The last plate of the alchemical Splendor Solis series is also the most unfathomable. This picture is a lot like the inaugurating one with the black sun in that we are once again some distance outside the walls of an anonymous city. We can no longer perceive bubbly children at play or a group of conscientious women going about their domestic choirs. There’s no motherly love, no reminder of mundane tasks that need to be completed on a daily basis. In fact, there isn’t a single human being in sight! It appears as though we’ve left the sphere of the personal altogether and landed on terrain that is much more impartial and detached.
The city itself, together with the surrounding countryside and a river that courses towards its fortifications, is blanketed over by a menacing grey shadow. For reasons unknown to us the unfettered rays of the sun are incompetent, seemingly unable to illuminate the surface of the earth. In the foreground a cluster of ghastly tree stumps protruding from a subtle carpet of green shrubs remind us of nature’s inexhaustible cycle of birth, death, and regeneration. Irrespective of the kingdom to which they belong, all earthly creation is bound by these laws and will ultimately suffer the same fate. Looking skyward, we see that the sun has just broken free from the boundaries of the horizon and will soon trace its familiar arc all the way to the uppermost stratum of the sky. How do we know that it’s dawn and not dusk? The truth is that we can’t really be sure, though the position of the plate as a culminating aspect of the alchemical opus suggests the former. The aurora always comes after a dark night of the soul, not beforehand. Moreover, the numinous presence of the sun is prodigious; the spindles of light projecting from the corona pierce the furthest corners of the cosmos and illuminate even the most concealed pocket of darkness. It’s markedly human features advocate the belief that there’s a hidden intelligence or conscious entity behind the basic blueprints of creation. The direction of its gaze indicates the perusal of something that is beyond the perceptive reach and comprehension of all earthbound creatures, great and small.
My inclination is to view this final picture as an expression of elusive subtle consciousness, the psychospiritual position that theorist Ken Wilber pioneered to describe the process of gaining freedom from the mental ego. In the wider scheme of things, what is the latter but a partial by-product of the modern psyche’s roots in society and engagement with collective norms and values? What is the latter other than a coloured mask to front consensus reality? What is the latter other than a red-tinted patina to come to terms with the hierarchical ordering and strict conpartmentalistic nature of the male-dominated societies that have prevailed in the last two thousand years or so? The ruling masculine principle or ego is all about conquering and gaining the ascendency over Mother Nature; it sees domination and the affirmation of personal will as a mark of exaltation and sovereignty. Relentless pursuit of it is the stuff of true heroes and gods, it asserts. In all Aryan cultures where the Martial energies are allowed to achieve their fullest expression (i.e. Mycenaean, Hittite, and American empires), the collective or state myths are explicitly orientated towards narratives that demonstrate the race’s own intellectual and physical superiority. Irrespective of whether they’re real, partially real or imagined, description of wars and battles are peppered with grandiose detail describing superior skills in combat and intrepid character, with both corroborated as decisive factors in their ultimate victory. Of course the principle aim of the mythographers responsible for their transcription was to belittle and undermine the worth of other contemporaneous peoples whose cultures were undoubtedly perceived as real threats. Encoding such sentiments into folklore and allowing them to subsist in racial memory demonstrates to what extent domination was deified and ego-building promoted. Having inherited the principle values of that Aryan cosmology, we inhabitants of the developed West will often ask ourselves questions like: What’s in this for me? How will this affect me? How will this improve my self-esteem and self-image? How will this help me climb to the top of the communal hierarchy? How will this preserve my name for posterity? As Ken Wilber asserts so pertinently in his work, ‘conquering death by becoming the father of oneself’ is what the mental ego wants to accomplish.
