Working Through Depression with Alchemy
by Iona Miller, 2/2008
THE GREAT WORK
Alchemy is the Great Work, a process of separation, transformation and integration. This is just as true of the substances worked experimentally in the retort as it is of the personality undergoing the transformative process. There is theory and practice in science, and two applications in alchemy — spiritual alchemy and experimental alchemy involving literal lab work.
There is a treasure to be discovered. Your psychophysical being is a vessel of the soul and spirit. The physical body is sustained by the energy body, the field body and its zero-point component. You are made of the fabric of spacetime. The alchemical axiom, “As Above, So Below” means there is a universe to explore within yourself and you are not separate from the whole Cosmos in any way.
The raw psychic contents (prima materia) become cooked (ultima materia). The method works if you do, but you must be motivated, either by passion or despair to enter into such an arcane pursuit. You must dare to seize the noble fruit. The impetus may come from an inexplicable attraction to the experimental alchemical art, life passages, spiritual longing, an illness or dis-ease of body or mind, or both.
The spiritual landscape is changing and alchemy offers a safe harbor for the drifting spirit beyond institutional or cult affiliation. Many paths are vying for participants but alchemy chooses you. It is a self-initiatory path that provides a structure or scaffolding for metaphorical death and rebirth, a generic process described in many traditions.
In exploring the unknown you are exploring yourself. The journey to wholeness often begins with a retreat – into oneself. The experience can be one of darkness, coldness, the isolation of the self-imposed outsider. Your energy is purposefully turning inward and it is best to follow it, even to amplify that dynamic. Some choose the laboratory, some a therapeutic setting, some plant allies, and others an eclectic self-directed approach.
We all have negative tendencies, self-destructive compulsions, self-sabotaging impulses, or neurotic self-defeating patterns. This is our psychological baggage. In his or her work, the novice alchemist channels both the voluntary and compulsive aspects of the depression that can drive the urge to transform.
The work itself forms a vessel of transformation, a safe place where the alchemist can be fully open to nature and his or her own nature. Once initiated, the unfolding cycles of the Magnum Opus naturally lead through and beyond that stage of the work toward breakthroughs rather than breakdown, emergence rather than emergency.
You must grow and face your fears to solve the problems of multidimensional existence. But to do so you have to make spiritual growth a priority by giving it time and attention. Only your comprehension of the deeper nature of depression, recognizing the call, and your commitment to the conscious struggle for transformation makes it alchemical. Then you rescue the fragmented parts of yourself. Suffering is meaningful. It leads to empathy, which funds active compassion.
TALES FROM THE DARK SIDE
Part of the art of alchemy is decoding your own symbolic language. Depression means you have lost your dream and have yet to reconnect with a new one, with the new images or symbols that can pull you forward toward your future. Primal people call it loss of soul.
You hurt so much that you may be convinced you are going to die or even wish you would. But the fantasies of death are telegraphing a metaphorical message. Your old self is on its way out. Getting into this morbid state is the point. You have acute awareness of your mortality. The experience of maximum despair is “hitting bottom”. You are a mess. The good thing is there is nowhere to go but up. What do you want your tombstone to say?
You are metaphorically decomposing. This is the paradoxical flip side of ego inflation, toxic narcissism, and shallow self-absorption. It keeps us from responding to even outstanding opportunities. This crisis is an extraordinary opportunity to re-create your life and world. You have to learn how to use your strengths and skills while you meet multiple challenges and stressors. You need to uncover your buried potential and mine the gold of your buried talents and creativity.
This hero’s depression lifts once you embark on your mission with purpose, based on finding your inner vision. Once you’ve heard the “Call to Adventure” you have enthusiasm, passion, intentionality and direction. You determine to persevere through the crisis, but the road has many trials. The devil comes as chaos, suffering or pain. Psychophysical suffering feels like wandering around in fear and darkness – a dark night of the soul, even a journey to Hell.
Constructive discontent can drive our best thoughts, emotions, and actions. But to get to its root you must journey to “the center of the Earth” to gain the treasure, the cure, the grace. This is engagement with power within.
How would building and aligning with greater mental, emotional and physical power within impact all facets of your life and relationships? What would life be like if you really opened a new pathway that helps you live, lead and succeed in your purpose, in your essential nature? What is blocking you?
When old defenses no longer work, you must develop new coping skills for developmental challenges. But this initiatory way includes many deaths and rebirths. Nigredo, the blackening, isn’t always the first stage, but may be one of relapse, eclipse or another incubation stage.
