That which is most valuable is often hidden and must be found. The ancient practice of alchemy sought to find the “gold” concealed in the “dross” of matter. Carl Jung understood the practice of alchemy in terms of “individuation” – a largely symbolic and psycho-spiritual process. In Jungian terms, the alchemical goal of realizing the “Philosophers Stone” amounted to becoming “whole,” or establishing a connection to the archetype of the “Self.”
Jung’s understanding of alchemy can help illuminate what occurs in 12 Step recovery. The 12 Steps can be understood as corresponding to the three phases of alchemy: 1) Black (steps 1-3), White (steps 4-9), and Red (steps 10-12). Each phase relates to a specific process of psychic transformation.
The first phase, Black, is described as a process of heating, or “calcination.” When the addict enters treatment, what alchemy calls the “prima materia” is “burned away” (often in and through a harrowing experience of withdrawal). The addict must be rid of his addict persona if he is to recover. He cannot recover if he remains at the same level of consciousness he occupied during active addiction. Steps 1-3 lead to a separation from the negative persona, and to a surrendering of control on the part of the ego. The Black phase also marks the beginning of his descent into the unconscious.
The second phase, White, is called “conjunction.” It involves a confrontation with some of the unconscious elements of the psyche. This occurs primarily through the writing of the 4th step. This process is symbolized as white as it involves a certain purification of the soul. Here the addict slowly integrates and becomes conscious of many disavowed aspects of his psyche – what Jung called the “shadow.” This phase is consummated in steps 8 and 9 when the addict attempts to make amends for those wrongs perpetrated when he was in a lower (addicted) state of consciousness.
In the final phase, Red, is a process of “coagulation.” By now the addict has shed his old identity and has passed through a kind of limbo or liminal state. He does not know who he is or where he is going. It is during this phase that the addict experiences what the Big Book calls a “spiritual awakening” or “psychic change.” He gradually assumes a new identity and begins to experience himself, others, and the world in an entirely new way. Red symbolizes spirit – that which re-enlivens what was formerly dead or dying. The last three steps are about re-integration – the final stage of the transformative process.
As we deepen our understanding of the 12 Steps from a depth psychological perspective, we begin to see that we are participating in a transformative process that shares many features with practices and rituals found throughout history and around the world. This awareness is itself therapeutic. We believe it is part of our job to educate our clients. Educate in Latin means to lead out. It is not our job to instill beliefs into our clients. But it is our duty to introduce fresh, unique, and provocative approaches to recovery that can meet each person individually. Depth psychology can do this in a way few other modalities can.