Rubedo: the Red Phase of Alchemy

After the whitening of the albedo comes the last phase of the Great Work: the red phase, or reddening.

The white phase consisted of an intense process of purification, in which all the rotting decayed matter that had died during the nigredo was thoroughly cleansed of impurities. What was left was then considered clean but also very sterile, incapable of producing new life and lacking animation.

The purpose of the red phase was to make the matter come alive again. This process was initiated with the completion of the last phase of the albedo, conjunction, which was known to alchemists as “the marriage of the sun and moon.”

The rubedo continues this work of uniting opposite energies or elements until the Great Work has been completed.

The first process in the red phase of alchemy is known as fermentation, where the alchemist receives visions and other types of inspiration that will ultimately guide them to the end of the Great Work.

This is followed by a long process known as distillation, in which the alchemist is tasked with separating “the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross.”

The final phase, coagulation, marks the completion of the Great Work and the creation of the Philosopher’s stone.

Separation | The Third Operation of Alchemy

After calcination and dissolution, the third phase of alchemy is known as separation. In practical or laboratory alchemy, it is the process of extracting what is left over and still has value from calcined and dissolved remains. This is then carried forward into the next phase for further processing through heating, filtering, and sifting through the material. 

During the nigredo, the ego is broken down, burnt down by fire and then dissolved in the waters of our psyche. As this happens, the person undergoing this process starts to become more aware of the complex material within, and is often surprised to find that much of it is contradictory, at odds with other psychic elements and with the conscious personality. 

The third phase of the alchemical process involves the close examination of these psychic contents. Using the power of the logical mind, we engage in a reasonable examination of ourselves to determine what represents our true self, and what is merely an ego adaptation that has arisen as a reaction to challenging circumstances in the outer world. 

Like the others before it, this process can be painful, as it often means recognizing the ways in which we have become inauthentic, betrayed ourselves in order to fit in and please others, or have even hurt others in an attempt to protect our self-concept, our illusions around who we think we are (or should be). 

The final end towards which we work in this stage is the recovery of our higher selves. We seek nothing less than reconnection to what in some traditions has been known as our Holy Guardian Angel or True Will. This part of us is discussed by Carl Jung as the Self (with a capital S, in contrast to our smaller ego-based self). 

James Hillman has elaborated on this further in his book The Soul’s Code, where he refers to it as our personal daimon (as did Plato and Plotinus before him). This is the part of us that transcends our current circumstances, or even this physical incarnation. It comprises our immortal soul, the part of us that is eternal, and which carries the seeds of our destiny into this physical existence when we are born, and guides us through the twists and turns of our individual fate as time goes on. 

Ultimately, the process of separation we engage with here seeks to leave behind the parts of ourselves that are inauthentic. We detach ourselves from the ego structures we once built up to protect ourselves, in order to be reunited with the core of who we truly are. 

VITRIOL

I’ve been thinking often about the past.

That is nothing new. But what is new are the things that are coming up for me.

So many long-forgotten memories are coming to the surface.

So many feelings and events and versions of me that I have mostly been avoiding. The past is so painful, I’ve just wanted to bury the entire thing and forget about it all.

But I’ve been surprised by my self the past few days; not all of these memories are bad ones.

There are actually many, many things which have made me smile. And some which have even made me feel very proud of myself and the person I was.


Mostly, it has been bittersweet.

I’ve been able to look back and see that there were so many good things about me that I have chosen to not recognize.

And I have found that even in the most painful, tragic circumstances of my past, there is the recognition that I was truly doing the best I knew how to do.

Now that I’m further removed from it, I can see the impossibility of the situation for what it was. I can forgive myself now. What I did then didn’t mean what I thought it did at the time. Even in my greatest darkness, I find that there is some redemption.

Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem

“Visit the innermost parts of the Earth; by setting things right, you will find the Hidden Stone.”

I came across this phrase as I was reading a book on alchemy last night.

I wrote it down immediately. I felt it was perfect for the process I am undergoing now.

I’m visiting the deepest parts of myself, places I didn’t even know existed still. I am going to the core of my being, and with new vision, I find that I am capable of setting things right.

I am finding that what I pushed down as unworthy, the things that weighed heavy on my heart like lead, often contained a secret shimmer of gold.

Albedo: The White Phase of Alchemy

If we have been able to surrender to the darkness of the nigredo, we may find that a shift begins to occur. 

The blackness that once seemed to only grow ever deeper begins to recede. The heaviness starts to lift as we relinquish our attachments to past beliefs, habits, ways of being, etc.

As with any death, the decomposition of these old forms releases a great amount of energy that is now free to be used in new and different ways.