Nigredo is a recurrent cycle of desire and frustration with no real beginning. Your energies are sucked from the outer world and turned in on themselves. Normal life is radically disrupted. When you are paralyzed by life there is nothing to do but let go of your control fantasies. An eclipse of the ego offers a way into the deeper energies of the unconscious.
After involuntary or voluntary symbolic death, reborn spirit eventually emerges from the rotting corpse of the old self with its limiting worldview. This death is equivalent to the conception of the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. Death becomes your ally and advisor. Meditators are advised to “die daily” in their practice. The ego is eclipsed but the Stone is born. These trials nourish the Self. Vision expands, wisdom deepens, self matures.
Conscious alchemy offers a direction, an operational roadmap for realizing your highest potential. It is a psychospiritual path, approached experimentally and spiritually. You make the experiment on yourself. It is a whole brain, whole self process, involving both rational and irrational forces.
Psyche has a regressive tendency. If you block the process of growth, depression will recur, again and again. You will regress anytime your work goes awry, you seemingly take a step backward, or circumstances weigh you down. Each octave of work brings exponential results. Over time, you catch yourself in self-defeating acts sooner in the cycle. But the full weight of the dirty business must be born each time disruption intrudes chaotically into your life.
Even the root of the word “alchemy” refers to the black soil of Egypt. This Egypt is an imaginal realm of Hermetic mysteries, which created the dying and rising god Osiris. This root mystery influenced many cultures, including the Eleusinian rites of ancient Greece. Initiatory rebirth is an awakening into a higher life. It is echoed in the rites of Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, and Mithras. Death and spiritual rebirth permeates all the mystery religions. Hermetic texts influenced the growth of European alchemy.
You must bury your old self in that rejuvinating soil for new life to emerge. The nigredo means seeing all through the bleak eyes of depression but it also means “seeing through” the meaning and value of depression. You may belong to a guild of like-minded travellers, but you walk the transformative path alone. It is a solitary journey.
The nigredo is often called the first alchemical operation but there is no distinct order handed down from tradition. It is the first stage of mortificatio – the killing of the old worn out or obsolete personality. Many people seek a spiritual path because of their existential despair. The old self must dissolve, the neurosis must be liquified and reduced to the primal condition. Only a purging fire will turn this darkness white. It might be the slow heat of a rotting corpse or fetid compost pile but the inner fire is lit.
“Something” in you has already died and it’s beginning to stink. This blackening phase of the alchemical process describes a gloomy time of depression. All the signs seem inauspicious. You feel unlucky, caught in a black mood whose origin may be difficult to pinpoint. This is because your current ego attitudes are outdated.
You feel stuck because you aren’t coping or adapting to present circumstances. These feelings may come into your life due to an overload of stress, financial and relationship problems or clinical depression. Depression is a “no love” script. Love may be there but you have lost the capacity to feel it. You wonder in anguish, “Is this all there is?”
There are three main types of clinical depressive disorders: major depressive disorder, dysthymia (mood swings), and the depressive lows of bipolar disorder. Mania is a defense against depression. Self-deception, loss of self-esteem and anger are part of it. Conventional treatment freely dispenses antidepressants. However, that just adds to the numbing and fakeness.
Paradoxically, both depression and its medical cure cause the personality to become “flat,” libido is suppressed. An integrative approach includes psychosocial therapy to focus on the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal issues behind depression. A wide range of severe side effects make antidepressants alone poor therapy, particularly for seekers in spiritual crisis. The condition must be actively addressed. Medication suppresses self-expression just like addiction kills creativity.
Poison is in the cure. Research has shown that traumatic experiences can change the way the brain works. So can talk therapy, and even more so, process-oriented therapy, which creates flow experiences. Self-regulation can be learned, using resonance techniques, concentration and meditation. The brain undergoes changes similar to those induced by medication but in a positive, adaptive way that arises within.
Whether we speak of normal experience, chronic depression or grief, it is a fact that frustration is deeply woven into the fabric of life. We are riddled with desires and programmed by ideals. Should some of our real or imagined needs be temporarily met, we immediately begin wishing for more.
Chronic dissatisfaction stands in the way of our contentment. Depression has its roots in failure to adjust to lowered expectations of self, others, and a world that doesn’t meet our childish needs. Overcoming the anxiety and depressions of contemporary life requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.
