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Articles    H4'ed 10/20/09

The Sacred Art of Alchemy

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The idea of the philosophers’ stone crystallizing into and out of the creative imagination of the alchemists is analogous to the Incarnation of Christ into our third-dimensional world. As Jung contemplates, “…a real experience of the opus had an increasing tendency to assimilate the dogma or to amplify itself with it. That is why the text says that Christ was ‘compared and united’ with the stone.” The function that Christ played in Christianity had found, in the philosophers’ stone, a new domain and format in which to operate. It was as if the philosophers’ stone and Christ were inseparable differentiations of each other, which when fully differentiated, revealed their inseparability.

The Christian point of view is that we are in need of redemption and leaves the work of redemption to an autonomous divine figure. The alchemists, on the other hand, were having the epochal, revolutionary, and evolutionary realization that we are all collaboratively playing a crucial, participatory role in the Incarnation of the divine being. Both points of view are true, as they are complementary and unifying aspects of a greater whole.

From the alchemical perspective, as Jung clarifies, “…man takes upon himself the duty of carrying out the redeeming opus, and attributes the state of suffering and consequent need of redemption to the anima mundi [world soul] imprisoned in matter.” Alchemically speaking, it is the arcane substance, the true man, the Self, which suffers, is tortured, transformed and rises again. This realization can help us re-contextualize and reframe our experience of suffering. Instead of personally identifying with our suffering in a way that is limiting, problematic and reinforces it, we can recognize that the origin of our suffering is transpersonal and archetypal. “Who is it inside ourselves who is actually suffering?” becomes a relevant question, as we begin to recognize that we, not as ego but as Self, are participating in a divinely-sponsored passion play. Through our suffering we can recognize that we are not isolated entities separated in our suffering from the rest of the universe, but rather, are playing roles in a divine incarnation process which is not a product of our ego, but is a manifestation of the Self. We are going through a symbolic crucifixion experience, sharing in the suffering of Christ so as to share in his glory. Our suffering is our “share” of helping to free the anima mundi, the imprisoned world soul. This realization instantaneously enlarges our perspective, snaps us out of the self-generating, narcissistic trance of the separate self, and connects us with each other, as we are all in the same boat, all on the same side. The expression of this realization is compassion.

The alchemists were saved not so much by their own work, but by their participation in the birth of the savior within themselves. “For the alchemist,” as Jung emphasizes, “the one primarily in need of redemption is not man, but the deity who is lost and sleeping in matter. Only as a secondary consideration does he hope that some benefit may accrue to himself from the transformed substance as the panacea, the medicina catholica… His attention is not directed to his own salvation through God’s grace, but to the liberation of God from the darkness of matter. By applying himself to this miraculous work he benefits from its salutary effect, but only incidentally.” In venerating the highest value, the alchemists are serving something beyond their limited ego, which is a state of pure potential and grace. The alchemical art is truly divinely inspired and blessed. Says an alchemist, “The art has no enemies, except the ignorant.”

Instead of coming down from the heavens, the alchemical deity came up from below, from base matter, from the earth, from the “underworld” itself. The alchemists’ “aspiration” had to do with, according to Jung, “the transformation of the god brought about through man, man being the retort in which the god is transformed, where he descends into uttermost matter and where the spirit develops out of matter.” In the act of becoming lost in matter, God, with our help, is born out of and into humanity.  Paradoxically, humanity is a living, breathing alchemical vessel in which spirit has seemingly become trapped, while simultaneously being the very instrument through which spirit becomes materialized in time so as to be liberated. 

Spiritually speaking, freeing the spirit which is imprisoned in matter is to not identify with our thoughts, but to simply recognize their insubstantial, dreamlike nature and allow them to effortlessly transform, dissolve and spontaneously self-liberate of their own accord. A thought-form is like a whole, self-contained universe. When we identify with a thought-form’s contents and point of view, we become absorbed in and incarnate that particular dreamlike universe in a way that limits our creative freedom. Our creative spirit has then seemingly become trapped in matter; as we’ve unwittingly used our creative power against ourselves in a way that binds us. Recognizing the illusory and yet, reality-creating power of our thoughts allows us to create with our thoughts, instead of being created by them. Recognizing that we never experience this moment except through the creative imagination empowers us to alchemically transform our experience of ourselves, and, by nonlocal extension, the whole universe.

Psychologically speaking, God hidden in matter symbolically re-presents the Self hidden in unconscious identification with the ego. This unconscious ego-Self identity, where there’s not a conscious relationship between the ego and the Self but an unconscious, compulsive acting out by the ego, contaminates the potential union of opposites, seemingly obstructing the whole point of the work. This contamination, however, is none other than the prima materia itself, without which we couldn’t make the gold. The prima materia is a living paradox in the flesh…our flesh.  Jung reflects, “It was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.” 

To the alchemists, the philosophers’ stone, their son of God, was not begotten in the womb of the Virgin Mary, but in the womb of Mother Nature. Jung reminds us that “Nature is not matter only, she is also spirit.” In one sense, the opus is a work against nature, an “opus contra naturam,” a work against nature which nature itself desires. The prima materia is an “imperfect body” in need of being perfected. The alchemists are helping nature do what she cannot do herself. An alchemical maxim states, “What nature left imperfect, the art perfects.” Although the impulse to consciousness exists in nature – within the unconscious of humanity - an ego is needed as a transformative vessel to realize and perfect this natural urge.