It is not enough to meet our shadow in calcination or to grieve and release our past pain and sorrows through dissolution.

We must then proceed into the next stage of the work, the separation and the conjunction which comprise what is known as the albedo, or the white phase of alchemy.

In the process of separation, we are tasked with using our discernment to determine which parts of our shadow (our repressed and previously unacknowledged qualities and other psychic material) are worth saving.

Not everything that we meet in the darkness is to be feared. We may often be surprised to find there is much that is worthwhile and good there.

These positive traits are sometimes referred to as “the gold in the shadow,” which refers to the unrecognized parts of ourselves that have value and are truly authentic to us. These could be the parts of ourselves we learned to hide or diminish due to disapproval we may have encountered from parents, peers, or other parts of our society.

The second operation of the albedo is known as conjunction. It involves the reunion of the disparate elements which were separated in the previous phase. It also requires a rebalancing and harmonization of the masculine and feminine parts of ourselves. The result is the creation of “the lesser stone,” or what is sometimes called “the Philosopher’s child.” 

The conjunction requires that we become comfortable with the apparent duality of our being, and join the forces of our soul and spirit. The result is the development of what the Egyptians called “the Intelligence of the Heart,” a condition or state of being where logos and eros are united in the self to create something greater than the sum of their parts.

Finding Gold in the Shadow

I’d spent a lifetime running

seeking

needing

using

fearing

hoping

destroying

doing anything to fill the narrow, trembling void between

self and shame.

One day I stopped running, and my shame

she turned, and came to me.

She took me over and she held me down

in soft savage embrace,

when I finally caught my breath and

dared to look at her straight in

tender eyes, I saw more beauty and more

goodness and more

grace than I’d ever found

in years of wild flight.

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This is what it means in alchemy to “find the gold in the shadow.” To be able to look within at all of what is hidden, to see and to know the self in its fullness without fear, no matter what may come—that’s the moment when we first die, and when we are first born.

“We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid—it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features.” —Carl Jung

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Don’t be afraid to change direction. It might be that you end up finding a friend in what you once feared.

Cibation

Yes, cry! Cry harder, baby!

Fundamentally, the stage of Dissolution involves a process of release. Here, we are to come to terms with and finally surrender to the rage and wrongs we came up against when as the fires of Calcination burned through our Egos. It is a time of grieving the harm done to us, by others as well as ourselves. It is a time for letting go of what once was, and what we wished for and never had.

With this in mind, we can turn to the process of Cibation as a tool for healing and working through our grief. In practical alchemy, Cibation is a technique in which water is added to the remaining ashes that have carried over from Calcination.

In psycho-spiritual alchemy, it involves a similar process, where we bring our most intense emotions (symbolized by water) to the areas which are still most blocked and resistant to change within us.

HOW TO PRACTICE

  1. Start by thinking of one of our most painful childhood memories, or any painful incident from our past that remains.
  2. CRY. Really. Get into it, feel the depths of your pain, and let it all out.
  3. Rinse.
  4. Repeat.

Your focus on this meditation should be on the pure emotional energy that comes up, rather than on the details of any particular incident. Keep in mind that, appearances to the contrary, it is often in your darkness where you are to find your greatest light. If you can fully move through your emotional pain and physically release your grief, you will free this energy up to be used in another place for better purposes.

Don’t be afraid to ugly-cry if necessary. It’s okay if your mascara runs all over your face—the more, the better. It is important that this not be only a mental exercise, or even just an emotional one, but a physical experience as well. According to the principles of somatic therapy, any trauma we experience is held as memory in our body, not just in our mind.

We can’t heal something until we feel our emotions physically in our body and complete the response which may have been inhibited in the original traumatic incident.

So go ahead. Cry harder, baby.

Bain Marie

One method that can be utilized in the process of Dissolution is known as the “Bain Marie.” The name essentially means “Mary’s bath,” and is a reference to the woman who invented the process, Maria Prophetissa, a Jewish alchemist who is said to have lived sometime around 100 B.C.E.

She invented the “Bain Marie” for use in laboratory alchemy, where it was intended to wash the burned material left over from the Calcination phase. The basic concept is that of something like a double boiler, where the water in the central vessel is kept at a constant temperature through being submerged in another container of boiling water.

It is the larger, outside container which is subjected to the direct heat, allowing a more gentle, stable process to occur in the container in which the actual contents being washed are held.

The Bain Marie is also useful in psycho-spiritual alchemy, and in this instance, refers to a cleansing and calming meditation we can use after experiencing the difficult emotions associated with personal calcination.

How to practice

We begin by calming ourselves with several deep inhalations and exhalations of our breath. Then we can start to imagine ourselves in the warm, soothing waters of the Bain Marie. 