At the subtle level of consciousness, one’s psyche undergoes a major transposition that results in an ejection of the ego from the driver’s seat. The self-centred will of identification and assertion, the art of seeing red, transmute into the green of surrender. Through some eye-opening experience, an individual is forced to confront their own limitations and handicaps. He or she may contemplate the brevity of human life when juxtaposed with the infinitude of the universe. The known world begins to shatter and break apart. Gradually, the solid ground of consensual reality gives way to a bottomless pit where the objectivity of unshakable laws are radically scrutinized, altered, and sometimes jettisoned altogether. One is no longer a totem pole at the centre of his or her own solar system, but rather his or her solar system is merely one of infinite variants modelled off an unfathomable prototype. Consequently, the respective psyche suffers albification or whitening where it becomes extremely receptive to higher transpersonal energies and is ready to be imprinted with higher knowledge. The latter frequently comes from peak experiences or unio mystica with the divine; from voluntary or involuntary possession; from messages channelled by discarnate entities, masters, angels, or spirit guides; from psychic openings like the acquisition of paraphysical powers; and from infiltration by impersonal archetypes that stand outside the spatiotemporal domain but become personal via engagement with higher cerebral function. Growth of awareness surrounding the fundamental interconnectedness of all things that comes hand-in-hand with such experiences illuminates our likeness; hence it’s quite common for subtle consciousness to be marked by unfettered displays of compassion towards the sick and physically disabled in addition to a real willingness to work towards the alleviation of world hunger. The hippie subculture which proliferated from California in the mid-1960s and 1970s theorizations surrounding the supposed existence of indigo children are both tangible communal expressions of the subtle.
If we were to describe what occurs at this intuitive soul level from a more holistic vantage point we could say that the compressed conscious core holding the empirical personality together has melted away, leaving behind a mercurial essence that seeps down through the subterranean strata of the Self to illuminate an ecology of consciousness much more comprehensive, introspective, and intuitive in its definition of the objective. Just as the earthly womb preserves an inestimable amount of knowledge about extinct organisms that were alive when the sedimentary rock responsible for their fossilization formed the uppermost strata, so too does the somnolent darkness of the Self contain concrete imagery and symbols that can transfigure an individual by activating vivid prepersonal memories and higher causes. The best possible way of accessing them is to surrender self-directing freedom and the moral independence that comes with it and enter into an interactive transpersonal field comprised of shared identification with egregores like unconditional love and compassion.
As a clandestine esoteric system of knowledge that works with symbols and picture-images to unlock multiple layers of meaning, to break the societal codes of extinct societies, and to expand the frontiers of human consciousness by condensing experiences which would otherwise be indescribable, the discipline of alchemy itself belongs to the sphere of the subtle. Given its tendency to process reality through sublimatio rhythms that seek common denominators instead of differences in numerator, we see that the subtle likes to straddle the line between form and formlessness, between holism and reductionism, and between acute self-awareness and collective unconsciousness. Without question many great thinkers operated on this elusive level to cognize their perennial philosophies. Plato’s idealistic view of eternal forms and ideas, Immanuel Kant’s idea of unknowable noumena in relation to sense-based phenomena, and Carl Jung’s theory of psychological archetypes were all developed out of a timeless system of esoteric correspondences that drew the differing aspects of creation into qualitative relationships with one another. This could never have been accomplished without the aid of symbols and pictograms which group multiple ideas together. Long before them, the Minoan priestesses of the Great Mother Goddess used the multicultural labyrinth symbol to simultaneously connote a whole continuum of ideas that included the snake, subterranean water, dancing, and the Underworld. The feminine tradition dissipated during the Iron Age but was picked up again by the medieval alchemists who used a qualitative grouping of pictograms as metaphors for a single concept. The prima materia, for example, could be represented by either a virgin woman, dew, the moon, mercury, earth, water, or the sea. Of course, standing on the opposite end of this cosmology is the discriminatory, explicit, and concrete outlook of language, a system of communication far more innovative and intricate than the former but seriously hampered by an inability to contain more than one idea at a time and capture the numinosity of transpersonal experience. For all intents and purposes, a picture is really worth a thousand words isn’t it?
