Towards a Sustainable Enchantment

Speak in Tongues Unkown:

If anything is true, it’s that we each have our forts, our moats and reinforced walls. Yet those monsters from whom we’d hide have turned out to be less mysterious than tragic. I do not fear boogiemen, vampires or werewolves as much as self-doubt, codependency and blind rage. The things that scare me have changed, for to embrace the unknown is to meet it on terms outside our control. It’s to surrender a fictitious upper hand over that which is external while accepting that it might not be external at all. It is to dive deep within the self, to purify that which is actually worth being afraid of with courage and agency. I have spent many years studying many systems for doing this, accepting there are no “right ones”.

The two that have spoken the most clearly are the Native American Medicine Wheel and the Alchemical Process of Transmutation. What I’ve found over time taking cues of Jung, Campbell, Gennep and others was a path of convergence along central themes, including stages of human development and fulfillment both internally and externally alike. I associate the medicine wheel to the macro level, the natural procession of seasons as well as the stages of a full life. Whereas alchemy tends to act like an overlay atop the wheel, going into more detail at the micro level articulating both the processes of the wheel as well as those that fit in between and inside them such as the cyclical development of identity and the tendency to mark milestones between each season of our lives.

The medicine wheel exists at the macro level of development. This system is based on four basic directions and the negative space between them. Each cardinal direction stands for a different season or stage of development IE childhood, adolescence, adulthood and elder hood.

However as new research comes into the spectrum these stages have been likened more often to seasons that bleed into each other, unlike the traditionally black and white process often described. Medicine wheels were used to remind those in the community of their interconnection to the natural cycles going on all around them. As they’ve been traditionally used they weren’t simply symbolic objects but a participatory tool used consistently in worship and ceremony. There are many interpretations of the path toards the “Great Mystery”, and as such, the descriptions below are simply those I’ve learned.

When seeking critical self reflection, you’re asking both your animus/anima to speak to you through your subconscious and conscious self, thus each season reflects a stage of your life. We can move through these stages over the course of our lives, yet just as easily in mere moments and the lasting appeal of this model isn’t simply to honor the past but to better understand ourselves in relation to it. To know who we are we must know where we come from, it is this alone that will help teach us where we’re going.

Medicine Wheel without background

Summer [Childhood]: Summer is childhood, the wonder and curiosity coming specifically out of a lack of experience. It is the small field mouse that moves about the tall grass, searching out morsels, ever moving. It is the trusting daughter or student who seeks out knowledge from the people and things around them. By being OPEN we learn to be emotional beings, but this is not enough, summer is the inevitable realization that more lies out there than what sits right in front of us and an acnkowledgement of our need to seek it out. It is also the thick heat of summer, the deep red of passion; sexuality. It’s the resonating thrum of drums heard while dancing, heard with the body as much as the ears. Reason has not yet taken over our senses, summer then, is still a place where good and evil may take the form of parable or fantasy, where dragons still breathe fire and every manner of adventure lie just round the next bend. This will lead up to the first stage of the alchemical process; Nigredo or blackening.

Autumn [Adolescence]: Autumn is a place of deep introspection. It’s most easily referenced as the actual process or the quest itself. Some of the hardest work is done here; to openly acknowledge you are alone; no one is there to help you but yourself. Autumn is associated with adolescence and can be the darkest of all the stages of development, endless and impenetrable obsidian. It’s often associated with those moments when you are lost and confused, angry and angst full. It is to shed responsibility and to move forward with blinders on, embracing any new experience that might bring more definition to the ambiguous. You are the coiled rattlesnake, the hibernating bear, the tiger locked in a cage of your own choosing with the key around its neck. Yet it’s important to remember that the storm clouds bring the rain, the rain that nourishes the soil, the soil that allows for roots, the roots that grow the fruits and vegetables that in turn nourish us. Autumn is the time of harvest, Persephone has not yet been summoned to Hades, and there is bounty in the air if we choose to see it. To be stuck in the adolescence is to do so of our own accord, for if it may teach us anything it’s that we learn the most when times are the hardest, when we are open and honest with ourselves about the things we would rather not be. This will lead up to the second stage of the alchemical process; Albedo or whitening.

