Ode to Autumn. Keats. Landscapes of imagination.

Beautiful poetry for a beautiful time of year. Thank you to John Keats for his eye which could see this and his vision which led him to write it down.

One of the things I have always loved about this poem is the personification of autumn – it brings the sense of the imaginal world in to focus, as being present. In the same way, when we dream we feel that we are walking through an actual landscape – well we are, but it is a dream landscape. This focus in different ways of understanding ‘landscape’ is very important when trying to understand the ‘inner’ world (what James Hillman called the soul). The inner world is a landscape. It is a landscape as peopled as the landscape we see in the ‘outer’ world, but it is of a different order.

This point about the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds is the essence of depth psychology, and it is where deep, imaginal psychology – the work of beauty and meaning and spirit – differ from the science of a psychology which lives in the mind only. There is nothing wrong with science, obviously (speaking as a researcher who works within a Health and Social Care department of a university I am very comfortable with science and psychology!). But it is limited. The exploration of the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ world – the imaginal, the soul…..that is where the poetics of our work can begin.

So here we have the poem – always worth reading at this time of year. I hope you enjoy it.

1.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Close bosom friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit, the vines which round the thatch eves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; and set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees

Until they think warm days will never cease

For summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.

 

2.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twine’d flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou doest keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cider press, with patient look

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

 

3.

Where are the songs of spring? Aye, where are they?

Think not of them. Thou hast thy music too,

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river sallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies. 

 

John Keats. Obviously. Fabulous.

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Omnipollent nature – beauty in the ordinary

Just in case you wanted another miracle (and the The upward pointing icicle and other miracles was always a popular post on this blog) here we have a bee with blue knees. The pollen she is collecting comes from one of these lace cap hydrangeas. But the whole blue suede knees thing is to be encouraged I think.

Gathering the beautiful and extraordinary in the ordinary is a life enhancing practice. As a psychotherapist I spend a lot of my working life wondering what it is that makes some people able to feel content, delighted in life, peaceful and fulfilled, and what makes others frazzled and despairing. Obviously there is circumstance – some situations militate against joy and peace. But often it is about our attitude, and noticing the extraordinary in the ordinary is one easy and reliable way to up your quotient of satisfaction. So I am offering this bee image today.

Bees gather pollen to take back to the hive as a protein food. Their carbs come from the honey they make (obviously enough), and they also gather water (for cooling the hive and for the manufacture of honey), and propolis (tree resin) which they use as glue and wood filler, and for mummifying dead mice in the hive in the winter (yes……really…..don’t dwell on it, it is gross). But pollen is the other thing which they gather and store for later use. Sometimes when you open a beehive you can see all kinds of different pollens which have been gathered. This blue one is this year’s favourite  and has been announced ‘seasonal miracle’ here at Alchemical Towers.

 

One for the money

Two for the show

Three to get ready and

Go, cat go! But don’t you step on my blue suede [knees]!

You can do anything but lay off of my blue suede [knees]!

 

(are you dancing yet?)

 

 

Confounding Perception – use of collage for transpersonal psychotherapy

Any good definition of transpersonal psychotherapy includes something about how we can consolidate, ground, and embody moments of transpersonal knowing.  Over time, these moments can begin to come together in to a coherent pattern, a change of heart which opens new vistas of awareness and understanding for the person. Transpersonal approaches to psychotherapy seek to give value to these more expanded ways of knowing. One of the problems faced by therapists working with this material is how elusive it is, how hard to give words to.

Adopting creative approaches is of immense value to psychotherapists working in this way. Making a piece of art, whether it is a poem, drawing, sculpture, or collage, can be a way of communicating the ineffable. The glorious history of religious art is testament to this way of knowing. An art piece can hold things beyond the conscious awareness of the maker, which can then be thought about, felt through, known more fully, by the maker themselves and by others with whom they want to communicate.IMG_8979

A feature of collage is that is captures fragments. The fragments are then brought together in to a new image within wIMG_8980hich a new form, a cohesion, can be seen. Things are brought together in a new way. This is particularly helpful in psychotherapeutic work, of any kind, but in transpersonal psychotherapy the value is especially pronounced, as the person grapples with expanded ways of knowing.

Collages have to be viewed with an open and flowing awareness, otherwise they can just seem jumbled, irrational, confusing ragbags of only loosely connected imagery. This is similar to dream work. When we first begin to look at a dream, it can seem non-sensical. It is only through sitting with the imagery, feeling our way in to it, allowing intuition to operate to guide us through it, that gradually the dream yields to awareness.  We begin to make sense of it, and even see the guidance it is offering. Working with collage can have a similar effect.

