to keep alive, keep permanent, keep secure, is simply a pit stop along the way. We ourselves are impermanent beings. To act in fear is to act as if we and our surface selves are immortal.
Tearing Down the Scaffolding
Why do we avoid intimacy with our relationship with the self? Because it means facing all the lies that scaffold who we think we are. Everything we work so hard to be in the relationship with the self must undergo the natural decay that accompanies our mortality. We look to the youthful hope that can ever drive us onward as we simultaneously learn the beauty in the surrender of the versions of life we claim as right.
Welcoming Loss As Growth
I remind clients often, and as I write this I remind myself that our work is not to gain but to lose. Our work is to strive and to welcome loss as growth. This week we come to the threshold between taking action and stopping to notice the withering leaves. What is dying must be embraced and what grows must first be planted. How can we support each other this week sorting the seeds of this surface self and the truest constancy of being?
I close with my favorite verse of the Tao Te Ching:
If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.
The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn’t display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn’t know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.
When the ancient Masters said,
“If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,”
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself.
An Early Memory
When I no more than 6 or 7 years old, I often played the role of witness to the family. As the youngest of 4 and the only boy, I saw a household of mysterious beings with different thoughts, feelings, rituals and attitudes. I remember sitting outside my oldest sister’s door one day. She talked the teenage talk of a high school student in the 1990’s. I listened intently to her conversation. As the curious, probably annoying, younger brother, I found the thoughts of others fascinating. What did they value beyond boysIIMen and crunchy hairstyles? Oh God! I’ll never forget the decade of hairspray fumes that dominated my home growing up!
The Role of Work in Our Lives
I open with this story because, as we look to the role of work in our lives I think it best to recognize the early characteristics that carry us onward. No vested interest begins without a seizure of connection. In my case, these memories remind me of the natural inquisitor and deep desire to cultivate understanding and validate the meaningful parts of my clients. We might even say that the values have always been there, beneath the surface, with the negative charges only activated when the positive counterparts lure us in. Why would so many doctors and nurses for example risk death on the front lines? We are drawn to our work.
The Threshold of Realization
Whyte writes, “ Looking at the biographies of many of those who have achieved something beyond the ordinary, we often find in each of those lives, some threshold of realization, some concentrated foundational insight they experienced, often quite young, that acted like prior announcements of the drama to come” (p. 54). All of us experience something when we are young and without obligations. It acts as an invitation. It beckons an uncertainty that emboldens us not only to the world but also to a surer sense of who we are. What evidence is there in your life that destiny comes in the form of work?
The Connection Between the Soul and Work
It is important to remember that work is first and foremost a relationship. In the wake of this epidemic, many of us suffer the looming shadow of the all-too-familiar fear that work too will abandon and fail us. Perhaps we have yet to draw the connections in a conscious way between the soul and work. Today presents the opportunity to draw out the eccentric uniqueness from which our soulful work emerges. Of course, many of us are fearful for good reason. The survivalist in all of us makes choices all together different than say the artist or the healer. Money is a worthy consideration. But rather than stuffing ourselves for fear of starvation, perhaps fulfillment best sustains the soul?
A Constant Visiting Dynamic
Work is not a separate experience from any other relationship. What patterns we have in one relationship likely exist in the others. If intimacy and connection are not present at work, chances are good it too remains a source of tension. Whyte writes, “There seems to be a constant visiting dynamic in all stages of life where it appears that we get only the girl, the guy, the work, the job, the sense of self, or a participation in wider creation that we actually feel we are worthy of. If we don’t feel we deserve it, then, like a spendthrift heiress, throwing her patrimony to the winds, we do our best to sabotage and give away what we feel we did not deserve in the first place” (p. 59).
Moving Toward Resonance with the Deeper Self
How can the soul be more central when it comes to financial fears and work-related questions? Love invariably comes with a hazardous risk to the life we intended. What is the opportunity in the search for employment? The beauty in our marriage to work is that we have to take a chance for the sake of virtue. We move toward what resonates with the deeper self, the soul is leading and the work is meaningful. Perhaps we can look with the eyes of passion toward our relationship with work. Whyte offers us a gentle consideration that our work, relationships, and eccentricity are interconnecting. I close with sound words for consideration this week:
We must make ourselves findable by being seen; to do that we must hazard ourselves and make ourselves available to the world we want to enter. Finding and being found is like a mutual falling in love. To have a possibility of happiness we must at the beginning fall in love at least a little with our work. We can choose a work on a mere strategic, financial basis, but then we should not expect profound future happiness as a result (P. 79).