There are certain factors intrinsic to psychological makeups that determine how quickly an individual might attain subtle consciousness. These are fierce independence, a peculiar streak of natural eccentricity, and a formative environment that promotes creative and free development of self-image and identity. Many psychologists just don’t realize how detrimental and antagonistic the dogmatic enforcement of religious, philosophical, or political ideas is to psychospiritual evolution unfolding along the lines of one’s natural tendencies and talents. When oppressively imposed, dogma can derail, hinder, or terminate integral stages leading to subtle consciousness. The best tangible examples of such come from third-world countries where people are proselytized to march to and uphold a collective national ethos that cares little for the principles of true freedom and individuality. In humble countries like the Philippines, for instance, the unyielding breed of Christianity known as Roman Catholicism has become so deeply intertwined with the contemporary Philippino psyche that competing religious and philosophical systems are decreed an anathema. A casual visit to a general bookstore in downtown Manila automatically justifies this deduction; hordes of shelves are made readily available for plain and special edition copies of Biblical Scriptures preaching salvation through the divine figure of Jesus Christ whilst areas of critical inquiry like psychology, the New Age, comparative religion, natural science, neuroscience, and physics are strikingly absent. Control is best maintained when seminal sources of information able to cerebrally empower an individual are audited before circulating on the national market, something that the Philippine government are obviously quite competent and clever at. How can one aspire to self-control and freedom to think for oneself when the potentials for such have not yet been consciously disclosed? Empowerment cannot precede the possibility of empowerment.
But to be fair to the Philippine populace, all individuals that live in social communities are conditioned to some degree or another. We ourselves, the inheritors of the developed West, must adhere to the judiciary laws of our respective countries otherwise we face punishment and repudiation. We dress, style, and groom ourselves in accordance to contemporary vogue; utilize orthodox phrases when acknowledging acquaintances, neighbours, and strangers in the street; hold down paid jobs in order to make an income so that we may pay our bills, keep our stomachs full, and indulge in a vacation or two to Thailand, Fiji, or the Bahamas; paint the walls of our children’s rooms in sex-specific colours (i.e. blue for boys, pink for girls); and partake in extracurricular activities outside standard business hours like watching movies, playing golf, going out to dinners with relatives and close friends, and celebrating religious and cultural traditions like Christmas and Easter. Those that amble along paths that fall outside the continuum of social conditions deemed “normal” are made to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable, they’re sneered at and ridiculed, and in worst case scenarios judged and disenfranchised. Many of these negatively skewed retorts by conservatives and those towing convention are unconscious reactions, illuminating the extent to which thoughts and actions perceived to come from our own selves have been communally synthesized. So it appears that we, too, are marionettes on strings. In truth our only discernible difference from the classical conditioning that ensues in developing countries is that our culture bequeaths to us the illusion of control. That’s the only difference.
Nothing is exempt from the enchantment of conditioning, not even our education system. While a lot of what we’re taught at primary and secondary school is rooted in concrete facts obtained from the mathematical measurements and the physical laws of three dimensions, the cogitations that led to their establishment derive from… Yes, you guessed it–human beings. Ever since the appearance of the empirically-minded pre-Socratic philosophers, theorists have resorted to deductive reasoning to generate workable hypotheses about the nature of humans and the entire universe that are substantiated or rejected through quantitative analysis. Though eventually overridden, many archetypal models advocated by great scientists, philosophers, and cosmologists of eras bygone seem to reflect conscious perspectives relative to the scientific knowledge available at the time. The main problem with theories is that, all too often, they grow prickly horns and serrated scales and become conventional dogma. “This isn’t the way things might be or most probably are even, this is the way they are!” they shriek. When intellectual laureates in physics, neuroscience, or any other field of inquiry attempt a radical imposition of their viewpoints on the general public, you can be pretty sure that there’s an underlying doubt there, an unconscious qualm nibbling at them in the manner that the ocean nibbles on sedimentary rock.
