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A Night in Jung’s Alembic

George Mecouch

Tao’s working of things is vague and obscure,
Obscure! Oh vague!
In it are images,
Vague! Oh obscure!
In it are things,
Profound! Oh dark indeed!
In it is seed.
Its seed is very truth.
In it is trustworthiness.
From the earliest Beginning until today
Its name is not lacking
By which to fathom the Beginning of all things.
How do I know it is the Beginning of all things?
Through it!
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Ch. 21)

I stretched my back and yawned, then glanced warily at the clock. It was 4 a.m., and I still had no idea how I would start the article on sentient essence and archetypes. I had been plagued with writers block for a couple of years and was hoping that this article could jump start me into writing again, since I was excited about the topic. Jung’s ideas about archetypes have always struck me as among his most brilliant, and combining them with Mindell’s thoughts on sentient essence seemed a wonderful marriage of theory and practical application. Now, as I looked at the blank page on my computer screen and the books piled high around me, I was not so sure it would work. My dog came and nuzzled my arm, seeming to look at me and say, “Isn’t it time yet for sleep?” I decided to lie down with him on the floor of my office and get an hour or two of rest before the house started to stir.

The stone gave the room the look of a 16th century castle, gray, large and imposing. Two bookend fireplaces cut into the columns defined a grotto-like space. I moved closer and saw a lectern with parchment paper, a quill pen, and a copy of Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections resting atop it. The book was well worn, as if it had been read and studied over and over again. Suddenly I sensed a presence, and there behind me approached the great man himself. Aghast, I realized I was at Bollingen in C.G. Jung’s vacation home.

“So, you have finally decided to write,” Dr. Jung said to me.

Stunned, I could barely respond. “Yes,” I sputtered, “I am working on an article on sentient essence and archetypes.” I looked down and saw my legs were shaking!

“Sentient essence? I am not familiar with that idea. Although it is a coincidence that you are standing in my writing chamber, the place I call my alembic. I took the name from alchemy to stand for the closed vas or vessel where all my ideas and feelings were distilled to their essence, or what I called archetypes.”

“That’s exciting,” I said warming to the chance to speak with Jung directly about these topics. “Would it be okay if we discussed some of these ideas and questions I have been wanting to ask you?”

“It would be fine, young man. There is one requirement though. You have a moral responsibility to this discussion. You must write what comes from it, rather than just letting the information puff you up. At some point in life, saying what your daimon calls you to say must become more important than your personal fears of failure or your grand hopes for fame.”

I shook my head in agreement, feeling the gravity of what I was promising.

I realized I should start the conversation with some explanation of the idea for Dr. Jung. “Sentient essence is a concept that Arnold Mindell has been impassioned with in the last few years,” I stated.

Before I could continue, Jung broke into laughter saying, “Mindell, I know of his work. I danced on my grave when he was writing about dreams and double signals. He thought it was a dream. Wonderful, tell me more details of his idea, I’m intrigued.”

“Well, let’s start with just the word sentient. Mindell is using this to describe an awareness of subtle, normally marginalized experiences and sensations that can barely be verbalized. He states that it is a way of experiencing the world in which one is aware of the subtlest tendencies that precede everything we think, see, hear or do” (Mindell, 2000: 36). Mindell uses the Australian Aboriginal idea of the Dreaming to name this world, to differentiate it from dreams which he feels are the later amplification of the Dreaming. In fact he is postulating three worlds that flow back and forth between each other. The first is the area of sentience or the Dreaming, where subject and object are still connected, and the world is alive and actually flirting with you at an almost imperceptible level. It would be the oneness that precedes duality. The second level is Dreamland, which is the realm of nighttime dreams. Here the vague perceptions have started to take more specific form usually as visual images, and tend to break into parts, showing both old and possibly new patterning of these parts. The last realm is that of consensus reality where observable objects can be seen and measured. This would be the area of everyday life (Mindell, 2000: 21).

“Hmmm, interesting,” Jung mused. “Lots of new terms for many of my old ideas. As I am sure you know, I would call the Dreaming the collective unconscious and the realm of archetypes. Dreamland would be similar to the way Mindell is using it. I felt that the dreams of the night were one of the main ways to catch the collective unconscious world, as the psyche presents itself as images. That is why I always said that image is psyche (Jung, 1967: 50). The last realm I called the consensus gentium, instead of consensus reality. It means the same thing” (Jung, 1960: 325).