Self-reflection, an act in which we recognize ourselves in the mirror of life, is a bending of consciousness back upon itself, and is hence, a work against nature. In the moment of self-reflection, the psycho-spiritual necessity for evolutionary growth over-rules the biological compulsion of unreflective animal instinct. Though an ego is needed for its actualization, reflective awareness occurs not by the will of the ego, but by the promptings to individuation originating from the Self (which is equivalent to the philosophers’ stone). Our very impulse to be reflective, as well as our impulse to resist reflection, for that matter, are both expressions of the philosophers’ stone. In alchemy, we have to start with the philosophers’ stone in order to make the philosophers’ stone.  

In a mutual opus, the ego and the Self reciprocally, and collaboratively redeem each other - The ego needs the guidance and support of the Self, while the latent Self needs the co-operation and participation of the ego in order to incarnate in embodied form. The ego is the child of the timeless Self, as the Self is the source of the ego’s being. At the same time, the realized Self can only be born in time and space through an ego. This is why Christ, who symbolizes the Self, in addition to being called the “Son of God,” is also referred to as the “Son of Man.” The formless Self emerges in embodied, incarnate form as a result of an encounter with a conscious human ego; the Self is therefore called the son of man, or the child of the philosophers. The alchemists’ art allows God to know Itself by creating Itself through the individual alchemist. To quote an ancient alchemical text, the “Stone can only be brought to its proper form by Art.” Through their sacred art, the alchemists’, in discovering the philosophers’ stone, were literally creating consciousness. Individuation is Incarnation.

The alchemists were having an archetypal imagination that it was God Itself that had become imprisoned in matter, absorbed in the dream, entranced by the dogma of literalism, bewitched by Its own genius for reality creation, and needed the help of the alchemists to become liberated. And the alchemists, to the extent that they didn’t realize that what was the matter with matter was their own imagination, became similarly bewitched. As Jung tells us, the alchemists had to come to terms with the fact that they “were chasing a projection, and that the more they attributed to the substance the further away they were getting from the psychological source of their expectations.” If the alchemists didn’t realize they were chasing a projection, it eluded them like an ever-receding rainbow, as they tried to grasp the ungraspable.

Jung concludes that “the alchemists came to project even the highest value - God - into matter.” When we are unconscious of something, we always project it outside of ourselves, where it gets “dreamed up” into materialization. Jung clarifies this important point when he says, “…everything unconscious, once it was activated, was projected into matter – that is to say, it approached people from outside.” Jung continues, “It is therefore not surprising if the unconscious appears in projected and symbolized form, as there is no other way by which it might be perceived.” Inasmuch as a projected content is only apparently severed from the wholeness of the psyche by the act of projection, the conscious mind is secretly tied to its projections by a fascination, attraction, and unconscious identification.

Projection affects the recipient of the projection, in this case the mysterious stone, influencing the recipient, who “carries” the projected content, to embody the projection even more, which serves as evidence to further solidify the projection, which then literally becomes “written in stone.” When we are projecting our images of God, how our projection turns out – in delusion or realization - depends upon if we recognize what is being revealed about ourselves through our projection. 

To the extent that the alchemists realized they were projecting outside of themselves their own divinity so as to recognize it within themselves, was the extent to which the alchemists were unlocking the key to their own self-empowerment. If an alchemist realized the reflective and revelatory nature of what he was experiencing in his miraculous lapis, which he himself equated with Christ, to quote Jung, he would “have been obliged to recognize that he had taken the place of Christ – or, to be more exact, that he, regarded not as ego but as self, had taken over the work of redeeming not man, but God. He would then have had to recognize not only himself as the equivalent of Christ, but Christ as a symbol of the self.” Compared to Christ, who, as the Word made flesh, was the full-bodied incarnation of the Light, each one of us are instruments for the reunion and re-uniting of the paradoxical God which contains both light and dark. We are the alchemical vessels prepared by God expressly for the purpose of uniting the opposites intrinsic to Its nature.  

Jung reflects that, “Whereas in Christ God himself became man, the filius philosophorum [the son of the philosophers, i.e., the stone, analogous to the son of man] was extracted from matter by human art and, by means of the opus, made into a new light-bringer [interestingly, the archetypal “light-bringer” is Lucifer]. In the former case the miracle of man’s salvation is accomplished by God; in the latter, the salvation or transfiguration of the universe is brought about by the mind of man – ‘Deo concedente’ [God willing], as the authors never fail to add…Man takes the place of the Creator” The sacred, meta-physical art of the alchemists was to liberate the creative spirit of the cosmos, which they could only accomplish with the blessing of the creative spirit which is God. Creative artists of and for the soul, the alchemists were being a channel for the universe to autopoetically re-create itself in a uniquely evolutionary way. In Jung’s words, “…man is indispensible for the completion of creation; that, in fact, he himself is the second creator of the world.”

In exploring their unconscious through the material world, the alchemists were potentially waking themselves up to the dreamlike nature of reality. In becoming lucid in the dream of life, they were realizing how they could transform the world by transforming themselves. We are all potential alchemists-in-training to the extent we are consciously participating in giving creative expression to our experience of the unconscious. When enough of us become accomplished in the sacred art of alchemy, we can connect and “conspire to co-inspire” each other, I imagine, to activate our collective genius and create real magic, changing the world in the process. As the alchemist Gerhard Dorn proclaims, “Transform yourselves into living philosophical stones!”

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Paul Levy is a visionary artist and a spiritually-informed political activist. A pioneer in the field of spiritual emergence, he is a healer in private practice, assisting others who are also awakening to the dreamlike nature of reality. He is the (more...)
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