The following article is an excerpt from The Cracking Tower: A Strategy for Transcending 2012 (North Atlantic Books).
Solve et Coagula
Jonah’s refusal to follow the voice from within left him completely at the mercy of the unconscious. After that he could only suffer his fate. Such is man’s vaunted freedom and hubris. Unless he accepts his own inner guidance, he becomes a mere puppet of fate. If he sets himself up against the inner voice, asserting that he is free to choose what he wants, he invariably becomes the victim of the dragon. Only when he voluntarily chooses that which he inexorably must do, has he any free will at all. For the command from within is his own inner law, and he disobeys it at his peril. — M. Esther Harding, Psychic Energy
Shamanism is based upon a gnosis that most humans have forgotten. This gnosis is that we are eternal, multidimensional entities living an illusory mortal existence in three?dimensional space. The human responsibility is to regain this gnosis and learn how to function fully in both physical and metaphysical realms. Powerful forces are constantly pushing us to a fuller realization of these potentials. Psychedelics can be extremely valuable tools in this Work, but they are easily abused. The reason our culture has a substance abuse problem is because we have lost our spiritual roots: not only do we lack culture?specific protocols for the use of consciousness?altering catalysts, we also have a tacit taboo against knowing who we are, and few viable strategies for discovery. Shamanism is one method, but it contains more than a few pitfalls.
“Shaman” is a title of earned power. Shamans are both revered and feared in tribal cultures — outsiders to be reckoned with. In contemporary Western usage, however, the term has an aura of Dungeons & Dragons fantasy surrounding it. (There are abundant links between role?playing computer games and psychedelic drug use in the perception of many would?be shamans-an unfortunate combination.) Self?sufficient invincibility is a popular fantasy of the ego, compensating for the perceived loss of personal empowerment in modern life. It is not at all surprising that this archetype is so appealing now-it is exhilarating to imagine oneself as a powerful wizard zooming around some inner rain forest, far from the bulldozers and toxic spillage-the urbanized junkyard existing outside of our heads.
The problem is that this is usually an egocentric position and the unguided ego makes a very deluded shaman. The ego neither initiates nor directs the shamanic work — the call must come from within. This call from hyperspace comes in different forms, is ubiquitous, and is in no way confined to shamanic contexts. I don’t know how many of us ever receive such a call, but when it comes, it is always unambiguous, and sometimes arrives via a psychedelic drug.
The first phase of any legitimate inner?directed work is usually concerned with putting the ego in its proper place and is typically an intense ordeal of many years’ duration. The classic accounts of shamanic dismemberment describe this process, which is not literal, but a metaphor for the complete rearrangement of one’s psychic priorities. At the end of the ordeal one has been transformed into a wholly different being. As noted, mind?manifesting drugs have the capacity to reveal your mind as either unified or fragmented, depending on where your head is at (which usually has very little to do with where your ego thinks it’s at.) The highest revelation that psychedelics offer (the bottom line of all true religion) is that “we are all one.” The gurus assert that anything less than this gnosis is illusion. The opposite of wholeness is separation from the whole: we see component parts rather than their integration. Such perception on psychedelics typically evokes a fear response: mind perceives itself as surrounded by entities regarded as “not?me.” That which is not me is a potential enemy, and fear of others is a perfectly valid response for anyone living on a planet where predator?prey relationships determine survival.
Both realities are true: we are all One within the Mind of God, but we are also all separate bodies on planet Earth. It’s the One?Many koan again. The ability of psychedelic drugs to reveal both realities suggests a connection with one of the fundamental principles of alchemy: solve et coagula, et habebis magisterium (“separate and recombine, and you will have the masterpiece”).
The true goal of the alchemical Great Work was not the transmutation of “lead into gold” of popular folklore, but the transformation of the alchemist’sconsciousness into a state of unified perception. The alchemical canon says: disassemble it, purify the parts, and then reassemble them in a new composition. In Jungian terms, you analyze (solve) your complexes, then recombine and synthesize them (coagula) into a harmonious whole. Whether regarded as individuation or shamanic dismemberment and recombination, it’s the same process.
