The Retort

In alchemy, as you know, the glass retort is even regarded as being identical with the Philosopher’s Stone.  The vessel is the feminine aspect of the Philosopher’s Stone, which is the masculine aspect of the Self, but both are the same thing.  TPoPA 211

(The) retort is a place of transformation, and what is the precondition for any kind of psychological transformation?  Looking at oneself, looking completely within.  It means that instead of looking at the outer facts, at other people, I only look at my own psyche.  That would be putting it into a glass.  Suppose I am angry with somebody; if I turn away from that person and say, “Now let me look at my anger and what that means, and at what is behind it,” that would be putting my anger into the retort.  So the retort represents an attitude that aims at self-knowledge – an attempt to become conscious of oneself instead of looking at other people.  As far as the will is concerned, it requires determination, and as far as intellectual activities are concerned, it means introversion, the search for inner self-knowledge at all costs, and objectively, not subjectively, musing about one’s problems, making the effort to really see oneself.  Nobody can find this attitude except by what one could call an act of grace.  TPoPA 213

For instance, if somebody is either madly in love, or madly angry over some problem, perhaps a money problem, one always tries to get the person for once to look away from that particular question, whatever it may be, and just for a minute try to be objective, to look at the dream – see how it looks from within, from the objective psyche – using the dream life as a mirror for the objective psychological situation.  Again and again, unless something like a miraculous turn takes place, people cannot do that even if they want to.  They begin again, “Yes, but you see tomorrow I have to decide with my banker; I have either to sell the stock or not.”  Yes, but let’s turn away, let’s look for a minute at the objective side, at what the objective psyche has to say about it!  “No, you see I have to decide!”  And then it is like a miracle if that person suddenly becomes quiet and objective and makes that turn and looks inside and says, “I will just abstain from looking at the whole situation and abstain from the emotions which flow toward it and try to be objective.”  TPoPA 213

(VIP.)  That is a miracle, and it needs the intervention of the Self; something must happen in the person for him to be able to do it.  One knows it oneself, for sometimes one wants to find that attitude again and cannot; one is pushed away from self-knowledge and can’t do it, and then suddenly this strange peace comes up within, generally when one has suffered enough.  Then one becomes quiet and silent, and the ego turns to look at the facts within, objectively, and stops the monkey-dance of thinking about the situation.  The monkey-dance of ego self-assurance stops, and a kind of objectivity comes over the person.  Then it is possible to look at oneself and be open to the experience of the unconscious. 

It can therefore be said that in a way the alchemical vessel is a mysterious event in the psyche.  It is an occurrence – something which takes place suddenly and which enables people to look at themselves objectively, using dreams and other products of the unconscious as mirrors in which one can see oneself.  Otherwise one has no Archimedean point outside the ego by which to do it.  That is why an awareness of the Self is necessary before one can look at oneself, and that is why very often people are touched in the beginning of the analysis by an experience of the Self.  Only that enables them afterward to strive toward looking at themselves in this objective way.  That is what the alchemists meant by the vessel.  It could also be said that the vessel symbolizes an attitude which is, for example, the prerequisite for doing active imagination, for that you cannot do except with the vessel.  You can call active imagination itself a sort of vessel, for if I sit down and try to objectify my psychological situation in active imagination, that would be having it in a vessel, which presupposes again this attitude of ethical detachment, honesty and objectivity, which is necessary in order to be able to look at oneself.  That would be the vessel in a positive form.  If with my ego I judge the unconscious, I put it in a vessel too, but then it is the glass prison, the “nothing but” attitude, which gives that prison a negative aspect.  Then it is an intellectual system, and the living phenomenon of the psyche is always imprisoned in any kind of intellectual system.  The owner is the power. 

This is very subtle.  There are people willing to look at themselves, but only in order to be stronger than the other person or to master a situation.  They still retain an ego-power purpose, and they even use the techniques of Jungian psychologyactive imagination, for instance – but with their eyes fixed on power, on overcoming the difficulty, on being the big stag who did it.  That gives it the wrong twist; nothing comes out of it.  Or there are others who work for a certain time honestly analyzing themselves – but in order to become analysts and have power over others.  That is another snare of the same kind: looking at oneself only in order to exercise power over others; looking within not for its own sake – not just because one has the need to be more conscious.  Thus power speaks into everything again and again, and turns that which has been living spiritual manifestation into a trick, a technical trick in the possession of the ego.  TPoPA 214


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