Living Alchemy: The Solutio

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.  Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.

 

 

Living Alchemy The Solutio

 

“The operation of solutio is one of the major procedures in alchemy. One text says, “Solutio is the root of alchemy.” Another says, “Until all be made water, perform no operation.” In many places the whole opus is summarized by the phrase “Dissolve and coagulate.” Just as calcinatio pertains to the element fire, coagulatio to the element to earth, and sublimatio to the element air, so solutio pertains to water. Basically, solutio turns a solid into a liquid. The solid seems to disappear into the solvent as if it had been swallowed up. For the alchemist, solutio often meant the return of differentiated matter to its original undifferentiated state – that is, to prima materia.[1]

 

“The ancient and long obsolete idea of man as a microcosm contains a supreme psychological truth that has yet to be discovered. In former times this truth was projected upon the body, just as alchemy projected the unconscious psyche upon chemical substances.” [2]

 

Patientia et mora are absolutely necessary in this kind of work. One must be able to wait on events. Of work there is plenty – the careful analysis of dreams and other unconscious contents.”[3]

 

“As our text indicates, the solutio has a twofold effect: it causes one form to disappear and a new regenerated form to emerge. The dissolution of the old one is often described in negative imagery and is associated with the nigredo…. Solutio thus may become a mortificatio. This is understandable because that which is being dissolved will experience the solutio as an annihilation of itself. It is here that the saying of Heraclitus applies: “To souls it is a death to become water.” However, solutio leads on to the emergence of a rejuvenated new form, and when this aspect is emphasized the tone is positive.”[4]

 

“Flood dreams referred to solutio. They represent an activation of the unconscious that threatens to dissolve the established ego structure and reduce it to prima materia. Major life transitions are commonly solutio experiences.”[5]

 

“The dream is thus picturing the solutio aspect of existence – life as perpetual change and becoming. A painful personal experience is cast in an archetypal or general context and thereby made meaningful and even fascinating.”[6]

 

 

As the above quotes indicate, the solutio operation in alchemy is central to the work, and can be both negative (painful) and positive (renewing, re-energizing). Two intervals in my life illustrate how one can live the solutio, in both its aspects. As I have done with the previous two essays, I will begin with background, describe the two experiences, and then explain how these illustrate alchemy.

 

The Background to the First Interval, 1945-65

 

I was about to start my sophomore year of college in August of 1965 when my father died suddenly of a heart attack. I had had a difficult relationship with my father. He wanted a son, and when I came along in 1945 he was disappointed. Our relationship reflected this, as he was dismissive, denigrating and critical. He made it clear, when I was 12–the age when the school made students chose the college or vocational path–that he would not pay for a daughter to go to college, that women became mothers and motherhood did not require higher education. He was a patriarch with limited vision about women, and I didn’t fit his box. I wanted to be a teacher, meaning I had to go to college.

When my mother reported to me that he would not pay for my higher education, she told me she would do her best to support me, but, since he did not allow her to work, that support would not take the form of money but more intangibles–like freeing me as much as possible from chores, so I could study. In other words, it would be up to me to make college happen by getting scholarships, which I did. We–my mother and I–negotiated with my father to the point that he agreed to allow me to go to college, but only if I majored in education.

Freshman year was full of required courses–the math, science, Western civ and other “basics,” plus the “Introduction to Education” course that was part of the major. By the end of my first year, I had enough exposure to the ed courses to be put off: They seemed like fluff, unsubstantial, not challenging,[7] and I began to set my sights higher–still teaching, but on the college level, where I could go in-depth into my major (History) and ignore the “how-to” courses that were required in the Education program. I discussed this with my mother, wondering how we might approach my father.

And then he died. The sole breadwinner of a four-person household died. The man died who had put his entire retirement savings not into stocks or bonds, or even life insurance, but into stamps. My father had been a long-time stamp collector. My mother then had to find a way to sell his collection. At their last conversation about the collection, the previous December, my father had estimated its worth at $365,000. Various experts examined the voluminous books of stamps and reported that it might fetch $6,000. My father had not taken care of this delicate asset and thousands of stamps were not as rare, or as in a “mint condition” as he thought. We were suddenly quite poor.

 

The Experience of the First Interval, August/September 1965

 

A solutio phase shows up in multiple ways. It acts to annihilate, to dissolve, to remove obstacles, to shift foundations–all of which hold promise for pain and renewal. So it was for me, my mother and sister in this experience.

The annihilation aspect was obvious: a death. My father was no more. As the alchemists knew, a solutio could show up as a mortificatio.[8] And this left us in shock.