In modern practice, this often begins by coming to terms with your early childhood; then you learn to recognize how much your complexes inhibit your freedom. Having navigated those labyrinths, next you get a handle on your life work: you get in touch with your Essence (Self, Individuality, Causal Body) and reconcile your former ego illusions with its intent. It’s an unending dialectical progression. Analysis and synthesis (solve et coagula), then, is a universal formula for completing the Great Work of Transformation. If you succeed at this, the final whole will be a totally different substance than the whole you started with. It goes without saying that the formula is deceptively easy to understand but extremely difficult to accomplish.
I am reminded of a famous Zen proverb: Before practicing Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. While practicing Zen mountains are no longer mountains and rivers no longer rivers. After practicing Zen, mountains are mountains again and rivers are rivers again.
This is just another way of describing the solve et coagula formula of alchemy. First you deconstruct the mountains and rivers (which is to say, your everyday reality) to know them in their substance, then you put them back together again, purified of illusion. Actually, “you” don’t do this; your Essence does it through you — all that is required of the ego is disciplined cooperation, which is to say, devotion to the Work.
Another example: In 1846, when Henry Thoreau was at Walden Pond, there were millions of humans on the planet who lived lives as simple as his. In those days, any peasant in what today we call the “Third World” lived outwardly no differently than Thoreau. An anthropologist from another planet, comparing only their external lifestyles, would see no differences between them: they both chopped wood, they both carried water. Yet Thoreau was living in a much different reality than, say, your average European peasant. For both of them, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers, but Thoreau’s mountains and rivers were of a different quality of beingness. That’s because he had attained a higher degree of gnosis. To switch metaphors again: he understood both the forest and the trees that made it up.
This verse from the Tao Te Ching bears repeating:
Oftentimes, one strips oneself of passion
In order to see the Secret of Life;
Oftentimes, one regards life with passion,
In order to see its manifest forms.
The “Secret of Life” is the gnosis that we are all one, that the highest reality is unitive. In alchemical terms, we cannot really know that unity, we cannot have true gnosis, until we have experienced all the “manifest forms”; only then can we claim to truly know the whole. The simple peasant, living in a state of nature, can be said to know a kind of wholeness, but it is a state of unconscious innocence. To comprehend any whole completely, it must be analyzed so that its component parts can be discerned. During this phase of the Work, by definition, mountains and rivers cannot be whole entities, but must be seen in their infinite parts.
In the beginning, psychedelics were crucial to my inner development. I can’t imagine where I would be now if I’d never had the revelations that these substances offered me. In my case, the solve et coagula formula came backwards: my first LSD trip was one of samadhi, of complete harmonic unity. My journey began with the coagula portion of the equation. I now realize that my Essence was giving me an experience of the final goal of the Work: at that time of my life, I had no concept at all of what it was that I was seeking. Essence knew that once I’d experienced this state of awareness, I would never rest in this lifetime until I’d attained it permanently (I still haven’t, by the way).
While I was under the influence of LSD the first time, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers as described in the third clause of the proverb. This was enlightenment as attained by spiritual adepts. When I returned to consensus reality eight hours later, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers; the world from which I’d started my trip had changed forever. You can’t go home again after an experience like that. It goes without saying that I had a rough time reconciling the two realities. Thus begins the Great Work of Transformation.
My second acid trip showed me the solve half of the alchemical equation. It was the most terrifying experience of fragmented awareness I’ve ever known. My world was torn asunder, and nothing I could do would put it back together again. My greedy ego was seeking the total samadhi of my first LSD experience, but my Essence had a more profound lesson in mind. Mountains were definitely not mountains, and rivers were definitely not rivers: nothing, absolutely nothing in my environment was what it had been before. It was the complete deconstruction of ordinary reality. At that time, of course, I had no concept of the alchemist’s solve et coagula equation. It was in trying to reconcile the two experiences that, years later, I came to understand their relationship to the alchemical secret of inner development, the solution to the mountains and rivers koan. (During this time it also began to dawn on me that Essence is an extremely demanding guru!)
