The Modern Alchemist: A Guide to Personal Transformation
©1994 by Richard and Iona Miller

"A Cruel Black Dragon Lurks in the Wood" ©1994 by Joel Radcliffe


On this day the Wise agree
That a wild beast walks in the forest;
It is quite black all over.
When its head is cut off
The blackness will disappear completely
Changing to snow white.

Understood correctly,
The blackness is called the head of the Raven;
But as soon as the blackness disappears,
And the whiteness shows;
It is called "robbed of its head."

I believe the Wise
Are heartily glad;
When the black smoke finally dissipates.

Yet they keep this secret closely guarded
That no foolish man may know it;
Only allowing it to be written about
for the benefit of their Sons.

What is given of God
Becomes reserved.

Therefore one should say nothing about it
While God would have it concealed.

My son, be it quickly understood,
A cruel black dragon lurks in the wood.


Chapter II: Shadow


The nigredo, or blackening phase of the alchemical process, implies a gloomy time of depression. This time of life feels inauspicious. You feel unlucky, caught in a black mood whose origin may seem difficult to pinpoint. This is because your current ego attitudes are outdated and due to lack of adaptability you feel stuck. These feelings may come into your life due to an overload of stress in daily life. As these feelings become more intolerable the notion that life is meaningless comes to the fore. It is simply that life as your ego has known it in the past is outmoded. The subconscious begins to revolt, seeking a psychological revolution in attitudes. If you listen to the voice within your depression, you come to realize that you must willingly subject yourself to change.

This decision to subject yourself to change may be considered a spiritual awakening. You realize your essential being is the material to be transformed via the alchemical process. The black substance you need to understand to proceed further is your own Shadow archetype, or the repressed contents of your personal unconscious. Until you are willing to look at your unlived potential for evil and good you may be stuck in a state of melancholy, sleeplessness, or senseless hyperactivity. You realize that "something is wrong," but can't quite identify what it might be.

Many individuals experience a period of depression or melancholia between the ages of 28 to 30 (and again at 55 to 60). Astrologically, this age group experiences Saturn return, the return of the planet to its original position in the na­tal chart. Classically, it is a time of disappointment, divorce, soul-searching and reassessment of values and orientation in life. The planet Saturn puts the accent on responsibility, in this case responsibility to yourself for fulfilling your potential. Finally, you are truly grown up and your destiny begins to take form. You may be pressured into it, even if you resist it, and this is that black mood's positive intent.

Jung recommended no one embark on the path of individuation until at least age 30. Why? Because until that time it is best for the ego to invest emotional energy in building security, family, and career to create a solid foundation for your spirituality. Then you know it is no premature escapist transcendentalism. At first the nigredo (black state) may be experienced as restriction, but it can also feel liberating. At least now you suddenly know what you should do, so at least you feel freer within. You may even get a glimpse of the light, of superconscious levels, which precipitates a crisis caused by spiritual awakening. It is a spontaneous experience of unity, but it passes quickly.

This stage of discomfort with your status quo is quite neces­sary to initiate the alchemical process. You can connect with an intrinsic value and meaning within your depressive cycle. True, you will have to withstand a chaotic state of conflict between your hostile psychic forces. You will feel a strong backward pull toward unconsciousness of the motivat­ing factors of your behavior. Your emotions may feel deadened, and you are dissociated or on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Life as you have known it is falling apart. You are grieving, mourning the death of your old self, and may not even know it yet.

In this plate the dragon is a mythological being which symbolizes processes devoid of emotional response. There is always psychic suffering when you "fall down", partly from self-judgement. "Being down in the dumps" may become a lifestyle if you find no structured method of moving past this point in your personal growth. You just stay a depressive, possibly volcanic personality, because so much rage, aggression, and self-hate has been bottled up inside. If you simply "pick yourself back up" then your own inner healing resources will be activated instinctively. But to do this, you must stay in touch with your therapeutic process.

There is a passage in the alchemical text Aurelia Occulta Philosophorum, where the transformative substance of the nigredo state describes itself:

"I am an infirm and weak old man, surnamed the dragon; therefore am I shut up in a cave, that I may become ransomed by the kingly crown...A fiery sword inflicts great torments on me; death makes weak my flesh and bones...My soul and my spirit depart; a terrible poison, I am likened to the black raven, for that is the wages of sin; in dust and earth I lie, that out of Three may come One. O soul and spirit leave me not, that I may see again the light of day, and the hero of peace whom the whole world shall behold may arise from me..."