Calming Words in a Time of Groundlessness
Uncertainty continues to grow and expand and deepen around us, creating perhaps, its own virus, a virus in the heart. We hear the words today, “everything is so fluid and we don’t know what’s next”. My own levels of anxiety continue to rise. In response, I returned to one of my favorite books by a beloved writer to calm myself. I’m referring to When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. She has a gift for bringing some fundamental ideas of Buddhism into the Western world. Additionally, she explores the place of compassion and sacredness in our lives. This is especially true when the bottom begins to shred beneath us. I share a few insights from her writings that have helped me during this time of groundlessness.
Impermanence is the Essence of Everything
I began to notice how her insights on impermanence seemed applicable to many of our feelings of uncertainty and insecurity, as the spread of the coronavirus weaves its way into all parts of the planet. A pandemic does not have to lead to pandemonium unless we choose to allow it and even encourage it by making ME the center of the pandemic while excluding all generosity towards others. She asks us to consider another tack on our feelings of impermanence. She suggests that “[i]mpermanence is the goodness of reality… Impermanence is the essence of everything,” adding that in general, “people have no respect for impermanence; …in fact, we despair of it. We regard it as pain. We try to resist it by making things that will last – forever”. In doing so, she claims, we can easily “lose our sense of the sacredness of life”.
Uncertainty and Egolessness
Chodron describes at one point how these can become focal points of wisdom, even opportunities to examine life-long habits of responding to them when they appear. If we do not cultivate such an attitude in our current condition of uncertainty of where the virus will take all of us, then when? Her approach goes even deeper: she suggests that if we can see ourselves nested within our feelings of impermanence and uncertainty from a place that is not so ego-centric, which is the genesis of both panic and fear, then things transform vividly. Here is what she understands: “Egolessness is available all the time as freshness, openness, delight in our sense perceptions… we also experience egolessness when we don’t know what’s happening… We can notice our reactions to that”. I find this very difficult to do but know that I/we must make the effort.
Our Greatest Freedom
I find her observations to be comforting as I try to be more relaxed with the uncertainty that faces all of us each day around the planet: will there be enough money, food, health, healthcare, cooperation, unity in the face of increasing adversity? When the same old patterns of ‘grasping and fixating” continue to drive us towards greater insecurity wherein the patterns are repeated with renewed gusto, we can, she notes at the end of her reflections, “relate to our circumstances with bitterness or with openness.” We cannot forget that we do have profound choices within the circle of uncertainty and panic. We can choose to remain and to increase our humanity towards one another in this moment. Like 9/11, we are united around the courage of our shared community. Our greatest freedom may indeed reside in how we relate to the mess we feel around and within us.
These are very challenging times. We know that in the midst of all that is unfolding in the outer world, and how our inner world is responding, the work in our program can feel like a lot right now. However, as one of our faculty colleagues has shared, we could look at our program as a source of strength rather than demand. Above all, stepping into the world of an idea (another’s experience, a new practice, an unknown, a book) is giving our minds something to chew on and consider, and this is helping us feel more grounded.
The Once and Future King
As Merlyn said to the young Arthur in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. Indeed, that is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. Ultimately, there is only one thing for it then—to learn. Indeed, learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or mistrust.” (183)
A Soulful and Curious Stewardship
Merlyn is echoing one of Jung’s deep insights, that suffering and consciousness walk hand in hand. This week our program simply wants to encourage a soulful and curious stewardship of these unfoldings. Attend lovingly to your own restlessness. Furthermore, listen intently to the heart. Finally, endeavor to lean into this tension knowing that we cannot solve but only share in the unfolding. On our break from the hero theme, I’ll say briefly that it is my belief that our clients don’t need us to “have it together,” no shielded, armored, sword-striking interpretations and behavioral prescriptions. Instead, we are a bridge to the humanity that links us all to one another. In fact, a global crisis brings a global cause and in this, we may forge heartfelt community. May we endure with open hand the unfolding and show up in this work with all humanity and all humility.
I’d also like to share a poem:
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
– Lynn Ungar 3/11/20
So here we are. In conclusion, let’s lean into the ideas, lean into the learning as a community. Good luck these next few days, trust where you are and where we are going!