“Dr. Jung, it sounds like you might be wondering if Mindell is putting old wine in new bottles, and if it is really necessary? I think what is exciting about what he is doing is that he is taking your later ideas, like synchronicity, your hints about the connections of psyche with the body and physics, and your thoughts on alchemy and making them more available on a moment-to-moment basis. He is saying that your active imagination is not just a technique to be saved late in therapy for the special few, but is a way of living in the world for everyday people. He is also saying that, if you can train your awareness to perceive it, the Dreaming can be entered at any moment; that it is everywhere and is constantly penetrating our everyday reality. One does not have to wait for the dreams of the night to find the sentient or archetypal realm!” My initial warmth for our topic was turning to passion as I spoke.

“Yes! Active imagination all the time. What a wonderful idea. That is what I was hinting at late in my life when I said that my real goal of life was being in soul, or esse in anima,” Jung responded (In Adler, 1973: 60). “But before I let my imagination go further with these intuitions that are starting to arise, tell me more of the word essence and how you are connecting it to sentient?”

“Essence would mean the root of the image or idea that is being presented; where it started from,” I began. “It is like the saying from the Tao Te Ching where Lao Tzu talks of the seed that allows you to fathom the beginnings of all things and is the very truth (Chodorow, 1997: 97). Connected to sentient, it would mean the awareness of taking the ideas presented in consensus reality and the images from dreamland back to their roots in the sentient realm.”

For example, a woman came in for a session after about a year of therapy. She suffered terribly with self-esteem issues and often felt horrible about her weight problem. That day she entered the office as a vision in red. She wore a beautiful red jumper, with bright red lipstick and a subtle pink rouge enlivening her cheeks. The colors flirted with me right off and I commented on her lovely redness, asking if she could become an even more red-like personality in the moment. She said she would try, but first wanted to tell me the dream she had the night before. She was in a beautiful garden, looking for strawberries to pick. She became lost entering an unfamiliar area, when she heard the tomatoes start to speak with her. “Please pick us instead,” they said. “We are juicy and luscious and you have always confused us for strawberries.” She now began to feel her fullness and felt as if she would burst. I asked her to tell me what was the ripe tomato before it became that image? What was its seed? I asked her to do this by having the environment flirt with her, by squinting her eyes and noticing what in the room caught her attention in response to the question. She said that a green cup sitting away in the corner held her gaze right away. I had her imagine further into it, and she said the cup was full to the brim and was slowly changing colors and reddening. She could see herself drinking from the cup, as its juice overflowed. A fleeting thought of the holy grail came to me and I said that the cup was like the grail carrying the aqua vitae, the vital water; this was her deep and true character starting to ripen and emerge. In your language it would have been the archetype of the Self.”

“So,” said Jung, his eyes twinkling with excitement, “the dream is alive in the moment, and you are again living one of my ultimate hopes for therapy and life, that of dreaming the dream onward (Jung, 1959: 160). You saw that the tomato was already present in her attire when she arrived for the session. Then you kept the dream alive and dreaming by having her enter her imagination in the therapy, rather than interpreting the tomato reductively into already known character traits that had been repressed.”

“Would it be okay with you if I elaborated on your example? It is such a wonderful one, and will let me explain crucial points that I do not think therapists have understood well enough.”

“Please,” I answered quickly. “I would enjoy your teaching.”

“Remember in your reading of Mysterium Conjunctionis where I begin to talk about my idea of active imagination and not letting anything in the vessel that does not belong? As I remember, it goes something like: take the unconscious in one of its handiest forms, say a spontaneous fantasy, a dream, an irrational mood, an affect, or something of the kind, and operate with it. Give it your special attention, concentrate on it, and observe its alterations objectively. Spare no effort to devote yourself to this task, follow the subsequent transformations of the spontaneous fantasy attentively and carefully. Above all, don’t let anything from outside, that does not belong, get into it, for the fantasy-image has everything it needs” (Jung, 1963: 526).

“I remember that saying well, and quote it often in my teaching,” I said.