For one, our personal engagement of impersonal sensory information means that nobody is exempt from the subjective retina of the cerebral eye. Even more significant is the trajectory of unified consciousness. Frequently unacknowledged in the scientific world is that our sensory percepts do not detect the full range of noumena that exist and can inform us about objective reality. There are atypical components of consciousness–sights, sounds, tastes, smells, sensations, proprioception, kinaesthetic awareness–and consequently other submodalities of experience that are not accessible to human beings. Our fractional engagement with all that exists in the cosmos means that all knowledge mustered, even theoretical knowledge cognized by the most formidable intellect, will always be relative and unable to inform the totality of being with its objective relations. Some of the shrewder amongst us might theorize the existence of something so subtle that it remains undetected by our paradigmatic modalities (i.e. dimensions that transcend three-dimensional time and space, cosmic ether, or some other physical force) but ultimately the latter’s unwillingness to yield to an empirical testing only operational in the world of three dimensions means that the theorist responsible will always be fighting an inexorable uphill battle. With no way of garnering evidence, that unsubstantiated fleck of thought will sink back into collective unconsciousness and become a historical fossil quicker than the jagged flash of a lightning bolt.
In any case, much of what we believe to be fundamentally true about the cosmos today can be attributed to the inferences of select theorists with comprehensive visionary breadth. The rest of us–including university professors, medical doctors, and scientists–are automatons of above average acumen that record and replay their theories without every questioning the cosmological premises upon which they were founded. In this way we’re like the lyrebirds and cockatoos of the forest that can mimic human speech or monkeys that learn difficult tricks by chance without the cerebral firepower to apprehend the higher modalities of spoken language or perform elaborate actions rendered automatic by the dynamic mentation of the human brain. In the vast majority of cases the materialization of verifiable information that doesn’t seem to fit the archetypal framework of our theories is either ignored on purpose, scoffed at and dismissed as “unscientific” or “outrageous”, or falsified under skewed premises and shoved in the “defunct” drawer. A computer analyst trained to compute exclusively with numbers would become bamboozled at the appearance of a letter or pictorial symbol on their computer screen inasmuch as a neuroscientist would buckle in disbelief at the discovery of an extra-terrestrial organism able to operate on an intellectual level akin to that of human beings without a central nervous system. It’s always easier to close your eyes and pretend contradictions are not there rather than have to deal with the eventual ramifications should they be acknowledged on any conscious level. The point that I’m trying to make here is that we suffer from short-sightedness.
Another good example comes from the different schools of psychological thought that have evolved over the last century. Engage a Jungian analyst with the terms conscious and collective unconscious, and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. But throw in the terms superconscious or middle unconscious (terms that apply to the transpersonal cosmology of Roberto Assagioli’s psychosynthesis and derive from the same stream of esoteric thought) for good measure, and you’ll find that a vast number would quickly lose track of your hypothetical argument. Such is the extent of our short-sightedness, a stubborn and egoistical unwillingness to peer into our neighbouring intellectual compartments and descry how their paradigms might be similar or different to our own. The worst of the offenders are cosmopolitan institutions like universities and colleges which favour shameless out-and-out regurgitations of conventional dogma if one wishes to graduate with distinctions and honours. Hence, modernity unconsciously promotes the art of clever imitation instead of clever innovation. If you imitate like a lyrebird you’re rewarded with handsome grades and a good job that offers respectable wages. Proceed in the opposite direction, along the yellow brick road of self-sufficiency and independent thought, and you’ve unconsciously applied for candidature into the association of mentally unbalanced theorists. Sometimes, the unfettered egoism of one epoch is paid for in blood by the ingenious mortals of subsequent ones whose discoveries happen to negate archetypal models of reality conceived by their intellectual predecessors.
Evidently, then, subtle consciousness is all about independent thinking and innovation. It’s about thinking for oneself, reasoning for oneself, and doing for oneself. There’s a whole lot of value in that!