"The head of the Raven" is another traditional name for the nigredo. It corresponds to the encounter with the shadow. Your ego and the shadow must eventually be reconciled. Your restlessness and disorientation come from your conscious experience of conflict between conscious and unconscious drives. The unconscious must be transformed. The Self, symbolized as a dragon, devours itself and dies, only to rise again when the work is perfected.

This illustration shows your ego as a Martial man with his sword (rational intellect) in direct confrontation with the shadow-aspect of the unconscious. This plate represents the beginning of the descent into darkness on the path of individuation. That darkness is simply the unknown of your own deep subconscious mind. In your own depths you confront that which you have previously rejected and suppressed, both evil and good.

As long as your soul struggles in the nigredo, you take things too literally. You may think you are approaching your problem pragmatically, assessing the facts, and coming up with concrete solutions. Really, you may be stuck in spiritual materialism, rather than reading your symptoms metaphorically. You may seek a quick fix, such as an antidepressant pill. However, you would serve yourself better by extracting the symbolic aspects of your condition and giving yourself a new perspective on the meaning of life. In this way you address your core issues rather than merely your symp­toms of discomfort.

Typical manifestations of this stage include long dreams and nightmares (when you can actually sleep), confusions, and a drained or depressed mental attitude which creates inertia. You honor the Self and your own wholeness when you look at the nigredo symbolically as a meaningful part of your mysterious process of inner transformation.

You miss this point, and stay stuck in the nigredo. when you look for what is wrong with you outside of yourself. Something is "wrong" inside, and without this realization nothing will happen to change your depression. You may blame your psychosomatic aches and pains on organic or neurological problems. You can seek relief with drugs, body work, or aerobics, or dance therapy. But if you fail to recognize that you suffer from sickness of the soul, neither vitamins, drugs, nor exercise will cure what ails you.

Your elan vital, or life energy has been pulled into the unconscious, leaving your ego frustrated, discontent, and isolated. You may feel this emptiness and sterility precisely because you have placed too much emphasis on achievement in the outer world, and gotten out of balance. This leaves your soul cut off from the well-springs of life. Your feeling of being drained, or overextended may become so powerful that you are forced into a breakdown which demands the time for introversion and recovery of energy reserves.

When you see through the literal aspects of depression to the value of this feeling you can experience the meaningfulness of the feelings of meaninglessness. The paradoxical value of this is that attaching meaning to depression allows an emotional participation which unblocks the flow of psychic energy. You can regain your sense of meaning in life, and this realization is the starting point for inner discovery. Examples from classical literature include Dante's INFERNO, Melville's MOBY DICK, and Fowles' THE MAGUS.

If you can see that the world is beautiful, but have lost the ability to feel that beauty, of course your moods are going to swing from sullen inertia to active despair. If there is seemingly no meaning in life, why exist at all! You feel fragmented, alienated from your self. This is a major reason many seek therapy or a mystical path of renewal.

When you understand the nigredo dynamics, the depression begins to abate. But in order for this to happen, you must accept the blackness as your own instead of blaming it on outside situations or other people. Then you begin to discover that it is your own withdrawal and loss of feeling about your own shadow nature that is the source of the darkness. When you turn your attention toward it, you see you are not suffering a merely personal ill, but one with transpersonal di­mensions. In other words, this is a plight common to all of mankind, and a milestone on the path of individuation. It is a natural part of development.

When your ego can no longer pursue only its selfish concerns, and addictive demands, the Self forces you into a depression to shake up the stagnant order of things. It brings a burning awareness of your shortcomings and inadequacies. To get to the root of these, you need to process old traumas and negative core beliefs that limit you severely. The self appears on your inner stage as the shadow, and comfronts you with your inferior traits.

These shadow traits include all those which tend to keep you from realizing your unique potential for personal fulfillment. Cowardice, laziness, ambivalence, rashness, dishonesty, envy, greed, lust, vanity, and attachment, and other self-indulgent tendencies will have to be faced directly. The narcissistic shadow is the diametrical opposite of our positive assets. If you are compulsively organized in daily life, the shadow tends to let things slide, for example. If you are puritanical, the shadow is promiscuous.