To work with collage effectively it is important to allow intuitive process to guide the work. Have a theme which is being worked around – perhaps the description of a spiritually meaningful experience or arising knowing, or perhaps a problem or issue which seems to have a greater significance than the personal, egoic struggle. Pick a few magazines at random (2 or 3 is enough), and go through them quickly, tearing out the pages and images which speak to the problem. Spend more time in refining the cutting out process, and placing and sticking on the page, but don’t think too much. Then sit with the result. What is new? What is coming forward in the new synthesis here? I sometimes then take a further step of writing a poem or piece of prose about the collage.

Alchemical imagery is often presented in collage form. In creating collages in transpersonal work, the person is building up their own treasure trove of alchemical emblems, describing stages and aspects of the process of transformation.

Here is a poem written when contemplating the otter collage – a poem which remains part of a process, but takes the understanding one tiny stage further on, in this case in to a prayerful and surrendering place (from an initial starting point of discomfort with the ‘sea-change’ happening in life at that time).

Otter Song

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My heavy bones will bring me to the sea bed

To prey. To pray.

My heavy bones will bring me down

To pray.

And from this place so close to earth, as I press my face to the mineral place in me, I can plant seeds. Enormous acorns.

Deep in my body, deep in my bones, the secret places under the sea.

If I pray with all of me

If I prey with all of me

Stalking surrender…

Sea and land and sky…

If I pray with all my heavy bones.

So I would commend the use of collage as in intervention in any form of psychotherapy, but in particular in transpersonal psychotherapy. It can offer new ways of bringing together hard-to-articulate material, it offers a conduit for intuition, and a container for non-ordinary ways of knowing. By using collage you are joining a long and illustrious line of alchemists (transformation experts par excellence!), and religious art makers (in all traditions) in honouring intuition and creativity.

A Blackbird Singing: full throated beauty.

This poem by RS Thomas captures this alchemy of joy and sorrow – the heart opening depth of the evening.

It seems wrong that out of this bird,

Black, bold, a suggestion of dark

Places about it, there yet should come

Such rich music, although the notes’

Ore were changed to rare metal

At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often alone at your desk,

In a green April, your mind drawn

Away from its work by sweet disturbance,

Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase

With history’s overtones, love, joy

And grief learned by his dark tribe

In other orchards and passed on

Instinctively as they are now,

But fresh always with new tears.

RS Thomas

Storming out of the darkness

When transformation comes, it is sometimes at the pace of a glimmer, a hint, the tiniest and merest minute sign that something is different. But sometimes that spark catches, like an early May day, and the whole of a person’s life can be transfigured. Boom! Just like that. Did you go to the countryside this weekend? Bluebells, birds, cowparsley, hawthorn blossom….it has all stormed out of the darkness, as Mary Oliver puts it in the poem below. In alchemy, this can relate to what is known as mulitplicatio, a state of heart opening through which creation can flourish, and in which the blessings pile up in a person’s life, running the cup over with goodness. Think the parable of the loaves and the fishes here, the beautiful abundance of enoughness.

 

May.

May, and among the miles of leafing,

blossoms storm out of the darkness – 

wind flowers and moccasin flowers. The bees

dive in to them and I too, to gather

their spiritual honey. Mute and meek, yet theirs

is the deepest certainty that this existence too – 

this sense of wellbeing, the flourishing

of the physical body – rides

near the hub of the miracle that everything

is a part of, is as good

as a poem or a prayer, can also make

luminous any dark place on earth.

Mary Oliver.

Albedo – alchemist’s purity, alchemist’s peril.

By the light of the silvery moon…..albedo is the whitening stage of alchemy. How do we recognise it, how do we work with it, and what are its dangers? Although we are often mightily relieved to move out from the dreadful clutches of nigredo in to the white, imaginative, open, diaphanous, cleansing rising of albedo, it can be a time of seduction. Sometimes linked with anima, the albedo stage needs an attentive consciousness if we are to proceed with our opus…..

It is important in alchemy not to be seduced by the simplistic. Alchemy is rarely clear or straightforward. Why would it be? It is the science of transformation – of transmutation – at a mysterious and subtle level. Accordingly I am loathe to offer simple formulae or even offer too much of a clear signpost. But here is one which might be useful – nigredo tends to be a time of concrete thinking, and albedo can be observed as a time of more imaginative thinking, more ‘as-if’ thinking. So in albedo we can begin to understand things at a metaphorical level, and so life and experience opens up. Even the gravest and darkest traumas, the most difficult aspects of life begin to be translucent, transparent even, available to be thought about, rather than just endured. This is albedo.IMG_6913

A really simple relational example of this can be seen in the shift of expectations in relationships from ‘you should be more loving, giving, and unconditional towards me and I will be angry and upset if you are not’ (the mother transference), to ‘I feel upset when I don’t experience you as unconditionally loving and giving towards me – that is interesting isn’t it’ (being able to think about it, see the symbol). Less prosaically, the ‘feeling’ of something might move from being overwhelming, swamping, impossible, to being a flow within which we are carried (albeit sometimes faster than we are enjoying….).