For seemingly endless days we had all sorts of decisions to make, an elaborate funeral to endure,[9] and a burial to arrange–none of which had been planned or even thought about in advance. (This left me determined to be far more thoughtful and kind to the people who will be left to tend my estate).[10]

Immediately I recognized that the obstacle to my becoming a college teacher had dissolved. Much as I mourned my father’s death, I saw it as getting me out of the boring education courses that were required to get a teaching certificate. At age 19 wider horizons opened up for me. My mother was aware of this when, a few weeks after my father’s passing, she said to me: “He died in time for you.” She knew that my father would have tried to hold me back, and now this obstacle was gone.

Just as unexpectedly, the financial foundation of our family life was also gone. We had had a comfortable middle-class existence and were now essentially destitute. The patterns of interaction that had characterized our family life shifted, as my mother, never one to laze about, quickly went out and got a job. I was supported by my scholarships, and my sister, too young to get even an after-school job, was left to be a latch-key teenager. The solutio in this context took the form of dissolving old patterns/structures of how we were used to interacting in the various roles of the family.

 

The Background to the Second Interval,  Summer, 1985

 

Twenty years later I had what I can now identify as another solutio interval. This occurred two years after the dream (described in the previous essay) that predicted I would give up everything in my life. Over time, more of these “voice-over” dreams gave me explicit instructions on what to give up, and one of them I did not want to obey at all!–to leave college teaching.

My intense reluctance in this regard was due to my identifying with my work. Going back to age 4, when I played with my dolls, I never played “house:” I played “school.” I would line up my dolls in a row and “teach” them, holding up a book and “reading” to them, even though I could not yet read myself! I had no sense of myself beyond “teacher.” And here my dream guidance was telling me to give it all up.

 

The Experience of the Second Interval, September 1985-July 2005

 

I wrestled mightily with this directive (by then, two years into this weird form of dream life, I knew I could not just ignore it). If my dreams wanted me to leave teaching, maybe I could ask my dreams if it would be forever. Would I go back to teaching? I wrote this question in my dream journal.

My psyche was quick to reply. I had a vivid dream in which I was teaching–a school of fish!! Duh? It was to take 20 more years before I came to understand this dream–the psyche, of course, always operating outside the limitations of our time and space. At the time of this dream–November of 1985–I was in Jungian analysis, and my analyst assured me that the dream was letting me know I would return to teaching. But fish?? I had no interest in scuba diving, or shifting my field (History) to marine studies. She reminded me of Jung’s advice:

Patientia et mora are absolutely necessary in this kind of work. One must be able to wait on events. Of work there is plenty – the careful analysis of dreams and other unconscious contents.”[11]

In these words I was being reminded that I would have to be patient–wait on events–and bear with whatever hindrances (mora) might come along. To cope with these, I could keep profitably busy by working on my dreams and the stuff the unconscious might offer up.

So, reluctantly, I left teaching. Two things dissolved as I did so: My identity and the rhythm of my life. I had been a teacher. Now I had to reconfigure myself as a researcher. I took up several research projects, funded by large grants, which I had to learn how to write. I traveled, interviewed scholars and experts, wrote up reports, and eventually worked for a variety of companies doing trends research.

As for my life rhythm, for 35 years I had lived aligned with the academic calendar: Things geared up in September, and finished up in June. That had been my life, the rhythm of my year. And now it was gone. What had structured my days, weeks and months had dissolved.

 

How I Lived Alchemy in These Intervals

 

Both in 1965 and 1985 the planet Neptune was prominent in my chart–although I had no awareness of or high regard for astrology back in 1965. By 1985 I had been exposed to astrology and was deep into studying it. But I was as yet unaware of how Jung and Jungians interpret charts and transits in alchemical and archetypal terms. It was to take years more before I could see the alchemical solutio at work in my life.

Why is Neptune the planet associated with the solutio? It is an obvious match, since Neptune was the god of the sea, and the solutio is associated with water and all the actions–annihilating, dissolving, transforming–that water can cause.

In 1965 transiting Neptune was inconjunct my Moon, the planet associated with the home and mother. As noted above, the familiar structure of our home life dissolved when my father died. Neptune was also inconjunct my Uranus, the planet associated with sudden, unexpected events, and my father’s death was both sudden and unexpected. Neptune was also square my natal Pluto, the planet associated with death, and along with the other aspects of transiting Pluto (squaring natal Uranus and natal mid-heaven) marked 1965 as a year of mortificatio energy.

As the opening quotes indicate, the solutio can be both painful and positive.[12] So it was for me in 1965: my father’s death caused pain and anxiety, but it also brought an opening up of horizons, and transiting Neptune’s trines to both Mars and Saturn can time such positive intervals. My ambition (Mars) to become a college teacher, and the discipline (Saturn) to achieve this goal were supported by this trine. All this I saw many years later, when, thanks to Liz Greene’s studies of archetypal astrology,[13] I came to understand the alchemical meaning of the transits of the planets.