We may also choose to imagine ourselves in a warm ocean, held by the waters of the all-loving, compassionate Divine Mother.

As you breath in, imagine the warm water permeating your energy body that need to be cleansed, gently soothing difficulties as it washes away all impurities. 

As you exhale, you can imagine all of the pain and hardness inside of you melting away. 

You can repeat this process as many times as you need to until you feel yourself cleansed and soothed by the element of water.

You may decide to draw yourself a warm bath and perform this meditation while submerged in the water. You can also add salt to the bath, which is known to be both physically and energetically cleansing.

As you finish your meditation, you can imagine that all difficulties or negative energies have been captured in the water, and watch as it flows down the drain and out of your life forever.

All the World’s a Stage, and the Sun and Moon merely Players

This morning I woke up from a very difficult dream. I had spent most of the night crying in my sleep. Here’s what happened: 

In my dream my dad and my brother were going to all these different events and giving speeches about everything that was wrong with me and why I deserved to be rejected. I sat at all of them, trying to plead with them and convince them otherwise. No one listened to me, and I cried as I saw them give speech after speech on everything that was “bad” and “wrong” about me.

Oddly enough, my mom was by my side at every one of these events with me. Sometimes in their speeches they would briefly mention how bad and wrong she was too, although the focus was mostly on me.

When I woke up, I felt very upset and saddened by what I had experienced over the course of the night. 

What really stood out to me, though, was how my mom was on my side at every point during this dream. It’s really not like her to stand by me (in fact, she would have been the most likely of any of them to give a speech like that attacking me).

So I had to ask myself, what could this apparently small detail mean? I was sure it was significant.

Pretty quickly, it occurred to me that maybe it was my unconscious trying to show me the way my anima and animus related to each other. 

The Marriage of the Sun and Moon

The anima/animus was a concept developed by Carl Jung which in a sense, describes the anima as the part of our psyche which can be thought of as being “feminine.” The anima is associated with the unconscious, the body, and our feeling and emotional states, as well as our desires and needs.

The animus, on the other hand, is believed to be the part of our psyche which analytic psychologists associate with the masculine. The animus is thought to relate to our conscious mind, our rational thought processes, as well as order, reason and logic.

Although most of us within a given culture will tend to have these basic conceptions of what our anima/animus are like, the way that they actually present themselves within a given individual’s psyche is highly personal, dependent on life experience and unconscious psychic material.

I think this dream was trying to show me the way that my inner masculine or conscious mind relates to my inner feminine, or emotional/feeling part of me. 

I saw how my masculine side was in fact very abusive to the feminine parts of me. The “rational” conscious side tends to dominate and hurt the emotional feeling side. It has all of these unrealistic expectations about how things “should” be, and it punishes and hurts the parts of me that refuse to comply.

I began to see how I have internalized the roles that I saw my mother and father play. I introjected their beliefs and patterns of behavior, and in turn had my inner masculine/feminine adopt the same roles within myself.

One of the unhealthy ways in which this has manifested for me has been that I have very little ability to care for myself. I refuse to listen to what my body is telling me, or to accept what I am feeling. 

Instead, I tell myself: “No. You need to work harder. You don’t deserve to rest until you’ve done better. You don’t deserve anything until you’ve achieved what I tell you to. Not until you stop being bad.” 

This usually results in me forcing myself to do what I don’t want to do. I hurt myself this way because I’ve long believed that’s the only way to “discipline” the parts of me that are “wrong” and “bad.” These bad parts are always the feeling parts, that part of me which has needs and desires and wants to rest and feel okay.

I’m starting to understand that my animus does not necessarily possess some kind of truly evil intent toward the anima. The attitude of my animus, in fact, reflects the very same beliefs which my father has held toward my mother. He has always tried to “help” her, but in a way that reflects some pretty toxic underlying beliefs about her (and possibly about women in general). 

My mother has been perceived, in his eyes, as being: unintelligent, even stupid; incompetent and incapable; crazy, confused and irrational; and even bad, wrong, and unwilling. 

This, in turn, is perceived as requiring his need to act to control and dominate and coerce her into “seeing the truth” and accepting the superiority of his more rational and “right” values and ways of being.

Even though this is obviously insulting, selfish and even maybe abusive, I can see that there is a genuine belief that he is doing his best to “protect” and “provide” for her. It is based on a perceived inferiority on the part of the feminine in general and my mother in particular.

Just as my father treated my mother, my “thinking” conscious self now treats my unconscious (my body, my feelings and my desires) in very much the same way.  