Faust was given power by the Devil on condition that he would never be satisfied with what he has. The advertising myth of the “American Dream” did the same thing to us all. Happiness and satisfaction with life depend on how small a gap you perceives between what you wish for and what you possess. Traditional social shields such as religion, ethnic traditions, patriotism, etc. no longer are effective for many disrupted by the harsh winds of chaos.
Psychic disorder produces conflicting signals that prevent or distract us from carrying out our good intentions. We give this condition many names, depending on how we experience it: pain, fear, rage, anxiety, depression, ennui, anomie, or jealousy. All these varieties of disorder divert and force our attention obsessively into undesirable directions. Energetic flow is blocked.
The new biological explanations of mental disorders as neurotransmitter imbalances make “good stories” but still lack empirical substantiation. Over-diagnosis has led to a “pharmademic” of over-medicated “pod people.” Yet, research shows that talk therapy and self-regulation techniques are as effective as drugs. The cornerstones of psychotherapy are insight and emotional growth.
If you practice alchemy with the feedback of other practitioners, it functions as a process-oriented therapy, allowing for projection and solution of problems. It is one of the most ancient spiritual paths. Spiritual technologies are the intuitive response to depression and the ever-present fear of death.
Many individuals experience a period of melancholia between the ages of 28 to 30 (and again at 55 to 60). Astrologically, this is triggered by Saturn return, the return of the planet to its original position in the natal chart. Classically, it is a time of disappointment, divorce, soul-searching and reassessment of values and orientation in life. It also holds the seed of mastery.
Saturn governs the aging process, since it represents actualization of more and more of one’s potential. It presides over lingering death and chronic illness. At its worst, senex consciousness destroys spontaneity, obsessed by its repetitive disciplines into a narrowness of emotions, mental processes, and activities. Saturn has “control issues” and also rules crises situations of life and the mental cravings of “lust for results.”
The planet Saturn puts the accent on responsibility, in this case responsibility to yourself for fulfilling your potential. Finally, you are truly growing up and your destiny begins to take form. You may be pressured into it, even if you resist it, and this is that black mood’s positive intent. Suffering becomes a meaningful path.
You may think you are not depressed because your feelings are numbed out or you make sure you stay too busy to notice. You may just be in denial with hypochondria, an antisocial personality, substance abuse problem, hyperactivity, compulsivity, oppositional behavior, rage, or other means of acting out and acting in. You may try many horizontal escapes, but no matter where you go, there you are.
Having lost the sweet savor of life, you may be feeling older than your years, not in a good way but rigid and humorless with a thousand aches and pains. If chronic degenerative disease isn’t enough, there is the continual futureshock of new technology and morphing culture. If you are young, depression masquerades as anxiety, a conflict of opposites, generational and social rebellion, alienation, and angst.
Your behavior telegraphs the underlying depression to those with eyes to see. They know because they have been through it. Often when you are in it, you can’t see it. You might even unconsciously use your predicament to manipulate the sympathy and attention of others. But something’s just not right and you sense it in every fiber of your being.
Like Charlie Brown with his dark cloud, most of us have felt depressed in greater or lesser degree. Loss is a psychophysical experience. Since everything changes as time flows, and change entails loss, this is not surprising. Sometimes we lose face through shameful behavior, in our own eyes and those of others. There are some things we just need to face directly even if they are scary or painful.
We grow sad and depressed when a person we love dies or a cherished phase of life passes. Grief is universal and normal. In fact, failure to grieve is evidence of psychological abnormality. Staying stuck in grief is not healthy; it suppresses the immune system and élan vital. Process work in alchemy or therapy is a way of moving on. Mourning is work and takes mental effort.
Mourning is characteristically a state of mind, but it is accompanied by a host of painful somatic sensations that are remarkably uniform. In acute grief we experience physical distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath. We need to sigh, have an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and intense subjective distress we call tension or mental pain.
Traumatic bereavement happens in a variety of settings including personal and community violence, even global catastrophe. Traumatic bereavement contrasts experiences of quiet death at home, without mutilation, bodily distortion, shock, threat, horror, and helplessness. Reactions to the traumatic circumstances are different and predict more adverse health outcomes for the bereaved.
Traumatic stress interferes with the grieving process. The emotional aspect of grief is just as painful as the somatic. Inner anguish, loss of interest in a dreary, empty world, isolation from other people, loneliness and feelings of inner emptiness seem to persist for an eternity. In this way, grief mimics clinical depression.
The call to heal and the call to death are ultimately the same call to formlessness, to return to source. Many disorders display symptoms and imagery which represent stalled stages in the natural consciousness restructuring process. We get stuck in our attempts to heal ourselves.