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

Darkness

There is an empty, hard, cold, chilled and chilling place in the psyche. It is a prison, a place of suspended and interrupted life, isolation, and despair. In that hellish room nothing beautiful seems to live. It is a place of thirst. A place of confinement, restriction, and hardness. We all know it – hate will take you there, resentment will turn the key and self-righteousness will lock you in. The way out is through the heart.

Only the heart, only love, can release you back to the sunlight. Only love can warm this place, make you live again, connect again, release you back in to the beauty of Being. Only when you can turn within and find the love that lives in your beating, rhythmic, beautiful heart can you quench your thirst and return to wholeness. The only way out is in.

I am writing this today when there has been a terrible and atrocious bomb attack on people, children, in Manchester at a concert. It is easy for us to condemn the constricted life-view of the murderers, and condemn it we should. This killing is the extreme of where self-righteousness can take a person, to the  point of slaughter, cold hearted, cold blooded, incomprehensible acts of horror. For those of us who observe, stopped in our tracks by the enormity of the cruelty, there is a job to do. The job is to recognise our own darkness, and to fight it. We fight it by not giving in to it. By not becoming it. We might slam ourselves in to our inner cell of cold hell when things like this happen, enraged and hurt and roaring with our pain – but we have the capacity to live again. We have the capacity to not let hate win. To not let hate win, don’t let it win in you.

As Leonard Cohen put it ‘when hatred with his package comes, you forbid delivery’. That is the skill to reach for in dark times. Be angry yes, enraged, yes of course. But do not become hard, or cold, or hateful because that will not help you, or the beautiful world. Harness your anger for its heat, its passion, its life-giving, life-enhancing drive, and let it live alongside love. Do not hate just because others hate. Do not give in to the cold heart.

 

The uses of water….

This bee is thirsty. She longs for the water, she and her sisters have been covering the fountain today, crowding close to the water, sipping, flying off, coming back for more. Obviously bees need to drink water for their own metabolism, but also they use it to regulate the temperature and humidity of the hive, and in the production of honey. In particular, when honey is too hard and crystalline they use water to make it usable. This bee is probably doing that – there is some hard old honey in her hive and she is, in all likelihood, on honey-dissolution-duty.

The symbolism of this is striking , how we use our water nature (the flowing, reflective, life-giving, soft and connecting aspect of us) to break up what is compacted and unusable, so that our gold can come back in to service. We also, like the bee, use water to regulate our temperature – our fire.  Water is essential to life as we know, but it is also essential to our emotional life. When we get hard and stuck we need to find the refreshing cool beautiful flow.

Make sure there is a bee pond in your garden this summer, if you can. They like to have somewhere to stand so they don’t fall in and drown. But water is important – an upturned dustbin lid will be enough, regularly topped up. And make sure you know where your inner pond is as well, so you can sip from the flow when your heart needs a bit of regulation.

A condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)

Non-attachment, sacrifice, surrender, presence. These concepts are at the heart of spiritual development, at least in its more sophisticated forms. What could be more simple? And yet what can possibly be harder? Eventually you have to give your self over to something bigger than yourself. No-one escapes it. We come in to the world naked and with nothing, and we leave through the same door. But taking on this ‘condition of complete simplicity’ while alive – there is the challenge of a deep spiritual life. The condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.

Psychotherapy and IMG_6746personal development work helps people to grow and to become present and full in their lives. Psychotherapists help ‘self-building’, delineating the ‘me’ from the ‘not-me’, facilitating clarity about boundaries, powerfulness about desires, resourcefulness around creativity, and delight
around embodiment. We strive to be completely here, to find ourselves as bold, passionate, effective beings. This is vital, soul-building work which takes years of demon-battling. The objective is to ‘touch down’ in life, get our feet on to the earth and become people of substance.

 

But then there is another stage. As Eliot says in the section from ‘Little Gidding’ quoted below ‘We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.’ In other words, there can come a point when we awaken, in the middle of our life, to an entirely different way of seeing things, a more spiritual viewpoint. And this is where the energy of non-attachment starts to reveal itself as the path. This is a great mystery, and I really like the way that Eliot expresses it in Little Gidding (a re-read of the Four Quartets from which this is taken, is a therapy in itself). Eventually we have to give up everything. This might be through our death. It might be before. It is not easy. How do we discern when this is a moment to step in to life and fight, and when it is a moment to step back from life and let-be? And when and how do we balance those two? It is in the balance that the magic really happens.IMG_4778

 

 

 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where were started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, remembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always – 

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one. 

 

TS Eliot (from Little Gidding)

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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One or two honest words….

It’s possible that while sleeping the hand

that sows the seeds of the stars

started the ancient music going again

-like a  note from a great harp – 

and the frail wave came to our lips

as one or two honest words.

Antonio Machado (translated by Robert Bly)

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)

 

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