Alchemical Speculative Placemaking

Methodology/DIY Alchemical Speculative Placemaking

The Squared Circle of the Philosophers’ Stone

While this work can be approached any number of ways, what follows is a description of how I went about this alchemical speculative placemaking project and the tools and resources I used. I made it up as I went along, with assistance and guidance of mentors and teachers. If something doesn’t feel right for you, take what works and leave the rest. And always feel welcome to reach out with thoughts or questions.

As should be clear by now, there is no one alchemical practice. Some approaches only have three stages, while others have fourteen. For yet others, alchemy was just one component within a larger work.

Sources

For this project, I relied heavily on the book Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy, by Edward F. Edinger, who himself drew upon the work of Carl Jung. It is from that text I selected the seven stages used in this project, the descriptions of their qualities, as well as numerous quotes. Unfortunately, it is a very difficult book to find. If you can’t find it, I suggest using the stages and qualities included here or conducting research on your own.

Additional texts that look at the connection between alchemy and psychology include Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology, by Jung’s student and collaborator Marie-Louise von Franz; The Mystery of the Coniunctio: Alchemical Image of Individuation and The Mysterium Lectures: A Journey through C.G. Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis, both by Edinger. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, which I was not, you can go straight to the source and check out Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, Alchemical Studies, and Mysterium Coniunctionis.

Along with Edinger’s work, I found inspiration looking at surviving alchemical texts, many of which have been scanned and are accessible online, including: Atalanta Fugiens, Aurora consurgens, Rosarium Philosophorum and The Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine. Other useful sources include the chaotic yet extensive and accurately named Alchemy Web Site and Wikipedia.

Outside of self-defined alchemical texts, other works provided guidance and insight. Especially those by Black feminist thinkers, scholars, teachers, and writers, including Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals and the praxis of oracle and ceremony, both by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and of course Octavia Butler, in particular Parable of the Sower.

Admittedly, that is a lengthy list of materials. But by no means do you need to read them all, or even one. All that you really need you already have inside you.

Process

After doing as much (or as little!) preparatory research as you want, it’s time to start the fun part.

First, decide which stage you want to work with. Review its name and its qualities.

Second, get a journal or piece of paper and something to write/draw with. (Nothing electronic unless absolutely necessary.)

Third, find a quiet place where you will be able to sit undisturbed. If you have an altar or meditation spot, or a favorite place to read or write, those are great. Another option is to go on a hike and find a place amongst the trees or in a meadow. If none of that’s possible, some headphones with calm, ambient music can do the trick.

Fourth, engage in a “transference dialogue” with the stage and its qualities. This is a technique outlined by Robert Romanyshyn in his book The Wounded Researcher: Research with Soul in Mind, on pages 148-162. There he outlines five steps, but for our purposes, three will do just fine.

  • Step A. Set the mood in the place you’ll be writing/drawing. Adopt of sense of “reverie,” allow yourself to be open to whatever may emerge without judgement. In this space, there is no right or wrong, truths or falsehoods, facts or reason. Instead of thinking, allow yourself to be thought. Breathe, sit, and offer an invitation to whatever or whomever might pass through. Lighting a candle or incense may help foster this environment and provide an anchoring object.
  • Step B. Once you’ve created this space, call to mind the stage and its qualities. Engage in a dialogue with it across four levels. Below are some prompting questions from Romanyshyn. If it helps, jot reminders of them down on your paper before beginning the process. Ask, out loud if possible, some or all of the following questions:

    • Personal Level: “Who is there in my family, biography, and/or history who has something to say about this work?” “Do my parents have a voice in this work?” “My siblings, etc.?”
    • Cultural-Historical Level: “Who is there from another historical period and/or a different culture who has something to say about this work?” “Is there someone from another race, gender, socioeconomic class who has a voice in this work?”
    • Collective-Archetypal Level: “For whom is this work being done?” “Who are the guides or ancestors who are directing this work?” “Whom does this work serve?”
    • Eco-Cosmological Level: “What do the other creatures with whom I share creation have to say about the work?” Do the animals have a voice in it?” “The plants, the trees, etc.?” (Romanyshyn 152-53)

After each question, simply wait in the open space of reverie for whatever to come forth that wants to come forth. As best you can, try not to think of an answer, but rather allow a reply to surface of its own accord. Addressing the question to the candle, incense, or another object can facilitate the process. It may take some time, and that’s okay. On the other hand, you may be stunned as your pen or pencil starts to move, seemingly of its own volition. You may end up in a conversation. You may start drawing. You may start singing. Let it all flow without judgement or evaluation.

Once you feel the dialogue has reached its natural conclusion, thank your visitors for their presence. Thank yourself for your willingness to engage with this work.

  • Step C. After some time, preferably a couple days at least, return to what ended up on the paper. As initially you received, now is the time to reflect, but to reflect in a certain way. As Romanyshyn writes, “explore the meanings of the images and dialogues produced as they relate to the work [or alchemical stage in our case].…Attend to the images, symbols, and fantasies on their own terms…[they] are not data. They are pathways into the unknown in the work, portals into the work’s undreamed possibilities” (161).

Fifth, repeat for each stage you wish to engage with. Or feel welcome to revisit the process more than once for each stage.

Sixth, if you want, share your experience with someone(s) you feel safe and comfortable with. New ideas and insights often emerge when reflecting with others. This could also be an exercise undertaken by a group. (Again, a group with which you feel comfortable, that can create and hold space for vulnerability and sharing with compassion and love.) And naturally, I’d love to hear about your experience. Feel more than welcome to email me about it or with any questions, suggestions, or feedback.

Seventh, regardless of the results, or if you did or didn’t do the previous six steps, give yourself a warm hug or place your hands over your heart and know that you are loved.

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