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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)


The Formative Stages of Group Therapy as an Alchemical Process

Paul Kiritsis - Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Western alchemy emerged from the Alexandrine marriage of Aristotelian natural science to Gnostic and Egyptian mythology as well as Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism. It has always been a philosophical storehouse for a plethora of religious and mystical ideas in the manner that the cosmopolitan Alexandria was the transmutational receptacle for knowledge arriving from the four corners of the world in late antiquity. The Emerald Tablet, otherwise known as the Tabula Smaragdina in Latin, is a condensed and apocryphal summation of Alexandrian alchemy that was reintroduced to the Latin West sometime during the thirteenth century. In it Hermes Trismegistus ascertains that the alchemical work is an apocryphal sequence of symbolic operations demarcating the processes of all creation.  

Carl Gustav Jung (1944, 1967, 1970) was the first intellectual to progress a psychological yet ahistorical position on alchemical symbolism. Suffused within Psychology and Alchemy, Alchemical Studies, and Mysterium Coniunctionis was the idea that medieval alchemists projected the same unconscious contents onto their laboratory utensils that contemporary psychotherapists brought to consciousness by way of active imagination. The operations, originally chemico-operative as well as threefold and sevenfold in nature, were ascribed psychological predicates by Jung (Edinger, 1985): calcinatio became a reduction of ego complexes; solutio became the subjection of questionable ego attitudes to intense scrutiny; coagulatio turned into the promotion of objective ego building; sublimatio the acquisition of a comprehensive standpoint effective in day-to-day problem-solving; mortificatio was cognized as an awareness of shadow or loathed aspects of one’s personality; separatio an awareness of the subjective and objective in reality; and coniunctio the realization of the Self through an amalgamation of conflicting psychic forces mediated by the ego. Jung then connected the nigredo or blackening with calcinatio, solutio, and mortificatio; albedo or whitening with the culminatory aspect of calcinatio; and rubedo or reddening with the greater coniunctio. The last of these, whose connection to a Philosopher’s Stone able to turn base metals into nobler ones and prolong human life indefinitely is known, was a phenomenal externalization of man’s deepest truth, the actualized and transpersonal Self where conscious and unconscious stand as affectionate, considerate partners in a healthy marriage.

Because the major alchemical operations were rendered into psychological tropes, it follows that they should deductively correspond to the cyclical movement of individual therapy and group work as well. Speaking in reference to the cyclical movement Jocelyn Chaplin (1999) has elucidated that, “It may take them [the clients] many years to go through the cycle, or it may take just a few weeks. This may use several different counsellors, workshops, or ‘spiritual’ guides during their growth cycle. And most people seem to go through many cycles during their lifetime (p.1).” Stiles, Meshot, Anderson, & Sloan (1992) have also spoken about cyclical progression through seven stages in the context of problem resolution. More recently, Prochaska (1995) has noted that the therapeutic resolution of addictions is contingent on a continuum of transmutation with five discernible stages. It appears the theoretical and empirical groundwork laid out in the past thirty years for cyclical movement through seven stages (Meier & Boivin, 2000; Meier, Boivin, & Meier, 2010) has determined the developmental sequence to be dynamic, non-linear, and most importantly, psychologically insignificant. Clients can, to all intents and purposes, suffer regress to preceding stages of graduation, or progress through in inverted or otherwise subverted order (Edinger, 1985).  

Yalom (2005) himself acknowledges the developmental theory, namely for practical purposes. He believes equipping the group facilitator with intimate theoretical knowledge about the aforementioned enables sound therapeutic judgements on her part along with the deployment of effective interventions in transcending impasses wrought from the coagulation of rigid norms. During the formative period, existential factors such as the search for meaning motivate group members to engage and socialize with one another (Stage 1). Then comes a horrific downslide, a plunge into the chaos of interpersonal conflict as competing members compete for attention, resources, and personal differentiation (Stage 2). Without knowing it the warring parties cultivate hierarchical order within the group environment. Successful graduation sees the group enter a constructive, mutually satisfying, and beneficial period of authentic engagement, inner cultivation, and cohesion (Stage 3). Finally, the group experience is terminated (Stage 4). The alchemical operations known as the nigredo or blackening and the fermentatio may be couched within the first stage of formative epigenetic group development; the separatio and calcinatio within the second stage; and the albedo or whitening and solutio within the third stage.

For the most part everything begins with the prima materia, the base substance of which all created matter is hewn. The variegated and disparate epithets ascribed to it–Adam, virgin, lion, seed, earth, sperm, menstrue, lead, mercury, chaos, spirit, dew, water, fountain, and so forth–testify to this mercurial essence, the fact that it is everywhere and nowhere (Abraham, 1998). This corruptible, lacklustre, and unreflective state equates with the narrative overture explicating the reasons for being, an outdated ‘myth’ one utilizes to rationalize maladaptive cognitive and behavioural patterns (Feinstein & Krippner, 1997). Liz Greene (1988) calls it the life wound or conflict. Appropriating Jungian terminology, Fabricius (1994) describes this inner conflict as an eruption of unconscious contents into the sphere of consciousness. Whenever an individual is tormented by intrapersonal affect and impulses, by volatile and dysfunctional interpersonal relationships, we can be sure conditions within the materia prima have reached critical mass. Under such dire circumstances rationalizations are no longer able to sustain the rigid, illusory, and compulsive way of understanding self in relation to others and to the world at large, and the ensuing crisis compels the individual to seek psychotherapy in individual or group settings.