Winter [Adulthood]: Winter is adulthood, the tedium, resourcefulness, and creativity that are called for to survive the harsh cold. No one has many good things to say about adulthood at first. It’s usually pictured as the 9 to 5, collar and tie, sitting in a cubicle, waiting for the end of the day. No one really wants to gather or chop the kindling, to collect and cure the meat so that there’s enough to last. Just as our idea of achievement isn’t paying bills online or doing taxes. It is the buffalo with its head down piling through the snow; you do what you have to. Yet the winter is white for a reason that purity of intent is kept to remind us that solace is indeed the motivation to continue. We learn how to find the value in competence, in providing not just for ourselves but those we love.  This is where you develop the healthy pride engendered by humility and grace not the arrogant pride of youth that is never backed with the products of experience or the where with all of sacrifice. We must inevitably come down off the mountain; our new life awaits us as do those we’ve kept in our thoughts. This will lead up to the third stage of the alchemical process; Citrinitas or yellowing.

Spring [Elderhood]: As one begins to come full circle, you realizes that a circle is simply the line evolved. As one begun, one traditionally thinks one must end. Yet as each end and beginning interlace, they become over time one story. The vantage point of the hawk or eagle can shed light on things invisible from the ground. The things that once caused you struggle now offer you aid, the concepts you simply could not grasp, you now teach with the most vigor. Just like the first buds of spring, or the first rays of the golden sunrise remind us that the line’s permanent end is folly. We allow the change to come fully into our person.  As we come into a place of elderhood, it is our calling to help those who seek the breadth, width, and edges of fear, struggle, and failure so they might learn the necessary secrets of and for themselves. This will lead up to the final stage of the alchemical process; Rubedo or reddening.

Condicio sine qua non: 

As I’ve said, the second piece to this process is alchemical. The reason I’m so interested in this process is because of how it views “form.” One of our central endeavors is to articulate the differences between arbitrary and emplaced form. One of the most effective ways we’ve been able to do this is through the lens of Aristotle’s concept of holymorphism. Traditionally, this concept described the relationship between matter [that which something consists of] and form [the relational aspects of the material], which together became substance. The stock example is that “formless” matter [a lump of clay] is placed into a form [wooden mold] and thus what is created is a brick [substance]. Classical interpretation would go a step further and state that the passive/potential matter is changed and manipulated by the active/actual form. Aristotle posited that form is always seeking to be materialized and matter to be informed, they are like lovers held together by the context of substance. But there is a philosophical error inherently built in to this presupposition that would make them dysfunctional partners at best.

We know from basic chemistry that a lump of clay no matter how seemingly “formless” undoubtedly has extensive structure both at the molecular and material levels. Thus it isn’t that the lump of clay doesn’t have form, but instead that it doesn’t have the form we deem worthy to be recognizable as such. This alludes to what we looked at in part I, when Holloway described our own creation of cultural forms, being that the world is made “actual” mainly through human manipulation and mastery over it. What we continue to seek in part 2 is a more congruent description of our relationship with and construction of individual and cultural form, both in methodology and practice. Understanding and recognizing structure in all things we can find a more accurate way to describe the brick metaphor as an encounter between two structured matters [a bound composite of both matter and form] that generates new structure as a result of the interactions between them. Both matters are simultaneously active and passive, potential and actual in relation to one another just as we alluded to Koestler’s Holons as being both part and whole simultaneously both drawing information from the other.

A helpful way to contextualize this is through the alchemical framing of color, specifically vermillion. Both Chinese and Arab alchemists, as well as Roman priests, believed vermillion to be one of the most powerful of all substances. The pigment was originally made from gathering and crushing the wings of insects, and in time from the naturally occurring element cinnabar. However, vermillion as we refer to it here comes from “metacinnabar”, or mercury-sulfide. Metacinnabar is created when mercury and melted sulfur are crushed together resulting in a dark black powder. This is then placed in an airtight container [as the process is highly toxic] and subjected to heat. What follows is a violent and fairly rare type of chemical reaction called sublimation. This is when a material transforms directly from a solid to a gas skipping the liminal or liquid state most other materials are subject to. Vermillion, is an example of the truth “up til now”, reminding us that our knowledge is often and continually bound by our vantage point. Indeed, the last thing we expect a black powder to do is disappear and then reappear somewhere else as little red crystals. The process is described in myth as Ares [Mars/ Sulfur], the god of war and Aphrodite [Venus/Mercury], the goddess of love who could not be more opposite come together producing a daughter: harmony, out of death comes sublime rebirth. Antiquity would paint this as the threshold between heaven and earth, a moment that allows for the marriage of opposites [usually chaotic] to create something wholly transcendent.

