Alchemical Operations in Psychotherapy

alchemyThis blog has charted my journey through a transpersonal (integrative) psychotherapy training course at CCPE in London. I am now in year three. So far this year we have had lectures on existential psychotherapy, Jungian Symbolism and the transpersonal theories of Michael Washburn and Ken Wilber. In the first year we had lectures on the planes of consciousness and alchemy but now the heat is being turned up on the amount of transpersonal material to cover and, in particular, alchemical operations and further expansion of the planes of consciousness.

Outlined below is material from two recent lectures on alchemical operations.

The alchemical process of transformation has been variously described, depending on who you read, as being anything from a six-stage process to a 75 stage process. However, for our lecturer Nigel Hamilton, it is possible to understand the alchemical process in terms of four basic stages, this being most useful when starting out as an “alchemical beginner” and in trying to relate it to the psychotherapeutic process.

The process can be basically described in four stages as nigredo, albedo, citrinitas and rubedo and can be useful as a map in guiding client material in psychotherapy.  It is important to remember that there is never a perfect balance in alchemy. As soon as you resolve one tension of opposites there is another waiting in the wings.

The processes in alchemy include calcinatio (fire operation), solutio (water purification) coagulatio (earth operation) and sublimatio (air operation). Dream analysis can be one way of accessing this material where images can reflect a particular stage.

Stage One: Nigredo or “Blackening”

In nigredo the fire is considered slow and mild as of the flesh or “embryo,” gradually helping to bring about the first stage of the work, culminating in the earthly nigredo or “blackening.” This stage involves a purification of the earthly nature in us.

In psychotherapy this stage is experienced as entering a dark and chaotic unconscious inner world. St John of the Cross has referred to this as the first of two dark nights, the dark night of the mind, which is an encounter with the darker aspects of our self (that which Jung called “the shadow”).

Jung valued alchemy for its rich symbolic content and imagery.   The transformation of worthless metals into precious gold unconsciously reflected an internal developmental process of “wholeness” and health in the human psyche (which Jung termed as “individuation”).

The nigredo stage also involves the following processes mortificatio (when something dies), conjunctio (birth) and seperatio (needing to let go).

Stage Two: Albedo or “Whitening

Just as stage one is called the earthly encounter, so stage two is called the stage of the moon. This requires a further purification of our psyche and a receptivity to our soul nature, which originally incarnated free of worldly impressions, of the family, the environment, and society. Becoming conscious of our soul nature is the first real step in answering the question “who am I?”

In psychotherapy this could be viewed as someone withdrawing from the mainstream of life. Clients can experience sudden realisations about themselves and they often begin to question their life direction. It is easier to see, in a moment of insight, what is important and what is not. Alchemists sometimes refer to this as “sublimatio,” much like the vapours that rise from the chemical vessel, which is undergoing heating, carrying the essence that is sought after and is to be extracted.

For those who pursue their therapeutic process thoroughly, deeply and persistently, this period leads to a heightened spiritual awareness and purpose.

Stage Three: Citrinitas or “Yellowing”

This is known as the stage of the sun, or what the alchemists see as the dawning of the “solar light” inherent in our Being. Often described as the Divine Intellect (as distinct from the human, mental intellect) it is said that the only true knowledge is revealed to us when this Light becomes conscious in us.

Clients may lose all sense of individuality and move into a world that is almost totally subjective.  There is little or no ability to be objective, i.e. for the client to separate him/herself from the experience.

Stage Four: Rubedo or “Reddening”

In stage four, the alchemist awakens to the desire to return to the earth and to fully incarnate his or her state of “illuminated” consciousness into the mind and body. To achieve this, a purifying fourth fire, “burning and vehement, as of fusion,” must be used to bring about a new coagulation of spirit and matter. The culmination of stage three leaves the alchemist completely free in a state of Pure Spirit, Pure Intelligence, beyond space, time and form but without a consciousness of body or mind.

In psychotherapy this is when clients are faced with the task of implementing new realisations in their life and to transcend the nature of their problems or dilemmas.

It is worth adding that the principal of “solve et coagula,” or dissolve and coagulate, can be seen at each stage of the alchemical process.


Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy (Reality of the Psyche Series) [Paperback] Edward F. Edinger

The Alchemical Process of Transformation.  The Origins of Alchemy. Nigel Hamilton.