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.
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