Psychology and Alchemy

Carl Jung on “Meditation and Imagination.”

The point of view described above is supported by the alchemist’s remarkable use of the terms meditatio and imaginatio.

Ruland’s Lexicon alchemiae defines meditatio as follows:

“The word meditatio is used when a man has an inner dialogue with someone unseen.

It may be with God, when He is invoked, or with himself, or with his good angel” (fig.137).

The psychologist is familiar with this “inner dialogue”; it is an essential part of the technique for coming to terms with the unconscious.

Ruland’s definition proves beyond all doubt that when the alchemists speak of meditari they do not mean mere cogitation, but explicitly an inner dialogue and hence a living relationship to the answering voice of the “other” in ourselves, i.e., of the unconscious.

The use of the term “meditation” in the Hermetic dictum “And as all things proceed from the One through the meditation of the One” must therefore be understood in this alchemical sense as a creative dialogue, by means of which things pass from an unconscious potential state to a manifest one.

Thus we read in a treatise of Philalethes:

“Above all it is marvelous that our stone, although already perfect and able to impart a perfect tincture, does voluntarily humble itself again and will meditate a new volatility, apart from all manipulation.”

What is meant by a “meditated volatility” we discover a few lines lower down, where it says:

“Of its own accord it will liquefy . . .and by God’s command become endowed with spirit, which will fly up and take the stone with it.”

Again, therefore, to “meditate” means that through a dialogue with God yet more spirit will be infused into the stone, i.e., it will become still more spiritualized, volatilized, or sublimated (cf. fig. 178).

Khunrath says much the same thing:

Therefore study, meditate, sweat, work, cook … so will a healthful flood be opened to you which comes from the Heart of the Son of the great World, a Water which the Son of the Great World pours forth From his Body and Heart, to be for us a True and Natural Aqua Vitae. . . .

Likewise the “meditation of the heavenly good,” mentioned earlier, must be taken in the sense of a living dialectical relationship to certain dominants of the unconscious.

We have excellent confirmation of this in a treatise by a French alchemist living in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

He says:

How often did I see them [the Sacardotes Acgyptiorum] overcome with joy at my understanding, how affectionately they kissed me, for the true grasp of the ambiguities of their paradoxical teaching came easily to my mind.

How often did their pleasure in the wonderful discoveries I made concerning the abstruse doctrines of the ancients move them to reveal unto my eyes and fingers the Hermetic vessel, the salamander [fig. 138; cf. figs. 129, 130], the full moon and the rising sun.

This treatise, although it is not so much a personal confession as a description of the golden age of alchemy, nevertheless tells us how the alchemist imagined the psychological structure of his opus.

association with the invisible forces of the psyche was the real secret of the magisterium.

In order to express this secret the old masters readily resorted to allegory.

One of the oldest records of this kind, which had a considerable influence on the later literature, is the “Visio Arislei,” and its whole character relates it very closely to those visions known to us from the psychology of the unconscious.

As I have already said, the term imaginatio, like meditatio, is of particular importance in the alchemical opus.

Earlier on we came across that remarkable passage in the Rosarium telling us that the work must be done with the true imaginatio, and we saw elsewhere [par. 357] how the philosophical tree can be made once more helps us to understand what the alchemist meant by imaginalio.

Ruland says, “Imagination is the star in man, the celestial or supercelestial body.”

This astounding definition throws a quite special light on the fantasy processes connected with the opus.

We have to conceive of these processes not as the immaterial phantoms we readily take fantasy-pictures to be, but as something corporeal, a “subtle body” (fig. 139), semi-spiritual in nature.

In an age when there was as yet no empirical psychology such a concretization was bound to be made, because everything unconscious, once it was activated, was projected into matter that is to say, it approached people from outside.

It was a hybrid phenomenon, as it were, half spiritual, half physical; a concretization such as we frequently encounter in the psychology of primitives.

The imaginatio, or the act of imagining, was thus a physical activity that could be fitted into the cycle of material changes, that brought these about and was brought about by them in turn.

In this way the alchemist related himself not only to the unconscious but directly to the very substance which he hoped to transform through the power of imagination.

The singular expression “astrum” (star) is a Paracelsan term, which in this context means something like “quintessence.”

Imagination is therefore a concentrated extract of the life forces, both physical and psychic.

So the demand that the artifex must have a sound physical constitution is quite intelligible, since he works with and through his own quintessence and is himself the indispensable condition of his own experiment.

But, just because of this intermingling of the physical and the psychic, it always remains an obscure point whether the ultimate transformations in the alchemical process are to be sought more in the material or more in the spiritual realm.

Actually, however, the question is wrongly put: there was no “either-or” for that age, but there did exist an intermediate realm between mind and matter, i.e., a psychic realm of subtle bodies” whose characteristic it is to manifest themselves in a mental as well as a material form.

This is the only view that makes sense of alchemical ways of thought, which must otherwise appear nonsensical.

Obviously, the existence of this intermediate realm comes to a sudden stop the moment we try to investigate matter in and for itself, apart from all projection; and it remains non-existent so long as we believe we know anything conclusive about matter or the psyche.

But the moment when physics touches on the “untrodden, untreadable regions,” and when psychology has at the same time to admit that there are other forms of psychic life besides the acquisitions of personal consciousness—in other words, when psychology too touches on an impenetrable darkness—then the intermediate realm of subtle bodies comes to life again, and the physical and the psychic are once more blended in an indissoluble unity.

We have come very near to this turning-point today.

Such reflections are unavoidable if we want to gain any understanding of alchemy’s peculiar terminology.

The earlier talk of the “aberration” of alchemy sounds rather old-fashioned today when the psychological aspects of it have faced science with new tasks.

There are very modern problems in alchemy, though they lie outside the province of chemistry.

The concept of imaginatio is perhaps the most important key to the understanding of the opus.

The author of the treatise “De sulphure” speaks of the “imaginative faculty” of the soul in that passage where he is trying to do just what the ancients had failed to do, that is, give a clear indication of the secret of the art.

The soul, he says, is the vice-regent of God (suilocum tenens sen vice Rex est) and dwells in the life-spirit of the pure blood. It rules the mind (ilia gubernat mentem) and this rules the body.

The soul functions (operatur) in the body, but has the greater part of its function (operatio) outside the body (or, we might add by way of explanation, in projection).

This peculiarity is divine, since divine wisdom is only partly enclosed in the body of the world: the greater part of it is outside, and it imagines far higher things than the body of the world can conceive (concipere).

And these things are outside nature: God’s own secrets.

The soul is an example of this: it too imagines many things of the utmost profundity (profundissima) outside the body, just as God does.

True, what the soul imagines happens only in the mind (non exequitur Jiisi in mente), but what God imagines happens in reality.

The soul, however, has absolute and independent power [absolntam et. separatum pofestatem] to do other things [alia facere] than those the body can grasp.

But, when it so desires, it has the greatest power over the body [potestatem in corpus], for otherwise our philosophy would be in vain.

Thou canst conceive the greater, for I have opened the gates unto thee.” Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, Pages 274-280.