Washing Away The Mud
On the albedo in alchemy
Who can wait quietly, while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
~ Tao Te Ching, verse 15
One of the great concerns of the religious and spiritual traditions of the world is in learning to see clearly. Blindness must become sight, ignorance must become understanding. There is widespread agreement across the traditions that we do not see things as they are and that this is a condition that needs to be rectified.
A common image used to illustrate this state of unconsciousness in which we generally go about our lives is that of mud. For instance, we read in the Buddhist text The Dhammapada that the person who has achieved liberation through “right understanding” is “like a lake without mud.”1 A similar idea is expressed in the Jewish tradition — this time from the other angle — in a statement from the prophet Isaiah: “But the wicked are like the tossing sea that cannot keep still; its waters toss up mire and mud.”2 And it is the same kind of understanding that prompts the crucial question in the quote from the Tao Te Ching that heads up this post: “Who can wait quietly, while the mud settles?”3
In the four stages of the alchemical opus that I discussed in the most recent episode, the clearing up of the “muddy” conditions of the initial nigredo state is the first great work — the work of the albedo. In many ways, this is the heart and soul of the entire opus and involves, we are told, the greatest efforts on the part of the alchemist. Marie-Louise von Franz describes it this way:
“In the alchemical literature it is generally said that the great effort and trouble continues from the nigredo to the albedo; that is said to be the hard part, and afterwards everything becomes easier. The nigredo — the blackness, the terrible depression and state of dissolution — has to be compensated by the hard work of the alchemist and that hard work consists, among other things, in constant washing.”4
The need for the “washing of the mud” is portrayed in an episode from the Christian scriptures in which Jesus heals a man who has been blind from birth. One of the things that is interesting about this particular episode is that it is more involved than many of Jesus’ other healings. He doesn’t just speak a word or put his hands on the man. He makes a whole procedure out of it. First he makes some preliminary preparations of his own, and then he requires some effort on the part of the blind man. “[Jesus] spat on the ground,” we read, “and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.”5
Thanks for reading Digital Jung! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
The parallels in this story with the alchemical process are remarkable. When Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud to put on the man’s eyes, it is reminiscent of that part of the opus in which the alchemist seeks to find or produce the prima materia — that fundamental, underlying substance from which the goal of the work, the Philosophers’ Stone, can be produced. The mud that Jesus makes, of course, is an echo of that “first matter” — the dust of the ground — from which God created human beings. And, as I have already suggested, the direction to the blind man to “wash in the pool of Siloam” mirrors the work of the albedo, of which “constant washing” is an important component.
It is not just the act of washing, however, that does the trick. The decisive factor seems to be the water in which one washes. Jesus sends the blind man to a particular pool — the pool of Siloam. Not just any body of water will do. Likewise in alchemy. Matter is to be washed in the aqua divina, the divine water, which already contains some qualities of the Philosophers’ Stone. This water, Jung writes, can be compared to the waters of baptism:
“Altogether, the divine water possessed the power of transformation. It transformed the nigredo into the albedo through the miraculous ‘washing’ (ablutio); it animated inert matter, made the dead to rise again, and therefore possessed the virtue of the baptismal water in the ecclesiastical rite.”6
How can we understand this “divine water” psychologically? What is it, in our own experience, that possesses this life-giving power? In the images we looked at earlier, mud is often the result of a lack of stillness:
Who can wait quietly, while the mud settles? Who can remain still until the moment of action?
In his commentary on this verse of the Tao Te Ching, the philosopher Wang Pi states, “By means of intuitive understanding, the dark becomes bright. By means of tranquility, the murky becomes clear.”7 This corresponds exactly to the work of the albedo, which is, as von Franz notes, “the first stage of becoming quieter and more detached and objective, more philosophically detached.”
Stillness, quiet, tranquility, and reflection, then, are the waters in which the prima materia of our own unconsciousness is washed. At the same time, they are the result of our washing. “One must start with a bit of the Philosophers’ Stone,” explains Edward Edinger, “if one is to find it.”8
Alchemy, it turns out, was in part a contemplative practice. The need for concentration and meditation is frequently emphasized in alchemical writings.9 The symbol for this was the “well-sealed vessel,” which was at one and the same time the container in which the work was performed and an image of the alchemists’ own inner life — their mind and soul. The substance in need of transformation had to be held within the vessel and not allowed to leak out in any way.
We should not doubt that stillness and reflection are hard work. They involve more than just a state of not being busy or of doing nothing. They are, writes Evelyn Underhill, “the last and most arduous labours which the human spirit is called to perform.”10 Psychologically, stillness has to do with the work of withdrawing projection — a subject I will talk about in a future post.
The stage of the albedo, as I’ve noted, was considered the hardest part of the opus. That is why its ultimate achievement was often greeted as if it were the culmination of the whole work. With it one gains a fundamental ground within oneself and sets the stage for all that may follow. As Marie-Louise von Franz puts it:
“The albedo is characterized by something wonderful, for, the alchemists say, from now on one has simply to feed the fire, keep it going, but the hard part of the work is done.”
Until next time.
I have several online programs starting in the spring. I hope you’ll join me at one of the following events:
The Symbol of the Grail: Parzival and the Path of Individuation
Jung Archademy, starting on Monday, March 6th, 2023. For more details visit: jungarchademy.com/parzival
The Finer Forge: Inner Work and the Alchemical Imagination
Jung Society of Washington, Friday, March 17th, 2023. For more details visit: www.jung.org
The Fires of Transformation: Life as a Work of Art
Jung Society of Washington, Saturday, March 18th, 2023. For more details visit: www.jung.org
Religious but Not Religious
Maine Jung Center, Friday, March 24th, 2023. For more details visit: Religious but Not Religious: Living a Symbolic Life.
Deep Listening: Developing Symbolic Sensitivity
Maine Jung Center, Saturday, March 25th, 2023. For more details visit: Deep Listening: Developing Symbolic Sensitivity.
The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdal
Isaiah 57: 20 (NRSV)
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English
Alchemy by Marie-Louise von Franz
John 9: 6 - 7 (NRSV)
Alchemical Studies, CW13 by C.G. Jung
Lao-tzu’s Taoteching, translated by Red Pine
Anatomy of the Psyche by Edward Edinger
Psychology and Alchemy, CW12 by C.G. Jung
Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill