THE NIGREDO – PART 1:
Working Through Depression with Alchemy
THE NIGREDO (Part 1)
Working Through Depression with Alchemy
“Only that which has been properly separated can be rightfully joined.”
“Right at the beginning you meet the dragon, the chthonic spirit, the devil or, as the alchemists called it, the blackness, the nigredo, and this encounter produces suffering…”
~ Carl Jung
“I am an infirm and weak old man, surnamed the dragon; therefore am I shut up in a cave, that I may become ransomed by the kingly crown…A fiery sword inflicts great torments on me; death makes weak my flesh and bones…My soul and my spirit depart; a terrible poison, I am likened to the black raven, for that is the wages of sin; in dust and earth I lie, that out of Three may come One. O soul and spirit leave me not, that I may see again the light of day, and the hero of peace whom the whole world shall behold may arise from me…”
~ Aurelia Occulta Philosophorum
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. You are the alchemical vessel and the contents of your psyche is the means and object of transformation. As the images and substances change, you change too.
There is theory and practice in science, and two applications in alchemy — spiritual alchemy and experimental alchemy involving literal lab work. You can work either method separately or both in concert. Our true selves are beyond what our conscious awareness alone could ever make of us.
Benchwork is a projective mechanism that mirrors your psychic transformation synchronistically. Projection turns into a clarifying image. You gain an experiential knowledge of the elements and materials of alchemy, rather than just comprehending a concept.
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). There is no quick fix to the accumulated baggage of life. 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. But you must remain dedicated to the process.
In exploring the unknown you are exploring yourself. The journey to wholeness often begins with a retreat – into oneself, your interior nature. 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 primordial nature. With alchemy you can work with your thoughts and feelings rather than fighting or avoiding them. Once initiated, the unfolding cycles of the Magnum Opus naturally lead through and beyond the nigredo 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. We recognize it as loss of self-worth.
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.
The ancient Greek vision of Hades was that of a dark, cold, windy, dry realm. This is a good metaphor of all our early traumas of abandonment, hunger, loss, sorrow and shame that are frozen in the labyrinthine halls of psyche. We cannot meet or accept life’s legitimate suffering. We can’t grieve these ominous shadows so they pile up on us creating blind spots, despair, denial, and wrongful assumptions. The trouble they cause is their demand to be seen for what they are.
This glacial ice cave houses unresolved issues that continue to affect our relationships with self, others and world. It drives our compulsions for achievement and the pain of loneliness. We all carry the burdens of self-doubt and loneliness. We simply remove ourselves from whatever we cannot or will not process, but they remain alive and powerful though buried or frozen, multiplying in scope and weight as we grow older.
Though lack of unconditional acceptance is a natural part of human experience, these unhealing wounds are the hidden focus of our conscious lives. These early losses hang around frozen in time, as if they are still happening. Simply changing their apparent expression, they obstruct the flow of our lives until we recognize and acknowledge them.
The unhealing wounds of unrealized suffering, self-delusion, addiction, chronic depression, compulsivity, failed relationships and some physical illness present opportunities throughout life to reconcile and resolve what we couldn’t heal earlier. The word ‘resolve’ echoes the alchemical maxim of ‘Solve et Cogaula,” the liquification and reintegration of essentially frozen psychic energy.
Heartache and pain, a persistent sense of failure and inadequacy are core human experiences. We feel a hunger or sense we are missing something. The older we get, the more the fear of death creeps in, feeding the desire to numb out and not feel anything at all. Death tempts and attacks us in this predestined confrontation.
This unfinished business locks us into a distorted “virtual” reality, a false self. When we are out of balance and pursue pleasure at any cost, our old wound is showing. If these deepening shadows mess up our lives enough, we are forced to break free and tunnel out of the cocoon of distortions and self-loathing. This deadly and dreaded challenge to your courage can reconnect you with your lost confidence by drawing on transpersonal resources. It is an unavoidable part of the journey to an authentic life.
Constructive discontent can drive our best thoughts, emotions, and actions. But to get to its root you must enter a tomblike passageway, making a journey to “the center of the Earth,” to the center of yourself to gain the treasure, the cure, the grace. This is engagement with power within.
You can’t go back so you must go forward. We have the potential to grow beyond mere personal fulfillment to transpersonal experiences. New information you gain from the unconscious helps you create a dynamic new situation, an ever-widening, self-perpetuating cycle that restores flow.
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. Like a struck flint, flashes of insight ignite the inner fire which leads to searing visions of the truth of your reality and channel your burning desire toward further transformation that brings clarity.
“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.