Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Keeping the Law of Chastity (Part 2): An Alchemy of Desire

In this next post on chastity, I'm going to connect the experience of sexual feelings to something you might think is odd: alchemy. Alchemy was a medieval practice of manipulating various kinds of matter, one that ultimately morphed into chemistry. But before it was a science (or at least science as we know it today), alchemy was as spiritual and psychological art. The alchemists assumed that something called "the doctrine of correspondences" was true--the idea (which also appears in Swedenborg's writings) that spiritual realities "appeared" in physical things--and so they talked about things like silver, salt, or sulfur as though they were spiritual phenomena. So while the physical side of the alchemists' studies has been disproven, the spiritual or psychological side hasn't. This leaves the field open for any number of psychological interpretations of alchemical texts, which psychologists like Carl Jung and James Hillman have done quite a bit.

In this post, I'll mainly rely on interpretations in two books by Hillman, called Alchemical Psychology and The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, though I'll also borrow some insights from Renaissance thinker Jakob Boehme's Signature of All Things.

Fire and furnaces

What does lust feel like? Experience tells us that it's a kind of heat, or to put it better, a fire. And fire is just what the alchemists would have called that feeling. Fire is "an invisible heat," my inner sense of burning lust for life in all its forms. You can see that fire in any kind of desire: the fires of sexual passion, my compulsion to get some new possession, and even my love for God (a "burning in the bosom") are all ways that I experience that inner flame

But there is a danger with fire--it's easy to lose control of it. From an alchemical perspective, that's why the fire needs a furnaceFurnaces correspond to a system in place that keeps desire under control, that contains that fire and lets it flare up within limits. Says James Hillman, "rules are made to keep the fire in bounds." If you have trouble controlling your desire's fire, ask yourself: do I have a furnace that's designed well enough to keep that fire in check? This means discipline: perhaps following a rigid schedule; controlled ways of letting the fire flare up; or saying "no" to some activities that are too much of a "fire hazard."

But even if this is hard for you, know that one of fire's main alchemical purposes is transmutation. The intensity of desire we feel in this flame is what melts ossified, leaden moods and brings about psychological change. If you feel like you're suffocating in flame, know that that fire is a sure sign that the Opus, or the alchemical work to realize divinity in matter, is well underway.

Sulfur's extraversion

The flammable chemical called "sulfur" was very important to the alchemists, as it--with salt and mercury--made up the alchemical trinity of primary substances. They thought of sulfur as the life-principle of all things, what caused the fire of life to erupt in anything and everything. Jakob Boehme writes that "[Sulfur] is the [will to manifestation] of the Light, or the Liberty, which longs to Manifestation, and it cannot otherwise be effected but through Fire," implying that sulfur is the way the invisible "freedom" at the heart of Being becomes manifest, or the means by which the invisible becomes visible at all. Sulfur is what gives things "body;" it moves "outward" into the world so it can more fully manifest the spiritual in physical things.

So when you "burn with desire" for a person or a thing, the alchemists would say that the sulfur in you is drawing you outward to the world through that desire. As sulfur is flammable, it ignites desire's fire to get you to make the internal external, to "extravert" yourself. So another piece of advice the alchemists can give us is that--as sulfur has an innate extraversum or outward-turning--a way to stop that sulfur flaring up against my will is to let it flare up willingly, in a way that goes with my values. So, get out into the world! Exercise, socialize, take risks; by thus extraverting myself, I let the the sulfur of my innate tendency toward bodily manifestation "get out." As Hillman writes, "compulsion becomes will through courage."

Sulfur and silver

The alchemists thought of silver as the metal of Luna, the moon. As such, it had a traditionally feminine association: passivity, the internal, and self-repose are all its correspondences. Like mirrors made out of silver, silver also corresponds to reflection--it acts like a mirror removed enough from the physical world to reflect that world into itself, to internalize coarse, literal matter as it becomes subtle matter. If you read my post on Kundalini Yoga, you'll know what I mean when I say that silver corresponds to visuddha or the throat chakra--a state of being where everything physical is seen as spiritual, where all things get etherealized into image and word. As such, silver has an important role in the alchemical Opus, since the operation called the Albedo that "whitened" other things into silver purified them of coarse imperfections so as to become more of a subtle matter.

You'll recognize silver in self-content daydreams, in meditation's peace of mind, and in the still peace of mind that comes when reading poetry or literature. I myself am particularly prone to "silvered" moods. But as anyone who's tried to pick up a fried egg with a silver spoon knows, silver gets easily scorched by sulfur. In other words, those light, airy moments of peace and well-being have an innate tendency toward sulfuric passion in them, and if that dichotomy between heat and coolness is left alone, you'll enter a seesaw between the two. What do the alchemists suggest as a remedy? That silver and sulfur temper each other, to where silver becomes "hotter" and sulfur becomes more reflective. This means, first, seeing my desires (i.e. the fire from sulfur) as images and thus taking them not literally but imaginatively. Second, it means letting my airy reflection harbor passion and heat without getting out of hand. So don't be afraid of your fantasies, even if they are "racy." Take them as images, ways that sulfur can embody itself in silver's "white earth" and not in the coarse earth of literal matter.

Sulfur and salt

As any cook knows, salt brings out the flavor of whatever you sprinkle it on. Salt thus corresponds to the principle that reveals the specific, particular natures of things--showing us the nuances of ways in which things are different. Moreover, it gives things "fixity"--it makes things "sharper," more definite, more real. When we say that you should "take something with a grain of salt," we mean to use the salt of your common sense to discriminate the real nature of the thing. When we say that you're "worth your salt," we perhaps mean that you're living up to the essential nature that salt lets us see.

But salt, as the essence of experience, isn't experienced as pleasant. Like the principle of Necessity in my tabletop role playing post, salt shows us things "that are what they are," which comes as a stinging awareness of my world's and my life's necessary limitation. You taste salt when you see yourself in your true colors and no longer hidden behind pretensions, as you do when you say "oh gosh, I really was that stupid, wasn't I?"

But salt's stinging realization has a really positive purpose: it kills sulfur's fire. Just as salt can't catch fire, the bitter taste of regret and harsh reality is immune to desire's compulsion. So if you find yourself about to do something stupid (i.e. be unchaste), pull out some salt. Get an awareness of what it is you're really doing; remember the suffering you felt in similar past situations, and imagine how you'll feel when the unchastity is done. By adding salt to the situation in this way, you add salt to your own being. Thus, you yourself become more "essential," as you get more of a sense of "you-ness" of "how it feels to be you." Salt builds mental body.

Anyway, that's about it for this post. Check back soon for part 3!

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