Depth psychologists get excited about alchemy. Alchemy as we know it tends to be about metal working – we are familiar with medieval European alchemists who sought to turn lead to gold. Twentieth century psychotherapist Carl Jung was particularly fascinated by the work of these men and women, and he saw in their endeavours not just attempts at self-enrichment, but a grand metaphor for psychological transformation – the movement of the psyche from the ‘lead’ of unconsciousness to the ‘gold’ of wholeness.
Traditionally alchemy has not just drawn on metallurgy for its language, but also on the related transformational fields of perfumery, pharmacology, dyeing of cloth, and embalming the dead (alchemy has its roots in Egypt where the science of embalming has been so extraordianrily practiced). James Hillman in his wonderful book ‘Alchemical Psychology’ also mentions food preparation as being a source of alchemical image and language. He explores the importance to depth psychology of drawing on the language of crafts. He challenges the psychoanalytic habit of using words which relate to concepts (‘the unconscious’ ‘the libido’ ‘the ego’) rather than sensual and experienced phenomena. Hillman points out that alchemy is based in a language of craft, and thus the words have an embodied resonance to them – pulverising, measuring, grinding, mixing, infusing, dismembering, smelting, forging. Craft words, for a life lived in action, interaction, with the earth.
Alchemy explores how the earth itself, matter itself, can change and transform. This is no metaphor. What changes when a person changes is their very substance, their body. This is a great mystery (the Eucharistic tradition of Christianity explores the same mystery). Most of us will never understand very much about it, and yet we can begin to know and that ‘beginning to know’ is what we do in psychotherapy.
It seems to me that adding gardening in to the lexicon of alchemy can offer more accessibility to new generations. In our times, few of us are familiar with the blacksmith’s forge, or the cloth maker’s workshop. We rarely make our own medicines, and beyond a bit of autumn jam making, we do not generally engage in preserving or embalming the dead. But most of us have a garden, or are at least familiar with the processes of gardening.
Alchemy offers us frameworks for understanding spiritual and psycho-spiritual processes through our bodies. Gardens give us glimpses of beauty. Let’s see what happens when we put it all in to the crucible of exploration…..