The shadow is not necessarily acted out in self-destructive behavior, but if it has no means of expression your ego cannot transform beyond this phase of development. Some form of inner dialogue is useful. You must come to a conscious understanding of those things you have repressed, and have not been able, nor dared to live out. As a symbol of the self, the shadow embodies the primitive, dark background from which we all emerge. But only the ego passes negative judge­ment on the shadow. The self embraces all opposites, includ­ing good and bad.

In highly religious persons, who tend to overidentify with the great good of the Light, the shadow may assume the form of a devilish adversary. It attacks with compulsions from below producing behaviors such as those seen in Jim Jones, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim Baker. What may start as good intentions becomes perverted. But in the broader reality, the shadow gives human existence body and depth. In physics, the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows which are cast. The shadow embodies our ulterior motives and pathologies.

If you do not take responsibility for consciously becoming aware of your shadow traits, you will find them projected onto others (of the same sex) in your environment. You may feel an irrational instinctive hatred for virtual strangers. On the collective level this manifests as racial prejudice. When you feel any emotion that seems highly exaggerated, it usually means you are projecting. When that extreme emotion is irrational vehemence, you are projecting your own repressed weakness onto others. To do this you must deny a part of yourself and you cannot experience wholeness.

Therefore, in order to continue your process of transformation, you must come to an awareness of your particular shadow characteristics. If you reach down deeply enough, you will find that the shadow is not only negative, but holds your unlived potential for positive change, also. As you reown this lost part of yourself, you open a channel between the conscious and the superconscious levels, between the ego and the self. This experience can bring a flood of light, joy, and energy which brings temporary release from the depression. Even your psychosomatic symptoms may vanish suddenly.

If your personality is not well-grounded you may not be able to assimilate an inflow of light and strength. The alchemist must balance intellect and emotion by using imagination in a controlled way to digest this sudden illuminating insight. For your ego to react with egotism or conceit is to confuse itself with the power of the self. This confusion of levels has the unfortunate effect of creating a self-glorification which is much like mistaking a soul for God. Of course, it is divine, but limited in comparison. Should you become bedazzled with divine truths beyond your mental power to digest, you may become self-deluded and/or victimized by a cult. You need to develop your powers of discrimination. Megalomania is extreme egotism and can lead a person to act out the role of prophet or savior, spurred on by the excitement of his or her own inner awakening.

You may begin experiencing paranormal phenomena at this stage; ESP, clairvoyance, or synchronicities (meaningful coincidences). You may have visions of divine beings, or hear voices, or dabble with automatic writing. Be sure to examine any messages of uncommon origin with discrimination. Any messages exalting your personality should be automatically suspect.

Other reactions to spiritual awakening may occur later as doubts fall away and new inner security is found. You may be elated for a time, but your personal self was only temporarily overpowered not permanently transformed. When the spiritual force seems to ebb away you may be in for trouble from your ego which seeks to reassert its dominion. The trap is to judge yourself even more harshly for being merely human. You have not fallen lower than when you began, but you may feel the full fury of the lower drives when their uncontrolled expression is threatened. They may rear their ugly heads with more force than ever.

Another reaction is to deny the value and reality of your spiritual awakening. The inner critic, or skeptic, creates doubts and attempts to label it a fantasy. With bitterness and sarcasm you may rebuke your aspirations and ideals. But when you have had a transformative vision, you cannot deny it for long, and remain healthy. It brings more depression, a sense of unworthiness, and the feeling you are damned. Nigredo can be likened to "going through Hell."

All those in the arts and sciences experience periods of aridity and inability to work. No new inspirations come. You feel cut off from the source of creative flow. The depression and restlessness that result may lead to alcohol or drugs, until or unless the sudden flow of inspiration brings a sense of renewal.

You need to be aware of the true nature of this crisis, and realize that an exalted state cannot be maintained forever. It is no fall from grace, but a natural happening that gives you emotional and mental relief from the tensions of inspiration and illumination. After all, you can only digest so much change at once. Instead of staying stuck in the depres­sion you can continue on the path to self-realization.


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