“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!” – Dante, Inferno, Canto 3
This morning, while writing on the Nigredo, I ordered a bagel and coffee from a local favorite. As I checked the front porch I saw only coffee. Where was the bagel? The writing continued as I sipped on my coffee and my gurgling stomach remarked of the injustice. I noticed the loud squawk of several crows outside my window. How ironic, I thought to myself, that as I write on the nigredo, the black crow, a common symbol for death, darkness, and the warning of the presence of the unconscious, would sing so wildly. Finally, I stepped outside to see what the ruckus was all about. Down the street, I noticed flying bagel bits as two crows duked it out over what was intended to be my breakfast. What a synchronistic event this is!
A Deeper Look at the Nigredo
We know it by many names, this experience in despair. When the unknown greets us with the icy chills of distant winds and the fires char our features til we can not recognize ourselves any longer, there, in the specialness of our suffering and the pummeling of our privilege are we, at last ready for the substance of God.
The Beginning of a Mysterious Light
Today we look at the difficult and always painful alchemical work of the nigredo. Latin for ‘blackness,’ nigredo refers to the darkness that consumes all concepts of hope.
And in this despair, says our many contributors, a mysterious light begins to form. A light not typical, not solar, and excluding the darkness. Rather, a light that is itself the darkness.
Maybe you know something about this phenomenon? It shows up in many forms often over many years and the common denominator in the experience is the loss of hope. But why? Is suffering really why we live? Why do we fall into the abyss with no hope of return? And how can alchemy help us to understand what is taking place from a perspective of the soul? Is it possible that our suffering holds a secret meaning?
The Psychology of Alchemy
We begin with some additional explanations of just what the nigredo is in the alchemical opus. James Hillman, a favorite of mine, takes an exploratory leap into the color black. In A Psychology of Alchemy, Hillman offers us some sense of the experience:
“For any alchemical substance to enter the nigredo phase and blacken, the operations must be dark and are called, in alchemical language, mortificatio, putrefactio, calcinatio, and iteratio. That is, the modus operandi is slow, repetitive, difficult, desiccating, severe, astringent, effortful, coagulating, and or pulverizing. All the while the worker enters a nigredo state: depressed, confused, constricted, anguished, and subject to pessimistic, even paranoid, thoughts of sickness, failure, and death” (p. 86).
He goes on to write, “as a non-color, black extinguishes the perceptual colored world… Black dissolves meaning and the hope for meaning” (p. 87). And, finally, “By absenting color, black prevents phenomena from presenting their virtues. Black’s deconstruction of any positivity—experienced as doubt, negative thinking, suspicion, undoing, valuelessness—explains why the nigredo is necessary to every paradigm shift” (Hillman, p. 88).
Blackening from a psychological view refers to a loss of how things were. How and what we believe, who and what we are about, even where, when and why we take action. In short, the nigredo is about getting lost.
Nigredo: The Darkness Comes for Us All
On the one hand, we strive to regain control, to conquer these situations in life. What are mental health services after all if not a “treatment” for nigredo experiences? We prescribe reflection in our therapeutic work.
Often, when a sense of identity is threatened, instead of being grown by the experience, the ego resists change by doubling down on perspectives. For example, maybe you’ve relapsed enough times that when stressors come along, it’s a natural response to think that relapsing is the best option. As if some hidden experience were there to sustain us and hold us.
My point is that in the end there is no running from the nigredo. Our regressive returns to what “worked” in the past only lengthen the nigredo experience. The darkness comes for us all. Understanding the alchemical perspective helps us to recognize what it is for and why it is happening.
The Work of the Soul
Firstly, darkness is not evil, though it may look like it. Understand that what we see and how we see it is undergoing a breakdown in order to receive and return itself to the soul.
That is, the soul is trapped in the dark, behind those false identities that we carry into life with stubborn allegiance. The nigredo darkens our perspectives and draws us, sometimes quite painfully out of the old. We drop down, break down, fall down, burn to ash or stare into empty spaces where the unknown is all that’s left.
In the alchemical view, we consider depression and loss of identity to be a great accomplishment. Here the work of the soul is beginning.
Looking Beyond Ourselves
Much like the idea of a rock-bottom, it isn’t until the ego finally crashes, that is, we undergo enough suffering to look beyond ourselves for answers. That room is made for the unconscious to pour in with new and vital forces to work on, reform, and reveal to us a better way.
We say soul-work is taking place because it is the soul that remains. What cooks away is the weighted lead of old thinking, the image of self that cannot be sustained any longer, the heavy king’s crown that keeps you from experiencing the true and liberating love of the universe.
These false-self-survival-mechanisms ultimately veil the true light. And while the stripping away of these false-selves is going on, we suffer that process and experience it as great loss.
Myths About Suffering
I want to debunk a few myths about suffering in order to help support our journeys through nigredo.
- The Nigredo is not about how good or bad you have been. When the unconscious is penetrating your conscious view and life is descending to hopelessness it is a losing of your control but not your soul
- The nigredo is not a n evil force coming to kill you, though it may manifest in a bodily illness, a death of a loved one, or a global crisis.
- The nigredo is about abandoning hope precisely because our old programming doesn’t know what to appropriately hope for. The hope is what keeps us from the experience. We have to accept that what we are going through is beyond our understanding otherwise we would not be able to go through changes. If we had it figured out we would control it and not the other way around. This darkness is about surrender to what we cannot know. And that will always feel like death in some respect.
Turning to the Unknown
Lastly, this turn to the unknown can only come from an awareness that there is yet no other path. In Sol Niger, depth psychologist and alchemical expert Dr. Marlan writes, “Some people cannot let go and who deny the loss create a situation of impossible mourning… a fundamental sadness to which they become attached… becomes the depressed person’s Sol object of attachment” (pg. 44).
What I encourage is a vested interest in the nigredo experience in your life. Do we attach to hope? And, in turn, damning and prolonging our psyches? Or to the other extreme, are we identified with suffering as normal? Do we expect and therefore invite an endless traumatic life?
The Mystery of the Here and Now
There is plenty more we can say on this subject and I look forward to our time together for further discussion. Today I’ll leave you this week with Von Franz writing on the nigredo. I think it may help us to understand why these experiences take place in the psyche.
Franz writes, “if consciousness works according to nature, the blackness is not so black or so destructive, but if the sun stands still, it is stiffened, and burns life to death.”
Sometimes the crows eat the bagels to shake us out of our expectations. They invite us deeper into the poetic and spiritual unfolding mystery of the here and now.