Empathy – fuelling the alchemist’s fire.

Here is a paradox. Alchemy is a solitary pursuit, and yet for it to be successful it needs to be utterly shared, utterly given back, utterly given away. An attempt at alchemical transformation without this generosity, without love, is doomed to fail. You simply can not work the alchemical opus for your own, small, personal ends. Technically, this is obvious as the alchemical path opens up – it is a path of oneness, and of Oneing (to adopt the CAC’s satisfying phrase)

This imperative of generosity and love is one of the reasons why the alchemical model of psychotherapy is so compelling. As therapists our empathy is fundamental to our capacity to work – therapists with good capacity for empathy are significantly more likely to achieve good therapeutic outcomes for their clients (there is a large body of research on this – showing that it is less what the therapist DOES that makes a difference to the client, and more how the therapist IS). Empathy is in large part about being able to connect with the other, to feel along side them, to open the heart.

The archetype of the wounded healer is also relevant here. This archetype can be said to be fundamental to the development of Self, the capacity to examine and understand one’s own brokenness at a deep level, not to compare it to the other, but to act as a doorway to understand the other.

So why are we linking empathy with fire rather than with the water which you might expect? Alchemy is not simple. Love drives the work and empathy is linked to love. Love is not just soft and flowing water but is also the clear, intense bright light of truth and passion. Love can drive. Empathy can create (or at least operate as a necessary condition for) great and profound change.

So finding the part of yourself that knows pain will allow you to connect compassionately with others. The gold which the alchemists seek is the gold of connection, transformation, Oneness. Empathy will fuel the fire to drive this transformation.

This poem speaks to the comfort of earth and beauty for the wounded healer – the connection with the body of the earth which can sustain us through dark and difficult times.


I too have known loneliness.

I too have known what it is to feel


        rejected, and suddenly

not at all beautiful.

Oh, mother earth,

        your comfort is great, your ams never withhold.

It has saved my life to know this.

Your rivers flowing, your roses opening in the morning.

Oh, motions of tenderness!

Mary Oliver from Blue Horses, 2014

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