Sunday, January 4, 2009

"Untie, Or Break That Knot Again" - On Resolutions And Why We Fail Them

[Alex D. of Oaxaca, Mexico. The New Year is often depicted as an infant signifying the dissolving back to beginnings, simpler forms, in Western alchemy. Congrats to Monica and Luis, proud parents of Alex who brings a smile and warmth in this photo for one and all at the beginning of 2009.]

solve (v.)
c.1440, "to disperse, dissipate, loosen," from L. solvere "to loosen, dissolve, untie," from PIE *se-lu-, from reflexive pronoun *swe- + base *leu- "to loosen, divide, cut apart" (cf. Gk. lyein "to loosen, release, untie," O.E. -leosan "to lose," leas "loose;" see lose).
resolve (v.)
c.1374, from L. resolvere "to loosen, undo, settle," from re-, intensive prefix, + solvere "loosen" (see solve).
1412, "a breaking into parts," from L. resolutionem (nom. resolutio) "process of reducing things into simpler forms," from pp. stem of resolvere "loosen" (see resolve).
c.1374, from L. dissolvere "to loosen up, break apart," from dis- "apart" + solvere "to loose, loosen"

Why most New Year's resolutions (and ongoingly through the year) do not work is perhaps inherent etymologically in the word itself which indicates a "breaking apart, a reduction of things into simpler forms, a loosening, undoing, untieing, untangling, dividing, unsettling and cutting apart". Honestly, who actually wants that? Who needs it in terms of time, attention, energy, patience and persona in our busy lives with self, others, and the "getting and spending" of consumer society which packages and encourages much of what we are resolving to tone down, parse, eliminate and banish from our daily lives? To actually undergo the dissolving process inherent in the word resolution is not what we consciouslly sign up for every New Year when we make our resolutions. What we unconsciously sign up for in making resolutions is most often ongoingly excoriating, disorienting and often conjures the hidden energies and issues beneath the presenting problem, habit, symptom and behavior we've resolved to change. Alchemical processes of transformation involve our ultimate assent and surrender to That Greater Will (God, Higher Power first manifested as a complex, a symptom, habit, addiction, etc) which has mugged us, dragged us kicking and screaming or innocently whistling on our "naive New Age tuffets eating curds and whey" from everyday mindless path-walks into the woods, the wild, the waste places --"we're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy"-- and into the bubbling cauldron or oven of many a myth and fairy tale witch.

In Western alchemy the phase of "solutio" or "solution" is one in which things are dissolved in water. Rituals using water evolved when early ancestors noticed that solid things seemed to disappear in water, they broke down, dissolved and lost form. To resolve then is to undergo a process of dissolution, dissolving, a loosening and losing of form and structure, rendering things back to simpler first forms. These simple forms are called prima materia in alchemy which is the raw stuff of the psyche/soma, the as yet to be cooked material of the innocent self. The prima materia is what brings us into therapy, counseling, psychological and spiritual work. This rough stuff, untamed, wild, and instinctual, conflicts with the "smoother" aspects of personality (persona = mask) and ego and thus begins theconflict of alchemical phases of individuation.

During New Year celebrations we often participate in group events which involve formal and informal rituals of dissolution from religious services of sermon and song to inebriated imbibing of alchololic drinks while merging (a form of solutio) into celebratory group/collective mind in the Time Squares of the world. Group mind is a collective pool, if you will, in which we become one with the many who have become one in ritual and revelry as we collectively dissolve the old year and self into a new born babe (that oft seen image of the new year as a crawling, be-diapered infant wearing a top hat), a new self we resolve to become or work toward in the new year. With sophisticated world-wide media we are able to be in dens and livingrooms with televisions and computers tuned in enabling us to literally participate in the global pool/solutio going on from one time zone to another, a species-wide dissolutio event of group intoxication and merging as one to ring out the old year and self whilst ringing in the new "naked" year and self to come.

These outter rituals are most easy to do and one often gladly participates in them, however, the actual personal alchemical processes alluded to in our resolutions are such chronic, intense and disorienting experiences that scarcely anyone will assent to submit to them unless forced to by the psyche/soul which insists via addictions, symptoms, events, disruptions of routine self that one undergoes the lifelong alchemical procedures of crushing (called nigredo in alchemy), solutio (dissolving/breaking apart), calcinatio (burning to reduce hard accretions of prima materia into more refined states with the heat of the fires drying out our affect/emotion laden complexes), sublimatio (not sublimation ala Freud but refining into essense), putrefactio and mortificatio (decay and death of hardened parts of self), the goal of all this leading to the creation of the philosopher's stone, the agua permanens, the essential conscious self in conscious relationship to
the Self, Jung's term for the central organizing and mysterious factor of the psyche from which our conscious selves are derived. This relationship of self with Self is called the Divine Marriage and is the goal of alchemical transformation.

