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Alchemical Transformation

by Vivienne Silver-Leigh(more info)

listed in psychospiritual, originally published in issue 78 - July 2002

We have a fascination with transformation and magic. Currently, audiences are packing cinemas showing two films. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy about the battle between the forces of evil and good, symbolized by dark, faceless horsemen who chase Frodo the young Hobbit, who holds the powerful magic ring, which he desperately guards from the baddies who try to get it from him.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, action packed with symbolism and magic too, is the story of a young boy with inherited supernatural powers, studying at a boarding school for wizards. There were people in the US who tried to ban the Harry Potter film, fearful of the power of witchcraft and sorcery, realms of the irrational and the mysterious.

Deep in our collective unconscious, we seem to connect to the symbols and myths in these films. They have long been popular subjects for artists and poets, who need inspiration for their work, and ways to bring this about. JK Rowling describes how she 'found' Harry Potter on a train; she did not have to work hard to create him, he just arrived. But she had to be in the right state of mind to follow this through to create the story. Creativity is easily blocked and it is essential to know how to free up and move the process forward. You need to suspend logic to go into the magical world of imagination.

Which brings me to alchemy, the pseudo-science which medieval alchemists thought would lead to the transformation of lead into gold, or lower substances into higher ones. Laughable, perhaps, except that some surprising people have taken it quite seriously and seen that it can be used as a metaphor for personal transformation, inner changes and personality development. The alchemists' goal was to connect to divinity, creating a state of Grace, and mind expansion.

This is surely what modern seekers after spirituality and higher levels of consciousness are also trying to do, by following Shamanic teachings, Gurus or undertaking intensive meditation retreats.

Alchemists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were on a quest, which they called the Opus or great work, looking for perfection, finding the divinity (gold) within the physical body. They thought of themselves as committed to a sacred work requiring a religious attitude. Working alone, they guarded their secret experiments. But they did leave interesting allegorical engravings, with poems attached, which are like complex riddles hiding deep philosophical truths and wisdom. Decoding them is definitely not easy.

Alchemical processes used the elements of fire, earth, air and water and the theme of reconciling opposite forces is shown in the pictures. Swiss psychologist Jung became fascinated when he realized that the dreams of his clients often contained these elements and themes too. He believed that inner development of the psyche would happen when opposites were revealed and accepted, in the process he called individuation.

You may be wondering how useful this is today. I certainly was astonished to find I was expected to study alchemy, as part of a transpersonal psychotherapy course. I thought this was extremely odd but gradually the pictures and texts we were looking at seemed to work a magic on me, and I started to get in touch with my creative side. I also find it helpful to realize which stage my clients are experiencing.

One of the first stages described by alchemists is called Negredo, or blackening. It is sometimes shown as a dragon. In the picture shown here you can see the dragon about to be attacked by a soldier with a raised sword. The dragon is a metaphor for a depressed state, repressed in the unconscious. It stops us doing what we want to do.

For the person stuck in a dark stage of depression, feelings are painful and hopeless. The sword of action is going to change the situation eventually. We need to realize that depression is telling us that something needs to change, not only outside circumstances, but our inner attitudes.

A young woman, Sandra, who comes to see me, works in a job where she is not using her education or her extremely sensitive spiritual nature. She has worked efficiently for many years, but she now feels as if her life energy is draining away and she is tired and sad.

However, acknowledging the darkness of this Negredo stage will help her to be aware that she also has the potential for an opposite state of aliveness, which she is repressing. Life for her at present feels meaningless and empty, and she is desperate to make a change. Our work together will involve finding what is holding her back, and releasing old, unresolved feelings.

I find that Voice Dialogue, an enjoyable and practical method of talking to our different inner selves, our sub- personalities, helps to create a new perspective. The dragon needs to be overcome and the creative flow restarted. Then the self can move to a different alchemical stage where a new development will take place.


Jung Carl. Alchemical Studies (Collected Works of C G Jung Vol. 13). Princeton University Press. 1983.
Miller Richard and Iona. The Modern Alchemist – A Guide to Personal Transformation. Phanes Press. 1994.
Stone Hans and Winkelman Sidra. Embracing Each Other. New World Library. 1989.


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About Vivienne Silver-Leigh

Vivienne Silver-Leigh had a career first as a speech therapist, and then became a lecturer in English and counselling. She trained counsellors for five years, and now has a private practice, working as a psychotherapist, from a humanistic/integrative perspective. Following a strong interest in spirituality, she learned yoga and various forms of breathwork and meditation. She can be contacted on e-mail:


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