Living Alchemy: The “Sublimatio” and “Transitio”

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 Sublimatio and Transitio

 

“Just as calcinatio pertains to fire, solutio to water, and coagulatio to earth, so sublimatio is the operation pertaining to air. It turns the material into air by volatilizing and elevating it. The image derives from the chemical process of sublimation in which a solid, when heated, passes directly into a gaseious state and ascends to the top of the vessel,… The term “sublimation” derives from the Latin sublimes, meaning “high.” This indicates that the crucial feature of sublimation is an elevating process whereby a low substance is translated into a higher form by an ascending movement.”[1]

 

“… in the process of sublimation, … the spiritual is raised from the corporeal, subtilised, and the pure separated from the impure. Here sublimatio is described as a purification.”[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]

 

“It seemed to me that I was high up in space….I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me–an extremely painful process.”[4]

 

“The old masters were wont to call this work their white swan, their albification, or making white, their sublimation, their distillation, their circulation, their purification, their separation, their sanctification, and their resurrection, … It is sublimed or exalted and transfigured by reason of its many descents into Saturn, Mercurius and Mars, and by its many ascents into Venus and Luna.”[5]

 

“Petrus Bonus puts the suffering back into the investigator by stressing his mental torments. In this he is right, because the most important discoveries of the alchemists sprang from their meditations on their own psychic processes, which, projected in archetypal form into the chemical substances, dazzled their minds with unlimited possibilities.”[6]

 

“… 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. Khunrath says much the same thing: ‘Therefore study, meditate, sweat, work, cook… so will a healthy flood be opened to you which comes from the heart of the son of the great world,…”[7]

 

The previous essay on this web site dealt with the alchemical operation of the calcinatio, the “refiner’s fire,” which often shows up in life as feelings of frustration, and, on transits to the natal chart, in transits of Pluto. This essay considers another of the operations, the sublimatio, which, as the opening quote above notes, is associated with the element of air. As I did in the earlier essay, I will illustrate how we live alchemy by describing an interval of my own life in which this process got lived out.[8]

 

The Background

 

The most intense interval when the sublimatio was operative in my life occurred during the year 1983. I was then in my sixth year of teaching at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. I had gotten this job in part because I was both an historian and a published author in environmental studies. COA awarded a degree in “human ecology,” and they sought faculty whose scholarship reflected ecological awareness. So my interests meshed with the curriculum, but my temperament and standards did not mesh with the culture. I was in no way “laid back” nor was I into wilderness treks or outdoor sports. When I was approached to supervise a camping expedition I told the college that my definition of the rugged life was to sleep on unironed sheets. I brought to my teaching the expectations of my Ivy League background, and I richly deserved the epithet of “Mehrtens the merciless.” In short, I was stodgy, rigidly stuck in the very limited box of the Ivy League intellect, and so animus-ridden that many felt I ate people for breakfast.

By 1983 I was in my third year of marriage to an artist/boat-builder, whose project–to build a full-sized replica of Joshua Slocum’s Spray–I had taken on when we married. Between the teaching/advising demands of my job and the gargantuan ambition of the boat, my life was busy.

It was also arid. On those few times when I paused the hectic pace long enough to reflect on reality, I was aware of a profound lack of creativity, a dryness that was almost palpable. And, if I stuck with these moments of introspection long enough, I became aware of a deeper discontent below the aridity. Something, many things, were not right, not working, but I had no idea why or what to do about these disturbing feelings. Busyness served to keep them at bay.

So did the occasional celebration, like the launch of the boat in August. After 5 long years of work, Ed (and I, in the last three of those years) had gotten to the point where Spray was ready to slide down the ways. Since so many people had watched the boat take shape, or had inquired over the years about our progress, we wanted to include everyone we knew, so we posted signs of our launch party all over Mount Desert Island. So I probably should not have been surprised when over a hundred people turned up to share the moment. What was really surprising was the media coverage: a reporter came up from New York and filed a story that got picked up by the Associated Press. As a result, for months afterward, we had people showing up at our door asking for a sail on a replica of the first boat to have been sailed solo around the world. This meant we were busier than ever.

 

The Experience

 

I had been teaching at the College, and taking Spray out on week-ends for four months when I had what I have since come to call my “upending experience.” It was a dream, but not the usual action dream with people etc. It was just a voice, a very loud voice that said, “Friends will die. Relatives will die. You will give up everything, and your life will be transformed.”

The voice was so loud it woke me up. So loud that I assumed it also woke Ed up, and I asked him if he heard it. When he said “No,” I repeated the words. And then, given the very small “box” my thinking was in at that time, I promptly forgot all about it, dreams being akin to astrology, tarot cards, alchemy and other similar “woo-woo” stuff I associated with New Age nonsense.

Five days later, as I collected our mail at the Post Office, I learned that my friend Hazel had died the night before–a cerebral hemorrhage–gone in a flash. When I told Ed, he remembered the dream. “Just what your dream predicted,” Ed said.

