The Alchemy of Remembrance

Posted on in Healthy Living by Dylan Hoffman

Recovering Ourselves from the Past


Have you struggled with making sense of your past? Have you ever wondered what to do with your most difficult experiences? How does someone process trauma? How do you gain meaning from loss or betrayal? Is there some way to extract life and hope from emotional devastation and the death of ideals and relationships?

Or should we simply discard our sorrow? Is it useless and irredeemable? Maybe we should just amputate the experiences that harm us.

But maybe we lose some portion of our own souls hidden in our pain if we cast away our worst experiences. After all, they wouldn’t have hurt if they hadn’t touched some vital element in us. If we try to sever the experience, we might bleed away.

Amputees will tell you that even phantom limbs can still cause pain.

How, then, can we reclaim our experiences, not to suffer them again and again, but to regain the soul lost in our pain? If we are to find fullness, we must find a way to draw out the gold of our soul’s wholeness from the dark, leaden material of our past.

For this we need the art of alchemy. Alchemists were those strange figures of history obsessed with the possibility of transmuting base metals into gold.

They sat over stoves in smelly, smoky laboratories with vessels filled with elements that had been designated as useless or rejected as dangerous—like mercury and sulfur, lead and arsenic. They had the strange notion that these harmful materials held a hidden seed of gold.

Through caution, care, and attention, these harsh sources might release something sacred and rich. Alchemists sustained themselves with the curious hope that somehow they might be able to extract something valuable and essential from things noxious and damaging.

For those of us with portions of our souls buried in toxic, dark, and heavy experiences, our well-being depends on the alchemists being right.

Whatever our gender, maybe our soul’s masculine principle is still hidden in our past experiences of being fathered. When a present moment requires a forceful response—vigor, courage, decisiveness—we watch ourselves cower or react with anger and aggression. When we attempt to reach within to gather our strength, we find our father reaching back, pulling us into his own withdrawal or rage.

Perhaps the gold of our inner femininity is lost in our leaden experiences of being mothered. We find ourselves continually disregarding our instincts and felt sense of things. When we look within, our mother steps between us and our intuitions and insights to remind us that it is better to be quiet and loved than intelligent, honest, ambitious, and alone. We know love, success, and integrity are not mutually exclusive. We know she’s wrong, silently.

Our soul’s sexuality might be buried away in our early encounters with sex. Any stirring of our natural sensuality pulls us back into experiences of denigration, abuse, and shame. We can never allow our soul’s sexuality to inhabit our bodies because our physicality is haunted by the spiritual violations of the past.

In order to survive the past, we have all cast away things essential to our present selves. We had to. If we were ever exposed to toxic water, we would be wise to be wary the next time we take a sip. We might even avoid water for a while. But we need water to live. So while we remain cautious, we cannot reject water forever. It is essential to our existence.

This physical reality—the necessity of partaking in fundamental nutrients—is true for the soul as well. We must discover and gather in every essential element of our souls, however much they are buried under our original traumas and pain. We cannot be whole without them.

And so how do we find the gold? How do we regain the original richness of our souls without repeating the past again and again? When we enter the world, we first look into other’s eyes to perceive ourselves. We find our identity in the faces of those around us. But we weren’t meant to take other’s perceptions of us as our own or to suppose that what they reflected back to us is all that we are. Our surroundings provided the first occasions for self-awareness but weren’t meant to provide an accurate reflection of our actual inner content.

The only way to extract our souls from the confinement of our past experience is to recognize that our current perceptions of ourselves might not actually belong to us.

And so our souls set the alchemical task for us of distinguishing what belongs to us from what belongs to the past—extracting the gold from the lead. And we can only separate the two through deeply felt and courageous acts of remembrance.

As much as possible we have to faithfully and fully remember our mothers and fathers and siblings, and recall the qualities of our first friendships and experiences of love and sexuality. We have to remember our losses, our wounds, our traumas.

That’s how we’ll discover when and where our current self-perceptions originated and to whom they belong—so we can return those views to their rightful times and places and owners.

Our own gold is waiting, buried behind the perspectives of the past. Our own masculinity and femininity, our own sexuality, our own styles of friendship and love are there to be discovered. Our soul’s wholeness is hiding until we use our own eyes to see.

Dylan Hoffman, PhD, is a Jungian psychologist, writer, teacher, and the founder of Spiritual Alchemy Institute. AlchemyInstitute

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