Albedo is the whitening stage of alchemy, classically said to come after the nigredo has closed (often with the appearance of the many-coloured, many eyed peacock’s tail wherein perception is multiplied and opened), and before the great yellow opening of the arms of the sun – Sol –  in citrinitas. Albedo is whiteness, silveriness, reflective, the time and location of imagination and receptivity. It is not a worldly part of the transformative cycle, but a diaphanous, moonlit time of seemings. It can be a cold time (if you are cold, freezing cold,  you might wonder if you are going through an albedo).

img_8772For a therapist, the work in albedo may be different from the work in nigredo. In nigredo we are seeking the purification of quite base energies, in other words we are working with relatively real, obvious, surface emotions and reactions and struggles. In albedo we work much more with the meanings of things. The therapy can become reflective, more wondering, less intensely focussed on the struggle of the ‘pain quotidian’ and more inward focussed. James Hillman says ‘the doves cure the tongue of its nigredo talk’ and ‘the doves teach trust in the sudden word’.

What is the shadow of the albedo stage? what are its dangers? To become too cold, too rigid, to forget that there are many colours, many shades inherent in the imagination. The popular insult that someone is an ‘Ice Maiden’ is a useful way of thinking about this. The Ice Maiden can not be penetrated by love. She remains a maiden, a virgin, and in terms of alchemy that means that the sun will not get in. No sun, no gold. The urge of the albedo towards an intense and pure clear whiteness must not harden in to rigidity. The fire of the ice – its intense burning longing towards purity must stay flexible, must remain in the heart, and must be able to yield to the sun. In practical terms? Get over yourself. Your insights, your inner eye, your release from the struggle of the day to day as you rise on the white wings of the albedo – all this is a perspective only, and it does not belong to you. It is lent to you. If you try to hold on to it it will become fixed, loose its capacity to fly, turn to glass (the alchemists call this vitrification and you might see the warning signs of images of glass in dreams….), and shatter in to fragments. Alchemy is a high risk game.img_8952

As always, the way to traverse this dangerous stage of the work is to remember that the ‘gold’ that alchemy offers is not personal wealth or status, but something that is placed profoundly in service. If I may draw on the Christian imagery here – the teaching is that we are chosen, we are blessed, we are incarnated, we are broken, and  we are given as spiritual food for others. So for a successful albedo, stay in the heart, stay open, and as the reflective imagery opens itself to your consciousness surrender yourself to be taken by it, offer yourself over to the transformation.

This is the best poem I know about the traps of albedo, depicting what can go wrong with the process, the vitrification I have written of here. It is by Sylvia Plath, who did indeed, in the end, shatter.

The Moon And the Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.

The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God

Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility

Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.

Separated from my house by a row of headstones.

I simply can not see where there is to get to.

 

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,

White as a knuckle and terribly upset.

It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet

With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.

Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —

Eight green tongues affirming the Resurrection

At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

 

The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.

The eyes lift after it, and find the moon.

The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.

Her garments unloose small bats and owls.

How I would like to believe in tenderness-

The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,

Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

 

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering

Blue and mystical over the face of the stars

Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,

Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,

Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.

The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.

And the message of the yew tree is blackness. Blackness and silence.

 

Sylvia Plath.

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Solutio – the Alchemist’s surrender

Coming apart, dissolving, letting go of structures. The alchemical operation of solutio, the purification by water, is a fundamental and observable feature of the transformation of matter (and of what matters).

The alchemical operations are ways of understanding how something is worked on in the process of transformation. So if we are changing lead to gold we might dissolve it, burn it, break it in to constituent parts, re-combine it, ‘kill’ it, join it up with other things and eventually we would have gold (oh yes we would). Or if we were making perfume we would take our plants, our roses or our jasmine, and we would put the flowers through a series of operations to extract their essence in the fragrance which we seek – perhaps we would pulverise them, heat them, dissolve them in some liquid. Perhaps distill, perhaps combine with something else. Eventually the beautiful plant we began with is present in a new form, still itself, but an essential self, an essential oil, an ephemeral scent (perfume making is one of the crafts upon which alchemists have drawn for their imagery – perfume making, embalming the dead, metallurgy, cloth making and dyeing, and pharmacy. I will return to this in a further post, but if you are interested in this James Hillman writes very well on it in his book Alchemical Psychology).IMG_7358

Solutio is one of the operations. The essence of solutio is that things come apart, resulting in a diffuse consciousness. Separatio is another operation in which things come apart, but you can distinguish it in the work because in separatio there is a coming apart which brings an extraordinary clarity. Solutio dissolves, separatio clarifies.