Sublimation itself literally means, “to make sublime”. Seeing the limitations of our intuitive or even experiential knowledge can engender a proper humility [not fear] towards the cosmos and thus our place in it e.g. sublimation can lead us to emplacement. For us, the relevant lesson is that to craft form [cultural or individual] bearing in mind holymorphic [relationally interdependent] truth makes us recognize not only the parts of a larger system and their connection to each other and us but also their innate draw to each other, even when in seeming opposition. This truth allows us to create sublimated form through use and to emplace it through context. It makes an artist of man, and opens him up the fruits of the great work.

The whole point of expanding on this is simple; birth and death are certainties, however actual living is full of discovery and choice, inevitably the choice to seek Eudemonia, the flourishing and fulfilling life is an internal one and thus our internal choices through the subsequent behaviors and actions they engender create cultural form. It follows then that a flourishing life, would inevitably or at the very least probably lead to a flourishing culture. It could even follow that one is not entirely possible without the continual feedback loop of the other. Holymorphism and its alchemical ties to sublimation are the condicio sin qua non [without which not] of Eudaimonia. Only the initiate who came to surpass the search for wealth or fame could finally achieve the philosopher’s stone [Vermillion]. There are perquisites of intention, for the Eudemonic life leads to something else that is often confused: apatheia. Wholly different than our word apathy, apatheia is more akin to freedom, a freedom from impulsive or ego driven reaction. To achieve apatheia is learn the wisdom of the sage, to embody harmony, the axis point and meeting place of balance. This is created through a tedious and mindful process that pairs up to cycles and developmental stages alike. Just as we looked at the four directions of the medicine wheel in part I as the macrocosm, we now overlay that with the microcosm of the alchemical work. For to achieve either Eudaimonia or apatheia isn’t a easy task to accomplish, nor should it be. To achieve the work was to get it right, right in the face of previous failures and thus learning. Right, because you know what you’re trying to do and why, and why you’re doing it in the first place. So let us look a little more closely at how these stages mirror both development and fit on the wheel. The four successive stages are as follows:

Medicine Wheel without background

Nigredo/I [severence]: We begin by seeking the prima materia or the purest state of matter, which then must be separated by fire and violence. Psychologically it’s about entering that dark chaotic space of one’s inner demons [the shadow] By intentionally creating a container we can allow for the fire’s to burn bright. We lose sight of material objects towards identifying who we are regardless of them [Core vs Constructed] completion of this phase is signaled by a “death” of the old self. In every journey there must be a moment in which you can affix the memory of its start. Severance on the wheel, is to leave the familiar, to acknowledge that experience by its very nature is paramount to losing innocence while trying to maintain a purity of intent. It is the first moment in our lives we give credence to death and to shedding the extraneous. It is to knowingly or otherwise be thrust into the beginning of a paradigm shift. “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” To sever is to accept that the West is on the horizon, that storm clouds brew in the distance and thus change is on the horizon. It is also the proclamation “I”, the child moves towards adolescence and begins to think more about distilling I from the experiences they are a part of, I is to undertake reflection about what I is and thus to move towards the realizations that inevitably come along with that.

