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


Therapy as an Alchemical Process: Sublimatio

Paul Kiritsis - Thursday, December 13, 2012

The alchemical sublimatio: a culminating breakthrough in therapy.


Alchemists have always understood sublimatio as an ascending movement of the cyclic process of purification that releases the pure spirit from the primordial slime or prima materia in the alchemical vessel, the vas or alembic. In defining the process, the fourth-century Greek bishop Synesius explains that “when our stone is in the vessel, and that it mounts up on high in fume, this is called Sublimation, and when it falls down from on high, Distillation, and Descension.” Understood from the perspective of modern science it is the transformation of matter directly from a solid to a vaporous state, a chemical process also known as sublimation. During the conversion fumes rising up to the mouth and along the sides of the hermetically sealed vessel rapidly condense into beads of water vapour. Their phenomenal inclination to ascend and expand is the predominant and defining characteristic of sublimatio.

The act of rising or floating upwards is synonymous with the transposition of a transient and contracted everyday ego-consciousness confined by spatiotemporal laws to an eternal and transcendental state of being free from concrete systems that allow for the world and for consensual reality to be perceived through psychological projections of warring opposites. Furthermore, elevation also implies putting distance between one’s self and the detrimental thought-desires that chain one to the earth; in other words detachment from the very problems, moods, and mental states that destroy willpower and focus, and replace them with dampened, futile feelings about one’s life path and destiny. Hence, this particular phase of the alchemical circulation is about forming an idealistic and stoic attitude of self-reflection and self-regulation. It’s all about being able to blow about one’s passions and fixations, to band and disband one’s though-desires and projections, and to disperse and re-member past ego-centres and formative personalities in an impersonal way. We could personify psychological ascent as a puppeteer employed to stage a performance of an artistic legacy with which he has no affiliation or connection. Under such circumstances the puppeteer’s overall disposition is bound to be cold and distant.  Likewise, with the sublimatio phase the long sequence of previous nigredos or putrefactios has created a transpersonal soul-centre able to submit to painful and unprecedented experiences without losing its eye for objectivity. Perhaps the greatest mystery of this final integration pertains to the nature of consciousness; once evolutionary leaps have been made by any integrated individual, they begin cropping up in the archetypal dreams and visions of others progressing along the same royal road to individuation.

Clients in the midst or onset of sublimatio experience dreams and visions characterized by an upward movement of some kind. This breed of qualitatively-related leitmotifs is also the most common amongst dreamers. The action of climbing mountains, peaks, staircases, and ladders; that of levitating or flying through the skies in aeroplanes, helicopters, and other winged machines; and that of flocks of birds sweeping overhead or about the dreamer are all sublimatio symbols suggestive of experiences or situations about to be consciously skewed in a much more objective way and in the context of a loftier, more comprehensive matter. A consequence of this phenomenon is that problems and negative emotional states are rendered insignificant, releasing the client’s ego-self from imprisonment in its own inflated projection. The definitive ascent of this cosmological operation associated with the ethereal element of air extends to all states of consciousness. Looking at and interpreting the phenomenology of dreams and visions as well as experiences garnered during waking state from the standpoint of a holistic, metaphysical, Platonic, or some other hermeneutical model embodying theories of higher causation can also be thought of as an exponent of this process. On the whole, sublimatio is all about being intimately acquainted with the bigger picture and being able to zoom in on all the different vantage points, interpretations, and possibilities.

In transpersonal psychotherapy, sublimatio is the harbinger of the much awaited and final breakthrough, the moment when the analysand embraces the thawed out fear and pain of deeper oppositions that arose during the preceding coagulatio phase. If yellowing was concerned with unearthing deeply ingrained neuroses, fixations, and other psychological problems that manifested during one’s formative years of development, then psychotherapeutic sublimatio must connote a psychic situation of perverted intercourse with them. True rebirth and transmutation of the soul can only transpire by means of inner friction whereby detrimental fixations, traumas phobias and other psychological disturbances are overcome through the conscious application of persisted concentration. By applying this concentrative energy to every situation that hovers about threatening the dissolution of the ego-self, the analysand can assimilate unconscious material into what is now a reasonably expanded consciousness without suffering the horrors of complete annihilation and disbandment.

This ability to merge and embrace with what one dreads most in his or her life is to see profound wisdom and constructive vision hiding within flecks of the deepest darkness. It is also foremost of the characteristics exhibited by a well-integrated or what is often referred to as a ‘together’ individual. Having developed the ‘astral body’ of unconscious willpower and drive, ‘together’ individuals are able to detach from the violent conunctios between the two aspects of mind (conscious and subconscious) which brings about excruciating putrefaction of all un-individuated and ‘impure’ selves. Detachment is imperative to the process of self-actualization, for it elevates one’s psychic essence or self-centre to places far beyond the reach of raging hermetic ground fires set ablaze by egoistic inflation. The further we are from the inner fires of disintegration, the less likelihood there is of losing those psychological projections that have putrefied and resurrected numerous times over and the more likely we are to awaken to the reality of the continuity of self.  

With the coming of the fifth and culminating conjunctio, the ego-self is no longer alike to an animated piece of organic matter transitory in its lifespan and sensitive to the temperament of the elements in the phenomenal world. Now it has undergone a dynamic transformation into a noble metal able to withstand tremendous pressures and temperatures without suffering changes to its inner electronic configuration. Suddenly the paradoxical eternity indigenous to being emerges; ‘I’ am an accumulation of separate ‘I’s’ created by the perpetual struggle between the inner and outer bands of reality but I am also a unicellular organization of psychic energy whose consciousness continues to expand and grow through the triune cycle of birth, death, and regeneration. The ability to reconstitute oneself after suffering complete dismemberment at the hands of the blackening of the nigredo or putrefactio higher, nobler, and more complete than what one was before is quintessentially a validation of the immortality and transcendental nature of the Self. For most this transposition of personality is a pivotal and definitive moment in life. When one finally awakens to the fact that the ebbs and flows, the coming and going of the creative life process flows through all conscious minds and unites them under one behemoth of a macrocosmic superconscious, the consolation of seductive falsities epitomised by neuroses, addictions, and fixations on which the ego depends for fulfilment suddenly appear trivial and insignificant. We could think of this integrative process as an individual suffering from retrograde amnesia, one who has only just started to remember events, identities, relationships, memories, and dreams that defined his or her life preceding the trauma or accident that led to the condition’s inception.

In many ways the awakening and breakthrough of the sublimatio is like the intermediary state of consciousness known as hypnagogia where we are transitioning from the imaginal and archetypal world of sleep to the contracted waking consciousness of everyday life. The serenading trumpets compel us to harken to the sounds of the culminating purification.


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