“You could never quote it enough, because basically everything you need to know about how to do therapy is contained in that paragraph,” Jung quipped. “Do you see that you took the unconscious as it presented itself in both the dream and her attire? You began to work with it by giving it attention and watching its changes. What you didn’t do was move from an image (tomato), to a concept or abstraction like tomato equals fertility, unconscious life, abundance or nourishment and then head down that road of discussion, leaving the specific ripe, juicy tomato that was right in front of you. That image, the way it begins to flow in the room in its changing alterations, has everything it needs to be understood and most of all experienced. Here I must caution you, because in this old idea of epistrophe, or going back to beginnings, one can quickly leave the specificity of the image for the lure of the abstract archetype. I call this symbol hunting and far too many therapists are prone to it, probably hoping to leave the momentary anxiety in the river of not knowing, for the safe banks found in the illusion of intellectual surety. You could have begun to talk of the grail, the self or the aqua vitae, but you must watch her feedback. Does it help cook the contents of the vessel further, and give her even more a sense of the importance of what she is dealing with? Does it help connect her to cultural history and therefore a connection with the human race? If not and the patient leaves, thinking only that she has found the Self or the grail, she will not be dreaming the dream onward. She will have lost contact with the image, the tomato or the green cup, both of which could have taught her all about themselves. These images are alive and part of the living soul. That is why I am thrilled that your move in the session was to deepen into an image with another image, albeit one that takes her closer to its roots in the archetype.”

“Wow,” I sighed with the weight of Jung’s thoughts, “I can now understand how easy it is to leave the living process. Did I leave it when I amplified the experience to its roots in the archetypal image?”

“No,” Jung answered. “You must bring in what enters the vessel of the therapy in your reaction, then watch closely for the criteria I set above as to whether it helped further the imagination. Hopefully she left the office with a connection to the image but also a sense of the deeper meaning and value the archetypal amplification can give. The psyche cannot help naming the processes in the pot; that is part of its discriminating aspect. Remember the archetype is always bipolar and therefore contains not only the numinous experience but the tendency to explain itself through myths and symbols. A therapist must always name as part of the process, for the psyche longs to story itself. It just the how, when and what of naming that can kill the imaginal process or deepen it.”

“I still don’t understand how you keep the archetypes grounded in the momentary therapy experience” I asked, struggling to understand how to keep the body experience and it explanation from splitting apart.

“That is a great question and again one where much confusion has come about,” Jung replied. “Let’s start with an explanation of my late thoughts on archetypes, and tie it back to Mindell’s sentient essence. The word archetype itself means roots. It derives from the Greek term archai, which means root principles. The second half of the word comes from the Greek typos, which means footprint or template. The word archetype then could be understood as the root or original footprint. They are the patterns that are prior to the ideas and images and can be seen best in their expression in myth (Hillman, 1995: 219). I came to understand that archetypes themselves are unknowable, like the Tao that cannot be spoken (Jung, 1960: 213). They are only known through the soul or imagination, for “images are the only reality we apprehend directly” (Hillman, 1975: 174). From this I came originally to see the archetypes as the imaginal patterns behind the bodies instincts. One could say that the image represents the meaning of the instinct (Hillman, 1975: 201). However, as my experience of the psyche deepened over the next 50 years I came to believe differently. I felt that psyche and matter were actually two sides of an ultimately unknowable coin, and joined together in what I called the psychoid archetype. The psychoid archetype had characteristics similar to what the physicists were postulating about matter in nuclear physics. It was a ‘relativisation of time and space where causality no longer held absolute validity and past, present, and future merged into an unknowable unity or timelessness’ (Jaffe, 1984: 7). I began, as you might remember, to use the analogy of the color spectrum to explain the archetype, and years ago I said something like this:

The dynamism of the instinct is lodged, as it were, in the infra-red part of the spectrum, whereas the instinctual image lies in the ultraviolet part. If we remember our color symbolism, then red is not such a bad match for instinct. But for spirit, blue would be a much better match than violet. Violet is the mystic color, and best represents the paradoxical nature of the archetype as a combination of blue and red. (Jung, 1960: 211)

Now you can see that for me the archetype was no longer just an image in its own right, but at the same time a body-felt dynamism experienced as a numinosity and fascination (Jung, 1960: 211). The implication of this new theory answers your question of how to use the idea of archetypes less abstractly in therapy as well as life. It means that archetypes penetrate the earthly world as instincts and therefore the individual body as well. Mindell’s idea of the smallest flirts and subtle feelings being sentient, are the beginnings of what becomes, when amplified, an archetypal image.”

“This is very exciting for me, because it means the body can be seen as imaginal and therefore just as important as visual or auditory channels for experiencing the archetypal realm. I barely hinted at this in my 1916 paper The Transcendent Function, when I talked about certain people being body types, but I never followed up on it like Mindell has” (Jung, 1960: 84).

“Yes, now I understand how archetypes can be experienced as bodily phenomena. But it has always seemed to me, as I have read your writings, that your way of practicing with archetypes in the consulting office was much different from the way you wrote about them,” I said, hoping Jung would clarify a topic that had been painful for me professionally. “Many of my colleagues still say that you are too mystical and not practical enough in your day-to-day work with clients.”

