Going for the Gold – Alchemy in Coaching – Part Three – Mary Bast

Mortificatio, Killing Ego Attachments

Mortificatio—killing or dead-making, consciously working on reduction of ego attachments; in Jungian terms ‘bringing home’ our projections, going inside ourselves to embrace the shadow so our being reflects the whole instead of a dissociated part.

Before I knew anything about mortificatio, I thought only of “mortification,” as in humiliation or shame – feelings most of us prefer to avoid. But perhaps that’s the point. Humiliation and shame are ego-responses. And a counselor or coach can unwittingly reinforce the notion that unwanted behavior is “bad” by suggesting ways to stop doing what clients don’t like about their behavior. Instead, we can show them how to be with, to embrace these unwanted aspects. Paradoxically, they can then find their authentic selves. Style Six, David had a late and rapid change in his life at age 60:

I’d been yearning for the change I’m now experiencing, but never found a way to do it. Frankly, when I first looked at your web site I thought, “My god, this is some sort of cult!” Later, I realized that same skepticism and fear had kept me from the very change I’d longed for, had – in fact – been a hallmark in my career. I didn’t trust many people. This often showed up as anger and it cost me an expected promotion to President of our company. The CEO said, “You know, I’m worried about you; you’re angry and accusing beyond anything that’s called for.”

I’d learned to curb my anger with my wife when I realized I was going to lose her if I didn’t, but I never carried this outside my marriage. I was going to get a job done, and fuck ’em if they didn’t like the way I did it! I’d fight to the death to defend a position and at the same time carry tremendous guilt that I either turned people off with my complaining or scared them away.

What’s so awesome to me is that for some reason I have an absolute, unqualified trust in this process. When I talked to a counselor years ago about my anger we just scratched the surface, We never got into the soul of what was going on. I’d put Post-It stickers on my dashboard to remind myself not to lose my temper. And that worked… until the Post-It fell off.

I marvel now at two things. First, that I’ve been able to continue the process as profoundly as I have; I still find it amazing that I don’t have to go through the great labor I’d been enduring for years, trying to curb my anger at others – I’m not struggling or trying. And second, I’d gone through life always having to know where I was going, figuring out everything that could possibly go wrong; otherwise I wasn’t going to do it. Now it’s joy that moves me through the process and I don’t care where it ends. I’ve tossed the road map.


Sublimatio, Infusing with Spirit

Sublimatio—In the chemical process of sublimation, a heated solid enters a gaseous state and ascends to the cooler top of the vessel where it re-solidifies. Thus in alchemical lore, sublimatio symbolizes transmuting to a higher form. Metaphorically, we become more spiritual, we move “above” our small ego-types and have a larger worldview.

For many years I’ve been amused by Charles Tart’s coined word, endarkenment. Tart, an icon of spiritual consciousness, wrote “… a way to get endarkened really well is to be narrow, to only see things one way.” I’ve experienced occasional shifts to higher stages of consciousness as stepping out of the dark and into the light. But Tart’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek admission, “My specialty is endarkenment,” reflects how occasional those glimpses of light can be.

One of my Style Seven clients described this larger worldview as a mosaic. “It’s not like the old disappears, but the pieces can be put together in infinite combination.” Below is a brief recap of her particular endarkenment – to put a positive spin on things and ignore reality – as well as one glimpse of light in her mosaic:

I grew up in a family like the one in Ordinary People, where everything looked good on the outside. My parents were upper-middle-class, church-going, and provided for all our needs, but emotionally there was chaos and conflict. My mother was an active alcoholic and my dad worked all the time. I often felt I couldn’t understand what was going on. My friends would say, “I wish I had your parents,” and I’d think, “How could that be?” That was exaggerated: in college “Gosh, how is it that everyone else seems to know what’s going on and says it’s OK, but it doesn’t feel OK to me?”

I spent my last semester of college in Mexico as part of a Global Justice and Peace program. Fourteen students lived in community and were immersed in Spanish. After that I spent two weeks studying Latin American history and politics in Nicaragua, and then stayed two weeks with a family where there were only two beds in the house and only two of the rooms had paved floors.

I became aware not only how my family pretended everything was OK, but that I lived in a country where everyone else looked that way, too. Now I was with people who didn’t live that way at all and – in the midst of that – they had lives. Not only did this experience heighten my sense of a greater global community and my place in it, but also it gave me some different eyes: seeing more of the things we have in common, being open to new experiences. That’s continued to be a reminder to me. When I’m feeling out of my element, instead of running away from reality or trying to put a spin on it, to embrace it and ask, “Well, if I were in Mexico, what would I do?”