It seems to genuinely believe in the fundamental “wrongness” of my feminine or feeling side. As crazy as it might seem, it wants to protect it, and it does so the only way it knows how: by bullying it into doing what it thinks is “right.”  

The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict.”

Carl Jung

I’m starting to understand how this impacts my relationships, as well. If I can’t have my inner parts of myself relate to each other in a way that is positive and healthy, I’ll never be able to have a relationship that is any better. 

If I don’t do anything to shift the roles inhabited by my anima and animus, then I will continue to recreate these same roles in all of my romantic relationships that I may enter in the future.

This dream seemed to be the way my unconscious was trying to get me to see what I needed to change in myself before I could move beyond these patterns in my life. 

I can see now that I must begin to make these changes starting from within. I know and trust from experience that if I can do this, then the problems I’ve experienced in the outer world will begin to shift naturally as a result of the changes in my inner world. 

As above, so below. As within, so without.”

The Emerald Tablet

Dissolution

Dissolution -- The Second Phase of Alchemy

The second phase of alchemy, dissolution, comes after the fiery heat of calcination which incinerated the ideas we once had about who we are and our place in the world.

Once the ego has been suitably reduced to ashes, we then become ready to commence the dissolving process of the Great Work. 

In laboratory alchemy, this process involved adding water or some other kind of solvent to the ashy powder left over from the burning of calcination.

In terms of psychospiritual alchemy, we now come into contact with the waters of the unconscious. Here, it is as if we are drowned in all of our long-repressed emotions, swamped by our most painful memories, and shaken by the most terrifying of our latent fears and anxieties.

These previous unconscious elements are the deepest, most obscured parts of ourselves which we have worked hard to keep hidden from both others and ourselves for an entire lifetime. These repressed psychic contents are matters of profound consequence, and addressing them fully is a matter not to be taken lightly. 


We have seen that the previous phase of calcination tends to involve a kind of destructive fire which rages through our lives, consuming everything it touches as it burns.

However, it is in this next stage of dissolution where we begin our first steps toward conscious awareness of what is truly happening to us. 

It is during this phase when we must truly come to terms with our lives and all of the losses we have experienced. In dissolution, we start to deal with our real, lived experiences and our deeply felt sense of what it means to grieve, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but in our hearts and through our bodies. 

This process requires that we surrender to the often painful truth of our current realities. We must learn to let go of any grasping or clinging to what our ego has desired or has falsely believed to be true. 

In the stage of dissolution, we are being asked to surrender and come face to face with the contents of our own souls as they truly are.

The Dance of Sulfur

After Bellows Breath, you may want to follow up with another practice called the Dance of Sulfur.

Sulfur is a yellow powder which the alchemists believed symbolized the active masculine principle of fire. It was often used in laboratory alchemy in the form of sulfuric acid (also known to them as vitriol).

The Dance of Sulfur is an exercise to increase energy and circulate it in the body. Not only that, it is ideal for taking the emotions which arise in Roasting Cinnabar and the energy raised in Bellows Breath and expressing them in a healthy way. We can use the Dance of Sulfur to let go of pent up rage, aggression and other emotions that have been suppressed or held in our bodies for too long.

close up shot of blue flame
Sulfur fire burns blue

HOW TO PRACTICE

  1. To begin, you can put on some music (some say angry or aggressive rock music works best) and start to dance. You can try any other type of aerobic movement that will increase your heart rate, like jogging in place or jumping rope, but I prefer to dance, as it really allows you to get into the music and feel the powerful feelings which have been brought up by other alchemical practices. Aim for at least 20 minutes of movement in this practice.
  2. Try to leave thought and the conscious, rational mind behind. As much as you can, drop your awareness into your body, feel all the emotions coming up as the energy grows stronger and rises within you.
  3. Once you feel you are in the moment and present in your body, start to imagine intense, fiery energy rising up in waves from below. You can then direct that fire energy to any areas of tension or pain in your body (either physical or emotional). Let the flames wash over you, consuming the stagnant ego structures of your past, and burning up and releasing any ideas, emotions or behavior you want to let go of.

This practice, along with the previous two, may be used alone or in conjunction. If you have the time, I recommend creating a ritual that combines Roasting Cinnabar, Bellows Breath, and the Dance of Sulfur (in that order).

When I have done this set of practices together in the past, I like to say a prayer or set an intention (whatever works for you), and I light a red candle to honor the rage and pain of the past, and to symbolize what will be consumed and released during the ritual. You may also want to conclude this set of practices with a ritual bath (salt baths are great for this). Visualize the salt water cleansing you of any remnants of anger or stuck energy, then picture all of these troubles leaving you for good as they are washed down the drain at the very end.