Sunday, July 18, 2010

Coagulatio: Becoming Somebody and Nobody

(Eighth in the series on alchemy as metaphor for great coaching)

John H. Engler wrote, "The therapeutic issue in psychotherapy... is to 're-grow' a basic sense of self" whereas "the therapeutic issue in Buddhism is how to 'see through' the illusion or construct of the self." The two goals are not mutually exclusive. Rather, there is a wider perspective where they are compatible: "Put very simply, you have to be somebody before you can be nobody" (Paths Beyond Ego).

Reading Engler's essay gave me an "aha" moment. I'd been wrestling with some differences among clients in how they express their experience of transformational change. Some describe becoming more sure of themselves, which can seem a strengthening of their ego-image, yet they are clearly also shifting to greater self-awareness  Others refer to a worldview that is far more expansive, an awareness of self from the perspective of an objective witness, that sees how programmed and habitual ego responses have operated. Realizing both are necessary has helped me understand the symbolism of coagulatio.
Coagulatio--is the process that turns something into earth... The churn of reality solidifies the personality... it has become attached to an ego. In Jungian terms, coagulatio symbolizes the fulfillment of individuation, to be followed by  other alchemical processes. "What has become fully concretized is now subject to transformation." (Edward F. Edinger in Anatomy of the Psyche)
We have to become somebody before we can be nobody. Thus, my client Bart, until his fifties, had been consolidating himself as a strong and fearless man: "I had a long history of seeking peak experiences, adrenaline rushes. I was always keen on river rafting and I wanted to do it in wild rivers like the Amazon, rivers you could gauge by the number of maimings they have per season."

Bart had to become himself fully, to individuate, to operate in the world without apology, knowing he was just fine, as he was. Only then could he begin to step out into a broader perspective, one where he saw through the illusion of needing to be strong and could begin the path to becoming "nobody":
Then I was hit by a truck and broke several ribs and an arm -- with some nerve damage. It was distressing from the point of view that I was now only as strong as a regular person. It forced me to ask for help in ways I never had before. I had always tended to be at sixes and sevens when it came to, on the one hand, having the most qualified person do it, and on the other hand, doing everything myself, approaching every act as a Warrior with absolutely everything he's got. This became deeply frustrating because you can't do everything. So out of being partially incapacitated I learned how tied I'd been to the need to be strong.

I often think of the loss, both to me and to all the people who knew me before this change. I simply wasn't equipped to talk about larger issues; I'd been unable to hear. I was always back in the cave, conjecturing, ready to take a pot-shot, and I would never share. Now, when I'm really listening to someone, it's like walking down the sidewalk with our arms around each other, in step, making eye contact, walking together.

(See also Calcinatio, Solutio, Solificatio, Nigredo, Separatio, Mortificatio, Sublimatio)

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