A common space for harmonic peacemakers
Indra’s Net : Alchemy and Chaos Theory as Models for Transformation
(Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2009, 182pp.)
The most important lesson
but one that’s seldom adequately learned
is that, like sub-atomic particles,
everything with life exists
within a field of force
in which all affect and are affected
by each one of the others;
and that we, the individuals,
and all other individuals like
a blade of grass, whale or bacterium,
are not self-existent, but the products
of this unceasing reciprocity.
Adam Curle “The First Lesson”
There is a spiritual alchemy, by means of which adversity, resulting from attitudes and actions motivated by fear, ignorance and selfishness can be transformed by the deliberate exertion of energies and the enactment of deeds motivated by knowledge and love. This process of transformation of the imperfections of existence into a higher state of being is the theme of Robin Robertson’s useful book.
Robertson follows in the footsteps of the Swiss analyst Carl Gustav Jung who had studied alchemist writings and found in them parallels to the process of psychological maturing which he called “individuation.” A close co-worker with Jung, Marie-Louise Von Franz, had continued this interest in the stages of psychological transformation as symbolized by the phases of the transformation of metals in alchemist writings. Robertson also draws upon the writings of Mircea Eliade, especially his The Forge and The Crucible. Eliade, when living in France, was part of the outer circle of Jung’s followers and had a knowledge of Indian and Chinese alchemist traditions while Jung had concentrated on that of Western Europe.
As Eliade wrote in his Images and Symbols “Perhaps the most important function of religious symbolism — important because of the role which it will play in later philosophical speculations — is its capacity for expressing paradoxical situations, or certain structures of ultimate reality, otherwise inexpressible.”
One of the most paradoxical and difficultly expressible conditions is that of transformation or radical change within a person. The transformation of metal or earth (the potter is often associated in practice and in symbol with the smith) is mysterious, but there is a visible fire as the agent of transformation. The alchemist, the smith and the potter are masters of fire. It is with fire that they control the passage of matter from one state to another. For a useful discussion of the place of fire in symbols and myths, see Sir James Frazer’s Myths on the Origin of Fire.
However, in the transformation of the person, fire is only a symbol of transformation. Alchemy can provide insights into transformation as alchemy considered itself as a sacred science not as a rudimentary form of chemistry. However, alchemy provides insights and not a “model” — the term used in the title. If there were models for transformation there would be more transformed individuals in the world. There are not that many bodhisattvas who are able to detect through the world’s pain a deeper reality that sustains the actions they undertake for it. Thus, let us not ask too much from a study of alchemy or of modern physical sciences such as chaos theories. Transformation will always remain incomplete, and there are probably as many failures of transformation in the psychoanalyst’s office as in the alchemist’s forge. However, it would not be wise to neglect the insights that arose from the alchemist’s experimental knowledge of all that constitutes the bases and processes of the human body and the psycho-mental life.
As Robertson writes “Central to both alchemy and chaos theory is the knowledge that for something to be transformed, it must necessarily be taken apart, then put back together in a new way. The classic image of such a transformation is the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly within the containment of a cocoon. It is important to remember that what emerges after the transformation must in some way already be contained within the original.”
Alchemy is replete with images for each process, since each describes at one and the same time both a physical operation and a psychic process taking place inside the alchemist.
Basically, the alchemist proposed three stages in transformation; each stage is qualitatively different from the one that precedes it, yet each emerges out of the previous stage. Each stage was designated by a color. The first stage nigredo (black, blacker than black) is for Jung the ‘dark night of the soul’ where earlier forms of mental-psychological life are broken down. It is a period characterized by a chaotic lack of differentiation, where earlier forms of socialization have broken down and life seems empty and dark. However, in the nigredo stage, everything is contained within it in potential. As Robertson notes “ The alchemist had to live in that period of uncertainty for an unknown length of time before he emerged again into the light. Remember that his journey was a lonely one in which the alchemist was totally on his own, isolated from all those around him.” How long each stage lasts is uncertain and depends, no doubt, on the individual and if he has an external guide for the process or not.
The second stage, the albedo (white) is the stage of emergence. An individual keeps moving between the nigredo stage and the albedo stage repeatedly. Distinctions come into being, then pass back into the dark chaos as other distinctions emerge. The image of cleansing is characteristic of the early parts of the albedo stage in which the vestiges of the darkness left from the nigredo must be removed through a repetitive cleansing process. As Robertson writes of the albedo stage “After shadow issues are worked through, one needs to deal with the issues not merely psychologically but in real life. Issues are no longer black and white but have shadings, which create moral difficulties in our lives. We feel dirty and need to cleanse ourselves… Psychologically, this repetitive cleansing corresponds to releasing emotions over and over until everything that we feel is dirty and needs to be hidden has been released. That release of emotions is characteristic of the anima/animus stage in Jungian psychology. The ability to hold the tensions between opposites is especially important during this stage. And no opposite is more apparent than that between male and female, so the need to join the two is the perfect symbol for what has to be accomplished during the albedo.”
The third and final stage in the process is the rubedo (red) in which the whiteness of the albedo slowly becomes infused with blood, and the person becomes truly alive to return to the world and to integrate his personal journey into life.
The symbol of the alchemist exerts its power in the deep recesses of the psyche and nourishes and stimulates the imagination. We can recall the success of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. As Robertson concludes “At the transition point in the alchemical opus between the nigredo and the albedo stages, alchemists reported that they saw scintillae of light appear and disappear, seemingly at random, perhaps the lights of new consciousness attempting to form into one united consciousness, like the diamonds sparkling in Indra’s net.”