What might we learn if we looked for the common denominators of change mapped out by modern psychological research and ancient rituals? What if clinical studies indicated similar processes for psychological growth as did broad surveys of cultural traditions? Such is the parallel between research supporting the concept of post-traumatic growth and alchemy -- the process of changing base metals such as lead into valuable metals such as gold. Both describe not a magical or passive process, but one of active reflection and undefended willingness to change core beliefs.
Alchemy may appear arcane, bizarre and ridiculous at first. And you should think it so if you take it literally. But give it a second glance, view it symbolically, and it predicts a psychological process that research is bearing out as central to mental health.
Psychiatrist Carl Jung brought alchemy to the attention of the general public early in the 20th century, and it continues to fascinate. The idea behind alchemy, that something dark, common and poisonous can be transformed into something bright, valuable and incorruptible, does elicit interest.
And there's reason for that. It resonates with something just in the back of our minds, a principle universally used by spiritual traditions and now by modern therapy: Our really painful experiences can be turned into very valuable experiences -- with the necessary attention.
Research has recently been illuminating this archetypal process -- now known as post-traumatic growth, the experience of positive change that occurs as the result of struggling with highly challenging life crises. (You can check out two articles by Richard Tedeschi, one of the leaders in the field, here and here).
Tedeschi says that we don't get better automatically from difficult experiences: Growth usually occurs when we reflect on what's happened to us and when we challenge our core beliefs as a result of what's happened.
Jung engaged in a different sort of research to find the common denominators of change: Over his lifetime he carried out a broad survey of how people in other eras and cultures had achieved transformation. He concluded that there is a longstanding tradition of using intense crisis for spiritual and psychological growth, that alchemy had been part of that tradition, and that psychotherapy was the modern and more scientific successor.
To simplify greatly, the alchemists would typically combine materials such as lead, mercury, salt and sulphur in a container (usually glass), put the mixture over a carefully tended fire, and channel off the substance that rises to the top (the symbolic gold). The materials of psychotherapy are the crises that we bring in to our sessions, the fire is the intense emotion that accompanies them, the container is safe, secure, and empathic setting of the therapy itself, and the arising substances are the new perspectives and resilience that rise to the top (the psychological gold).
Jung, Tedeschi and any alchemist or therapist worth his or her salt will tell you that this growth doesn't happen on its own. Post-traumatic growth requires reflection on what's happened and an openness to change core values. While alchemy may bring to mind a magical transformation of material (spiritual or physical) the alchemists were actually very diligent in tending their fires and meticulous in separating out the gold from the lead.
Nor does it happen in isolation. Processing trauma is best done with others, either a therapist or a supportive community, in order that the painful memory is reconditioned over time in an environment of human compassion.
Please don't get me wrong: I'm not saying you should grow through your suffering. Some folks with a spiritual perspective might find intended meaning embedded in painful experiences, and others choose to make meaning out of them. But some situations are too horrific to contain a silver lining, and in these cases mourning may be the best path to healing.
But for many people I've known, the forward looking attitude of growth was the only thing that saved them from psychological disaster.
Whether you find the concept of post-traumatic growth or the images of alchemy more helpful, adopting a clear-eyed but basically positive attitude toward the potential of crisis can serve to soften the blow once it happens, and adjust to it as time goes on. It can serve as a strong foundation to not only weather the inevitable slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but to also come out of it reinvigorated.
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