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


Therapy as an Alchemical Process: Separatio

Paul Kiritsis - Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The separatio phase of psychotherapy is characterized by an awareness of psychic opposites and an exploration of past relationships and issues.


Known as separatio, the third alchemical phase involves a differentiation of the prima materia into the elements of fire, air, water, and earth. 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 this phase. The key words here are differentiation and distillation, both acts that project pairs of opposites onto the slate of unified consciousness. Alchemical manuscripts symbolically portray this phenomenon with sharp implements like knives and swords or using brutal imagery typical of death and destruction. Similarly, the projection of opposites is expressed through the corresponding couplets of sun and moon, king and queen, husband and wife, earth and spirit, and sulphur and argent vive. When it comes to the archetypal world of dreams, the telepathic channel of the collective unconscious, these usually materialize as leitmotifs of quantitative analysis and spatiotemporal reckoning: geometric shapes and solids, clocks, tapes, measures, scales, the golden ratio, the sextant, and the plumb line.

From the cited examples it becomes apparent that the spontaneity of coming to consciousness is one and the same with the compartmentalization of phenomena where one becomes two, two becomes four, four becomes eight and so forth. But any conscious act of separation also manifests a desire or will to subjugate and dominate nature, thus bringing conflict and torment to a blissful, paradisal state of rumination formerly experienced as perpetual Oneness. Nowhere is this cosmic truth better illustrated than in the ancient Egyptian myth Isis and the Seven Scorpions, a narrative chronicling how the just mentioned mother goddess gained mastery over created matter. At one point she intervenes to save an innocent child from being stung to death by an army of venomous scorpions through magical conjuration which involves naming each and every one, thus bringing them under her own sphere of divine power.

If we were to transpose the whole alchemical process to the psychic or psychological level, separatio becomes the discrimination of warring elements within a present, self-conscious personality. During this stage diligent and prolonged analysis on the part of the mediating counsellor compels the unified One–what is perceived to be the client’s unified ego-self–to shatter into many subselves like scintillating shards of a broken mirror. These individual subselves force a further turning inward of the client’s consciousness by pairing up and then squaring off against one another within a psychic battleground that has swiftly turned hostile and noxious: the inner child might turn against an inner mother now perceived to be terrible and decapitate her; the inner father might jettison all moral inhibition and let licentiousness run rampant by copulating with the inner daughter; the inner whore might incapacitate the intellectual and righteous inner lady by offering her a poisonous apple that puts her into a lethal coma; the inner pragmatist might murder the inner idealist in cold blood; and the inner non-judgemental and wise philosopher might wrestle down and bind the inner racist politician to a stone chair in the subterranean operations room.

Looking at the underlying mechanics of this psychic process more closely, it appears that the purgatory of war has surmounted the heaven of peace and harmony again because the ego has re-entered into a cycle of disidentification and withdrawn psychological projections that encompass its present life myth. Many therapists would recognize this phenomenon as a momentary loss of participation mystique (meaning a subject’s identification with a particular object that is partially responsible for the creation of his or her identity). If the shunned shadow entities are consciously acknowledged the dismantled personality re-member into a new form, thereby healing the multidimensional psyche of its existing neurosis or disturbance. Egyptian myth offers us the most vivid personification of this psychological reality by casting the saviour god Osiris in the role of the destructed-restructured personality. For Osiris to lay claim to his rightful throne as Lord of the Underworld (for a new personality to form), Isis (the individuating Self) had to first find the dismembered parts of his corporeal body (become conscious of archetypal contents not currently part of the personal ego) that had been scattered in different locations all over Egypt by the evil Seth (a more comprehensive standpoint that brings about dissolution or nigredo), put them back together in the guise of a mummy (reconcile the warring opposites), and then magically reanimate the whole (reidentification with new archetypal pairs of opposites) by beating her wings together.

Of course all these mythical references that imbue the mechanical processes of separation and differentiation with meaning are also beckoning us to take a closer look at cosmogony. As narratives attempting to explain vital aspects of existence, many myths are orientated towards explaining the origins of our universe.  They speak of birth or creation in terms of separation.   In psychotherapy, it is impossible for an awareness of opposites and inner hierarchies of being to spontaneously manifest without an exploration of the formative forces that have contributed to the formation of the present, self-conscious personality. These forces are usually members of the client’s immediate family and are intimately connected with his or her past. For this reason alone probing the nature of relationships with parents, foster parents, grandparents, siblings, and even close cousins becomes a necessary evil given that it can pinpoint the underlying reasons for an existing problem or disturbance. The one thing to remember here is that any dive into the depths of one’s past is bound to recollect memories involving the experience of mental pain or anguish, and so as a rule of thumb mediating counsellors that choose to traverse the emotive waters of fermentatio should make concerted efforts in reading and looking for subtle changes in their clients’ bodily-kinaesthetic language. Wretchedly the predisposition for Western tradition to reward phlegmatic and stoic dispositions and shun the continuum of emotional ones as undesirable, suspicious, and irrational has inadvertently walled up many of the psychic channels that allow unconditional access and interaction with the intermediate realm of feeling and imagery, the imaginal. Therefore it can take quite some time for the counsellor-client synergy to penetrate the superficial layer of intellectual acumens and make truly meaningful connections with gut-level feelings.

To concretize the discussion I’ll proceed with a tangible example. A woman parts with rustic life in southern Europe at the tender age of sixteen to marry the man she is enamoured of and moves to another country halfway around the world. The melancholy of leaving her own family behind–her father, mother and sisters–to seek her fortune in a country whose language and customs she is not familiar with secretly nurtures a security complex, an unconscious fear of being deserted and left alone. Unaware of the unresolved chaos brewing within her own subconscious she projects these undesirable sentiments onto her own children, smothering them with excess love until the overbearing attitude gets a bit much and they extricate themselves from it by moving far away. The proliferation of unconscious yearning for companionship and the deep sense of security that only family provides has in effect invited into the phenomenal world the malicious demons she’d been contending against since her adolescent years. So the moral of the story here is that unresolved conflicts and traumas deeply entrenched in formative stages of development will grow roots and suck the psychic nutrients out from the humus on which later relationships wish to sprout forth from, often in ways that force an individual to engage with a monotonic and repetitive cycle of projections and behavioural constraints put in place by the original defence mechanism. 



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