Essence is that center of awareness residing in the unconscious psyche. As stated before, Essence is synonymous with Jung’s concept of the Self, the Kabbalist’s Individuality, and the Causal Body of Theosophy. Your Essence is the immortal portion of your awareness, quite distinct from the mortal ego, which will not last longer than this earthly incarnation. When Jim DeKorne dies, he will disappear from this planet forever and his life experience will be absorbed into his Essence, a far superior identity in hyperspace. The attainment of this relatively simple gnosis is one of the most crucial phases of the Work because the ego absolutely must transcend the illusion that it is the center of the psyche. Gradually, always painfully, one learns that not until ego and Self become integrated will they ascend to higher levels of awareness.
This level of integration is relatively rare during physical incarnation because it implies transcendence to a kind of god?consciousness: we can experience it sometimes in mystical states and on psychedelics, but probably never do we operate from such consciousness all day, every day. Even Ramakrishna frequently returned from samadhi to interact with his disciples.
I met my Essence on an acid trip. It’s worth quoting at length from Psychedelic Shamanism. This was my fourth major experience, and the one that has had by far the strongest impact on my life:
On the morning of February 18, 1979, I took LSD again after a gap of about three years. As I sat in my easy chair waiting for the effects of the drug to begin, I felt a sudden impulse to get up and remove an antique Mexican machete from where it had been hanging on the wall for at least a decade. Like many items used only for decoration, this one had by now become so familiar as to be invisible — I don’t recall having paid any real attention to it for years. Indeed, it was shamefully covered with dust. I’d purchased the machete in 1965 at the Toluca market outside of Mexico City. It was hanging in the back of a stall operated by a used?tool?and?parts vendor who sold battered hammers, bent screwdrivers, grease?caked crescent wrenches, and rusty motorcycle chains — that sort of thing. The machete was obviously fairly old (I estimate early twentieth century, sometime around the Mexican revolution), and well used, with many nicks and scratches and a splintered handle. There is a dicho, or proverb engraved on the blade: Nada del mundo es verdad por lo que mi ojos ven, “Nothing in the world is true that meets my eyes,” or, more freely, “Everything is an illusion.” It’s a curious saying-I’ve never thought of it as a Mexican Catholic sentiment; if anything, it sounds Buddhist.
For some reason, I wanted to hold this machete, and as the LSD began to alter my consciousness I held it tighter and tighter. It was beginning to manifest the energies of a “power object” and soon the machete morphed into a kind of psychic lightning rod for forces to enter my body — at that point I don’t think I could have let go of it if I’d wanted to. Now the drug was coming on strong and I was suddenly very, very stoned. The machete vibrated with authority and seemed to pull me from my chair, across the room and out the door into the yard, where I was forcibly thrown to my knees on the ground. For the first, and so far the only, time in my life I heard a distinctly clear voice speaking to me from within my own head. The voice was nothing that I could identify with as “me” or even a portion of “me.” It was totally Other, and it asked a question: “Do you take responsibility?”
I didn’t really know what that meant — take responsibility for what? Yet I knew that it was important to say yes; taking responsibility was certainly a responsible” thing to do, and I’ve always believed in being responsible.
The energy level of the voice increased one full octave:“Do you take responsibility?!“
“Uh — sure. Yes.” I was deeply intoxicated, and quite confused by the repetition of the question.
Now the numinosity and power of the voice doubled again, becoming suddenly very, very scary. What was I dealing with here? Do you take responsibility?!!!“
“Yes! I take responsibility!” I had no idea what I was taking responsibility for, but I knew that I must be equal to it, whatever “it” was. Then I crossed the line into “something else” — these goddamned acid trips! Why did I continue to do this to myself? Flashback replays of my second voyage into LSD terror. . . . It was now nothing less than the voice of God demanding: “DO YOU TAKE RESPONSIBILITY?!!!!”
I was no longer sure that I wanted that much responsibility, yet somehow I felt certain that if I’d said “no,” I would have dropped dead on the spot. The voice’s unstated implication was “Take responsibility or die!” In that state of consciousness I really believed it (I still do, by the way).