“Oh that’s just a coincidence,” I replied, still dismissive of the experience. But the next six months made it more and more difficult to remain dismissive: another friend died, two aunts and an uncle died, and the horrible discontent that my busy life had repressed began to rumble in ways I could not ignore.

I began to wonder if the dream was predictive. It said I would give up everything. This I did not want to consider. But relentlessly reality began to give life to just those words: Discontent with Ed led to major arguments, irreconcilable differences, appointments with a couples counselor, and finally, her urging me to leave him (for reasons I only discovered years later). We divorced in 1984.

Divorce was not the only thing to leave. More and more I felt my life was being stripped bare. Thirty plus years later, I found Jung had a similar experience, in a sublimatio time in his life:

“It seemed to me that I was high up in space….I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me–an extremely painful process.”[9]

I shared his assessment of the pain: it was extreme, and it was not over in weeks or months, but went on for years, as I gave up my home, my profession, my friends, and my sense of myself.

All because the weird voice dreams continued, giving me explicit instructions, e.g. to give up college teaching, to leave Maine, to move to Berkeley, California–the only city in the USA where one could never tell when it was Halloween! It was as if the Universe was holding up in front of my face every one of my prejudices, my narrow-minded attitudes and my rigidities.

This became obvious in a way I could not deny in the summer of 1984. I had by then been in the throes of living out the dream for eight months–agonizing months when I felt like I was going crazy. I asked my friends if they thought I was losing it. Most of them replied that they liked my eccentricities. This was not comforting. But some made recommendations for counselors, therapists, even the resident psychiatrist up at the hospital in Bangor. I went to several; they all told me that, if I was having all these dreams and wanted to work with them, I should find a union. So I searched and searched but could locate no dream-workers union. It was at the fifth therapist’s office that I finally overcame my pride and asked where I could find a union. He looked perplexed and I repeated his advice that I should find a union, and then he laughed and told me the word was not u-n-i-o-n, but Jung. That narrow box again! I had never heard of Carl Jung!!

About the same time as the discovery of Jung, one of my students said she would take me to someone she thought could help me. I assumed this was another therapist or shrink. I only learned the truth at the woman’s doorstep: Miranda had not set me up with a therapist but with an astrologer!!

I was furious, for, again given my prejudices, I had always had a disparaging attitude toward that sort of stuff. But Miranda told me the woman had already done all the work of analyzing my chart and transits, so she would have to pay even if I didn’t go in. At the thought of my student paying for this, I felt guilty, so I went in.

Five hours later, my mind thoroughly blown, I determined to learn this very powerful symbol system. Frances Sakoian was one of the leading American astrologers, brought to Houston in 1969 by NASA because she had predicted, many years before, the exact date when the first man would walk on the Moon. I became a student of Frances, pouring over her books and learning to cast charts (back then there were no astrology program for computers).

Finding Jung and learning astrology were two key events that put me on the path of climbing out of the hole I was in. A few years later I was able to combine Jungian concepts and astrology when I encountered the works of Liz Greene, and became a student of archetypal astrology. Now, 37 years later, I can look back on the 1983-1987 interval as a classic archetypal phase, illustrating the “mid-life crisis,” and the transitio and sublimatio phases of the alchemical opus.

 

How I Lived Alchemy in This Interval

 

Students of astrology eventually learn the patterns of the transits of the planets–how the Sun, Mercury, Venus and Mars move quickly around the natal chart, with the Moon moving fastest of all. In the usual transit reading, the astrologer focuses on the five “slow-moving planets,” Jupiter (12 year cycle), Saturn (29 year cycle), Uranus (84 year cycle), Neptune (164 year cycle), and Pluto (248  year cycle).[10] These “heavy” planets have become associated, in Jungian astrology, with alchemical archetypes, as I noted in the previous essay on the calcinatio, associated with Pluto. We will discuss all of the five planets and their archetypes in this five-part set of essays. For our purposes in considering the sublimatio, we will focus on Uranus.

In the 1983-1987 interval, transiting Uranus was moving through my ninth and tenth houses–just what the astrologer would expect for someone around ages 38-44 (i.e. that midpoint of Uranus’ 84-year cycle). Both popular cultural lore and astrological experience speak of the “mid-life crisis,” that time in many lives when people wonder “Is this all there is?” “What does my life mean?” “Why am I feeling so discontent”? The answer: It’s archetypal. It is the soul’s way of provoking a wake-up call, of getting us out of ruts, or pulling us up from some life path that is too small or narrow for our fulfillment. Uranus is the ‘Great Awakener,” tasked with providing numerous incentives for us to gain more consciousness.

Clueless as I was in 1983, I endured the dislocations of the passage of Uranus over my mid-heaven without seeing the larger picture until I had that first astrological transit reading. What I was enduring was a common experience for people my age, perhaps made a bit more dramatic due to my rigidity and narrow-mindedness. But I was assured that the “wake up call” would ultimately be a blessing IF I became more open to the changes my soul wanted me to make.

