In transpersonal psychology, each stage of the alchemical opus corresponds with a particular juncture in the psychotherapeutic journey. For the most part everything begins with the prima materia, the base substance of which all created matter is hewn. Alchemists across the ages have agreed that it is elementary and ubiquitous in nature. The prima materia is to be found everywhere and nowhere, interpenetrating and pervading all things great and small by virtue of its inherent multiplicity but at the same time resisting differentiation and compartmentalization. The variegated and disparate epithets ascribed to it–Adam, virgin, lion, seed, earth, sperm, menstrue, lead, mercury, chaos, spirit, dew, water, fountain, and a great many others–testify to this mercurial essence. Transposed to the psychological level, we might think of it as the uppermost mental state of one’s present self-conscious personality that contains ‘projections of autonomous psychic content’.
The slab of consciousness equated with the alchemical prima materia is the mythological stratum of our lives that forms the crust of our temperament. Within the rocks and detritus here can be found a whole continuum of reasons to account for the circumstances of our lives and why we have made certain choices and elected life paths compatible or incompatible with our innate natural tendencies. This brittle patina in which we are temporarily encased is us with all our faults; our everyday miseries, problems, and idiosyncrasies; our neuroses; and our undisclosed desirousness to be something other than what we are today. Many people elect to remain ignorant of shadowy and licentious aspects of personality because it challenges their own conditioning; the intellectual values instilled in them by the academic establishment, the theological and philosophical sentiments conveyed by their existing religious and socio-political affiliations, and their own constricted sense of self-identity. It’s much easier to repress something and pretend it’s not there that to acknowledge its existence and have to deal with the far-ranging ramifications, right? Acknowledgment means consensual agreement to deal with the issue at hand, something that those lacking in willpower and courage cannot do.
In any case when our stream of self-awareness narrows into an impermeable iron funnel unable to be infiltrated by the rich, interwoven tapestry of mental life streaming forth from our own higher Self, our dreambodies begin inducing little quakes that course up from the very core of our psyches and rattle the towering pylons that uphold the current life myths inhabiting the uppermost stratum of our consciousness. The quakes or ‘irruptions of the unconscious’ materialize telepathically through harrowing, bloodcurdling dreams and kinaesthetically through generalized pain and an extensive range of other physical symptoms. These are initial signs that something is not quite right in the kingdom within and that we should seek professional help. Further, they are also an exaggerated picture of rigid life myths about to be rendered malleable; an unconscious eruption of nightmares and atypical bodily sensations usually means that the pylons holding up the rigid monocular vision of ourselves and of the cosmos has started to wear thin and can no longer accommodate changes in the orientation of psychic projections. The further we lapse into unreflective states of existence and sink into the obscure swamps of inertia, the louder and stronger these quakes become. Anybody who repeatedly fails to heed and respond to these subterranean warnings ends up suffering far-ranging consequences in the long run. In the most severe cases apathy can lead to a destabilization of good health, temporary and permanent lapses into madness, and even the development of localised cancers.
Hence from the just mentioned we can safely surmise that individuals who have decided to seek professional help through psychotherapy understand very well that there’s some chink in their psychological armoury. The periodic disturbances indicate that there’s an existing problem, though they themselves remain oblivious to its exact nature and underlying cause. This leaves the mediating counsellor with the pivotal task of generating the necessary conditions for dark, filthy archetypal contents bubbling deep in the unconscious and yearning for expression to be consciously expressed without overwhelming or frightening the client. Most therapies shy away from the dogma of hard-and-fast rules so it’s usually left to each individual counsellor as to how the healing process might best be initiated.
Alchemical methodology decrees that the initial nigredo phase is preceded by a conjoining of the masculine and feminine elements, of Philosophical Sulphur and Philosophical Mercury or Sol and Luna in a hermetically sealed cooking vessel of some sort, usually a crucible, a retort, or an alembic. By analogy, the counsellor’s first job is to initiate a marriage or ‘coniunctionis’ between the client’s temperament, the corroborating aspects of being presently expressed through dreams and symptoms, and specific details of the current life myth. By instigating a conscious acknowledgement of all these seemingly irreconcilable and fragmented aspects of life the counsellor forces the client into a chaotic but necessary descent into a realm of frustration, confusion, and collapse. The alchemists were always apt in stating that corruption must precede regeneration so it makes sense that the soul must suffer dissolution before it reconstitutes into a much more durable form able to withstand the hermetic fires of pain and suffering. Some people fear that becoming exposed to the apeiron, the infinite chaos of disembodied subentities and psychic images will inevitably drive them over the edge into the cleft of madness. Such erroneous thinking is usually the products of inadequate education and misinformation spun on the spindle of superstitious old wives’ tales. As long as there some degree of self-love or Eros present in the psyche of the one beholding the experience, the possibility of the prima materia destroying the self-conscious ego personality by reducing it into a sludge pile of co-existing and conscious subentities is zero. If this initiatory phase of conjunctio is successful, the fragmented, dissociated, and warring aspect of the ego responsible for the problem is concretely actualized by being conferred borders and form.