What does a solutio feel like? This is important in the therapy room – we might be able to spot what operation is going on for our client through their imagery, but sometimes it is through the feeling that is present. Solutio feels a bit misty. It can feel intensely loving, as the heart opens and the will softens. Sometimes it can feel unpleasantly disorientating, with no sense of centre, direction, or containment. The task of the therapist is to be able to recognise when an operation is occurring, and to facilitate that, or to recognise when an operation is trying to occur and to encourage and facilitate that. So to facilitate a solutio we would be allowing, loving, diffuse in our own energy. It can take a lot of faith and courage for the person to stay with the experience of dissolving – in practical terms they might be ceasing to believe what they have believed, they might be losing jobs, lovers, direction, certainties, capacities. This is where the alchemist needs to surrender to the work, surrender to the process.

Some of the images of solutio are obvious, water, tears, gentle rain falling, a flood coming in, burst pipes, baptism, swimming pools, baths.  But also observe more subtle imagery of coming apart – a dream of dismemberment may be a solutio (to first sight it looks more fiery). The skill and craft of the alchemist is to open to the innermost experience of the process, not its outer form. So if you can feel your way in to an image you can discern which operation is coming to the fore, and by giving it space you allow that operation to do its work.

As a therapist you can facilitate the operation with appropriate interventions, so that the person’s own process is ‘calling the shots’ in the therapy and to that extent you are a follower. However, it is intelligent following – you are following what is not necessarily clear to your client. You are feeling the essence of the imagery and being guided by the alchemical process.

One final word about solutio – because it heralds such diffuse consciousness it is often very difficult to be with, and one of the difficulties is that we often feel disorientated. We feel that we do not know which way to turn, where the process is going. Learning to trust this disorientation is part of the alchemist’s skill, the alchemist’s surrender to the process itself.

 

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The Emerald Tablet

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The earth reflects heaven and heaven reflects  earth, and there is no division between these realms.

Everything proceeds from the origin.

This knowing is, and is  engendered by Light and by loving reflection.

It became known through the body and understanding gently emerged there approached with wisdom and love.

It will be constant and it will be transformed:

Mystery will infuse presence and body with mystery itself

And thus shall holiness shine forth in all things, all space and all time.

So the world is created.

That is all.

 

Hermes Trismegistus (reimagined by Katy Baldock 2016)

 

The upward pointing icicle and other miracles

So the upwards pointing icicle came to my garden one morning about five years ago. I still have no idea what to make of it. It was there, bold as brass, or a little icy excitement, emerging from the frozen ice of the pot. Icicles usually go downwards. This one went upwards. There was no dripping overhanging tree or drainpipe above it, no blade of grass or stalk within it….it was just an upwards pointing icicle, my own little strange miracle.

The word ‘miracle’ has the same etymological root as ‘mirror’ – it is to do with how we see things reflected in the world around us. How we perceive things. When we look with wonder, this is the miracle.  A miracle is thus a change of perception. When you think of it like that, it makes more sense. Something extraordinary, something wonderful,  but that we can accept because we see and witness it. When we need a miracle, what we need is a change of perception.

To be wonder-struck by life is a great gift. When was the last time you looked at the world in wonder? At the stars and the frost and the moon and the trees? Maybe recently if you are reading this blog. But what about looking in the mirror with wonder? At your eyes. Your eyes are amazing. They are beautiful. They are staggeringly, stunningly beautiful. Go and have a look. Allow your mirror to offer you the miracle of beauty.

There is something very important about this link between miracles and the mirror. When the psyche breaks free from its self concept of being simply separate, simply cut off from the rest of manifestation – when we begin to perceive interconnection, oneness, the wholeness of which we are a part, the game changes. This is a moment of awakening. Nothing will ever be the same again, once you begin to have a living sense of this. Rumi (as rendered by Coleman Barks) puts it like this:

‘…Many beings in one being,

In one wheat grain 

a thousand sheaf stacks.

Inside the needle’s eye

A turning night of stars….’

So, what is it that we can see? How can we perceive things? How can we see things differently, wonderfully, reflectively?  How do we effect the miracle in our own lives, so that we may see wholeness instead of fragmentation? Trustable, living mystery instead of dead certainty?

If you are wondering what happened to the upwards pointing icicle, my cat (who is called Gloria) came out, sniffed it, and ate it. She likes things to be quite simple. There is room for both me and Gloria in the alchemical garden.

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