Group therapy is inaugurated under the auspices of the conjunctio–a convergence and confluence of disparate characterological dispositions, related and dissimilar life wounds, conscious and unconscious attitudes, unreflective and egocentric states, and pathogenic symptomologies. In alchemy the putrefaction and blackening of the ‘married’ or conjoined elements of the prima materia is known as the nigredo. The alchemical manuscripts vividly portray this phase in a series of distressing images–flooding, dismemberment and decapitation, and tears–qualitatively connected through the leitmotif of pain and suffering (Abraham, 1998). Congruently, individuals who have just joined a group are subjected to the pressurized forces of collective normalization and steadfast capitulate to social engagements that promote inward validation. Instead of delving into their original impetuses for joining, they’ll seek intimate connections with those who are most like themselves (at least outwardly) and emphatically nurture them (Yalom, 2005). Before long a raw, unrefined set of co-dependencies have formed. The intense gratification which comes from authentic companionship far exceeds the intrinsic worth of answers uttered from the lips of cold, detachment observers–we are at heart social beings seeking authentic relations based on love, trust, and mutuality.

During this time the primeval floods are considerable. Group members are riddled by questions to the effect of, “What’s in this for me?’, “How can anybody here assist in unravelling the Gordian knot of my problems?”, and more importantly perhaps, “What could I possibly learn from people who are no better off than I?” They expect the group therapist to play a proactive role in untangling the Gordian knot and fashioning group order from chaos. In the absence of cohesion, it is the latter’s role to generate a maternal boundary-holding environment able to contain the collective appraisal process of acceptance or rejection, rapport, and role orientation, otherwise the group will suffer dismantlement and early death. Establishing ground rules for honesty and confidentiality not only fosters sentiments of protection and nurturance early on, but contains the group psychically in the event of a verbal altercation. Here a competent group therapist might be compared with the conscientious alchemist; just as the former will interject at the right moments to prevent regression, effusive anxiety, and prevent disbandment, so too will the latter increase the cooking temperature gradually as to prevent a shattering of the vas (the chemical retort) and a consequential loss of the transmuting putrefying matter. As the matter cooks, so too do individual perceptions within the group environment coagulate, alter, and disappear.

The nigredo phase in the therapeutic process is usually followed by the fermentatio which involves a conjunction of the masculine and feminine formative forces–Sol and Luna or Philosophical Sulphur and Philosophical Mercury–in the hermetically sealed alembic (Abraham, 1998). Fermentatio is one and the same with sowing seeds in fertile fields that will confer good fortune and prosperity upon those who have elected to spend their time labouring industriously and patiently. In the language of group therapy fermentatio equates to the first fruits of interpersonal communication between members. At this point the need to be governed by an unrestricted, unifying, and universal force takes precedence over exhibitions of personal authenticity; there is a contemplative inversion from the inner to the outer world (Laing, 1982) as intuit and problematic thoughts are purposely repressed and mutual interests cultivated. While such behaviors propagate a tranquil and supportive atmosphere, they also imbue the interpersonal communication with a superficial, stereotyped flavor that thwarts deeper movement into reparative experience (Yalom, 2005). On the other hand the identification of mutual problems accounts for the earliest experiences of universality.  

Moreover, during this stage the here-and-now focus allows parataxic distortions–skewed and inaccurate perceptions extrapolated chiefly from ingrained emotional biases and assumptions towards other persons as well as intrapersonal necessities–to emerge from the unconscious. Many group members may project unconsciously onto the group therapist, instigating a cyclical transference and countertransference relationship (Clarkson, 2003). The nature of projective material will determine whether the latter is slavishly idealized or unrelentingly devaluated. For many, the stereotyped conviction of the group therapist as some kind of magical and nurturing healer imbues him or her with the positive albeit unrealistic qualities of omniscience, intellectual superiority, and mental dexterity in controlling the trajectory of interpersonal relations in the group. When a group member slips into this frame of mind the facilitating therapist is seen as an authoritative patriarchal or matriarchal figure that can do no wrong. In any case each conjunctio transpiring during this phase is vastly reminiscent of the crudest and most rudimentary level ‘marriage’ between Sol and Luna, portrayed as copulations between animals like male and female dragons or birds of prey, hen and rooster, and dog and bitch in the alchemical manuscripts.  