The Great Work is hermetically sealed as soon as the materia prima is poured into the vessel and its multiple elements married by fire, meaning that the counsellor and the client must be bound by an oath of confidentiality. There must be mutual trust and faith between the two parties comprising the professional relationship, otherwise the consulting glass shatters and the transmuting essence is lost. An alchemical vessel resembles a womb and the consulting room a womblike environment where a client’s innermost secrets are revealed and his or her unconscious projections brought to light. If we took this implicit metaphor a step further the counsellor would then become the nurturing and protective mother figure and the client the child dependent on the mother for psychospiritual nourishment and growth. A tacit condition of working relationships in therapy is that once the counsellor has agreed to take on a new client, he or she will go to great lengths to ensure that a gratifying rapport is fabricated. Rapport is important for many reasons, the foremost being a confidence-building one. A good counsellor will engage with clients by articulating body language and physiognomies compatible with their own. When performed tactfully these facilitate feelings of reassurance, expunge insecurities and doubts about the working relationship, and encourage the client to be more proactive in ascertaining the entrenched roots of problems and miseries. They also bequeath to the counsellor valuable knowledge of subconscious streaming that often contradicts the spoken word. People rarely, if ever, disclose the whole truth about their situation; the best way to comprehend it is through their physiognomy, body language, and tone of voice.
Alchemically speaking 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 through a series of distressing images–flooding, dismemberment and decapitation, and tears–qualitatively connected through the leitmotif of pain and suffering. When I meditate upon this stage a particular scene comes to mind from The Book of Night, an Egyptian cosmographical text dealing with the mysteries of human birth, death, and regeneration to be found in the second traverse chamber of the Osireion in the Upper Egyptian city of Abydos. In a pictorial sequence relating to the passage of the dead through the fourth hour of the night, an army of fish-headed Sethian creatures are depicted wreaking havoc along an aquatic habitat that is most probably an ethereal version of the Nile River. The wave of terror and confusion incited by these beasts quickly disseminates to the riverside inhabitants, who lament and mourn the omnipresent disorder and confusion by smashing their fists against the ground and pulling thick strands of their pleated hair out. What this haunting image conveys is that there can be no subsistence, no transformation, no rebirth, and certainly no resurrection unless a vehement struggle with dangerous forces ensues and the latter are overcome.
Nigredo in counselling and psychotherapy is the lively one-on-one engagement that spurs an analogous condition in the client’s psyche. With the counsellor’s careful and calculated probing, the client is gradually roused from his ignorant and unconscious state and brought to consensual terrain where he or she can deliberate upon the prevailing rigidity of the ego’s narrow attitudes and values. Of course it’s not just the analyst that has the power to propel the client into the nigredo stage. Anyone with a more comprehensive viewpoint embodying a nobler, grander attitude to life is an immediate threat to the client and his or her personal myth and can spur this negative transformation: the straw that breaks the camel’s back might come from a school, cultural group, a religious or socio-political affiliation, or an individual higher on the psychospiritual ladder of evolution. The nigredo is indeed a painful reflection of the current self-conscious personality enmeshed by all its outrageous projections, fantasies, and inflations. These are hereafter scrutinized by the mediating analyst until they lose their inflexibility and self-righteousness. Suddenly everything seems uncertain, chaotic even. Order is lost and chaos reigns. Once this transpires the dark, sweltering strain of night swiftly descends to exhaust an ego-self engorged by its own projections. Anxiety begins washing over it like hydrochloric acid and liquefies the habitual old myth. The annihilation appears in the alchemical vessel as an effervescent black mess and in the client’s dreams as threats emanating from the element of water.
In the time preceding and during the nigredo, it’s not uncommon to experience dreams and visions where one is bathing, showering, being baptized, swimming in a pool, grappling with gargantuan waves in an ocean, or clambering uphill to escape the awesome breaking force of a towering tsunami. Water is the corporeal representative of the prima materia and nigredo is nothing other than a forced re-acquaintance with the undifferentiated, womblike apeiron of psychic dirt and transpersonal slime pleading for reconnection. During this testing and uncertain time therapist and client produce a slow burning ‘fire’ (rapport) that expunges the shadowy and now deactivated projections from the latter’s conscious personality. These bubble to the surface of the putrefying mess and escape from the crucible (the counselling room) as vapours. Only those archetypal contents of the ego harmonious with the transpersonal energies are saved from extinction, exactly because they’re the evolutionary powerhouses that will pull the psychic centre towards self-actualization. The end product of the putrefaction process is a chemical residue that assumes the semblance of a hermaphrodite lying at the bottom of the sealed vessel when illustrated in alchemical treatises. These are the elementals, the creative thought-desires about to amplify the client’s weltanschauung (German word denoting philosophy or view of life).