Depth psychology leaves empirical science views and quantitative methods at the side of the road. They are not suited to its mission. It turns to symbolic perspectives instead. Alchemy is a metaphor that grants access into the depth dimension and into the possibilities that emerge within depth psychotherapy. It’s a Creative Imagination view of the inner work meant to awaken from the materialistic nightmare.
Let’s consider Jung’s idea of the Self as the alchemist’s idea of gold, also known as the Philosopher’s Stone or the Great Elixir. Most mainstream scientists regard alchemy as a pre-scientific or pseudoscientific attempt to transform lead into gold. This is what happens when the literal surface mind tries to grasp metaphoric, deep mind reality.
Jung made an intense study of “internal” alchemy, as a transformative path. As did many others, including Hillman and esteemed depth psychologist Marie Louise von Franz. They felt that alchemy and its images were highly symbolic of the work of depth psychotherapy.
The images of Lead and Gold have inner meaning. Lead symbolizes our dense, unaware, conditioned surface persona, while gold symbolizes who we are in our innermost core. It’s in this sense that the work of alchemy is to transform lead into gold. And it’s in this sense that depth psychotherapy aims to bring us home to who we truly are.
For clarity’s sake, let’s imagine Alchemical work as three stages or phases that symbolize the work of depth psychotherapy. These stages are described in Latin terms Nigredo (blackening), Albedo (whitening) and Rubedo reddening). Let’s visit these stages, imagined in black, white and red colors.
The Nigredo is the first step of depth therapy as an alchemical process. It involves a hot blackening phase where we come face to face with what we don’t want to know about ourselves. We discover the unconscious forces that govern our life, including our dissociated wounds and trauma.
In the Nigredo, we become blackened by “ash and soot”, from the byproducts of the fiery burning up our dark side, including our fear, envy, jealousy and insecurities. Our “I” or “me” has to cook up and fall apart some. This can be a demanding and depressing phase. At times, the Nigredo is a cleansing that feels like the dark night of the soul. Becoming lonely, anxious and depressed in this phase of the work is often part of the territory.
In the Nigredo, we discover that much of what we perceive with our thinking-mind is not really out there. We discover that our experience of others and of the world is often manufactured through our projections. We come to realize that what we see in others is often what we don’t see in ourselves.
While in the Nigredo, our dream images can include images of death, skeletons, ravens and frogs, among many other things. We could dream of being tethered to a black stove blackened by soot. The Nigredo is a necessary stage, because our surface mind has to discover and part with its unconscious driven delusions. Our ego-persona must become humbled and awakened, if it is to become an ally on our journey home.
When our surface mind begins to understand, then it’s as if we can glimpse a small light on the dark far horizon. This light helps us to begin to transform some of our Nigredo pain and bitterness into inspiration and wisdom. We drop into states of mind where we glimpse a greater Reality and have intuitive flashes of understanding that confirm it.
But we still remain shaky and uncertain here. There’s much more work to do before we can be certain that our pain is a necessary part of our movement into with who we deeply are. I marvel at times how in one moment I “know” and in another moment, I doubt. Inner knowledge is state dependent. It depends on being able to access deeper states of mind and then stabilize and strengthen them. If we have a deep realization and then move to the surface, we doubt, then we forget, then we forget that we have forgotten.
We are still prone to be swept up in the “nightmare of materialism,” with its surface mind views and its “despair of unbelief.” We are still at risk of shutting down and collapsing into a smaller surface thinking-mind vision. We still walk only a few steps ahead of the barking dogs of fear, despair and emotional confusion.
Nigredo despair is most often the first step to life-changing growth. In the Nigredo we can begin to realize that the dark night of the soul can end well, very well, in fact. We realize that we didn’t come here to fall into a materialistic nightmare and to spend our lives chasing after the seductive mirages the material world puts before us. We remember that we are here for an adventure of inner self-discovery and awakening. The ultimate balm for and relief from our dark night of the soul is the joy of glimpsing who we truly are.
Surface mind creates for “profit at any cost businesses” along with a world of credit card carrying consumers to sell to. Both in hot pursuit of the money Holy Grail: To serve self-interest by spending the least to get the most. Deeper mind, in contrast, creates worldwide citizens, people concerned about other people, as well as about animals, the earth and the survival of the species.
© Dr. James A. Manganiello 2021