Coagulatio, Becoming Somebody and Nobody

Coagulatio—is the process that turns something into earth… The churn of reality solidifies the personality… it has become attached to an ego. In Jungian terms, coagulatio symbolizes the fulfillment of individuation, to be followed by other alchemical processes. “What has become fully concretized is now subject to transformation.” (Edward F. Edinger in Anatomy of the Psyche)

In Paths Beyond Ego John H. Engler wrote, “The therapeutic issue in psychotherapy… is to ‘re-grow’ a basic sense of self” whereas “the therapeutic issue in Buddhism is how to ‘see through’ the illusion or construct of the self.” The two goals are not mutually exclusive. Rather, there is a wider perspective where they are compatible: “Put very simply, you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”

Reading Engler’s essay gave me an “aha” moment. I’d been wrestling with some differences among clients in how they express their experience of transformational change. Some describe becoming more sure of themselves, which can seem a strengthening of their ego-image, yet they are clearly also shifting to greater self-awareness Others refer to a worldview that is far more expansive, an awareness of self from the perspective of an objective witness, that sees how programmed and habitual ego responses have operated. Realizing both are necessary has helped me understand the symbolism of coagulatio.

We have to become somebody before we can be nobody. Thus my Style Eight client, Bart, until his fifties, had been consolidating himself as a strong and fearless man. He had to become himself fully, to individuate, to operate in the world without apology, knowing he was just fine as he was. Only then could he begin to step out into a broader perspective, one where he saw through the illusion of needing to be strong and could begin the path to becoming nobody:

I had a long history of seeking peak experiences, adrenaline rushes. I was always keen on river rafting and I wanted to do it in wild rivers like the Amazon, rivers you could gauge by the number of maimings they have per season. Then I was hit by a truck and broke several ribs and an arm – with some nerve damage. It was distressing from the point of view that I was now only as strong as a regular person. It forced me to ask for help in ways I never had before. I had always tended to be at sixes and sevens when it came to, on the one hand, having the most qualified person do it, and on the other hand, doing everything myself, approaching every act as a Warrior with absolutely everything he’s got. This became deeply frustrating because you can’t do everything. So out of being partially incapacitated I learned how tied I’d been to the need to be strong.

I often think of the loss, both to me and to all the people who knew me before this change. I simply wasn’t equipped to talk about larger issues; I’d been unable to hear. I was always back in the cave, conjecturing, ready to take a pot-shot, and I would never share. Now, when I’m really listening to someone, it’s like walking down the sidewalk with our arms around each other, in step, making eye contact, walking together.


Coniunctio, Accessing Polarities and Becoming Whole

Coniunctio—bringing together apparent opposites to make a larger whole; for example, uniting conscious and unconscious, balancing masculine and feminine principles, incorporating extroversion and introversion and, later, entering psychological wholeness.

In Anatomy of the Psyche, Edward F. Edinger describes alchemical operations as “basic categories by which to understand the life of the psyche” which “illustrate almost the full range of experiences that constitute individuation.” He adds that many of the alchemical images overlap, and echoes the Jungian belief that there’s no prescribed sequence.

It’s also been my experience that each person I coach has to undergo all alchemical processes, and not necessarily in the same order as others. So the order I’ve presented is arbitrary. More important, none of the client examples is meant to convey greater or lesser aspects of significant change; only different aspects.

Coniunctio may seem in its definition to represent a culmination of all the operations. It’s important to understand, however, that this symbol includes two processes, first the bringing together of apparent opposites (“the lesser coniunctio”), and then later the union of the opposites, which is greater than the sum of its parts (“the greater coniunctio combines the opposites, mitigates and rectifies all one-sidedness”).

So the balancing of masculine and feminine, for example, is not “a little of this, a little of that.” In the case of the Style Nine client quoted below, her efforts to become more assertive did not lead to wholeness as long as she was still polarized between anxiety and confidence. The two kinds of change she describes represent her experience of the “lesser” and the “greater” coniunctio:

I’ve experienced two kinds of change in my life. The first kind, which really helps at the time, is not a major shift but rather becoming more effective at what I’ve always done. For example, when I was in graduate school I was so nervous presenting papers in class, I wished the earth would open up and swallow me. So I took assertiveness training and then taught assertiveness courses myself. I learned the behaviors that helped me act less nervous in front of a group. I think of that as incremental change. I hadn’t changed inside, but I knew how to handle anxiety when it appeared. I still felt a polarity between keeping quiet and girding myself up to speak in public.

The second kind of change is much more significant, a bolt of lightning where I suddenly “get” something about myself, a shift from being asleep to awakening. Relative to assertiveness, I “got” that behind the anxiety was a child who believed nobody was interested in what she had to say. When I allowed myself to experience that child and her story fully, something fundamental shifted inside. The story no longer matters. There is no polarity. I am both quiet and outspoken, both soft and strong.


Mary Bast, PhD, coach and coach mentor, is co-author of the first Enneagram coaching book – Out of the Box: Coaching with the Enneagram – and author of several coaching workbooks. More information at www.breakoutofthebox.com.

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