The refinement of coarse and impure chemical substances into more subtle, unalloyed ones in the alchemist’s vessel through repeated cycles of distillation otherwise known as solve et coagula (dissolution and coagulation) is a chief exponent of separatio, the third alchemical phase. Alchemical tropes illustrate the phenomenon with sharp implements like knives and swords or using brutal imagery typical of death and destruction. In group therapy the superficial foray with restricted communication gives way to intermember conflict amongst those who wish to yield power and dominate and those who do not wish to relinquish a level of control and be dominated. Unprecedented as it were, the schism shatters social conventions and etiquette and members now find it permissible to hurl raw criticisms and premature judgements about personal lifestyle choices at one another (Yalom, 2005). In this phase the incapacity for authentic presence in interpersonal communication with another owing to unresolved problems deeply rooted in one’s own past becomes painfully obvious. “Even though intellectual ascent to an idea may be possible early on, it can take months, sometimes even years, for clients to come to acknowledge at an emotional level the connection between an event that happened so far in the past and their rigidified present (Erickson, 1998, p. 128)”. Until that moment comes to pass group members persist in clinging desperately to their own primitive defences and continue reconstructing the dynamic of defective family relationships. While in individual therapy the opposition between persona and shadow, critical parent and playful inner child, and arbiter and villain may emerge intrapersonally, in group therapy it occurs interpersonally as disenfranchised, despised, and unacceptable aspects of self are projected onto real life individuals.

Alchemy understands calcinatio, the fourth procedural aspect of the Magnum Opus, as a chemical reduction of metals like copper and iron into granular powders, ashes, or dust. The esoteric philosophers encrypted this phase into illustrations of treatises using such vexing symbols as lions devouring suns, ravenous wolves feasting on kings, and dragons engaged in autophagy (Abraham, 1998). Psychologically, the operation can be understood as a shift in self-awareness so that the world is no longer perceived as either black and white, benevolent or malevolent, and empathic or non-empathic (Meier & Boivin, 2000; Meier, Boivin, & Meier, 2010). Jung would call it work on the shadow. Contrary to our Cartesian predispositions, there are cognitive and emotional states in which ambivalence reigns. Mimicking chemical reduction the intrapersonal qualities within each individual have shifted and no longer exist in their original form (Samuels, 1989). Conceited fantasies about the group facilitator are abandoned as each group member struggles to come to terms with an ‘objective’, disenchanting, and dysphoric truth. Is the therapist really ideal? Does she care about the group’s welfare or is she all about the money? During this fiery stage projections may be displaced onto other members in an effort to mitigate possible rejection by the group. According to Liz Greene (1988) the fire that burns, judges, and frustrates is the same one that enlightens, cleanses, and stimulates positive change. Empowered with newfound tools for self-appraisal and examination, group members can proactively shift their maladaptive and harmful cognitive-behavioral patterns.

During the alchemical rotation, the putrefying black matter in the alembic undergoes an intrinsic change expressed visibly as a pattern of white flecks and eventually becomes white. In describing this pivotal transformation, the seventeenth century alchemist Eirenaeus Philalethes pronounced that, “When by continuance of decoction the colour changeth to white, they call it their Swan, their Dove, their white stone of Paradise, their white Gold, their Alabaster, their Smoak, and in a word whatever is white they do call it by (Abraham, 1998, p.4).” The group has reached whiteness through the melancholic blue of separatio which is connected to the exhumation of long-repressed feelings and the dissolution of symptomatologies enacted through maladaptive behavioural patterns. White is the increased latitudes of intrapersonal and interpersonal space that materializes when the container’s frame of safety, trust, and mutuality has coagulated. Moreover, it is about the acquisition of group cohesion, the empathically-experienced magnetism operant at interpersonal, intrapersonal, and intergroup levels. There is genuine kinship, support, and harmony between peers during this phase–the transpersonal entity of we-consciousness has formed (Yalom, 2005). With intimate bonds now sustaining and fortifying the group from externally perceived pressures, in-group members will more readily self-disclose. Consequently, pathogenic secrets emerge into the consensual container in both horizontal and vertical fashion. From an alchemical standpoint the group has been purged of its first impurities.

Unfortunately whiteness alone is dead and does not illuminate the numinous spirit animating matter. The sheer effort expended in preserving cohesion has forced a temporary rift between collective conscious and unconscious attitudes and has prevented other long-standing problems and negative affects from coming to light (Yalom, 2005). Communication amongst in-group members and boundaries has become too rigid again. There is significant inner resistance building which can only be released through liquefaction, a reduction of we-consciousness unity into heterogeneous nuclei of warring personas. Further struggles cannot be subverted, and the group enters solutio, a subsequent alchemical phase whereby everything in the vas, the alembic, the crucible, or the retort, is incinerated to cinders. There can be no movement towards a deeper, more profound, and more mature level of we-consciousness unless resistances are dissolved and deeper-rooted affects identified and worked through (Yalom, 2005). Attaining this level of intermember harmony connotes a continuation of constructive subsistence until the group’s final dissolution.    

In hindsight the current treatise extends the well documented and famed Jungian connection between alchemical leitmotifs and depth psychotherapy to group psychotherapy, and offers an anatomical, esoteric, and spiritual model through which Yalom’s developmental cycle might be comprehended.  



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