Albedo/I Am [threshold]: From the earthly to the power of the moon which represents our own identify reflecting light back off of a surface like that of water, reminding us of who we are and thus are becoming. Doing the work, going through the motions while we spend that deep internal time figuring out just exactly who we are. The matter becomes conscious of itself, IE as we realize what our gifts are, we are thus changed. This is the end of the lesser work, the identification and the marriage of opposites. Threshold is best described as that milestone for the seeker. To accept that as you seek a moment or moments will come in which we are called to articulate ourselves. Moments that once past will leave us forever changed. We cannot go backwards, we may revisit the west or the south but they will never be as they were, because we won’t either. To look into the unknown without assurance but to take the experiences we’ve gained and to place enough faith in our effaciousness, to believe that no matter what lies ahead we choose not simply to bear it but to make the best of it. In this we move from simply I to I am, we exclaim I am worthy, I am capable, I am [whatever I need to be]. If severance is a death, then threshold is in the same breath to acknowledge the possibility of new life.

Citrinitas/We Are [Apprentice Incorporation]: The yellowing is most associated with the sun. The light is great and strong as if it had no source, no longer reflecting like it did with the moon. The death of the sense of self in that it is separate and individual from other things. No one lives in a vacuum. As well as realizing the fallacy of the subject/object distinction. As stated earlier the youth’s vision was not simply their own, it belonged as much to them as it did to their community. One cannot become a man or woman in a vacuum. To do so is to pay reverence and respect to the elders that acknowledge you as such upon your return. Just as in ancient Rome they had the concept of Communitas [to offer ones gifts]. It was to admit that together you could do things impossible of the individual, the root-meaning wall, not in defense but strength. It is important to remember that when moving along you don’t leave the south, west, or north behind but take them with you. Your experience, like a spark cast among the fire. After all, what is a community except the varying individual experiences made aggregate. Upon the youth’s return they were given a name, one allowing the village to acknowledge that whereas one person left it was both the same and a wholly different person who returned. This was worn like a badge of honor, a marker of achievement, of having a specific place among their own.

Rubedo/Axis Mundi [Illuminated Incorporation]: The fire of fusion, to return to the earth. This is where we coagulate or come back together through balance of spirit and matter. This is truly turning material into the philosopher stone and thus gold [Apathea]. The Self recognizes and manifests itself as holon, both part and whole simultaneously. After the duty and responsibilities are done, when the wood is gathered, the bills paid; when our time is our own what we choose to do when free is likewise what defines us. But more than that is when we can see the circle for what it truly is that we are drawn to all directions. We realize that to play or reflect, to go about our work, or to teach are all equal parts of the fulfilled life. Happiness is not simply to survive but to flourish, thus we are drawn not to any single direction but instead towards the center. We began the journey in the East attempting to understand I, moving to I am and then we are. Here we come back again and into embodying not I or we but the very soul of the world, the axis point between all things in which we pull from each stage and direction equally. In which all things and us are one, to exist at all is to acknowledge interconnection. This is the point of actualization, to illuminate the darkness not to spite it but offer contrast, not simply for us but for all.

In the end it is important to come back to Condicio [originally meaning agreement] of sine qua non [without which not]. In other words to seek the stone as a metaphor for Eudaimonia there must be an agreement, both in you and the work you’re doing, to flourish is to be well aware of the path leading up to that point. However in the later post Pagan Latin Codicio was changed to Conditio which translates to and stands the root for our word: condition. Words are simply placeholders for intention. To give up agreement of truth for condition therein of Truth is to turn one’s back on the grey and accept the black and white. What we seek through language, art and a little magic is for the gray tones to come back, to then give way to colors, those unseen.  Just as the tongues unknown can be both heard and spoken, I’d urge us to create a palate not limited by what we know but challenged by what we don’t.

In the end, if there is anything I do know it’s that we need to get outside with our children and start talking to rocks and insects. We need to start playing again, to free imagination from its fiscal responsibilities. It’s time to not be limited by what is possible, but unlimited by what isn’t. It’s time to start living like villages again, to tell stories with the landscape, not about it. If humanity is to have a future, it will come from those not bound by the categories that separate the seeker from the expert, but from those without fear who seek balance, those who love continuously and fiercely. In the end if you ask me what an enchanted world looks like, I’d tell you to close your eyes again and remember that deep sense of awe and reverie when all things were alive to you: those whispers that bubbled up from the rushing waters bearing all the secrets of the universe, those fleeting images in the shadows that followed just out of sight. I’d ask you to remember who you were in those moments and what you believed.

To move towards a sustained enchantment….



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