On 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.”
In 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.