Separatio – the Alchemist’s discernment

Alchemy is about the application of wisdom to process – personal and political. Wisdom seems to have abandoned the political system this week, as Britain falls apart before our eyes. The crisis is creating  a domino collapse, precipitated by the placing of personal expediency above proper, good stewardship of the constitution. The tumult results  not so much from the fact that an attempt is being made to challenge deaf monolithic power (although I am of the view that the EU and the UK are not such bad monoliths to live within……but that is a personal political view and this is an alchemical conversation….). The problem is that if you are going to try and break things up, if you are going to try to accomplish what alchemists call a separatio, you had better proceed very very carefully, lest you unleash a shattering fragmentation which you can not repair. The current British political situation is sad illustration what happens when we proceed without due care. So how would the wise engage with all of this?

Look how carefully the alchemist in the picture considers the cut he is about to make to the egg. His intense gaze and carefully drawn balanced posture reveal the precision needed for this operation, as do the classical lines of the room he is in, the strangely drawn window/corridor behind him revealing the perspective so important to his art.  The fire is present, strong, maybe even raging, but it is carefully contained in its hearth.  The egg itself stands on a firm, four square base. The quaternity with all it’s symmetry, steadiness, balance and beauty is everywhere in this picture.  All is well. You can trust such a separatio to proceed with skill, mastery, and perhaps success, so that the sun of the yolk and the silver moon of the albumen will be successfully separated so that they can develop, grow and be reunited later in their maturity…

Contrast this with a careless smashing of an egg. When the fire is not contained, when the perspective is not properly drawn and the balance of the active agent (the alchemist) is not achieved, the separatio fails. The egg is smashed (and we know what happened to Humpty Dumpty…..all the Kings horses and all the Kings men…..).

Separatio is an alchemical operation which requires us to weigh one thing against another and to decide what matters. It is a process which blends the watery feeling function with the airy thinking function. Sometimes we want to be attached to everything just as it has always been, but we know that there has to be change. Some things must be left behind and sacrificed. Some things must be let go of, and we have to separate out what we will keep from what we will let go. What we will go forward with from what we will leave behind. Drawing another comparison with the Brexit debate, the referendum was a blunt instrument which had no hope of engaging insightful, discerning consideration of what was constitutionally working and what was not… was a mallet, a club, which crushed and destroyed rather than this alchemist’s clear, bright sword which might have been able perform a form of reparative surgery on the troubled body of the Union.

In alchemy this separatio process can be undertaken with the sword (of truth), through sorting, or through the process of extraction of essence. Above all it requires  discernment. Careful application of observation, wisdom, skill, and the courage to make the split. It is a precision operation. We see it throughout the alchemical opus (see my post The Alchemist’s Preparation. Understanding the difference between alchemical stages, and alchemical operations for more detail on the operations within the alchemical opus).

In psychological process, separatio will involve leaving something behind. But it is a way of moving on which preserves the integrity of the alchemical vessel within which the work is proceeding. If you do not keep your nerve and your head and your balance in this process, the alchemical vessel can not survive, and without a vessel your prima materia, the essence of that which you are trying to transform, will dissipate, be lost in chaos and you will have no gold. You go back to the beginning of the process. Start again. Your vessel smashed, you were not careful enough.

There are times in the alchemical journey when care is not the most important thing. During solutio or calcinatio, or even conjunctio, you are not reaching for discernment but for passion and energy and movement and intensity. But during separatio, take care.

It is not just individuals who go through alchemical processes, groups do as well, including national groups. The referendum result for Brexit on 23rd June 2016 is one of these moments. The threat to the union of the United Kingdom, as well as the melt down now threatened in the domestic political system, if not more widely, is an object lesson in smashing a container instead of balancing, focussing and applying a skilful and discerning sword to the egg. I am writing this post in the aftermath of that Brexit vote, and as I write I can feel the reverberations of the uncontained fire and especially distorted water qualities unleashed while the alchemist was napping. If the UK wants to divide any eggs, we would be well advised to adopt the stance of the alchemist in the picture, not wade in waving our little flags, with our eyes tight closed (our thinking functions in abeyance).

Alchemy is  the science of wisdom. We can learn from it in times of tumult and I urge us all to reach in to the wisdom of transformation to help to build a container within which we can transform, as a group (nation, EU, world, whatever group…) and not just as individuals.


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