“Yes! Yes! I take responsibility!” The voice fell silent. I’d been dismissed. After a while I got to my feet and stumbled back into the house. The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful — lots of somatic electro?surging and cerebral drain cleaner boiling my brain with tidal waves of stars and sparks. A local FM radio station played a piece by Alan
Hovhaness: Mountains and Rivers without End — powerful music to hear when on a
psychedelic, and another synchronicity not recognized until later. By late afternoon, I’d drifted back into normal awareness again. It was good to be back.
That night I went to bed somewhat washed?out from the acid, but fully recovered and in consensus reality again. I’d been down for several hours, in fact. I had a dream: My machete was in front of me, hanging suspended in a pure void of infinite darkness. Etched on the blade, in place of the Spanish dicho, were Hebrew letters in living fire (I am not Jewish and can’t read Hebrew, but do recognize the script). The machete disappeared and only the fiery letters remained suspended in the void. They began to move and reform themselves in the Roman alphabet to spell SEPHIROTH in fire. Then they disappeared, and only the void was left.
I awoke, my heart pounding anxiously, just like after my out?of?body experience. I arose from bed and paced around the house-what did “Sephiroth” mean? I looked it up in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary — no such word. This was the most powerful dream I’d ever had — a once?in?a?lifetime kind of dream. It was easily as numinous as my encounter with the voice, but unfortunately, I didn’t know what it meant any more than I knew what it was I’d taken responsibility for. It was at least two weeks before I got a clue.
Aimlessly browsing in a Santa Fe bookstore one day, I saw a book with the title Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult. I turned to the proper page and found: “Sephiroth: the ten emanations of God in the Jewish Kabbalah.” I was stunned; I knew the Kabbalah was some kind of Jewish mystical system, but that was as far as my knowledge went at the time. How could my unconscious psyche come up with information that I had never consciously encountered in my life? (This was 1979; I was living on a homestead in the New Mexico boondocks, and snobbishly disdained all doctrines depending on arcane jargon for their comprehension.)
From there I obtained some Kabbalistic textbooks to study: I forget the reading sequence now, but Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah and Gareth Knight’s A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism stand out in my mind as particularly seminal texts. (“Kabbalah” is spelled in at least five variants, “Qabalah” being one commonly used in England.) It was in Knight’s book, over a year later, that I encountered another synchronicity for this experience.
Without trying to explain the intricacies of Kabbalistic philosophy, of which there are many (to say the least!), I discovered that my machete/voice adventure corresponded to the seventeenth path on the Tree of Life. This path is called: “A path of choice, the crossroads of life meet here.” (i.e., “Do you take responsibility?”) The Tarot arcanum symbolically connected with this path is The Lovers, and the Hebrew word?letter for The Lovers is zayin, which means “sword.” (A machete is certainly a kind of sword.) The drug ergot is also closely associated with this path, and LSD, of course, is an ergot derivative.
That’s a fair amount of synchronicity compressed into an initiation that is still not totally clear to me, but I am apparently in good company: years after my “Kabbalah trip,” I found an observation concerning LSD psychotherapy in Stanislav Grof’s book, Realms of the Human Unconscious. He describes here how others under the influence of LSD have experienced similar revelations to my own: Individuals unfamiliar with the Kabbalah have had experiences described in the Zohar and Sepher Yetzirah and have demonstrated a surprising familiarity with Kabbalistic symbols.
Lesson: It was this experience that finally convinced me that I was involved in an unfolding inner process. I eventually accepted the concept that the conscious “me” was but a portion of a greater reality emanating from what I experienced as my unconscious psyche. Somewhere within this undifferentiated “unconscious” was a separate intelligence (“me” on a higher octave) able to manipulate information superior to anything I knew here in space?time.
In Jungian terms, my ego had just been introduced to my Self. At least that’s how I interpreted it after many years of studying the Perennial Philosophy. Meditation on the sequence and interrelationship of meanings in this experience can yield profound insights about the structure of reality and the nature of the Work:
“Nada del mundo es verdad por lo que mi ojos ven.“
“Do you take responsibility?“
Mountains and Rivers without End.
“Sephiroth: the ten emanations of God in the Jewish Kabbalah.“
This experience was an initiation, a beginning. The very nature of the revelations indicates the commencement of a journey. I have yet to experience anything resembling an end to it.
c 2009 by Jim DeKorne. Reprinted by permission of publisher.