One of the inherent meanings of resolution is to untie, to loosen. The very word "analysis" literally means to untie, to loosen the knots. Psychoanalysis, Jungian analytical psychology, and consequent developments of subsequent psychological theory, technique and evolving schools of psychology are about this untieing, loosening of psychological knots which can usher us into alchemical transformative processes. In this most difficult yet meaningful work we need guides who have undergone and are currently undergoing the alchemical processes which we all undergo but mostly unconsciously whereupon many of our treatments and cures are chemical of medical and addictive variety or naively positive and irritatingly simplistic. To enter the alchemical laboratory of counseling, therapy and spiritual traditions with appropriate and "cooked/cooking" guides values the procedures of alchemical transformative phases. We suffer but we suffer meaningfully and not alone. Jung says that meaningless suffering is hell. To arrive at the felt meaning and actual ripening of and within difficult passage elevates our experience of the journey from nigredo, the crushing, darkening beginning phase of beginning changes, to Coniunctio, none other than the sacred inner marriage of opposites within ourselves, of masculine (animus) and feminine (anima), of ego with shadow, of self with Self.

To conclude, resolution also means to hold firm, this holding firm during and after breaking apart, dissolving and undergoing the process of alchemical change, consolidates authentic psychological maturity which endures the difficult phases of change. In this submission which is an admission (the first step in twelve step programs) we are no longer (or less, at least) victims of life, of somatic, psychological, spiritual, and social powers and, most importantly, our Higher Power as we experience It, whom/which is driving/enforcing the changes upon and within us. Jung's rediscovery of the transpersonal nature, the Self and It's archtypes, of our complexes, addictions, symptoms, and issues reorients us toward more meaningful endurance, suffering and arrival made new even within the apparent but transparent limits of our personal history. We surrender to the Greater Self and hold firm that the work will be complete and whole, not perfect, which holds all personal and transpersonal opposites not as contraries but as dynamic creative complements intent on continuing what was/is begun at beginning (a kaballistic rendering of the first verse of the book of Beginnings or Genesis is, "In the beginning is beginnings".) Our knots become sacred means by which we encounter the contractions and constructions of material and psychological existence, its joys and vicissitudes (meaning "changeably, in turn," from vicis "a turn, change") with our eventual gracious (enough) though vociferous submission to That Grace which bestows encountered in every alchemical phase of changes in many guises. In assent and consent we are loosened from that personal will power which creates our well meant yet naive resolutions humbly recognizing that Greater Will (we know It when we see, hear, touch, taste, smell or intuit It) which batters, bends, knocks and breaks us all the while enthralling and ravishing us in, with and by It's Mysterious Palpable Presense. [In a future essay I'll speak of that Presense experienced as Absence and Emptiness.]

John Donne
's Holy Sonnet #14 is the prayer of one in the midst of surrender to That Which dissolves us, assenting to the dissolving phase of alchemical change, his understanding that these changes are brought about not from the self, the ego with all of it's will power, but by that which is greater, the Self of Selves which Jung calls the Self and Donne calls God :

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.


[There are enough accessible books now available which detail this alchemical process of transformation which is not an escape from matter which most religions seem to be geared to, especially those of the West, but a transformation process into more conscious matter, awakened matter which does not escape material existence so much as consciously inhabits it and in so doing, says Jung, affects all levels of existence. Two books I highly recommend for ongoing study of alchemical processes of transformation are:

Anatomy of the Psyche, Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy,
by Edward F. Edinger
The Emerald Tablet, Alchemy For Personal Transformation, by Dennis William Hauck

It goes without saying that reading all of Carl Jung's work on alchemy especially while undergoing the phases of transformation from break down to reunion/marriage of self with Self will continually orient you within the tumult of the stages. Having the books and a guide who has and is currently and continually undergoing the "refiner's fire" of Self and Psyche companions one, contains and orients one throughout. Alchemical change is an intense ongoing experience of cooking and refinement in all ages of life. It is never done though there are many who think they have arrived, veritable souffles of shimmering spirituallity, done with shit and shadow. Beware working with those as you will inevitably carry and undergo their unfinished work (if ever begun) and shadow which is ongoing work all the way to the end.]