Insights from Ireland: Creating a Vessell


nigredoOn Wednesday morning of the Jungian conference we shared recent dreams and Monika artfully assembled them into a group poem about what was being stirred up in our collective unconscious. Tom and Monika’s talks on alchemy and folklore had convinced me that Sunday night’s poop dream was highly relevant so I added it to the mix. But before I relate it I want to explain the basis for my associations with its symbols. What follows are summaries of concepts from the conference that relate to the symbols in my dream.
Alchemists were concerned with things spiritual rather than things temporal. They were committed to personal growth and refinement in preparation for the mystery of death and beyond. Their practices were directed toward understanding the soul’s processes on its journey through life. Carl Jung incorporated their symbolic language and images into his groundbreaking psychological theories, and Yeats used them in his poetry.
The alchemical process begins with the baser parts of humanity called the prima materia.  This is lower chakra stuff like unrefined instincts and raw, ungovernable emotions. Alchemical and dream symbols of prima materia include lead, excrement, mud, darkness, dangerous animals, carrion birds, and putrefaction. Tom quoted texts which described the proper attitude toward these: “Rejoice when your matter turns black.”  “All life proceeds out of corruption,” “Dig where you stumble! That’s where the gold is,” and “What has the highest value is what will come out of the lowest value.” The highest value—symbolized by the philosopher’s stone—is what psychologists call individuation and spirit persons call enlightenment.
The same truth is addressed in the Celtic folktales William Butler Yeats loved and collected. They say, for instance, that one must always listen to the animals and the crazy old lady in the woods.  This is an acknowledgement that animals and so-called “irrational” women represent unwanted instincts and emotions that have been marginalized in society. If we would find the gold, we need to accept these and other disowned shadow qualities for “this is where the face of the soul might appear.”
chemical-retorts-on-glass-tableIn alchemy the messy, difficult work of accepting and transforming our prima materia is symbolized by a vessel like a cauldron, crucible or urn which contains and “cooks” the dark matter. The point is to know what’s in the vessel of the psyche and to carefully tend the creative fire beneath it so the spirit can be released without the prima materia boiling over and doing damage in our outer lives. This is how we create consciousness.
Literal examples of vessels that can safely contain our inner work are Jung’s The Red Book, and Yeats’s poetry. Both men “cooked” the dark forces acting upon them by looking at them, reflecting on them, and exposing them to the fire of their creative imagination. Over time, their prima materia was distilled into symbols and themes that represented the spiritual lessons which had been entrapped in it. This was their magnum opus and their offering to the world.
We, too, can cook our shadow material in ways that bring us closer to our heart’s core. For example, in May of 1982 I experienced a depressing letdown after receiving my doctorate. Instinctively I turned to writing, an activity I have always loved, as a way to process some distressing internal conflicts. That summer I indulged in a creative orgy that produced over 40 poems. They’ll never be published, but that wasn’t the point. I was writing them for me.
One insight I’ve acquired from this conference is that I was an alchemist-in-training that summer.  With no idea of the significance of what I was doing,  I was crafting a vessel for my inner excrement. Seven years later I began refining my vessel with dream work.  Since then, few things have brought me as much meaning and fulfillment as the literal vessels that contain the spiritual lessons I’ve distilled so far: my books and this blog.
You can find my latest book, Healing the Sacred Divide, at this Amazon site and at Larson Publications, Inc.

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14 Responses

  1. Thank you. Jean, for these thoughts, and in particular: “The same truth is addressed in the Celtic folktales William Butler Yeats loved and collected. They say, for instance, that one must always listen to the animals and the crazy old lady in the woods. This is an acknowledgement that animals and so-called “irrational” women represent unwanted instincts and emotions that have been marginalized in society. If we would find the gold, we need to accept these and other disowned shadow qualities for “this is where the face of the soul might appear.” I am polishing a day seminar for our Melbourne Jung Soc titled ” Am I an old Hag? A woman-only workshop investigating the Rite of Passage into Cronehood. Your words were so helpful at a stage when… ‘the going gets tough’

    1. You’re welcome, Catherine. I have hope for society because I see many older women stepping into their power, speaking their truths, and making a difference. You and your workshop are an example of the kind of contributions that are bringing the face of the soul into collective awareness. By the way, if you’re interested, I’ve written a couple of posts about the Crone. One from October 9, 2012 can be found here: Best of luck with your workshop. Jeanie