By this point, in 1984, I was diligently searching for a Jungian analyst, and would find one a year later, in the summer of 1985. She told me the same thing: try to be more open to the unconscious. The transit chart provided insights into the specifics: be open to moving (e.g. from Maine to California), as transiting Uranus opposed both my natal Uranus and my nadir (that point in a chart associated with home); anticipate the break-up of a romance (e.g. my divorce), as transiting Uranus squared my Venus and Descendant (the angle associated with marriage and partnership); watch out for accidents, especially with cars (e.g. on an icy road my car skidded into a snowbank), as transiting Uranus inconjuncted my Mars; be open to inspirations from the deep unconscious (e.g. the voice-over dreams), as transiting Uranus trined my Pluto.

As an archetype, Uranus has intent: change, wake up, be open to the new–new ways of thinking, new ways/places of living, new relationships, new beliefs that reflect an expanded consciousness. Over the next 14 years (1983-1997) I evolved out of the rigid, boxed-in Ivy League mindset, and opened up to the myriad riches of Jung’s world of myths, legends, fairy tales, perennial wisdom traditions, dreams and synchronicities, intuitions, mystery traditions, numerology, psychology and, of course, alchemy, as I took the alchemists’ advice:

‘”Therefore study, meditate, sweat, work, cook… so will a healthy flood be opened to you which comes from the heart …”[11]

I studied astrology and Jung’s writing, learned to meditate, sweated through the challenges that accompany confrontations with the shadow, worked at a variety of research jobs (all the while longing to return to teaching), and “cooked,” both literally (to keep body alive) and figuratively (to tend to my soul’s desires).

Provoking change as it does, Uranus also comes along with the transitio archetype, for none of our major changes occur without at least some feelings of confusion, dislocation or disorientation. In my case, considering how much I was a “stick-in-the-mud” at the beginning of the change process, I found the transition into my new life to be extremely confusing–to the point of thinking I was losing my mind. What is the intent of the transitio? Recognize it for what it is–a “between,” an interval in life when one is “betwixt and between,” not yet fully in the new, nor fully out of the old, and try to be okay with those vague feelings of not being settled.

Dreams in a transitio phase reflect this “between” quality: the psyche often offers up images of hallways, thresholds, borders, bridges, porches, beaches and/or teenagers (the teen years being the classic transitional time between childhood and adulthood). Most people can recall feelings of confusion during their adolescence; it’s archetypal. Times of transition can also show up as rootlessness, when we move around a lot. As Uranus passed over my mid-heaven (thus opposing my nadir) I did move: eight times in the 14 years between 1983 and 1997. Several of these were long-haul moves, e.g. from Maine to California, and California to Maryland. After a while, I began to wonder if I was meant to wander for the rest of my life!

In this same transit of Uranus over my mid-heaven, Uranus trined all my Virgo planets (Sun, Mercury, Neptune and Jupiter), presenting me with true sublimatio opportunities to “rise above” the low level of awareness of my Ivy League mind-set. Such “rising above” is another intention of the sublimatio, because this rising is a feature of the alchemical operation, as Edward Edinger described in Anatomy of the Psyche:

“It [ sublimatio] turns the material into air by volatilizing and elevating it. The image derives from the chemical process of sublimation in which a solid, when heated, passes directly into a gaseous state and ascends to the top of the vessel,… The term “sublimation” derives from the Latin sublimis, meaning “high.” This indicates that the crucial feature of sublimation is an elevating process whereby a low substance is translated into a higher form by an ascending movement.”[12]

The sublimatio phase also provides the chance to examine life and current reality from a higher, or more objective perspective, and I found this to be true. When I would have dreams of planes taking off, elevators rising, climbing up a mountain, being in a tower or a hot-air balloon, or watching birds fly, I would be alerted to step back or rise above a situation in my life to see it from a different, or more objective point of view.

As Edinger indicates, the sublimatio and the planet Uranus are associated with the element of Air, which Jungian typology links to the Thinking function. It might be easier for Thinking types to navigate the sublimatio interval than it would be for Feelers. But regardless of type, for everyone these two alchemical phases, the sublimatio and transitio, offer great possibilities for growth and change, if we recognize them and go with the flow of their intentions.

Next up: the solutio and transits of Neptune.

 

Bibliography

 

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

Jung, C.G. (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

Sakoian, Frances & Louis Acker (1973), The Astrologer’s Handbook. New York: Harper & Row.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Edinger (1985), 117.

[2] Ibid., 125.

[3] Collected Works 16 ¶466. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[4] Jung (1965), 289-290.

[5] Collected Works 16 ¶515. Jung quoting John Pordage, a 17th century English alchemist.

[6] CW 13 ¶443.

[7] CW 12 ¶390.

[8] I am using my own life for examples for several reasons: first, I have both recall and the additional reference to transits of my natal chart to support and amplify my recollections; second, by using my own life I am in no way violating the privacy of my students or astrology clients; and third, creating this essay gives me an opportunity to reflect upon my past and perhaps gain additional insights or more consciousness in so doing.

[9] Jung (1965), 289-290.

[10] Sakoian & Acker (1973), 181, 200, 213 and 224.

[11] CW 12 ¶390.

[12] Edinger (1985), 117.