Alchemy and the Three Layered Cake
For many years I was haunted by the notion of the unlived life left behind in my native Spain. It is the curse of the immigrant—to be forever shadowed by the idea of an alternative life that could have been made with the possibilities we left behind. In my case, from time to time I would ponder what I would be doing were I still living in Vigo, on the northwest corner of Spain. What would the world look like to me? Whom would I have married? What faces would my children have?
In my thirties, after discovering meditation and the Jungian universe that opened up the key to my dreams, I started to leave that alternative world behind. Instead, other possibilities opened up, other worlds. Listening to Buddhist teacher and scientist, Shinzen Young, speak on the “science of enlightenment” recently, I realized that it was then that I began attempting to travel through the middle realms and down to the source of all things.
Young argues that our psyches are like a three layered cake. We travel mostly through the surface of things, where the icing is and appearances matter more than anything else. This is the world that Jungian analyst and great man of wisdom, James Hollis, says is where we disappear with our addictive behaviours, our materialism, our need for progress, our obsession with our health. Here we walk in shoes too small for us and refuse to heed the call of genius that Goethe spoke about. “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it,” the great German poet wrote, but we are rarely bold, constrained as we are by our histories and the dictates of society which disallow us from going forth to be ourselves. Instead of following our instincts, we buy fancy cars, dope ourselves up with meaningless television and find a thousand ways to fall asleep.
Above all, I tell my children, be not sheep. But it is one thing to say it, another different thing entirely to live from the depths of the heart where the material trappings, the status, the constant need for approval are disowned in favour of living a more authentic life.
In this three layered cake, the source—what Jung called the Self and some call God but which one can never really define in the end because words cannot do justice to such things—is at the bottom. It is the source of peace, of transcendence, of our connection to everything. It is what we access when our meditations go deep. And yet, as Shinzen Young points out, many so-called spiritual travelers are spending their time drifting through the middle realms. These are the places where apparitions rise up as well as what we believe to be psychic powers and all sorts of other things. The middle realms seem so real, according to Shinzen, that people feel they are reaching great spiritual heights when what they are really doing is travelling horizontally in a spiritually material world. Shinzen himself has spent time there and has seen the giant insects that gave Kafka his material and he has struggled with the many hued spectres the middle realms can cough up. But, as someone who has travelled to the bottom, to the source, he knows not to confuse these experiences with what emanates from the calmer waters that lie beneath all things. He is aware enough to know that hallucinations do not a spiritual person make and he warns us to be wary of treading in those waters lest we remain there, assuming we have become enlightened through our interior journeying when all we are doing is treading in shallow waters that masquerade as the depths.
In her wonderful book on alchemy, Catherine MacCoun sets out the path to how one can integrate learning that evolves from the depths. She provides the simple example of a woman, Annie, who goes out with a man she is interested in and then waits and waits for him to call her for another outing. When he doesn’t, Annie first applies visualization techniques to get him to call her. That may or may not work but at this point the woman in question is travelling along the icing on the cake. There is no depth to her inquiry because she has not yet turned the light upon herself.
Time goes by and still no call so she decides to play hard to get and turns off her cell phone in case he does happen to call. The problem, though, is that she has not yet understood the relationship she has to the object of her desire. She is riding high on projected energy that she thinks belong to the one she has pegged it on.
Now let’s say Annie starts to meditate and in doing so, begins to understand the motivations that are pushing her to want this man to call her --- a man, incidentally, about whom she knows very little in the first place. She realizes, after many months of sitting with her desire, that what she really wants is to have a little of what the man possesses. It turns out he is an artist and she is stuck in an energetically shallow world where inspiration is hard to find. It turns out that what Annie is really chasing is a part of herself she has not addressed. She begins to pick up a paintbrush and pursue something she has been wanting to do all of her life. She is not necessarily intending to be a great artist but simply to explore a part of herself that has been calling out to her and which has had her chasing bohemian artists who may or may not call her back. It looks like a small change but it is an intensely valuable one that may spare Annie a lot of grief.
Now imagine that if every time you felt a strong emotion, a strong pull or repulsion towards another you decided to sit with that emotion until you understood just what part of you was calling out to be heard? It is this path that will eventually reveal the authentic self. Equally important, this is the path we can all take to avoid heaping untold misery upon others with our crazed desires and our claims to victimhood.
There are no giant insects along this path--- nor are there rainbows perhaps--- but each step is a reaffirming of our humanity and helps us access the source that lies at the bottom of all things.