  2. Dear Jeanie, thank you so much for sharing more of your wonderful insights from Ireland. I found myself smiling (well literally grinning!) at your alchemist-in-training remark, as after my own poetry explosion for many years, I feel I am now refining my vessel with dream work too, although I do still write occasional poems. Thank you for helping me make more sense of that. I feel a nourishing reread of Yeats coming on, do you have a favourite poem of his? Catherine’s workshop sounds awesome. Blessings, Deborah

    1. Hi Deborah. You’re welcome. I always knew that summer of poetry was very healing; I could feel it. But I didn’t know why. Now I get it. The creative imagination is an extraordinarily powerful force that truly does transform and refine the psyche.
      As a newbie to Yeats I haven’t read enough to acquire any favorites yet, but these were mentioned at the conference: The Lake Isle of Innisfree, The Song of Wandering Aengus, Sailing to Byzantium, Crazy Jane on the Mountain, The Circus Animals’ Desertion, and one about the falcon and falconer…I can’t remember the title!

  3. Hmm… the alchemical symbols of crap and dirt and digging that you mentioned is very interesting to me. I have had a recurring dream throughout my life, I am in a bath room with an overflowing toilet, there is shit everywhere, the water is very dark and pours out from the toilet. It’s always a terrifying sight, it feels like it’s going to consume me. I had these dreams throughout my childhood and still have them occasionally. I always feel like a child again, like I’m going back to being a scared kid who can’t get out of the bathroom. It’s frustrating because I never know how it is relevant to my life or what exactly it’s trying to express.
    Alchemical symbols became interesting to me when I had, what I think was, an archetypal dream. I wonder if there is parallels in alchemy to the symbols in my dream? I would love to investigate it further. It goes like this: I am in my living room in my first home, in front of a table. There is a naked baby on it. I pull out a Kirpan, a Sikh Dagger (I must have remembered it from my Religious Education classes in school), it is made of gold and encrusted with diamonds. I pull it up in the air and stab the baby in the stomach. I’m scared I killed it but it disappears when I bring the knife down. After that, a brown soil-like mountain starts to swell up on the table. It’s like rubbery looking soil, bubbling up from the table. The soil starts to glow a deep pinkish red, there is a warm, safe feeling emanating from the glowing soil. For context, I had this dream about the time me and my partner first started to talk about having a child together.

    1. Hi Larry,
      Thanks for writing. Very interesting stuff! I have no idea what your dreams might mean for you but can only put my personal projections onto them. So what I’ll say is my stuff, and not necessarily yours.
      Insofar as a toilet bowl is a vessel, the overflowing crap would seem to represent an outpouring of repressed raw instincts and/or emotions into the outer world. If this were my dream, the next time I had it I’d try to see how and when in my recent waking life I had a frightening emotional outburst I was unable to control that made me feel like a child again. Perhaps seeing this objectively could help me recognize it more easily the next time I feel it, and this awareness might help me manage it with more mindful restraint.
      Going with your association about considering having a baby, one projection I could make would be that “killing the baby” might represent the alchemical death and transformation of a more childish aspect of myself because I’ve achieved a more valuable and mature way of thinking (one thing a knife or sword can represent, especially a jewel-encrusted one, is clear, incisive logical thinking: the ability to distinguish between what’s truly valuable and what is not). The fact that the new dark matter changes to a pinkish-red and makes me feel warm and safe also suggests a positive new development in my inner world.
      Blessings on your inner journey. Jeanie

      1. Thanks Jean, you’ve added some good points. The knife as incisive thinking is very interesting. I think the dream was foretelling intense psychic development, a transformation to take place, that there is something special around the corner if you follow it- and it came true, I have changed a lot since then. I’ll never forget that dream.

    1. The Mystery of Death and Beyond … The Memory of a Vanishing World?
      When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
      and nodding by the fire,
      take down this book,
      And slowly read,
      and dream of the soft look your eyes had once,
      and of their shadows deep.

      1. Yes. “When You are Old.” A love poem to a woman who wouldn’t marry him; in anticipation of aging and future longing for vanishing love, youth and life. My favorite line…..”But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.” Another wonderful one to recommend to Deborah. Thanks, Andi.

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