“The label ‘mystic’ hung with me for most of my professional existence,” Jung commented sadly. “This may have occurred because I spent much of my writing trying to make a place in the scientific zeitgeist for difficult ideas about the psyche and did not write as often about my daily practice. I also refused to codify an exact ‘how’ of practice, which so many therapists look for in maps of when, how, and where. However, as you hinted above, if my work is read carefully, I left many indications of how I worked in my consulting office. First, and foremost, I was always heuristic. This means for me that the sole criteria for a hypothesis is whether or not it possesses an explanatory or useful value (Jung, 1953: 134). I always thought that the therapist must not have too fixed an aim. I can hardly know better than nature and the will to live of the patient. The great decisions of life usually have far more to do with the instincts and other mysterious unconscious factors than with conscious will and well-meaning reasonableness. The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no universal recipe for living (Jung, 1954: 40-41). I was often asked, ‘What do you advise? What shall I do?’ I didn’t know. I only knew one thing: that when my conscious mind no longer sees the road ahead and consequently gets stuck, my unconscious mind, or what we are calling the sentient realm, will react to the unbearable standstill (Jung, 1954: 41-42). This means I did everything in my power to help the patient with normal and reasonable suggestions and advice, but when this no longer worked, nature was my guide. I turned to the dreams, active imaginations and, as we have discussed, to the moods and sensations of the body. But while I often mused in my writing chamber about the scientific verifiability of my methods, in my consulting room I was only interested in whether the results meant something for my patient and did it set their life in motion again. I allowed myself only one criterion for the result of my labors: Does it work? As for my scientific hobby—my desire to know why it works—this I must reserve for my spare time” (Jung, 1954: 42).

“May I continue to illustrate my points with a case from my practice?” Jung questioned, looking to see if he still had my attention.

“I would love to hear one of your cases,” I replied.

“Once a simple young girl was shown into my consulting room. She was a school teacher from a village in Canton Solothurn. A doctor, personally unknown to me, had sent her to see me. She suffered from almost total insomnia and was one of those people who agonize over having done nothing properly and not having met satisfactorily the demands of daily life. What she needed was relaxing. I tried to explain this to her, and told her that I found relaxation by sailing on the lake, letting myself go with the wind. But I could see from her eyes that she did not understand. This saddened me, because there was only this single consultation and I wanted to help her. Then, as I talked of sailing and the wind, I heard the voice of my mother singing a lullaby to my little sister as she used to do when I was eight or nine, a story of a little girl, on the Rhine, with little fishes. I then began, almost without doing it on purpose, to hum what I was telling her about the wind, the waves, the sailing, and relaxation, to the tune of the little lullaby. I hummed those sensations, and I could see she was enchanted” (Jaffe, 1984: 6).

“Years later I ran into this unknown doctor at a conference, and he wondered how she had been cured in one session, as he said the sleeping trouble never returned,” Jung continued. “How was I to explain to him that I had simply listened to something within myself? I had actually been quite at sea as to what to do. But as I said before, this is when the archetypal or sentient realm responds, and here I actualized it in the moment by singing the lullaby with my mother’s voice (Jaffe, 1984: 7). One can see the archetype of the missing mother in the background intellectually, but in the moment of the healing, it came out through the lullaby song.”

“Well, Dr. Mecouch, it has been a rousing pleasure to discuss these ideas with you. Never forget that the soul longs for good ideas! I must go however, and it looks like for you the morning world is approaching,” Jung said, leaving his writing chamber and moving towards a seat at a large, round wooden table in his kitchen. There next to him were Marie Louise von Franz, Barbara Hannah and my son Josh. He looked down at Josh, and then up at me, and said, “He is just fine as he is.”

The sun streamed in the open window and a wet nose pushed hard against my cheek. I slowly opened my eyes to see my dog standing over me wagging his tail, clearly wondering why I was not yet up on this beautiful spring morning. How could I tell him I just needed a minute longer, as I was having that all-toofamiliar feeling of a big dream and then not being able to remember it. No images would come. I was about to get up when I noticed a vague, felt sense of warmth across my chest. As I focused my attention, it began to spread as an overwhelming experience of calmness throughout my body, a calmness I had not felt in years. I sensed that I was now in the dreaming experience of whatever dream had just occurred. I also sensed, smiling to myself, that my writer’s block was finally over.


George Mecouch, D.O., is an osteopathic physician and a board certified psychiatrist. He is a diplomate of processoriented psychology and has a passionate love for both process work and C.G. Jung. He is currently in private practice in Vancouver, Washington.