By the 1990’s, when I found Liz Greene’s works, I also had gotten deeply into Jung, and one day I made a startling discovery. I was re-reading Jung’s memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and came upon Jung’s recollection of the death of his father. He recalled his mother telling him “He died in time for you.”[14] Jung was 19 at the time, and in college. Suddenly I was struck by the exact parallel between Jung’s experience and my own: I too had had a disappointing father. I too was 19 and in college when my father died. And both his mother and mine knew that this death would be an opening for us and both women used the exact same words to remind us of this. My mother had never read any work by Jung, so how did she come to use these words?? Some things are inexplicable.

In the 1985 solutio interval, Neptune was very highly aspected, squaring all my Virgo planets (Sun, Mercury, Jupiter and Neptune), opposing my Moon and North Node, trining my Venus and sextiling my Ascendant. It was by far the most prominent planet that year when both my identity and life rhythm dissolved. I had to re-envision who I was and develop a non-academic schedule and attitude, a difficult adjustment (and one I never fully achieved, as I still find the values, mind-set and goals of the business world unappealing).

The tension of living in a reality (commercial, competitive, profit-driven) that did not agree with me finally ended in 2005. In one week in July of that year I had a series of dreams–the same type of “voice-over” dreams that began in 1983. These dreams set up The Jungian Center. Over several nights I got explicit instructions on the Center, its mission, values, five-part curriculum, and courses.

My initial reaction was an intense feeling of overwhelment. There was no way I could do this! But I knew, given my decades-long history of these directive dreams, that I could not not do it. And then I realized that I would not have to do it alone: I found a lawyer to create the non-profit, people to man the Board of Directors, and, in time, others to offer courses at the Center.

At one point, with the Center up and running, my analyst remembered that dream in 1985 assuring me that I would return to teaching, and now the “school of fish” made sense: Fish live in water; the Center’s focus is (like Jung’s) the unconscious; Jungians associate water with the unconscious; fish are living beings who thrive in water, just as participants at the Center come to live more fully through immersion in the creative “waters” of the unconscious.

As I look back now–three decades into immersion in Jung, dreams and the unconscious–I can see how the solutio has played out in my life, bringing both pain and promise, foreclosure of relationship and widening of horizons, dissolvings and rejuvenations. As with all the transits, we can take comfort in Heraclitus’ wisdom–that the only constant is change–so the solutio will give way, in time to another alchemical process. In this set of essays, that will be the coagulatio and transits of Saturn.

 

Bibliography

 

Edinger, Edward (1985), Anatomy of the Psyche. Chicago & LaSalle IL: Open Court Press.

Greene, Liz (1983), The Outer Planets & Their Cycles: The Astrology of the Collective. Reno NV: CRCS Publications.

________ (1984a), The Astrology of Fate. York Beach ME: Samuel Weiser.

________ & Stephen Arroyo (1984b), The Jupiter/Saturn Conference Lectures. Reno NV: CRCS Publications.

________ & Howard Sasportas (1987), The Development of the Personality, Seminars in Psychological Astrology, vol. 1. York Beach ME: Samuel Weiser.

________ (1988), Dynamics of the Unconscious, Seminars in Psychological Astrology,

vol 2. York Beach: Samuel Weiser.

________ (1992), The Luminaries, Seminars in Psychological Astrology, vol. 3. York Beach: Samuel Weiser.

________ (1993), The Inner Planets, Seminars in Psychological Astrology, vol 4. York Beach: Samuel Weiser.

Greene, Liz (1996), Barriers and Boundaries: The Horoscope and the Defences of the Personality. London: Centre for Psychological Astrology Press.

________ (2003), The Dark of the Soul: Psychopathology in the Horoscope. London: Centre for Psychological Astrology Press.

Jung, C.G. (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

 

 

[1] Edinger (1985), 47.

[2] Collected Works 16 ¶397.

[3] Ibid. ¶466.

[4] Edinger (1985), 51-52.

[5] Ibid., 68.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Only years later, when I became the Chairman of the Committee on Membership for the Sigma New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, did I learn that my earlier assessment of the Education major was widely shared: the chapter had a long-standing policy of not admitting  any Ed major  because its courses were not considered rigorous.

[8] Ibid., 51-52.

[9] This was because my father was a Mason.

[10] Conscious pre-planning of one’s end time, and careful estate planning I now recommend to everyone.

[11] CW 16 ¶466.

[12] Ibid. ¶454. Cf. CW 11 ¶357 and Edinger (1985), 71 & 81.

[13] E.g. Greene (1983), (1984a), (1984b), (1987), (1988), (1992), (1993), (1996) & (2003).

[14] Jung (1965), 96.